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Interview with Vichita Ounchith

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Vichita Ounchith was born in 1983 in Lafayette, Louisiana. His parents were immigrants from Laos. At the time of the interview he was a high school football coach in Warroad, Minnesota. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Early life in Louisiana and California - family history in Laos and coming to the United States - being a junior monk in a Cambodian temple - moving to Minnesota as a child - living in Warroad, and being accepted by the white children - comparing California to Minnesota - going to school and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes - playing sports - experience playing college football - how proud he is to have graduated from college - teaching Lao and being active in the community - traveling back to Laos and feeling like a foreigner - coaching sports in Warroad - being in a leadership role within the school - not being involved in the Lao community.

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1:02:35

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Asian American & Pacific Islander
Oral History Project
Narrator: Vichita Ounchith Interviewer: Saymoukda Vongsay

VICHITA OUNCHITH
Narrator

SAYMOUKDA VONGSAY
Interviewer

Cover design: Kim Jackson Copyright © 2012 by Minnesota Historical Society All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy and recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Oral History Office, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55102.

THE MINNESOTA ASIAN COMMUNITIES ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
The Asian population of Minnesota has grown dramatically since 1980, and in particular during the period from 1990 to the present. The Asian community is one of the largest and most diverse in the state, and is particularly noteworthy because its growth has been spread across such a wide spectrum of ethnic groups. The Minnesota Historical Society and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans formed a partnership to create a series of projects of oral history interviews with Asian community leaders. The projects are intended to help chronicle the history, successes, challenges, and contributions of this diverse and highly important group of Minnesotans. During the past twenty years the Minnesota Historical Society has successfully worked with many immigrant communities in the state to ensure that the stories of their arrival, settlement, and adjustment to life in Minnesota becomes part of the historical record. While the Society has worked with the Asian Indian, Tibetan, Cambodian and Hmong communities in the recent past, the current project includes interviews with members of the Vietnamese, Filipino, Lao and Korean communities, with more planned for the future. These new projects have created an expanded record that that better represents the Asian community and its importance to the state. The project could not have succeeded without the efforts of a remarkable group of advisors who helped frame the topics for discussion, and the narrators who shared their inspiring stories in each interview. We are deeply grateful for their interest and their commitment to the cause of history.

James E. Fogerty Minnesota Historical Society

Kao Ly Ilean Her Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans

 

University of Minnesota Basketball Coach, Tubby Smith, with Vichita Ounchith.

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THE INTERVIEW
 

   

Vichita Ounchith Narrator Saymoukda Vongsay Interviewer March 14, 2012 Warroad, Minnesota

Vichita Ounchith Saymoukda Vongsay

-VO -SV

SV: Hello, my name is Saymoukda Vongsay and I am here in Warroad, Minnesota. It is March 14, 2012. Can you please tell me your name, age, date of birth, and place of birth? VO: My name is Vichita Ounchith, age 29, date of birth is January 19, 1983, and I was born in Lafayette, Louisiana. SV: OK. Can you tell me your parents’ names and tell me where they were born, if you know? VO: Bounlong Ounchith, raised over in more the Bahn Nong by Savanakhet, and my dad, Bounlouane Ounchith, is from… what is it? I should know it. It’s just south of my mom… um… SV: I should have brought a map! [Chuckles] It’s OK. Do you want to e-mail me later? VO: Yes, I could e-mail you later, for sure. I know what it is; I can’t think of it right now. SV: That’s OK. Tell me about your siblings and their names. VO: My brothers… I’ve got two brothers, David, my oldest, and Mina. SV: How old is David? VO: David is 31, and my little brother Mina, he is three years younger than me, so he is 26. SV: Were you all born in Lafayette? VO: My oldest brother was born in New Iberia, in Louisiana, and my youngest one, Mina, he was born in Stockton, California. SV: OK, thanks. You said that you were born… you were raised in California, right?

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VO: Yes. SV: So, do you remember what your childhood was like there? VO: Childhood life was… ah, you know, it was good. It was a typical Asian neighborhood. We just had, like, all the Lao families were in one apartment, and then we had the Mexicans on the other side, and a mixture of others on the other side of the block. I was a mixture. Actually, you know, it was growing up fast, because, you know, crime and things like that were faster there, and all the lifestyle was faster, so… SV: So what year did your parents come, because you and your brothers are all born in America? VO: Yes. They came, I believe, it was either late 1979 – I don’t know for sure – or 1980. SV: OK. VO: They started here in Houston first, and then they moved to Louisiana for jobs. Then they heard of jobs in California, and that’s when we moved over there. SV: Do they tell you stories at all about what they went through, or their journey to come here? VO: A little bit. You know, they… I mean it was just… they just talk about it as a part of life. It really was more just life lessons, not really how they went through it, just trying to teach us about how to value things in life, that’s kind what they ended up teaching us. SV: So there were probably a lot of, you know – “Take life by the horns because we went through so much crap that…” VO: Yes, in a way. SV: [Chuckles] My parents are like that. VO: You know… but they were never bitter about it, to be honest. They were just… you’ve got to just make do; you’ve got to earn your keep. That’s kind of what I teach my kids in sports, too, and you’ve got to earn it, you can’t just… nothing’s ever given to you, it’s earned. That’s how I live my life, too. SV: OK. VO: It wasn’t anything like… they didn’t talk about great details of the war or anything like that. They just kind of said – This is what we did, and talked about how hard it was to work in their native country as far as making ends meet, and food and providing for the family. Family over there is family of at least eight-to-ten. This a big family, which is normal, I think, over there, from what my mom was saying. So that’s just kind of what it was. You’ve just got to make do and just buck up and go.

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SV: Right. When your parents came to America, was it just the two of them or did they come with other members of the family, like brothers and sisters? VO: They pretty much came on their own, to be honest. My dad has nieces – nephews, for sure, that were living in Houston and Louisiana, and cousins, but they pretty much came on their own. They were newlywed, and they pretty much did things on their own. Everything was about survival, and they were pretty much on their own. Everything was on their backs. SV: Wow. So, was it the nieces and nephews that sponsored them? VO: No, they came… they didn’t come together, but they kind of came separately. I think that’s what it was. They were sponsored by some couple or whatever. I want to say it was missionaries, but I’m not 100 percent sure of that. I think they got sponsored and ended up living in Houston for awhile, and then when they decided they wanted to move, to live their own life, you know, they did that pretty much all on their own. SV: Well, sorry about the tangent. Can we go back to talking about your childhood in California? VO: OK. SV: You said you lived around a lot of… I’m going to assume that they were also refugee and immigrant families, too, the Asian families? VO: Yes. SV: While growing up, did you participate in a lot of cultural social things? VO: Yes, we did. You know, my mom was very into us knowing our heritage and our traditions and things like that. In California where we lived we had about two temples, and one was a Cambodian temple. We did a lot at the temple. There were a lot of families that were, I guess you could say, refugees and, in a way, had just come to America. So, that was different, because I was born in the States, so I didn’t know that. You know, being naïve and young, you didn’t even know that, and my parents, it wasn’t so much that they were hiding it from us - they just didn’t talk about it. And when you go to school, you just learn what’s being taught. As far as tradition goes, I remember as young as fifth grade, fifth-to-sixth grade, we, my brothers and I, we all became junior monks for awhile. My oldest brother and I, David and I, were monks for a month, and my youngest one, Mina, he went for about, I think, two weeks, as a monk. SV: Can you talk more about what that means for Lao culture? VO: To be a monk? SV: To be a junior monk?

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VO: It was really cool. It was special to me because it teaches about just life and just mental toughness, to be honest. It teaches you to avoid temptation and try to control your emotions and temptations so they don’t take over your life, and to just see life in a different perspective, you know. It just opens you up a little more, and it keeps you grounded, for sure. SV: Would you say that it’s one of those things where, to be a junior monk, would it be considered a rite of passage for a lot of Lao males, or not? VO: I don’t know, really. It was just something in me that wanted to do it as a kid. SV: Oh, so you actually asked your parents? VO: Yes, and they were all for it, too. They wanted us to be either way, sooner or later in life. They think it’s a blessing to have their kid… you know, it’s like the whole tradition of sending their parents to a higher level. That’s the way I saw it, and it wasn’t anything that I was afraid of doing, either. We took it and we just ran with it and it was a great experience – a great life experience, for us. SV: So how would you describe a typical day as a junior monk? VO: We woke up in the morning; we did our prayers, roughly about six in the morning. We would eat a little bit of breakfast and then we had our main lunch before noon, because then we can’t eat after that. The only thing we were able to do after that was really just have drinks here and there. We couldn’t eat any more past noon. And then about six o’clock, or seven o’clock at night we’d have a prayer, like a group prayer, and then we would kind of be on our own and just go to bed and do it again. SV: So you would go to bed around eight, maybe? VO: Eight or nine o’clock. SV: Wow, OK. VO: And you’ve got to remember that we were kids, so I mean you’re going to fall asleep about that time, usually. SV: I’m also thinking, when you’re twelve years old, you would have to be very, very highly disciplined to be able to do all these things, and then to not be tempted – like some kids, they would want to play video games or do things like that, and those things are not allowed. VO: Yes, those things were not allowed. We had little books that were translated to English, so we read a lot of those. There was a TV and we would watch it maybe for a half hour, and kind of just… we’d walk around the temple and we’d clean and sweep, and kept ourselves busy. You weren’t bothered by it. I mean those things we knew we had at home, and we had the rest of our lives to live that way, so you knew we were just going to be there for a month.

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SV: Right. So you were willing to sacrifice all that. VO: Yes. It started out as a week, and then we called and just asked our mom, could we keep on going, because it was fun to be away for a little while, and my parents agreed to it, and the school there, we were going the year around, so it’s three months on and a month off, and so it was lucky enough that month we spent as monks was when we had a month off of school. SV: This is in California. VO: Yes. SV: What city again? VO: Stockton. SV: Three months on, three months off – wow. OK. So, what else? Would you say that Buddhism is a big part of your childhood? Because I know that I talk to some people and they don’t really consider Buddhism as like a religion. They don’t consider themselves religious, but it’s more of a way of like living, like it’s more cultural? How would you describe it? VO: You know, when I was younger it was a religion, but as you get older it is a way of life, that’s just the way I see it. And look at the readings and all that. I can’t quote them, per se, but a lot of it is just a way of life. You just treat others with respect and you just do things right. It’s just kind of the way to narrow it down, really. It is a religious belief that I hold dearly, and it’s the way of life for me. I don’t preach it to anybody, you know, it is what it is. But, I just kind of live, hopefully, try to live that way. SV: Can you talk about moving to Minnesota. VO: Moving to Minnesota? That was a little hard, because… SV: How old were you? VO: I was twelve years old. I think I was going into sixth grade, I want to say. Was it sixth or seventh? It was the sixth, yes. And that was tough because we were so close with our friends and that was the tough part. But, you know, in retrospect, it was probably for the best, just because of the crime and all that, and the gang life. It wasn’t that we were tempted by any means, but that’s so close to home. The gangs were there, and I feel that it was just better to get out than just to stay and possibly fall into that. I never thought I would be into that because I was more into sports and school and education. That’s just kind of the way it was. I don’t know why, but that’s just the way I was. My friends were a little more tempted than I was. I don’t know if that’s just the way it was or just the way my parents raised me a little bit. I would say that’s more that it is a credit to my parents and just following beliefs and things like that. My dad was always into sports, and we’d go to the park and we’d watch the guys at the park play volley ball. I wasn’t in the volley ball but I loved to watch any kind of sports, and that was fun. That’s what kept me on the straight and narrow, really, and my brothers were pretty much the same way. My youngest
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one is more artsy, into arts, drama, things like that, so he was never tempted. And my brother, my oldest brother, he was into sports like I was, but also into the national news. So there was never anything in our hearts or minds to be tempted in one way or another. But, overall, the move was a good move. SV: What were your first impressions of Minnesota? I know you said you came in the fall. Did you guys come straight to Warroad, or where did you…? VO: When we came, we went down towards Arizona first, and stopped and saw a family friend in Phoenix, a cousin, I guess, like a distant cousin. Then we went down to Houston where we saw my dad’s aunt, who I call… in Laos, you know, it’s mae thao nghi, where for us it’s like “big mama.” So, we went to see her, because we hadn’t seen her in a couple years. She’s been a very special woman that we love dearly, and we wanted to go see her, and so we stopped there first. And then we went to Louisiana, to Lafayette, to see my dad’s nephews and to see where we were born, and kind of see the Little Lao Town, I guess you could say. They had their own street name there, and pretty much had their own little court to themselves. That was kind of cool. They built all of their houses by themselves. They built them brick by brick with their own hands, you know. They built them themselves, and that was really cool. I never thought I’d ever see them or the whole situation ever. That was a good experience, and we were close to living in Louisiana or Texas, but I think it might have been either too hot, or it was just too similar to California, so we just kept on going. SV: So they just wanted a change of scenery, your parents. VO: For my parents… it wasn’t so much a change of scenery, it was also the job that was a big thing also. The other thing would have been security. Just for life in general, because you never knew what was going to happen when we were living in Stockton. I was reading in a Forbes magazine, and it said that it’s like the third worst city to live in, as far as crime rates go. SV: Now, or then? VO: Even the last five years. SV: OK. So they found job security here. VO: Yes. SV: Was it at Marvin’s? [Marvin Windows and Doors] VO: Yes. My dad worked at Marvin’s. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, because she had back problems. So my dad was the main worker for us. SV: And you said that the snow didn’t surprise you at all, because you had gone on vacations and you…

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VO: Yes, we went to Tahoe, we went to Reno, we went and we saw some of it… for us that was kind of cool. We grew up pretty much in the ghetto. And for us, snow was frost on the ground in California. Where we lived in Stockton anyway it was, because we lived in The Valley. We were an hour-and-a-half from the Bay Area, and, like another two hours from Nevada and that area, so for us snow was frost on the ground or scratching snowballs from the freezer. That was snow to us. SV: That’s so crazy, I think it’s hilarious. VO: It is. It’s funny when I think about it because that’s what we did. We were just little young kids, you know, just ghetto-type kids, and then we just kind of lived fun and carefree. We weren’t doing any harm or causing any mischief or anything, and we just trying to live and have fun. Trying to make things fun for our little area where we were living. SV: Right. I think it’s interesting that… you know a lot of people that I’ve spoken to, they said that they were raised poor and they didn’t have a chance to participate in a lot of arts or cultural things, like they wouldn’t be able to go see a show or go to a library or things like that, but you said that you were able… like your mom always immersed you guys in cultural things. Did that continue in Warroad? VO: Yes. You know, it slowed down just a little bit because we weren’t familiar with what was going on, as far as trying to get used to the environment. We didn’t know people. We didn’t know how people would treat us or how we would treat people. We didn’t want to rub people the wrong way. When we came here there was no temple, so there really wasn’t anywhere to go, so we made our own little prayer area in our house, and we had our prayers pretty much every night. For sure we did on Sundays – on Fridays and Saturdays and Sundays for sure. And so that kept us grounded as far as that goes, but we weren’t able to do a lot of the things that we did in California, which was fine, but we were able to kind of explore and be out longer at night than we would have in California, because curfew was nine o’clock. It wasn’t because of the cops or anything, it was because nine o’clock was when we had to be in the house, otherwise, you were going to get either shot up, beat up, or robbed… SV: Right. VO: So that was the curfew. SV: And here you were able to just roam until like this morning. [Laughter] VO: Yes, that would be more… that was more of a shocker than there was the snow, to be honest. SV: So your parents didn’t know people before they came? Were there other Lao families here? VO: There were quite a few. I had a cousin that was here that my mom kind of grew up with in Laos.

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SV: OK. VO: They told us about the jobs and whatever here, and that’s who we stayed with first. After that, we had our own place after about a month, I think. SV: Tell me about your education here in Warroad. VO: Education was a shocker, because… SV: And having to deal with like a new school and having to make friends. VO: Well, the sixth grade was like a junior high school in California, because seventh and eighth grade was separated in California, and you were into more classes. As far as K through 6 [kindergarten through sixth grade] in California, you were still with one teacher and you didn’t switch teachers and you didn’t learn… oh, you did learn, but you didn’t learn a lot of different subjects. You were either in math, English, and history, and science for sure. Whereas here, we had a reading class, we had an English class; we had a math class, and had a Minnesota history class. You had a music class, and then you had swimming class, so the opportunities weren’t bad. There were a lot more opportunities in the sixth grade level here. That was a big difference, because I never really went from one class to the other for a teacher until I came here, and it was part of this school here. My brother was used to it because he went to junior high in California. SV: David. VO: Yes, David did. SV: Tell me, what about friends – was it easy for you to make friends? Would you have considered yourself very outgoing when you were young? VO: Well, you know, yes. In California it was easy for me to be outgoing just because we all grew up together. When I came here, it was a little different and it wasn’t just because of where I was from. You know, when you grow up in California you either surfed, you skateboarded, or you belonged to a gang. I wasn’t in any of those. I didn’t surf, because we lived in the valley. We loved the ocean, but I didn’t swim. I wasn’t a swimmer. And they were already kind of… people weren’t mean, but they just wanted to test me a little bit, and it was what it was. I just kind of took it as, you know, just people not knowing who I am yet. After awhile I figured they would know me and knowing what my strengths were and what my weaknesses were, everybody just kind of accepted me for who I was. The biggest difference would be that here there were more white people than I ever been around. That was scary, but in a good way, because all people are good as long as you treat each other with respect. SV: OK. I forgot to ask you, were you ever put in ESL [English as a second language] just because you’re Lao – I’m going to assume that Lao was the primary language that was spoken in your house.

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VO: Yes, you know I was, I think. But it wasn’t for a long time because I guess they put me there just because I was bi-lingual. That’s about it. I wasn’t offended by it. It was kind of cool. We got to do other things and played games and did different things as far as learning went, but English was the main thing. When I came to school English was the main thing that I had to learn while growing up. My mom, as far back as when I was three or four years old, had books and everything ordered for me to read as a young kid, so I was never afraid to read or anything like that. There were times, of course, when you were shy being in front of people, but English was something I always read and I learned about. SV: You were also interested in books and literature. VO: Yes, definitely. My dad was huge on that, because he’d always have, like, a little book that he brought from overseas, he came with, that had the Lao and the English words, and they always had sentences in there, too, that corrected the grammars and all that. SV: Was it like a dictionary, maybe? VO: Yes, it was just a tiny, tiny book like a dictionary, but it had also things about how the grammar works and things like that, too. SV: OK. Can you talk about what it means to you to be American? I mean, you’re born here, but I know that a lot of my friends, even myself and my cousins, were all born here, but people automatically assume that they were immigrants or they were refugees. VO: You know, It was never said that I was an immigrant or a refugee, I guess. You know, I was never told that, so I guess that question never really happened. I’m proud to be born in America. I’m proud of the culture and the freedom and the Bill of Rights and all of that. It’s what molds a lot of people to be good, I think. People that don’t accept it, those people are just ignorant, to be honest. SV: So you wouldn’t say that you had to struggle with that identity, because it’s just so natural. VO: No, no. You know, it was weird, because I never felt out of place. There was a time, of course, when you feel like for me anyway, there was only three or four of the Lao boys in my class to all the others. SV: In Warroad? VO: In Warroad, yes, to the 89 other white students. But they never really did anything that made me feel lower than I should be. They were pretty accepting. That was the cool thing about, I guess, being here – the fact that minorities had always been around in Warroad, so it was natural and acceptance just kind of grows with the population. SV: Can you talk about your identity as a Lao American? What does that mean to you?

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VO: What does it mean? I’m very proud of it, to be honest. You know, it’s a blessing because I’m bi-lingual and have to relate to the other cultures – not just my own, but like Black and Mexican, and Native Americans also. Because I coach in basketball, and I work in the school, kids see me in a different light compared to just a white American. So that was a nice thing, and I’m able to do things that are just more valued, I guess, because of who I am and what I could do for a lot of the kids. It’s kind of like bridging the gap between two cultures – actually more than two cultures. SV: So that’s what you mean when you say your kids see you in a different light? VO: Yes. They come to me and they talk to me, and like the kids you saw in the gym earlier, you know, I grew up with one of them that I used to babysit a lot, and they come to me for whatever that’s needed. That’s how I feel when I’m available, I just let them know. That’s the same thing with any other of the players that I work with. I have an open door for them all the time. SV: Right. Would you consider yourself a mentor? VO: Yes, I would say when someone’s got a problem. You know, being a coach and working in the school, you’d almost have to take on the role. There’s no way around that. You’ve got to be a positive mentor and you’ve got to hopefully try to direct them in the right way. Sometimes they have to just choose their own path, but I would definitely say I’m a mentor. SV: OK. This is going to bring me into the contributions that you’ve done for your community. And when I mean community, it could mean the Lao community; it could mean the athletic community, whatever community you want to talk about. VO: OK. SV: It could be Warroad. I know one is through mentorship with youth, and another is as a coach. Can you talk more about what made you want to go into – I guess I want to say education, because you do work in the school. VO: Yes. SV: What made you want to do that? VO: I want to say in the sixth grade I kind of had my mind set on that, to be a teacher. SV: In sixth grade? VO: In sixth grade, I think. SV: [chuckles] VO: I even wrote about it. I didn’t want to tell the kids I wanted to be a teacher, to be honest.

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SV: So right when you came to Warroad you are like – I want to teach here. VO: Yes. Anyway it’s weird, because I’ve never really thought about it, but I always had it in the back of my mind that education would probably be something I’d fall into. Why? I want to say it goes back to my third grade teacher, Mr. Engleking. He was cool. He was a good teacher. He taught a lot, and that’s what kind of geared me towards that a little bit, towards education. And the teacher here, Mr. Tveit, was a big influence, too, because he taught with enthusiasm, and he always got along with the kids, and he always had respect for them and they gave him respect back. It wasn’t until I got more into sports where I kind of thought maybe this is something I could try, because when I started out I was coaching, or just helping kids younger than me and it was probably back at seventh grade when I first officially started playing team ball. SV: In high school. VO: In the middle school here. SV: Oh, middle school. VO: Yes. That’s kind of when I started thinking maybe this is something I might do in the future. SV: Now, I want to jump back to your junior high life. VO: OK. SV: Because I want to know what kind of things you got involved with in junior high. VO: In seven and eighth grade… In seventh grade I didn’t play football because… I loved football but I didn’t play. I was still new to the school so I didn’t really know all the ins and outs and what I had to do. I just kind of went as it was, but I did play basketball. So I did that, basketball at seventh grade. In eighth grade I did basketball and football. I wasn’t too into the choir or the band stuff. I thought it was nice, but it just wasn’t me. I was more interested in sports. I was too much of a jock, to be honest. It wasn’t that I hated those things, but it just wasn’t for me. I think it went fast, to be honest. It was, like, blink and it was done. It’s hard to remember the past, but it was never really a dull moment or a bad moment. It was all good. SV: And what about high school? VO: High school? High school was good. I never complained about it. There were times, of course, when you just feel that everything is against you, but that was just brief. To me, mentally, I just got over things quickly, and I just never really cared about the little things. I looked at the goal ahead and I made sure I was going that way. I participated in basketball and football again, and in the springtime I would just go in the weight room and I’d work out. I’d run and try to stay fit and stay in shape and just kept on working on basketball and football in the off-season. That’s
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kind of how I spent my spring. And the summer was the same thing. I remember that my mom would just let me go to the gym and she wouldn’t even worry about us. That was the nice thing that she did for me, my mom and dad. They just kind of let me do my thing. They knew I was going to come home every night and it wasn’t like I was going to cause any trouble. SV: They’re not worrying about where’re you going to go. There’s nowhere to go. VO: Exactly. There was nowhere to go, but I loved being in the gym and I loved riding my bike and that was the thing I did a lot, is ride my bike around town and just kind of just rode around to find something to do. SV: You’re lucky your parents are very supportive in that way, because a lot of our peers, their parents would want them to work and help the family. VO: Yes. You know, money was always tight. It wasn’t like we were rich by any means, and nobody was. When you work at Marvin’s you’re not making top dollar, but you make ends meet. My parents, they always wanted us to stay involved because when you were involved in the school your grades stay up because you have to keep your grades up to be in sports. That’s part of being eligible. Being involved in sports was a nice thing. It kept me, I guess, in a way, out of trouble, compared to some kids that didn’t do anything. Kids that don’t do stuff, they find a way to get in trouble or just fall off the tracks. At least, this way I had a goal in mind and what I wanted to do, by staying in sports, especially in the high school, because when you’re in high school you’re trying to find yourself and find an identity, more so in high school than anything, and that helped me decide as far as what I wanted to do in the future. SV: By identity, you don’t mean nationality or ethnicity, you mean like – Who do I want to be? Or what career? VO: Yes, what career to choose? SV: OK. Got it. And then, after high school, where did you go to college? Did you continue? VO: Yes. I went to the University of Minnesota, Crookston. I went there just as a student first, but being that I was still young and competitive, athletically, in sports; I wanted to walk on into football. So I talked to the head coach and he let me walk on. SV: What does that mean, “walk on?” VO: It is like you are not guaranteed a scholarship right away, so you do the practice first and you’re more or less on your own, really. You don’t get a scholarship. I didn’t get a scholarship till like after my spring ball, which is when I had spring football practice and things like that. Then, after that, in the following fall that’s when I got a football scholarship. And that was cool. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect anything, to be honest. I just wanted to play. That’s just my competitive side and I wanted to stay involved. That’s what I felt was best for me.
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SV: So you didn’t have any kind of goal to play professionally or anything, you just wanted to stay active. VO: Yes, I just wanted to stay active because I knew it kept my grades up and it wasn’t anything about being a professional athlete. That’s a dream, and the percentage of people who do that is, you know, really, really low. So you just have to look at the reality of things and find things to put things to perspective and get the education that you’re paying for and, you know, do what you want to do to stay busy and be happy with your life. SV: I think it’s so funny that you said you stayed in sports because it kept your grades up… VO: Yes. SV: Instead of, you know, I just wanted to keep my grades up because I’m so focused… I’m sure you’re focused too, but I just think it’s hilarious because you don’t hear that from other athletes, really. [Laughter] VO: No. But it’s funny, because my players, they think education should be secondary, which is false, because you can only play sports for so long in your life. Sports should be something that just kind of keeps you on the right track, and the academics is what is hopefully going to help you find the way to deciding what career you want. SV: I also think it’s pretty… it’s ballsy for you to approach the coach. VO: It was! I was a little terrified. But I wasn’t scared of being intimidated; I was just kind of nerve wracked. I was wondering whether he was going to take me or take me in, or how were the players going to take me in, but you know they saw my work ethic in the weight room with them. I was pretty much… I woke up every morning with them, started at six a.m., and didn’t get done until about a quarter to eight. And then I went right to school, you know. I was with them in the grind, so they accepted me just fine. It was a rude awakening of what hard work it is. SV: You mean college life or college football? VO: College football and taking the college football life into your academics, because you’re pretty much year round if you’re going to make it. My buddy Justin played basketball at Crookston. He started his season like a couple weeks into the semester, first semester in fall. They didn’t have the first official practice until about late October, and the season didn’t end until about February, so he pretty much went year around, even when their season ended, he was still practicing up until the end of spring semester. SV: So they had to stay conditioned. VO: Yes. And that’s how football was, too, at the very end. We had a week break for spring break but we were pretty much in the grind as soon as the season was over.

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SV: So you adjusted pretty well even with, like the traveling and missing classes and things like that. VO: Yes, we did, because a lot of times when you were in sports in college you scheduled classes according to your football schedule, because trips are long, so you’ve got to adjust accordingly, and the biggest thing is make sure your teachers know the reason you’re gone on Friday. That was usually the day we were gone, and we played on Saturday, which was nice, because we didn’t have to be missing class, but like on the Friday schedule a lot of us had maybe one class, maybe two classes, if that. SV: Did you participate in any arts – I know you say you’re not very interested in that. VO: In college? SV: In college. VO: In college, you know, I took the art class! SV: You did? VO: I did. SV: So what made you want to do that? VO: I love music, you know. I have respect for music and the people that play it. So, I tried it. It was tough. I thought I had big hands until I had to reach keys. You know, that was hard. I liked the class and it was fun. Piano was good. SV: Do you still continue to play now? VO: I haven’t, but I want to. I want to try to play some notes here and there and play a couple tunes. It’s fun to make music come to life. You know, that’s where I end up being. When a piano teacher was teaching us, and I was playing the song, it didn’t sound anything like the one he was playing. So, he was playing it and I said, oh man, mine sounds so terrible. He said – “No, you’re doing good.” SV: He’s lying. [Laughter] VO: Yes, he was lying, for real. But, that was my first year ever playing a musical instrument. It was piano. That was cool. SV: Wow. So you were what – nineteen, twenty? VO: Nineteen for sure. I was part of a class, so that was nice. I got an A. SV: Very good job. Now you have your grades up you can play football.
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VO: Yes. SV: I was wondering – You have cousins in the States, right? VO: Yes. Not, I mean, they are cousins – like, my dad’s cousins are more close to me. My mom’s cousins all live in Florida. SV: Would you consider you and your brothers the first generation from your family to go to college? VO: Yes. I would say definitely yes, because we really don’t know anybody else outside of our family, from our last name. We have friends and families and cousins that we consider cousins because they are good to us, you know? That’s kind of the traditional way, but we really don’t know anybody else. SV: They’re not like blood relatives. VO: Yes. SV: How proud are you of that. VO: Very proud. That’s a huge accomplishment for not only myself, but our family, to go through the trials and tribulations of that. You know, people think that – Oh, he’s not going to do it, he’s not going to do it, or they can’t do it – and we did it. So, that just proves that it’s possible if you put your mind to it. You know, in a way you almost beat the odds, because not very many that we know of get that opportunity to go to college or university for that fact. A lot of them choose to go with tech schools. Which is fine, but it’s a life-changing experience, different in the university or college, compared to a tech school. That’s just my opinion, though. SV: You talked about yourself being a role model, and how important it is for you to be there for the youth this day, and to let them know that education is important, and to let… you know, to remind them of that? When you were growing up did you have people, other than your mom and dad, did you have people in your immediate life who were those types of role models? VO: I had a very, very good friend when I was growing up in Stockton. We loved math, you know. He was two years older. He was my brother’s age. He was in the same class as my brother, but… SV: David? VO: David, yes. SV: The older one.

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VO: The older one, David. And he loved doing math. I liked doing numbers, too, and it’s kind of weird how that works. I’d always go with him and we’d open up our math book and we’d just do all of the work in there. We were pretty much ahead of the class as far as math was, at that particular time. So, I guess, he could be one that is considered… that kind of mentored me a little bit as far as education went. And there was another guy, too, I guess. He was actually like a teacher aide. It’s funny because I did not know anybody that did that, and he was Lao. SV: In Warroad? VO: It was in Stockton, and he taught us the traditional Lao dance that I was a part of, and he kept on sharing it, as far as teaching it in English and also teaching the Lao language. Because we were born in the States, I did not know how to spell it or read it. I still don’t. It just looks like drawings to me, but it’s nice that I was able to be exposed to it at that time. SV: He taught all this Lao stuff at the school or at a different place? VO: Yes, at the school. We had a little section, maybe half hour or whatever it was that we had with him. It was nice. SV: During school time? VO: During school time, Yes. SV: That was such a neat program. Do you know if that’s still going on, or no? VO: I have no clue. I went to the elementary website just to kind of see, you know. For some reason I just Googled it, just to see what’s going on. I have no clue if it’s still going on or not, but at the time when it was there it was cool, it was a great experience. I guess that’s another person that mentored me in education. SV: I think that’s really neat, because my mom put us… she made us go to Lao PTA, which was like an after-school program, and they taught language, and I’m like you. I speak it well, but I can’t read or write. Do you feel like it will always be there? Is that something you will want to do one day, like go learn the Lao language, you know, to be able to write and read it? VO: I do. I was trying to find a Lao edition of Rosetta Stone©, but I couldn’t find it. [The Rosetta Stone language learning programs.] SV: They don’t know about us yet. [Laughter] VO: That was a little disappointing, but that’s something I really, really want to learn, again, just because it’s just something I know I will not be able to teach my kids as well as my parents did, because there’s so many inter-racial relationships going on that if I don’t hold on to my culture, who is? So that’s why I try to learn a lot of things my mom and dad taught me. SV: Have you been back to Laos? That’s what I wanted to know, too.
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VO: I did. They went -- my parents, my brothers, and my girlfriend went first. I didn’t go. SV: How old were you guys? VO: This is a few years ago, 2007. So, I would have been like… 20… 2012… 20… 5 years ago? SV: Don’t ask me. VO: 23, 24 – I don’t know. I can’t remember for sure exactly. But it was somewhere back in 2007 for sure. SV: OK. VO: And, we went there. When I flew myself that was kind of nerve wracking, because I went from Minneapolis to, I think it was… I want to say Chicago and then through San Francisco, and waited, and then flew all the way, about fourteen hours or so, to Taipei, Taiwan, and from there flew to Thailand, which really opened my eyes up a little bit, because they knew I was a foreigner. They knew right away. SV: What do you mean? VO: Well, they knew that I was from the US, from the States and not from there. SV: Because you’re… VO: Because the way my clothes looked, and my hair – I had long hair then, and I was wearing braids. My hair was down to my shoulders, so they knew that… SV: [chuckles] VO: So they knew right away. And when I finally got to Laos we stopped at like a road market, I guess – I can’t think of the name of it – but they knew that I was foreign. I had a cousin or a family friend that was driving me to my parents and my brothers. They came to me right away. They didn’t go to the other people. They went to me because they thought I had money, because I was foreign. I wasn’t flashing jewelry or anything. I didn’t want to wear all that stuff when I was going overseas, because I didn’t want it to get lost, stolen, or whatever. So, I was really aware of my surroundings, and when these people came up, I understood Lao and I talked to them in Lao, I didn’t talk to them in English, just because I didn’t want to give them the wrong impression or make them think I was above them by any means. So they knew right away that I was from the States and they were trying to sell me crickets on a stick and fried worms and this and that, and I was not having it, so they knew right away. That was a good experience, though. SV: How long did you guys stay? VO: We stayed for a whole month.
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SV: Did you visit family that was there? VO: Yes. We went down to my dad’s village. I still can’t remember what it was. We went down to my dad’s village. Oh man – I can see it, I can see the name, but I can’t say it. We went there, and we were staying briefly with my dad’s sister, who was my aunt. We met their family. Then - because my grandparents on my dad’s side had all passed away – my brothers and I went to pay respect to them, and we actually became monks again for a week. That was different than it is in the United States, because it’s scary as hell. The reason why is because you hear stories, you know, about ghosts and listening to that, you know, was just… SV: OK, you’re this big football man… VO: Yes. SV: And you’re scared of ghosts, from the stories that were being told to you. VO: Oh, this is Laos, you know, this is a third-world country. There’s no cement on the ground There’s no fan working. This is like a third-world country. One thing, too, that I didn’t want to do is I didn’t want to intrude on the current monks. These monks are like eight years old, ten years old, twelve years old, and they’re doing it for life. At least they didn’t want to tell us when they were going to be done. I’m just saying it’s against the rules. The reason why they say that is because they don’t want to look forward to something - they want to stay a monk until they feel they’re ready to move on. It was really, it was just an eye-opener. When I did it for a month, I just wanted to be done within a certain time-frame. These guys did it because it’s a way of life. And that was a big difference. SV: So it was to them more about like that journey, instead of having a timeline. VO: Yes. It was way, way more different than what we did. SV: And these were eight-year-olds that… wow. VO: Yes. They were young. I mean, one was as young as, I want to say, six. And they would go in the morning and they would go get their food. They would go with their traditional bucket, and they would get donations of food and whatnot in that and a basket of rice that people would put in. They would do that at six – that was not at six in the morning, at least five, because some got up about four. My brothers and I, we didn’t do that. We just had food come to us, and I was amazed that these kids were more hard core than I am. It’s a blessing to be a part of that and just be around that; because it’s not too often you see that here. People take life for granted here, and these kids, they do it as a way of life. They don’t see all the glitz and glamours that we do. They kind of live as it is, within their means. They don’t do anything beyond that. So, that was really cool.

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SV: What is your relationship, like your families - you know, your mom, your dad, your brothers - what is that relationship like with family in Laos? VO: It’s hard sometimes. My mom’s family is fine. On my dad’s side, it’s hit and miss, because sometimes you don’t communicate all the time, because my dad, you know, he’s not doing well. He had a stroke, and so it kind of is what it is. It’s more with my mom. It’s hard to get ahold of my dad’s side of the family; I guess that’s what I have to say. And it wasn’t anything negative, it’s just kind of the way it is. You kind of talk to who you’re most comfortable with, I guess. We don’t really know my dad’s sister. She was nice, she was good. But it was… we didn’t know each other a whole lot. It was kind of like – I don’t know if it’s a wall or what, but it just, we didn’t know how to communicate. My dad, you know, it was hard for him to talk, to communicate, things like that, so my mom had to do a lot for him, for us, too. But, with my mom’s side of the family it was easier because she knew them. My parents got together and married, they didn’t really know the families. My dad knew my mom’s family, my mom didn’t know his, just because of where they were going, I guess, or with the refugee camp… SV: Why did he know more about her? VO: It was just from the refugee camp. I think that’s more what it was. It was one of those love stories that just kind of happen, so… SV: It makes me sad a little bit, you know, to fall in love in a refugee camp, because, you know, the refugee camp… it’s so hard… it’s like… I know my parents talk about it all the time. They were always hungry, and sometimes it was unsafe, whatever, so… VO: Yes, yes. SV: It’s romantic, but it’s like this sad romantic thing. VO: I just think that it is a definite survival of the fittest, and you stay together, you stay strong together, that’s what it was. SV: That’s a good way of seeing it. VO: Yes. SV: We went on a lot of tangents, which is fine. OK, so you said your career goal – you wanted to focus on coaching. VO: Yes. SV: Do you want to stay in Warroad and continue to coach until – you know, like the little monks in Laos, whenever you know your journey’s over, then you’ll move on. VO: You know, I think so. I think this is just… I grew up pretty much playing ball here. I know the system, the kid’s respect it, and I want to set my own legacy here. I guess I should say it that
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way. I’m not the type of person to kind of just -- Forget you guys, I’m going to do this – and move on to a better coaching job or anything like that. This is it, this is where I want to be – it’s where I feel proud to be. My parents are proud and happy that I’m here, too. It’s easy for my dad, too. That’s who I look out for, because you know, he’s pretty much done raising me, and now it’s my turn to help him. That’s kind of why I don’t want to leave yet – don’t want to leave at all, I guess, because he’s struggled with his health. It’s not like he’s dying or anything, and just always needs help, so that’s what I’m here for. SV: So is David here, too? VO: Yes. David is here. He works in Roseau, and then he also works in Fargo about every other weekend. SV: He works in Fargo? He drives all the way to Fargo? VO: Every other weekend. SV: That’s far. [Chuckles] VO: Yes. For us, you know, that’s a vacation. Because the nice thing about Warroad is this: People in the city don’t like going out. People from out of the state like going out. You know what I mean? Just like your parents said they went out too far. For us, it’s good. It’s a change of scenery. For us, it’s kind of the way we look at it. It’s nice to be in the Cities and do things like that, but it’s also nice to be home. SV: How often do you go to the Cities and visit? VO: Actually, I’m going next week to watch the state basketball tournament. SV: The team made it, Warroad? VO: No, the team didn’t make it, but I get to go as part of my coaching work. If there’s a basketball clinic in the Cities, I go to that. So, that might be two times a year, and in two weeks I’ll be going to a football clinic. SV: It’s not for you, right? It’s for the job? VO: For business, or sometimes I go for pleasure. SV: Do you network with other coaches? VO: Yes. That’s the fun thing that I like doing a lot. That’s, I guess, the perks of being a coach. SV: So, even if you had the opportunity to coach the Vikings, you would never do it. This is more than just a job for you here in Warroad? This is like your home, and… I don’t know what’s the word I’m going for?
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VO: Yes. Like the rock. SV: Right. VO: It’s hard to not pass this up for me. When I got offered a job here when I first got out of college, I just pretty much said – All right, I’ll do it. I was coaching eighth grade at first. I didn’t know how long I was going to do it for, because I had other job offers, not in athletics but just for my degree. SV: What did you major in? VO: Sports and rec [recreation] management. So it was like a business degree, really. I had other offers for jobs. I don’t regret not taking those jobs. I thought this was just an opportunity that presented itself, really, and I just took it and each year, I just kind of moved up, moved up, and now I’m at the second year of my head coaching job… SV: Nice. VO: With basketball. And I’ve been doing football. I did football in college, too; I stayed and coached there. I got comfortable with myself coaching and teaching, and that’s what prepped me to coach in the high school level. SV: You know, in the Lao community – and I’m talking just Minnesota…you know, in our community we have the highest rate for high school drop out for Southeast Asians. And you don’t see many like Lao men and women in leadership roles. VO: Yes, I know. SV: How does the Lao community here – I’m sure they’re very proud of you – how do they interact with you? VO: It’s hard to say, because, you know what? Sometimes I think they think I’m stuck up, because I’m in a different authority level, just because I work for the school. But it’s not that, you know. One of my players was struggling in school. I said, hey, I’ll take you and we’re going to work on your paper. And he hadn’t even started yet. It was due in two days, three days, whatever it was. And the worst thing to do, you know, is to not let a parent know, so I pretty much said, hey, let’s call your parents and let them know that I’m with you and we’re doing this. I think they gotta understand that I do respect their decisions and what they do with their kids. I love for them to play basketball or sports and all that, but they said no, I’m not going to push and shove when there’s no need for it. He’s a player of mine and I’m going to help him, and I pretty much told these parents, you know, this is what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and why I want him to get a good grade, because this is more important than the basketball. That’s where I was going with that, and I think they understood that and respected that. SV: So you don’t step on a lot of parents’, like Lao parents’, toes or anything.

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VO: No. I mean, if they have an issue they know where to find me. If there are problems with kids, I get letters and whatever. If the teacher says this kid’s struggling, whatever, I go find the kid and I’ll help them and then make sure their parents know this. If they’re staying later than the hour in the school, I’ll make sure their parents know where they’re at and who they’re with. SV: Are you the only Lao person working in the schools? VO: My mom is. My mom works there, too. SV: Where does your mom work? VO: She works with the elementary kids. I work there, too. I work with more of the special ed [Special Education] kids. My mom works with more the all-around – I want to say K through 5, I guess. SV: So do any other Lao people work in, like, establishments? VO: In the school? Or…? SV: In the school or the post office, or any kind of organization that is official or government. VO: You know, I don’t know. I’m not sure of that. You know, I keep to myself a lot, to be honest, and just my family. When I went to school I went to school. I didn’t really mess with anybody. I’m not saying it to be mean or anything, but I didn’t really interact with a lot of people that didn’t go to college. I was on the way to a new life, and when I came back, everything was new, in the sense of knowing who was doing what, as far as their career and their jobs and whatnot. I still had friends that were here, and we interact every now and then, if I see them, but usually I just stay at home and chill with my folks and my girl, and that’s pretty much all I ever did. I still do that today; I pretty much keep to myself. And the kids are what motivate me a lot to just keep working. SV: Do you participate in community, like Lao community, then? Like maybe, you know, Boun [festival], like the New Year’s celebration? VO: You know what? It’s hard for me to do that, not because I don’t like it, but it’s just so… I don’t know how it’s organized, I guess. I’m not trying to be mean to say it’s terribly run, but it was never here to start with, so it’s hard for me to just jump into that. When I was in California and we did that, it was like we just knew right away that it was going to happen, like when I was a monk, it was the month of the Lao New Year, the Cambodian New Year, so I was pretty much groomed everything for that there, but when I came here it wasn’t, it was not part of it. When I first moved here, with the Lao New Year stuff, we went around and we gave alms you know, for every family that we knew of, and that’s about all we ever did. We used to do water fights, but that’s not like the same as in the Cities. SV: Yes. It’s not like that in the Cities either. It’s not like what we see on TV. [Chuckles]

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VO: Oh, really? In California it’s wild, it’s fun. SV: Yes. Maybe it’s just Saint Paul and Minnesota, you know – it’s lacking. Maybe we can change that for the next generation. VO: Yes. SV: We have a little bit left here. Is there anything that we didn’t, that I didn’t ask you that you do want to address? Do you have any last words for the good folks who are going to be reading the transcription? What do you want them to know about yourself, your family, the Lao community, or Warroad. VO: As far as Warroad goes, it’s a good community, you know. It’s fairly diverse. The majority, of course, is white, but there is a lot of diversity. Kids are accepted with open arms here. It’s unreal how a lot of the players are accepted. As far as for me, and for anybody listening and cares, I just hope that they find a career goal that they love and work through it and have a passion for what they do. That’s what’s going to make you happy. Money is not going to be everything, you know. It goes. You spend it, it’s gone. So, you have to do what makes you happy. SV: Sure. Is that all? VO: I think so. I really don’t know what else to say. SV: Thank you very much – and let’s sign off. Thank you very much.

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