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Interview with Phiengtavanh Savatdy



Phiengtavanh Savatdy was born in 1981 in Vientiane, Laos. She enlisted in the Army National Guard, and attended St. Cloud College. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Early life in Laos - nicknames given to her as a child - coming to the United States - coming to Minnesota and going to public schools in Minneapolis - being different and wanting to fit in - educational achievements - becoming a citizen and enlisting in the National Guard - coming home from Iraq and going to college - being active in extracurricular groups in college - not being active in the local Lao community - personal, and career goals and goals for the Lao community.





World Region



Asian American & Pacific Islander
Oral History Project
Narrator: Phiengtavanh Savatdy Interviewer: Saymoukda Vongsay



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 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

Phiengtavanh Savatdy at the U.S. Embassy in Laos, January, 2004.



At a refugee camp in Thailand. Phiengtavanh’s uncle ties a wish blessing string on her wrist for her first birthday. Banyakone, her father is in green and Kongkeo, her mother holds her, October 10, 1982.

Phiengtavanh, standing, on her second birthday, in a refugee camp in Thailand.



Phiengtavanh with two birthday cakes. Her father, Banyakone and mother Kongkeo help her cut the cakes, October 10, 1984.

Phiengtavanh with her mother and younger sister, Viengmany, at her mother’s aunts home in Amarillo, Texas. 1985. 10

Phiengtavanh and her sister in Amarillo, Texas. 1985.


Phiengtavanh’s valedictorian speech at Kenny Contemporary Elementary Schools 3rd grade graduation.



Riding her first bike, North Minneapolis. About 6 years old.

Winter in North Minneapolis. Phiengtavanh in the black coat, her sisters Vlengmany in the red coat, and Marita in the pink suit.



Edison High School Principle Mr. Vana presenting Phiengtavanh with her National Honor Society membership. She was in 10th grade, Fall 1997.



Naturalization Ceremony for Phiengtavanh’s parents. From left to right: Phiengtavanh, Viengmany, the judge, Marita, Kongkeo, and Banyakone Savatdy at Bethel College, September 29, 1999.

Viengmany and Phiengtavanh after they became naturalized U.S. citizens. September, 13, 2002. 20

Phiengtavanh returning to her father’s house after completing boot camp at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina. October 2000.



Phiengtavanh visiting Wat Xieng Kwon in Vientiane, Laos, January 2004.



From a photo shoot in traditional Thai outfit in Chiang Mai, Thailand. January 1, 2004.



Phiengtavanh’s unit after they completed their annual training in 2005.

At Camp Ripley, Minnesota in her hummer, 2005. 28

Left to right: Viengmany, Phiengtavanh, and Marita at a farwell Baci Ceremony before leaving for Iraq. September 15, 2005.

Phiengtavanh receiving a blessing from a Buddhist monk at Boon Pavet Festival in Wat Lao Temple, Farmington, Minnesota. While on leave from Iraq, June 2006. 30

Phiengtavanh and her mother when she returned home from Iraq after being deployed for 16 months. July 19, 2007.

Phiengtavanh her mother and step father Khamphoua Thammavongsa at her welcome home ceremony. July 19, 2007. 32


Phiengtavanh with her sisters in NAPAWF (National Asian Pacific American Womens Forum) and CAPM (Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans) at St. Cloud Teen Retreat in St. Cloud, Minnesota, May 2011.





Phiengtavanh Savatdy Narrator Saymoukda Vongsay Interviewer January 14, 2012 Saint Cloud, Minnesota

Saymoukda Vongsay Phiengtavanh Savatdy Kongkeo Savatdy

- SV - PS - KS

SV: This is Saymoukda Vongsay and it is January 14, 2012. We are in Saint Cloud. And I’m here to interview Phiengtavanh Savatdy. How are you? PS: I’m doing well. SV: Good. Can you please state your name, age, date of birth, and place of birth? PS: My name is pronounced Phiengtavanh Savatdy. I am thirty years old. I was born on October 10, 1981, in Vientiane, Laos. SV: Okay. Can you tell us your parents’ names and where they were born? PS: Ah, my biological dad, his name is Banyakone Savatdy. And my mom is Kongkeo Savatdy. And they were both born in Laos as well. My father was born in Sayabouly, Laos, and my mom was born in Vientiane, Laos. My stepfather, he is. . . his name is Kamphoua Thammavongsa, and he, too, was born in Laos. SV: Okay. How many siblings do you have and what are their names? PS: I have two younger sisters. The first one is Viengmany Savatdy. And the second one, the youngest sister is Marita Savatdy. And I have a half-brother, his name is Putthamit Savatdy. SV: Okay, and you said that they were not. . . you were not all born in the same country? PS: That’s correct. I was born in Laos, in my grandfather’s home. And Viengmany, she was born on July 1, 1983, and in a refugee camp in Thailand. And Marita, she was born here in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 16, 1990. And my little brother, my half-brother, he was born here in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on March 19, two thousand. . . I can’t remember. But he will be nine years old. 38

SV: Okay. PS: This year. SV: So we can do the math later. PS: Yes. SV: Okay. [Chuckles] Do you remember your childhood at all? PS: Hmmm. Not really, to be honest. That’s why I do have my mother here to help me. But when I need to remember or recollect some memories of my childhood in Laos or Thailand, I go to my mom’s house and talk to her about certain things. Or she’ll just tell me random stories out of the blue. I know that from what she told me while growing up I have always been. . . I resemble my grandfather a lot, the way I. . . my posture. The way I like sit, or how I behave, my attitude. My mom said I’m always. . . you know, appear to look very sad and very helpless and hopeless, because in a lot of the pictures, I don’t have a smile on my face when I was growing up. SV: Yes. Yes, I noticed that. That’s okay. Did you want. . .? I know your mom was telling us a story of when you were lost for like a brief moment. Would you want her to share that story with us? PS: Absolutely, yes, she can. SV: Hello, Mom. KS: Hello. SV: Okay. Can you tell us Toun’s [a nickname for Phiengtavanh] story of how she got lost? [Chuckles] KS: Okay, hello, I’m going to talk about Ka-Toun [as a child], about how she’s not one to take advantage of others, how she’s not strong [overpowering], she’s not a hard-hearted person. Her peers are always hitting her and yelling at her and she would come to me because she was very sensitive. I never thought that she would grow up to become a good person, with a strong heart, and I’m happy for her. That’s all about Ka-Toun. SV: Yes, ma’am. KS: Mmmm-hmmm. SV: Thank you, Mom. KS: It is nothing [You’re welcome]. 39

SV: Okay. So “Tounie” that is your nickname, yes? PS: That’s correct. SV: Yes. PS: It’s actually “Ka-Toun” but I go by “Ga-Toun” or “Toun.” SV: Right. PS: But yes, that is my nickname. SV: Because that’s my nickname, too. Except the tones are a little. . . slightly different. PS: And the spelling. SV: Okay. [Chuckles] Well, let’s get back to you. PS: [Chuckles] SV: So how old were you when you came to the U.S., do you remember? PS: I was about three years old. And my parents. . . was sponsored by my dad’s brother, his oldest brother, so pretty much my uncle sponsored my parents and my sister and I to come to the U.S. on the day of Pearl Harbor of 1984. KS: December. PS: Yes, it’s December. SV: Was it December. . .? PS: Yes. KS: December 13. PS: I remember it was Pearl Harbor Day, 1984. SV: Wow. And how old were you? PS: I was three. SV: Okay. And where did you land when you first came to the U.S.? 40

PS: Hmmm, yes, here in Minnesota. SV: Yes. PS: Mmmm-hmmm. SV: Okay. Well, do you remember how it was to see the snow compared to how it was back in Thailand or Laos? Was it a shock for you? Do you remember being that old and. . .? PS: Mmmm, I honestly don’t remember anything that far back about, you know, stepping ground in Minnesota and experiencing the weather. Just. . . just because it. . . You know, I just have a lack of memory from my childhood years, so I don’t recall anything. But I just see. . . I remember growing up just seeing a lot of snow, growing up as a tomboy, especially. I recall my mother would. . . actually, you know, like about. . . not less than a year of coming to the U.S. in 1984, but my parents were separated. So my mom decided to take us two girls to move to Amarillo, Texas for about a year to live with her aunt. And there wasn’t snow there, so I didn’t see any snow. It was just summer. I have some brief moments of some memories there. I remember riding a bike with my cousin on the hills or some kind of valley or so in Amarillo, Texas. And I remember seeing weird objects [chuckles] when I was sleeping in the middle of the night, like pi gong goi, you know. SV: Oh. . . PS: In Texas. I remembered. . . SV: Mmmm, for those of us who don’t know what a pi gong goi is, in translation that is. . . PS: It’s like a. . . a weird. . . a ghost, I guess, a spirit. SV: A ghost. PS: Mmmm-hmmm. I don’t think it was a bad or a good ghost, it was just neutral. And I remember I just had to close my eyes so I can go to sleep. SV: [Chuckles] PS: My mother did tell me, when we were in Texas, my sister Viengmany and I, we were pretty much in a way neglected by our. . . by my mom’s aunt and uncle. I remembered my mom said that when she came home from work she noticed that we haven’t been, you know, cared for in terms of, you know, getting our diapers changed or food, you know, or being let out of the bedroom. We were trapped in the bedroom, in our own little room. We didn’t get any food or water. We didn’t get a shower or a bath all day until my mom came home. And. . . [Speaking to her mother Kongkeo Savatdy] Do you have anything? [Speaking to Saymoukda Vongsay] Can she add anything about that time? 41

SV: Oh, definitely. PS: She can. . . Mom, do you remember that when you came back from work and Aunt Lychanh didn’t take care of us? KS: There was one day when I came back from work and I saw Uncle and Aunt Lychanh say, “Come clean your room! You see? Your children have vomited on your bed, they’ve defecated on your bed, all over the house, stinking up the entire house!” And I cried. And you, Ka-toun, came and told me, “Uncle won’t let us go to him out there [in the living room and kept us barricaded in the room]” for eight hours, children vomit and use the bathroom and their diapers get full, I apologize for speaking about a filthy subject, and I cried. I washed my hands, from then on, I washed everything, and was determined. I told them, “I’ll bring us back to their father,” and his mother was upset. And I didn’t say anything [against her]. And I was focused on bringing the children back to their father. I was disappointed [by what happened] having lived with them. PS: So we were there in. . . My sister, my mom, and I, we were. . . we didn’t stay in Amarillo, Texas for so long. We did return to Minnesota. My mom and my father decided to work things out and try to give it another chance. So we moved back to Minnesota sometime around the fall of 1985. And then. . . yes, that’s when I remember just the cold weather, coming off the airplane. I had a fleece coat on. KS: Mmmm-hmmm. PS: And my sister as well. And there were so many people at the airport, I just kind of looked up and I was just this little person, you know, with a bob haircut. I looked like I just came off the boat or. . . I have no clue where I was. But yes, it was just as strange to me to be at the airport surrounded by these strangers. SV: Okay. And did you adjust okay, living in Minnesota? PS: Hmmm. Let’s see. I went to Minneapolis public schools my whole life. Mmmm. And I. . . from Kindergarten through third grade I was in Kenny Elementary School. There was a high population of Asian students to include Laotian kids, so I remember there were times where I had my good moments and my bad moments. The bad moments were being picked on, on the school playground. Being embarrassed because I couldn’t hold my urine before class was dismissed, and I urinated at my own desk! It was embarrassing and I was sent home with a bag of, you know, wet pants, [and dressed] in a clean pair of pants. [Chuckles] I got yelled at for putting sand at the bottom of the slide by some, you know, staff at the school. There were also good moments where I would play, you know, Chinese jump rope with my Lao friends. I would take some ESL courses after class. Oh no, it wasn’t after class. It was. . . yes, during school hours. But, you know, after coming back from the ESL class, some of the students looked at the ESL students a little odd and strange. And I. . . I can tell intuitively that we were 42

different, you know. And it didn’t really cross my mind why until the years progressed. Mmmm. In third grade I was chosen to be the vale. . . or vale. . . oh, I can’t say that word. Vale. . . SV: Valedictorian? PS: Valedictorian for my class. [Chuckles] SV: Mmmm-hmmm. PS: And that was a very good moment I had, because that meant a lot to me and to my classmates. I remember I was very emotional that day and with my teacher at the time. Ah, from. . . let’s see, fourth grade through sixth grade, I went to Willard Math, Science, and Technology School, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That was. . . I had perfect attendance throughout those years, I have never missed a single day of school. I had been on the, you know, perfect attendance list. I was also a tutor for my own peers, younger. . . that are younger than I, during that time throughout fourth and fifth and sixth grade. We went to. . . let’s see. I remember admiring one of my teachers. Her name was Miss Keung, spelled K-E-U-N-G. She was my fifth and sixth grade teacher. And she very. . . she inspired me to do a lot more than just be a student. You know, just excel and just. . . doing not just the standard, but more than the standard. SV: Yes. PS: Hmmm. Let’s see. Let’s see now, after the sixth grade, I went to Franklin Middle School for seventh and eighth grade. And I pretty much, you know, it kind of. . . I guess, you know, school was. . . academics were everything to me. I had perfect attendance and also then on the A honor roll the whole two years. And also, I was. . . I had my first job. Being a student and also tutoring students during my eighth grade year at Franklin. So during like a certain hour or so we would break. . . we would go, the people who would volunteer. . . not volunteer, but decide to be teachers or so, they would go to the site that is the. . . the school site or so. I’ve forgot the school name that I was tutoring at. So we would go there. And I think we got like maybe five dollars an hour. But it was worth it, because at the time, money was like. . . money. And five dollars was a lot of money during that time. [Chuckles] SV: [Chuckles] PS: Hmmm. So I really enjoyed being a nerd. And I was a nerd, and I’m proud of it. Because, you know, my parents really wanted us children to put school first, boys last. SV: So how much was education emphasized at the home? PS: Mmmm-hmmm. It was very emphasized, like maybe ninety-nine percent of the time. Hmmm. I recall some memories where my father would. . . oh, kind of punish me for not counting perfectly. And he did it by having me to repeat the number that I missed when I was counting. And he. . . when I missed it, he, you know, told me to, you know, take out my hand. And, yes, he would use a ruler, and to spank my hand. And my mom said that, yes, he, you 43

know, took the ruler and spanked my fingertips, too. Then I had to repeat it while, you know, either I was drinking milk. . . because I remember I was drinking milk. And I had to see it in my head. And it brought tears to my eyes and it kind of burned, too. But he’s very strict. And my mother, she is not as strict as he is, she is more lenient. She’s not abusive like that, you know. But my father. . . well, she. . . my father is more verbally abusive, emotionally abusive, I would say, growing up. Hmmm. But yes, I’ve never really. . . education has always been number one for me. I never had any problems with not doing well in school. Although I could do better or could have done better when it came to test results and whatnot, but I just. . . Yes, I just managed to do my. . . You know, like being the eldest child, I just focused on finding my own ways to study. [Sighs] Like, okay, who is going to help me study, because I am the only one that can. . . you know. Well, English wasn’t my first language, but you know, we just find our way to. . . yes, to learn how to use the library system, the computer, the Internet. . . SV: So you learned to be independent very early on. PS: Yes. Yes. Mmmm-hmmm. SV: Okay. You also showed being civically engaged at such a young age, like with your tutoring work. And can you talk more about what it meant to you to. . . you know, that journey to find your identity? PS: Yes. SV: What was that like for you? Like realizing that you are Lao American and then realizing that you are, you know, an American. Lao, American. There’s like this. . . PS: Collaboration? SV: Yes. PS: Or. . . SV: Of identities. PS: Yes. . . hmmm. I didn’t. . . let’s see. To answer your question, I might kind of be bouncing off here and there. SV: Should I. . . should I break it down? PS: Yes, break it down! [Chuckles] SV: Okay. So I mean you said that ESL. . . 44

PS: Mmmm-hmmm. SV: That was when you realized that you were different. PS: Mmmm-hmmm. SV: Was that when you realized that you were Lao? Or, you know, just a refugee, or. . .? PS: Hmmm. I just knew that I was a little, you know, like from the other students, I was different. I just didn’t know how to identify myself, like using the terminology until later in the, you know, in the early high school years. Mmmm. But it’s not. . . you know, I can’t deny the facts that during that time that I was different in many ways, because economically, socially, and. . . hmmm. Yes. Everyone. . . we all had different roles, so I just knew that, you know, my parents were struggling and I am struggling myself, and there is a reason why we have to go to these special classes. You know, like why aren’t the other students? You know, and why do they not have to go? Or we have special tutors that can help us with our tests, or how to fill out the bubble sheet. SV: Right. PS: But yes, it didn’t come to my attention until my identifying myself like as a Lao person and also. . . and an American until my like later in my teenage years, until high school, early high school or so. Hmmm. Especially junior high, that’s how I noticed that a lot of my clothes had changed. Like I would wear what this other kid next to me would wear, like something that had a brand name. Guess? [brand], you know. . . hmmm. What is it called? Ah, [Marithe + Francois] Girbaud. [Chuckles] SV: Yes. PS: You know, the Jordan jersey. I have the Nike shoes. . . You can, you know. . . I have a. . . KS: Old Navy. . . PS: Starter jackets. KS: Old Navy. SV: The list goes on and on. PS: That’s correct. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. PS: Yes. And that was like around junior high. I noticed like a lot of this. . . even Laotian students in junior high were trying to wear. . . You know, trying to assimilate themselves into the 45

mainstream culture of what it is to be an American student. And I did the same, too, just because I didn’t. . . you know, I guess my. . . I didn’t feel any self-worth, or my esteem wasn’t like high, and I just want to fit in just like everyone else. I didn’t want to be different. So I bought. . . you know, I asked my mom or my dad, “Mom can I have a Starter jacket?” Or the Nike shoes, and the Girbaud and Guess? Jeans, and pants, and shirts, so I can look like the other students. [Chuckles] SV: Mmmm-hmmm. PS: Hmmm. And, you know, yes, we. . . you know, my sister and I, we wore them. And to fit in. SV: Right. PS: And I think that’s when I kind of realized like, okay, this must. . . And you know, I didn’t want to wear anything that had a Lao logo or that would. . . or anything that’s like religious that would identify myself as different from the other students. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. PS: And then a lot of my teachers, they didn’t really, you know, elaborate or they didn’t really share or discuss, I should say, about, you know, oh, can you tell us about, you know, your ethnicity, your background, your culture. It was just one culture, really, and that was the American culture. You never really talked about other cultures in the U.S. Or not in the U.S., but outside the U.S., I’m sorry. Yes, the native people of, you know, like myself, immigrants, refugees, you name it. I. . . did I answer your question? Or. . .? SV: Yes. PS: Okay. [Chuckles] SV: [Chuckles] Yes, you’re doing great! PS: [Laughs] SV: You’re doing just great. So you talked about identity and some struggles. What are some of your greatest achievements in high school? Even though you still struggled with suppressing your identity or not putting markers on yourself, what are some deeds that you were proud of? PS: Hmmm. I was very happy that I chose to go to Edison High School, which is located in Northeast Minneapolis, for the purpose of wanting to prepare myself to become a teacher just like my parents. My dad was a math teacher and my mom was a Kindergarten teacher in Laos. So I wanted to pursue that same, you know, dream. And so what I decided on was to go to Edison because they have the education magnet program. SV: Yes. 46

PS: And that’s how I ended up there. And I met a lot of great teachers along the way throughout my four years at Edison. Hmmm. I was very thankful that I, you know, assimilated into not just the academic areas but also into sports. I didn’t really provide much pictures for sports, but I did. . . I played four years of badminton. And that’s very popular in the Minneapolis school district. We came in first place for city, my school did. And we came in second in state of Minnesota during my high school years for badminton. And then two years I also did tennis. I played tennis. Hmmm. Other than the two sports, I also participated in the math team. [Chuckles] SV: [Chuckles] PS: I know! That’s so nerdy. Trust me, I have a letter jacket that says I’m captain of the math team. And I was also on the A honor roll. One time I got a B honor roll certificate. I was so pissed off at myself. That’s how mad I was. I wasn’t proud at all, because I had a C minus in calc. . . advanced placement calculus. [Sighs] It put me to a B honor roll. So. . . hmmm, so high school was a lot of fun. And, you know, during my last two years in high school, my junior, senior year, I took some courses that were through Saint Cloud State University. It’s like PSEO, Post-Secondary Education Option. However, the only difference is that the professors come to Edison High School and teach the course to us students. So I really enjoyed the two years that I was in the program called Senior to Sophomore. And by the time that I graduated, I had nine. . . nine credits, nine semester credits from Saint Cloud State already to start my, you know, my path to college. So this is like the turning point for me when I started taking these classes through Saint Cloud State that partnered with Edison. We talked about globalization, human relations, about third world countries. And I had no clue what a third world country was, to be honest. We talked about the works of Craig Kielburger. He’s this Canadian boy that started the whole campaign of the Child Labor Act. That’s when everything kind of started to change like in terms of broadening my horizons of like what are. . . you know, where our society is, like where do we stand. All the politics is now like in my head. What the economy is about, what the government is about. So it wasn’t just like education anymore or sports. It was more about survival and identifying like who I am in this state or in this country, you know, the land of the free. Hmmm, like why are we here? How did we get here? Hmmm. So in my senior year, my teacher, Jackie Anderson, she’s one of my favorite high school teachers, who is very important in my life and also my family’s life. She had an assignment for her students. She asked us to write a letter to our parents on any topic. I decided to write a letter to my parents urging them to become U.S. citizens for the purpose of, you know, staying in the U.S. And also for the. . . the real purpose was to help myself, my sisters, achieve higher learning in pursuit of gaining more scholarships and financial aid. Because at the time we weren’t U.S. citizens, we were just immigrants, you know, with a permanent resident card, also known as the green card. Whatever that is, right? SV: Yes. 47

PS: But my success in the letter that I mailed to my parents was the beginning of a milestone in my. . . in my living. . . [Chuckles] In my years of living here. It was a turning point in the way of. . . I never thought it was going to be possible to see my parents, you know, swear in to become U.S. citizens. On September 29, 1999 with thousands and hundreds of other immigrants and refugees, it was a blessing. And I would never forget how much work that I had to put in along with my sister. We. . . not only did we go to school, but we had to tutor my mom and my dad, on the history of the United States. You know, who is the president, who is the vice president, who’s our senators, how many senators can each state have, how many representatives? What’s the capital of Minnesota? Everything. Just like our. . . you know, just like in school. We were taught that in, you know, grade school. The thing is that. . . the thing I find interesting is that a lot of the American born, you know, students could not answer some of these naturalized citizenship questionnaires. I remember I had a copy of the questionnaire, and I showed it to my high school teacher. I believe it was my history teacher. And, you know, I want to say [chuckles] half of the students couldn’t even pass it. There were over. . . like at least a hundred questions. And it was very, you know, disappointing. At the same time, it was. . . it’s sad, you know, because a lot of the students take the citizenship. . . or they just don’t realize how hard us immigrants have to go through to get. . . to become a U.S. citizen. And they didn’t even know what a U.S. citizen is or why are we doing this? SV: Okay. PS: It’s because we want to have the right to vote. SV: Right. PS: And other things as well. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. PS: That comes with being a citizen. And yes, it’s like nobody can pass this test. And I was just like appalled and kind of just, okay, humbled. SV: Yes. PS: But yes, I was so surprised when my parents passed it. [Chuckles] You know. After drilling them, you know, tutoring them, believing that they can do it. And it was an oral and a written test. And when I found out news that they. . . they passed.... [Recording interruption] SV: Hold on. [Pauses] Okay.


PS: So I stressed to my parents how important it was for them to get their citizenship. It was not only because we’d been here in the U.S. since 1984 but, you know, why not? It doesn’t hurt to do it now. Rather than wait until later. For certain benefits, and also just to have the right to do many things in the country; the right to vote. So that’s. . . on becoming American for me. SV: Yes. PS: And then the struggles and other achievements. And that’s. . . you know, I was very happy for my parents. SV: Right. PS: Becoming. . . mmmm. SV: Becoming naturalized and. . . yes. PS: Oh, yes. So they were naturalized that year, in 1999. And I graduated in 2000, June 2000 then from high school. So perfect timing. I just felt like. . . like that was a big accomplishment, you know, that year. And since my two. . . since my sister and I, Viengmany, she wasn’t. . . she was born in Thailand, so that. . . and we were under eighteen years old at the time, so that automatically put us as citizens. And we didn’t have to take the test. SV: Yes. PS: So that was a big plus for her and I. Marita didn’t have to do anything because she was already born here. SV: Right. PS: Yes. SV: But you took your citizenship further. You joined the Armed Forces. PS: Yes, I decided to join the Armed Forces when I was only seventeen. [Chuckles] Because I don’t know why. Well, actually I kind of do know, roughly, the main reason. I wanted to be different from everyone else from my group of friends, circle of friends. I just wanted to be. . . you know, be proud of myself and do something different and out of the ordinary that none of my friends or family have done, not that I know of. So I decided to join the Army National Guard. I enlisted on July 30, 1999, that summer. I did one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer of training, for a good, you know, let’s say. . . you know, 1999 to 2005, up to six years, I did that until I was activated to go to Iraq to support the Operation Iraqi Freedom. So I went to Iraq in September 2005 and didn’t get home until July of 2007. But mainly my. . . I had no idea that I was going to be overseas. But the main reason why I just wanted to join the National Guard was 49

to get, you know, my schooling paid for, because my parents’ income wouldn’t suffice to help me move forward with, you know, getting my degree in elementary education. So joining the Guard helped me academically as well as physically, emotionally, you know, building my self-esteem, having values, and more. . . more, you know, just like learning about the Army values, my morals of life. And things that I, you know, learned when I was in training opened my eyes to a lot of things about the U.S. and about being a Lao American soldier. And the day that I received my naturalization certificate, I was wearing, you know, my Class B uniform. So I was very, very proud to swear in as well, just like my parents did in 2002, when I received that certificate. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. How was your decision to join the National Guard. . . how did that affect your family? PS: I thought my dad wasn’t going to allow me to join. My mom was okay about it. Right, Mom? Yes. And then because I was seventeen, my dad and my mom had to sign the waiver. [Chuckles] SV: Mmmm. PS: So I was surprised when my dad did sign that paperwork that the recruiter handed him. Then, you know, I was like, oh, okay! Alright, hmmm, this is really happening! SV: Yes. PS: I guess he really. . . like hey, if it works for you, then alright. If it’s going to help you financially with college, then go for it. SV: Okay. PS: I didn’t have any pressure from my family, you know, saying like no, don’t join because of whatever reason. I just joined and. . . without having any kind of judgments about the military. SV: I see. PS: Like I. . . SV: They were very supportive? PS: Yes. Yes, they were very supportive. And I left for boot camp on June 8th. . . actually, June 16th, eight days after graduating from high school June 8, 2000. SV: Wow.


PS: And I got home from boot camp and advanced individual training on October 5, 2000, five days before my birthday, for my nineteenth birthday. SV: Do you know if there are many Lao Americans who have served in the Armed Forces? Do you know what the numbers are? PS: I honestly don’t, but I know that there are, you know, a few. But the few that I have met or came across, they. . . they’re not a woman, a Laotian woman like me. SV: Hmmm. PS: There are a few. . . there are a few Laotian men. And then I see a couple of Hmong soldiers, men and women, from both sides. But I haven’t met a Laotian woman, to be honest. [Chuckles] SV: So you’re special, you’re. . . you’re an anomaly! [Chuckles] You’re like. . . PS: Yes. So let me know if you know anyone. I would love to meet her. I mean. . . but yes, I just. . . I felt very happy when I got home from Iraq. I got to see my family for the first time on July 19, 2007, I had. . . [Chuckles] I would never forget that day when I came off that bus, you know, it was everybody with an American flag, cheering. And, you know, with the flowers, and balloons, and waving the red bandanna that my nephew had. And yes, just was. . . it was a very well homecoming for us. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. PS: Soldiers. . . I think there were twenty-five hundred of us that were gone. I was with that large group of. . . the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. Okay. Can you tell us about after you came back from Iraq? What did you do then? Like not just from visits, but when you came home, what was the next step for you? PS: Hmmm. My intent when I got home was to resume my education that I put on hold. I went to Saint Cloud State University right after I got back from boot camp. So I started my college history in winter of 2001, and in elementary education, so that was always my degree; I never changed it. So I was so anxious to finish my degree when I got back, because I felt like I was so far behind from my other friends and my colleagues. So I went straight back to school in August of 2007, back to Saint Cloud. I had my own apartment there. I took a full load of credits, just like the usuals. But I came upon a lot of struggles coming back from Iraq that I did not. . . or was not expecting or aware of until I stepped into the office of the Veteran’s Services Office in Saint Cloud to put in a claim for a left ankle injury. And the representative that asked me some questions asked me other questions. And I. . . which I’d never thought about, that led to more things then, just not about my ankle but about other mentally. . . mental, emotional kind of questions. You know, my experience in Iraq, or anything that related to my service over there. Like if, for example, have I seen, you know, 51

like dead people? Have I observed or seen a blast or was I near one? You know, do I have ringing in my ears? I had no idea such questions like that would be, you know, asked of me, especially, have you lost anyone, like a battle buddy or someone close to you that you worked with? And yes, I lost, you know, my close. . . my first sergeant. He was like a father to us. He was the guy that I take orders from to do my work as a human resource specialist for the National Guard. And he passed away on February 1, 2006 due to a non-combat-related injury, heart aneurysm, I believe. So that was very. . . a devastating time for me to recollect the memories and to proceed with what my intent was to do after coming home from Iraq. Because not only did I have to come home from Iraq, but I had to reintegrate and then readjust my living. . . my lifestyle back to civilian life before the twenty-two months I was gone. And my friends, you know, have moved on. The ones that I made in Saint Cloud there were either in their master’s programs. . . One of them I ran into and I thought he was like a student at Saint Cloud State, but he’s like, “No, I’m actually a professor!” I’m like, “Oh, my goodness! You’re kidding me. Wow! Ah, where have I been?” [Chuckles] Apparently, I wasn’t here, you know. SV: Yes. PS: So I was very. . . yes, I couldn’t. . . there were some things like, you know, you. . . that are. . . that was out of my control that I couldn’t help. So I had to focus on me and try to get better. But I didn’t do well at school at all when I came home. I had to drop some classes and then find a full time job to sustain like, you know, my own place to live. Eventually, I did find a job within the county, in Hennepin County, to help pay the bills and make ends meet. For about a good two and a half years I was working for Hennepin County. But that didn’t last so long. So right now I am just. . . I’m still struggling to, you know, to pursue my higher learning, to finish that degree, because I’m so close. I have a hundred and thirty-three college semester credits. So I’m not going to give up this far. And I am intending to, you know, focus on what I have to do to get my life back together with the service-connected disability that I have, that the VA says I have. So I’m not going to let that hinder my studies or hinder my goals to continue with what I have always wanted to be and become, you know, the next five, ten, fifteen years. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. Okay. So even though education is very important to you, I know that you also said that it’s also important to be civically engaged and to also be socially conscious. Do you remember the first time you joined any group that emphasized those two things? PS: Yes, I do remember it. When I went to Saint Cloud State University, and back in January 2001, not only was I a full time student, I did things outside of being just a bookworm. You can’t imagine how many lists of activities and organizations that I have been involved in, from being the senator-at-large for my campus, to playing the Japanese Taiko drum. I was part of Tae Kwon Do, which is a Korean martial art. I got my green belt during that time. I also became a supervisor for the night hall residency on campus.


And I have participated with NAPAWF, which is an organization for National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. And it’s the only known organization that promotes a mission to emphasize social justice issues among the API [Asian Pacific Islander] population in the nation, along with other chapters that are on a national level. So there is one chapter that I found myself joining, which was on campus, Saint Cloud Chapter. And that was an eye-opener for me, because not only did I learn about what NAPAWF is all about, but I also learned about what it is like to grow up as a Laotian American person in a white supremacist society where we are not the mainstream, we are known as the other. And all these other issues that NAPAWF on a national level is trying to deliver to, you know, the White House, to the Congress people, about what’s happening with immigrants, you know. Because I was once an immigrant and I would never forget my roots, you know. What my parents had to do to get to here to the United States to give myself and my sisters, you know, the freedom to be who we are and where we’re at right now. SV: Yes. PS: So it’s very sentimental for me to be a participant in a social group like this, because it enhanced my value of my culture. And I’m a. . . I was raised Buddhist, Theravada Buddhist. But, you know, although I was raised Buddhist, we were never. . . my siblings and I, we were never pressured into going to the Buddhist temples. Because my mom was very busy just trying to, you know, be a mother supporting us three children. You know, Monday through Friday, she would have to work forty hours, you know, just so we. . . just to get us by with, you know, shelter, food, water, transportation. So we were not forced to, you know, go learn about the Laotian, you know, history in terms of how to dance, you know, how to chant, or how to pray, or how to become a monk, the process of becoming a monk, or a Buddhist monk or a nun. . . a Buddhist nun, I should say. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. PS: Learning how to read or write. I am fluent in Laotian, but the sad part is that I don’t know how to read or write. But I would like to learn, because I feel like it’s important that, you know, as an individual with a background that’s so enriched, that we learn how to keep the roots alive, So that we can pass it down to our generation of our next children. SV: Right. PS: I do recall learning about. . . actually, I recall coming home like every so often per week that I would take some classes. I think it was when I was in Kenny [Elementary] School. I would take some classes of learning how to read and write in Lao. Because I remember having the book in front of me and, you know, doing the writing, and then showing it to my mom and my dad. And then they would also teach me how to write my name in Lao as well, my first full name, Phiengtavanh, and Savatdy. And the vowels, the alphabet, the Lao, it was. . . it’s so complex and. . . I mean, I’d rather just learn French. . . like, you know. SV: [Chuckles] 53

PS: Because I know French as well. SV: Yes. PS: You know, I took six years of French, but it’s such a different character, you know, the system is so different. The grammar, everything. But I. . . You know, being part of NAPAWF has taught me not to lose my identity of who I really am, because it’s. . . You know, I can’t be in denial of who I am because this is my skin, you know. I’m not going to cover it up because society says, oh, you know, you should be like this or like that. SV: Yes. PS: But I’m very proud of who I am and where I’m at right now, and with the support and love from my family. And one day I know I will be able to read and write in Laos. And not only do I participate with NAPAWF, with the NAPAWF itself, we also go to the community, like in Saint Paul, for example, and promote awareness of our organization at the Dragon Festival at Phalen Lake every summer. SV: Okay. PS: We also go to different retreats. Depending on the location, sometimes we’ll go to the East Coast, West Coast, or Midwest. I have been to different places because of NAPAWF. I have seen many states and participated with other Asian API women who are just like us, you know, struggling, trying to fit in with American society. Or trying to figure out who we are. Because not. . . I mean some of us are adopted, too, right. Some of us were natively born in Laos or Thailand. SV: Right. PS: Or some of us were raised here and were born here. So we just have to find a way to kind of balance everything out. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. Yes, that was one of the words that was. . . that I wanted to say is I think you’ve balanced the different cultures that you grew up with very well. KS: [Unclear – speaks in Lao]. SV: And that’s something that a lot of people who are. . . you know, the one point five generation or whatever generation’s struggle with. . . so, yes, I think you’re very resilient, and I think that you’re a strong person. In terms of like for the Lao community, how active are you within the Lao community? PS: Mmmm, you know. . . 54

SV: In Minnesota? PS: I’m not as active as I would like to be. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. PS: I haven’t really participated in the, you know, the Lao PTA group. But I guess I. . . you know, I don’t have a reason why I’m not. I guess I’m just trying to prioritize. But I do hope that one day I will be more involved. I think a lot of it has to be networking and getting to know other Lao people in the community, and to find that like safe space. Because I feel like I can’t do it by myself. SV: I see. PS: I have to, you know, seek others to support me, you know, left and right. SV: Right. PS: That believe in the same kind of, you know, theory, or have a same kind of passion. Like what we want to do with our community with our mothers, and fathers, and our grandparents, you know, our sisters and brothers. I’d like to be more involved. I have in the past, and still currently am during the summer, you know. I would go to the Lao. . . the Lao Temple in Farmington, Wat Lao, for the Boun Pravet [a Lao festival] in June. Every June they have this, you know, parade and I would go there and I would do the offering as well as participating in like the different festivities they have. I don’t know how to dance, so I would not dance. [Chuckles] I don’t know how to do that stuff. But I still, you know, [unclear] my blessings from the Buddhist monks. And also in April during Lao New Year, my parents and I, once in a while we’ll go to. . . if we can’t go to the temple in Farmington, we’ll go to the one closer to our neighborhood. So the drive isn’t so long. SV: Okay. PS: And just last year we went to the one here in Brooklyn Park. KS: Bousavanh. PS: At the Bousavanh. SV: I was there! KS: Mmmm. PS: You were? SV: I was videotaping. Mmmm-hmmm. For a documentary. 55

KS: See. PS: Oh, no way! SV: But that’s a different story. PS: Wow! SV: [Chuckles] PS: Awesome. SV: Okay. PS: I was there with my mom. And that was a significant day in my. . . during that time it was very significant, because the bracelet that I’m wearing right now. . . SV: Okay. PS: This pink. . . [Sniffles] A. . . a blessing bracelet that I have, a string. . . I got it from the Buddhist monk, yes, on April 23, 2011. It’s very important to me when I look at it, because that was the day that I promised myself that I would not hurt myself or have thoughts of harming myself. When in struggle and pain of my past and my experience in Iraq. SV: Right. PS: And I’m still trying to. . . I’m still healing as we speak. So. . . but I. . . every time I look at it, that’s what it reminds me of, is to stay strong for myself and my family. But more importantly, just for myself, because I can’t. . . you know, that’s who I have to just do it for, it’s for me. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. That’s. . . that’s one thing that I find very fascinating about you and your story is that. . . You know how our parents are still trying to heal from the events that happened, you know, they left a war-torn country. PS: Mmmm-hmmm. SV: So they’re still trying to heal and tell their stories. And I thank you a lot for being here and telling your story, because not only were you part of that war that was back in the 1970s, but you also had to live through and fight for, you know. . . yes, in Iraq. So. . . PS: Yes. SV: So what are some of your own personal goals, say in five years, ten years, fifteen years from 2012? [Chuckles] 56

PS: Okay. Yes. Well, you know, my personal goals. . . Five years from now, I would like to see myself, you know, with a bachelor’s or. . . [Chuckles] Well, personal, okay. Are we talking about career or personal? Can I just put it together? SV: You can. . . you can mix it up. PS: Oh, okay. SV: Yes. PS: Because career-wise I really just. . . and it’s a personal thing, too, so I really want to finish my school and get my bachelor’s degree. And a bachelor’s. . . a degree in elementary education. I already have a minor in human relations. And so that’s within five years from now, just to go back to school and finish strong where I left off, because I just don’t want to throw away what I have. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. PS: In ten years from now, I would hope to be finished with a master’s already. SV: Okay. PS: Because not. . . I have learned that, you know, high school is not enough, bachelor’s degree is not enough; you need to get a master’s at least. [Chuckles] So I’m thinking about maybe a master’s in public administration. SV: Right. PS: In that area or so or. . . Hmmm, let’s see, public administration or something that has to do with human resources management. Personal goals. . . oh, you know, in ten years as well, I’d like to have at least. . . I don’t know. I always wanted to have kids, like. . . twins. SV: Specifically twins? PS: Exactly. SV: [Chuckles] PS: A boy and a girl. And I’ve already picked out their names. SV: Wow. PS: But if it’s just like. . . if it’s just one child, you know, if I can’t have twins, the baby’s name would be Madison, that’s unisex name. 57

SV: Okay. PS: But if it’s a boy and a girl twin, I would be so happy and thrilled. Their names would be Kyle and Kylie. SV: Look at you, you have it all planned out, which is good. PS: Yes. SV: Yes. PS: So. . . hmmm, you know, so hopefully in ten. . . by ten years from now, I’ll be, what, forty? You know, start a family, at least pop out twins or a kid. KS: Get a good job. PS: Oh yes, I would have a job [unclear]. SV: A good job. PS: Yes. SV: [Chuckles] That’s important. KS: Yes. PS: Yes. Employment, stability, you know. . . KS: Have a big family, get a job. . . SV: Mmmm-hmmm. KS: Have money, have. . . PS: Good health. KS: Good health. SV: Yes. KS: Safe. PS: Yes, I said in fifteen years I hope to see myself. . . 58

KS: Mom getting old. . . SV: [Chuckles] PS: Hmmm. With a decent job making good money to support my family. KS: Yes. PS: And that’s to include my biological parents. SV: Yes. PS: And, you know, my siblings. SV: Okay. PS: But I have to start with me first, because I. . . you know, if I can’t start with me, I can’t help other people. SV: That’s right. PS: But, you know, that those are my personal and career goals. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. And what about the Lao community? How do you see the Lao community contributing to greater Minnesota? Like how do you see. . . in what ways can the Lao community be more engaged in five years, ten years, fifteen years? PS: I think we need to start with our children first. We need to educate our kids about our culture and our roots before we. . . Because without that, they’re not going to know where they came from, you know, their background. You know, what’s the country like? I’m hoping that in five years that the children of the parents, you know, would understand how important and critical it is to understand like why we are here, and why we have to help our parents, you know, in the next level. SV: Okay. PS: In terms of like taking care of them, getting the help that they need, assisting them with jobs. . . you know, decision making. Because it’s kind of like we are the parents now, if you think about it. And they are the children. We’re trying to help them with, you know, getting Social Security, applying for assistance. SV: Right. PS: Looking for jobs. If they’re unemployed, we need to. . . You know, we are the eyes and ears for them, and voice. But I feel like if we do have children, you know, for those that have 59

children, we need to. . . we can get our kids involved in learning about the history. Just go to the Lao PTA Center maybe once a week or so, or read up on some articles. . . KS: [Unclear]. PS: You know, learning how to read and write. KS: Culture Lao. Must teach them how to speak and what to say. PS: The history of the Lao culture. KS: Must have them know the Lao language, like Toun, she knows it. PS: Mmmm. KS: We must teach the children so that they know. SV: Mmmm-hmmm. KS: But some kids, some families don’t know Lao language. Some parents don’t care to teach their children the Lao language. Some families, some [unclear]. Whatever. Understand? They like to shrug their shoulders at you. We [elders] are Lao, we like to communicate in Lao. SV: Mmmm. KS: Yes. SV: Okay. Any.... [Recording interruption] SV: Thank you for your time. Your story is very important, very unique, and it should be heard. Do you have any last words for the people? PS: Yes, for those that are listening, just remember your identity as a Lao American. Love your family and your friends. Never give up and never settle for less, and truly embrace your culture and identity. It’s very important that we understand where we came from and who we are and how we got here today.