"You speak english very well for an illegal alien." That is not exactly what people said when I first emigrated to the United States but, thats what I heard. First of all I wasn't an illegal alien. I had emigrated to the US through the generosity of catholic priests who knew my father and offered to sponsor me. That's how I ended up with an open ended visa, a green card and eventually US citizenship.

It was surprising to me that in an internationally sensitive city like Washington, D.C. circa 1975-76 people were still amazed that a young laotian boy could speak english without an accent. Then again, they didn't know my assimilation to the American way of life and my ability to speak english started at the American School of Vientiane, Laos.
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IMAGE CREDITS: The image treatment is based on a photo illustration from

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"I used you kill fuckers like you in Vietnam,"muttered my neighbor at the urinal. I'm not sure the affect he expected his words to have on me — since it was not possible for me to stop mid-stream and engage in fisticuffs. I had already started to tune out his diatribe. I don't think he realized that during the Vietnam War I was in elementary school. I don't think he knew that my father was a hardline anti-communist and essentially military commander of the CIA controlled Laotian Hmong army. This part is debatable since many thought General Vang Pao was the defacto leader. Our family had supported American forces, not opposed them. While washing my hands in the sink, I looked over at him and said, "I'm sorry you still bear scars from the conflict." I have no idea if what I said was true. I'm not even sure why I said it. I don't know if it was my perfect english or what I said but he shut up — never breaking eye contact with me all the while. I exited the restroom and joined my fraternity brothers who were already digging into their dinner. (during my college years, 1985, Regency Mall, Richmond, VA)

The American School in Vientiane (ASV), Laos was an oasis of calm far away from the Vietnam war. The school had a eclectic mix of military brats, expats and the children of distinguished locals. Except for the fact that ASV encompassed kindergarten and grades one through twelve, it could have been mistaken for any typical American school.

We had athletic fields and corresponding athletic teams (except for football), cheerleaders, swimming pools, extra-curricular activities, the requisite clubs, dances and senior trips. In other words, your typical American school. If you took a page out of the Cobra's Tale yearbook (our mascot was a cobra) and compared it to any Southern California high school yearbook from the 1970s you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two. I experienced none of the aforementioned because during this time I was in grade school. Though all the grades existed on a single campus, it was rare that the kids in high school ever set foot into the elementary courtyards and vice-versa.

I ended up at ASV because my Dad had tricked me into doing so. As my Dad tells the story, he had gotten a very tersely worded warning from the French Academy I was attending. The gist of the note said if I could not stay awake in class during the afternoons I would flunk out and readmission would be out of the question. It didn't help that they considered me a blithering idiot because I could never pay attention.

My Dad, concerned that his son would end up banned from formal education, asked me what the problem was. Specifically he said, "What's your problem?" I replied, "Dad its too hot." if you've ever lived or visited Laos you know it get to upwards of 35 degrees celsius (95 Fahrenheit) with 75% humidity during the school year. Its a tropical heat so you're always sweating. The French schools were unbearable and they had no air-conditioning. I was used to putting my head down on my desk and passing out. Thats how the teachers described it. I called it taking a nap.

Truth be told, when I was young, I hated school. Years later when I was tested in the US they surmised it was because I was bored — due to the fact that I was a hyperactive child who read three grade levels higher than his peers. I was considered hyperactive because the term Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) had yet to be coined or recognized as a condition. It didn't help that I was first introduced to processed sugar and foods at ASV. But, I digress.

My father gathered his wits and smiled broadly, "Are you telling me that if I put you in a school that has air-conditioning you'll not only stay awake but, you'll also succeed and excel in your studies?" I looked him straight in the eyes and said, "Yes." My father had called my bluff, just one week later I was waiting on the front curb in front of our house waiting to be picked up for my first day at the American School in Vientiane.

Once at ASV I absorbed the language easily. I already spoke english but, it was formal and stilted. I didn't have the right cadence, emphasized the wrong syllables and often used the wrong words or the right words in the wrong context. English sentence structure is different from french and especially Lao. I also had no grasp of idioms, slang or American pop-culture. All that was about to change.

Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]

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My intro to processed foods, experiences at ASV and negotiating the school bus system: fodder for future posts!


While watching 'The Betrayal', the award winning documentary film by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath, I stumbled on the most concise explanation for the Vietnam War I had ever seen or read. It also showed me ghost-like images of my father I never knew existed. Ghost-like because he had passed just days prior on the other side of the Atlantic. I never made it to his funeral.*
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 Gary Jules' rendition of 'Mad World', the single by 'Tears for Fears' has been used in an audio swap of the original soundtrack by Howard Shore. My apologies to the filmmakers and Mr. shore for bastardizing their work of art.
The clip in its original form can be seen here.

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In the process of piecing together my father's past, I realized how little I knew about the Vietnam War. Why it was fought. Why the United States was involved and just exactly how was my father caught up in all this?** Over the years, there were many stories told to me by family members both immediate and distant. Much of it was spoken to me in hushed tones. Was it a secret? There were rumors of his participation in aiding the CIA. Specifically aiding the CIA in the illegal, secret U.S. air-war in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam conflict. I kept thinking, how could this be true? My dad was a diplomat, a politician, what good was he as an asset?

My research into answering all these questions for myself includes reading Robert McNamara's 'InRetrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam', researching Air America***, watching countless documentaries, talking (or hoping to talk) to their author/directors and trying to make sense of it all. During the screening of The Betrayal, the 2008 award winning documentary, I was struck by how similar the real life protagonist's story mirrored my own — at least the part where he talks about his father during the first 10 minutes of the film. Imagine my surprise when the "b-roll" archival footage of the royal procession and Savang Vatthana, the last king of Laos, showed the familiar face of my father in the background. He can be seen at the 00:58 to 01:10 section of the footage. Imagine that someone you loved dearly passed and later that week you found that person present in the photographs of a stranger. Imagine that and you'll know how I felt at that moment. I had never seen this footage before and the fact that he had just passed from pancreatic cancer the week prior made it eerie.

 I rabidly did a screen grab of the images in question and e-mailed them to my siblings living in France. I even posted the two minute clip on YouTube. I asked my sisters, my brothers and my half brothers,**** "Did you know this footage existed? Where did it come from? How come none of us knew it ever existed?" No one had any answers. We marveled at how young and driven he looked. He was so healthy and virile in the flickering images.

Unbeknownst to me, none of my siblings ever showed the footage to my mother. I believed they assumed that one of the other sisters or brothers would have shown my mother the footage, but no one confirmed this. She was here in the U.S. these past few weeks to attend to her brothers funeral.***** It was at this time that I showed her the clip for the first time.

When she watched the clip for the first time she was speechless. If you know my mother such a reaction is a near impossibility. She asked me rewind and play back the footage in slow motion, the fifth time she spoke. She was almost indignant, "This is not funny. Where did you get this footage!" she demanded. My mother believed I had compiled the footage and used my CGI contacts to pull a prank on her. I had to reassure her the footage was genuine, after which her tone became softer. Eventually, she asked me to purchase her a copy of the documentary DVD.

Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]

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  1. More on why I never made it to my fathers funeral in future posts.
  2. Part of my fathers involvement is chronicled in The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia a major, nonfiction book on heroin trafficking published in 1972, by Alfred W. McCoy. Although well researched, the portion of the book that deals with my father's troubles only scratch the surface of the situation in Laos at that time. It would be unfair to judge my father on just this one account.
  3. Whenever I bring up this subject outside of my family, especially with people I have dated, I am often greeted with smiles as the person listening to my story always assumes I'm telling a big fat lie.
  4. My father was equal parts sinner and saint and in our family there are nine children, that I know of. Of the four girls and five boys, two are half brothers and one is a half sister. More on our motley crew in future posts.
  5.  The Laotian people do not, in fact, try and die in clusters to make it easier on travelling relatives. 2009-2010 has just been a bad year in our family.


My father often indulged me, to the chagrin of my mother. This included seeing movies years before I was able to appreciate the story or the subtext. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, along with Cool Hand Luke, are the movies that stick with me to this day. If you've seen either of those films you already know why they would resonate with a boy who misses his father.

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After we escaped from Laos* the days blended together like summer vacation when, as kids, you were allowed to roam the neighborhood on your bike — as long as you were in earshot of the call for lunch/dinner. This was not my existence. Mine was spent on a balcony of a Bangkok apartment calling out to people as they walked by. My only distractions were my younger brother Guillaume,** poorly crafted LEGO™ knockoffs and a Spiderman™ action-figure. It was on one of these sweltering summer*** days that my dad indulged me, in more ways than I knew at the time, in an escape from the heat and our current state of mind. 

[ See links at the end of this post for a tribute video]

It was after the fall of Saigon and the Vietnam War was coming to an abrupt close. We were in limbo. A family without a country and no immediate plans for immigration. Even at nine years old I could tell from the hushed conversations between my parents that all was not right with the world. We had traded a life of privilege for one of survival. We essentially depended on the kindness of strangers. My father would work the streets of Bangkok looking up contacts and calling in favors, in an effort to acquire the paperwork and sponsorship required to relocate us to France. Towards the end of this process, there was a day when he came home in great spirits. He told me during dinner that he had a great surprise for me. My father was so excited he couldn't contain himself. It had been months since I'd seen him this happy. During his street travels he had come across a theater showing an animated feature of my favorite super-hero: Spiderman. This was a treat just for the two of us. My mother was staying behind to care for my brother who was too young to tag along. 

The next day we walked the city of Bangkok as my father tended to his affairs. I can only imagine the difficulty of accomplishing this task with a nine year old, ADD-afflicted boy in tow. As the day drew to a close, we were hot, sweaty, and covered with the dust of the streets. It was then that my father unveiled his surprise. Imagine his disappointment when I bluntly informed him that the movie he thought showcased my favorite superhero instead starred the Thai equivalent of Mighty-Mouse. When my dad asked if I was still interested in seeing the  movie, the ungrateful imp in me yelled, "No!" I'm sure that was followed with the characteristic whining of a tired, hungry child.

My father made an immediate executive decision and that is how we ended up in the only other movie showing at the theater. The movie 'Thunderbolt & Lightfoot' starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges was not exactly children's fare. Regardless, it got us off the street, into the air-conditioned darkness of the movies and filled my wailing mouth with a cold Coca-Cola. If you've never seen the movie the plot goes as follows:

"Seven years after a daring bank robbery involving an anti-tank gun used to blow open a vault, the robbery team temporarily puts aside their mutual suspicions to repeat the crime (after they are unable to find the loot from the original heist). The hardened artilleryman (Eastwood) and his flippant, irresponsible young sidekick (Bridges) are the two wild cards in a deck of jokers." ~ • It is also a movie about, "The nature of freedom and loneliness. Youth vs age. The American dream - inverted (criminal as hero). It's the kind of movie that sticks with you. It is an unappreciated masterpiece." ~ orpheus44

This oscar-nominated movie subconsciously affected me in ways not obvious to me until I watched the film again years later. There is a running theme of honor (among thieves), genuine friendship and the support of family — no matter how unorthodox the family. I now realize that these are the same principles I applied to my current life-long friends and family members. These are people who will bail you out of jail, drive cross-country to come to your aid and loan you money without the expectation of being paid back. They are few and far in between. I am blessed to have more than my fair share.

To this day, though I own the movie on DVD, if 'Thunderbolt & Lightfoot' is playing on television I must stop to watch — even if only for a few minutes. That is all it takes to transport me back to that hot, sweaty, afternoon with my first friend and father.

Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]

* I'll go into more detail on the 'Escape from Laos' in future posts.
** Not his real Laotian, given name.
***Actually it was late spring, since summer in Thailand & Laos is monsoon season. 

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I MISS YOU DAD (redux)

Originally written on the day after Father's Day 2009 — Republished 2010. I hope this missive is the prodding others need to realize that it's not too late to make amends. You can't choose your family but, you can choose to make the most of the time you have with them

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Forgiveness. Yesterday was the first time I didn’t feel guilty about forgetting to put a Father’s day card into the mail. For the first time in my life I didn’t need to make that call, to hear your voice, talk to you ever so briefly, before you would hand the phone to Mom — but, I wanted to.
Thats why I'm compelled to write you this letter. I don't know how the universe works but, I have faith that you'll see it.

I had breakfast with friends in Ashburn yesterday, Dad. Then I drove over to Jack's and spent the afternoon playing with my niece and catching up with Diane and her family. We had a perfect summer meal of Maryland blue crabs, steamed corn, fritters, potato salad and hard cider. Later we gathered around the fire-pit and relaxed over glasses of Prosecco. Everything was great until Jack pointed out the big dipper in the clear Bethesda sky and I began to wonder. I wondered where are you now, what were you doing and if the after-life made up for all the regrets you endured while you were here on earth. Are you with my brother and your son, Monirak? I hope so. I hope you're in a place where people are honest and true to their word. I hope you're in a place where everyone is decent and looks out for their fellow man. A place without politics, religion, pride or prejudice. Maybe in the after-life we'll pass through a cosmic customs station, turn in our religious denomination passports and on the other side realize we've all arrived in the same place — regardless of faith.

Until I see you next, I'm grateful that we got to spend time together, to talk and reminisce. Though you were deaf in one ear, I'm sure you heard everything I had to say. But, just in case you didn't Dad, I'll say the most important parts one more time:
Contrary to your own beliefs, you never disappointed me. You always thought you let me down and always wanted to find a way to make ammends. The forgiveness you sought was never given because there was never anything to forgive.

I loved that you disciplined and taught me by example, even if it took me longer than most to learn certain lessons.

I was never angry and I never had any regrets that you had sent me overseas to study at such a young age. The experience has informed me and made me everything I am today; independent, resourceful, tolerant and outspoken.

One of my happiest memories of you was when I lost your grandfather's Omega Constellation wristwatch. The watch you gave me after I graduated from VCU — the one in my possession for less than an hour. It had such sentimental value and meant so much to you. When I eventually told you, I remember you said, "Don't worry. It's just a watch."

It never bothered me that people either loved you with a passion or hated you vehemently. I know now thats how things are in politics. I know you can't please all the people all the time and you did what you thought best for your people. You never brought any of those problems home, to me you were just my Dad.

It moved me to tears that, even in your fragile state, you thought more about me than you did yourself. I still have the bracelet you gave me and I wear it often, my own buddhist talisman of happiness, health and prosperity.

I know you're gone but, here in my heart nothing has changed. I'm still holding on to you. I love you and I miss you.


Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]