"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 blink.net.
"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!