I feel like “blessed” is more accurate than “lucky” for this topic, but it didn’t sound right for the title. I was thinking about how lucky I am to have been able to get to know different types of people, specifically on my mission. I served as a missionary with Laotian refugees in Fresno and Modesto.
I have mentioned working with the Lao before, especially when talking about racial prejudice, because they said that they did not think of us as white, which was sweet, but also a sign that they some preconceived notions about Caucasians that were probably not ideal. That comes from not that many white people getting to know and be known by them. As I hear more stereotyping going on, I think more about the effect on me.
There were many things that could get you into trouble with the Communist government, where you might find yourself as a refugee, and where your only other option was death. If you helped the Americans, of course that was dangerous. Obviously, if you were loyal to the king or the old regime, or related to the king, that was dangerous. Between those, a lot of soldiers were affected. Also if you were educated, that could be a problem. Being Catholic was bad, but also if you worked for the Catholics, that was enough, and getting an education often meant associating with the Catholics, so it all went together. Being rich was not helpful either. I think that covers most of the people I knew.
A lot of them spent time in reeducation camps before escaping. Those were bad. If you were caught trying to escape, you were beheaded right there as a deterrent, but people did still try, and some made it. If you were lucky, you ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, waiting for some country to take you in.
While I was doing this (1993-1994), I think there was one camp left and it was scheduled to close soon. This is years after the war, and I knew one family who was able to safely go back to Laos and visit relatives, so that should give you some idea of how complicated getting everyone settled was.
It was important to get people out quickly, and you could not always spend a lot of time on teaching them English and getting them settled well. I knew one man who had been a doctor there, but was working security at a meat packing plant here.
Many of them also had health problems after their ordeal. I remember one woman who could not sit up for more than twenty minutes without having horrible headaches due to a back injury. Actually, I am pretty sure that there was always some pain there, but it got a lot worse when she tried staying up. There was another woman (whom I did not meet, but people I worked with did) who had a bullet in her brain and it caused her some perceptual problems that resulted in some real hygiene issues but she was generally very cheerful about them.
There were also emotional issues that they carried with them. Some had post-traumatic stress disorder, some had depression, and there was a weight they carried with them. One woman had to walk with her four young children through the jungle on their way to find the husband and father, and there were mines. Even though they made it safely out, even then, years later, she would still have nightmares about her oldest son stepping on a mine.
I mention this because a lot of them were on welfare or disability of some kind, and it was common for people to just think of them as leeches and as a drain on society.
That was hardly a fair view. First of all, many of them did get schooling, or work through different programs. There was one couple that, if I understood correctly, were making jumpsuits for the prison system in their apartment. There were two sergers and lots and lots of bright orange fabric. There were people who could not get regular work, so they did day labor at farms, or they did their own farming or gardening and fishing to try and supplement what they had.
I’m not saying no one ever made any bad decisions. It was not hard to find groups of men smoking, drinking beer, and playing cards at various times of day. However, Griffin says some interesting things in Black Like Me about how people in despair, with no hope of improvement, will give up and seek pleasure where they can, and yes, that seems to be largely true.
I have been thinking about it largely because of these postings on Facebook like “If you can afford beer and cigarettes, you don’t need food stamps”, and things like that. It goes in with the assumption that these people are just wasting it. I bet if we looked around we would find a lot of people who are not drinking and smoking, and are using food stamps. I know that some people also don’t get very much. Maria had a friend who got $10 a month, which I think basically meant that she could eat ramen every day.
“Oh God, to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.” (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens)
I have had a lot of good associations, besides that, but often they were limited, or where we might have some differences, we had other strong similarities. Here, I was participating in another kind of life. I never even left the country, but there were times where it was like I had. I am a better person for it.
It is really easy to judge others. It’s easy because you can do it in ignorance, and it keeps looking stupider all the time.