My name is Nancy Monteiro. I was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. I came to D.C. in 2000 for college, started my career, and am now a resident here.
My mom and dad are from Laos. They came to the U.S. in 1980 after during the Vietnam War, after spending time in refugee camps in Thailand. My parents were sponsored by a church in Kansas City, Missouri. My mom was pregnant with me when she came to America, so she was maybe around 19 years old then. My middle name is Jo, after the lady who sponsored my parents.
I am first generation born in the U.S., and my parents never talked about their move to the U.S. I only heard bits and pieces through family members and friends. Maybe they wanted to leave the past in the past and didn’t want us to know the struggles they went through and to let us to start anew.
Now that I’m in my 30s, and after my dad passed away, stories started coming out, like how he had to swim the Mekong River for hours to escape. There was a family friend who wrote a story about my dad for a college application essay, and at the funeral, many people told me how much they respected my dad for helping their family in many ways from escaping the refugee camp, etc.
All I know is that he was well-respected in the community; not just within our Asian community, but also in the American community. Back in Laos, my dad had been very influential and well-respected, and because he was part of a specific hierarchical class and more privileged. He went to college in Laos for electrical engineer and was accepted for his master’s degree in France but the communists stopped him from attending the college. However, when he came to America, he had to start all over. He literally worked his way up from the bottom of the ladder, and when people finally began recognizing his talent and expertise, he was offered acceptance into many engineering job opportunities. He was also offered work in the school district in Missouri, which he spent over 20 years working for them.
We are having a Buddhist 3-year Boun Kong Borb (sin of good karma)/ Death Anniversary ceremony in 2018. It’s going to be a big event because there were over 200 people who came to the funeral, many of whom I had never met before. That made me realize that I want to know more stories about my dad, like how he came here to America and how he impacted the lives of so many people. People would send me cards saying how they remembered how he helped them, how generous my dad was, how he saved people in the refugee camps, how he built the Laos temple in Kansas City, how he made Buddhist statues - just how he was such a good person and all the things he did for the community. So I am hoping to learn more about my dad during this next ceremony.
I grew up in the Midwest, and it was really tough because there were really two groups: Blacks and Whites. We therefore were the minority of the minorities. My town had a population of 1,000, and everyone knew each other. It was all farmland, but a lot of the Asian people there worked in factories because there were not many jobs. People did everything they could in order to support their families. Also, since most people in the Asian community did not really speak English well, I had to take ESL to learn English.
Growing up, I was called a Chink, Bruce Lee’s daughter, and other slurs for Chinese people. And then I would be like, I’m not Chinese though! As I am darker-skinned, I don’t even look Chinese. My family and I stood out, and we could feel people always judging us and staring at us, and because of our race, there weren't many opportunities for us. This experience eventually pushed me to go to the East Coast for college, as I knew there was more diversity and people were more open-minded there. Even now though, it’s still hard to go back home because people still stare - “look at the Chinese person.”
Also, when I was younger, my family never went out to eat at restaurants; we always ate at home, mostly to save money. My dad would say, “Why do you want to eat that? I can make it at home for you!” My dad would then make pizza, but it would not look like pizza at all. “You don’t need that other thing,” he would say, “This is better!” He was hilarious.
My dad had a huge impact on my life. He raised strong daughters and taught us that we could do anything. He did all the “women’s jobs” - he cooked and cleaned and braided my hair when I was a little girl. If I wanted an outfit, he would take out the sewing machine and make the outfit for me. My dad taught me that there are no gender roles; we should do things because we need to get them done.
In terms of language, my parents spoke Laos, and I spoke it while growing up. Nowadays, people think my accent is Americanized. It’s hard because my own people still judge me for my accent and how Americanized I am. You don’t expect to have to deal with prejudices within your own community. I tend to shy away from speaking my own language because of being judged by my own people.
There’s also inequality in regard to the way you look. People say I’m poor because my skin is dark. My mom would tell me that I need to care about appearances, but I told her I don’t care what I look like, that this is me. My dad raised us to not care about these things. I feel like my mom wanted to “save face” because she didn’t want to get judged by her own people, and she was more caught up with our culture’s ideals. Being a woman, she worried about me because I’m a tomboy, and if I have so many male friends, that our community would judge me. My dad was the exact opposite - he said, “you be you.” She would tell me that I have to value my heritage, my culture, and need to do certain things in a certain way because I am a woman.
I also noticed that in my generation, there are more interracial marriages and therefore more mixed kids, like my own children. It used to be looked down upon in the past, but nowadays, there is more acceptance. In terms of the disparity between Southeast Asians and East Asians, we are looked down as Laotians because we and other Southeast Asian communities are seen as different and more poor.
There are always two things I will always ask my family to make. One is called Khao Piak Sen, which is similar to the Vietnamese Banh Canh noodle soup. The second is Keng No Mai, a bamboo soup that is very popular in Laotian cuisine.
That’s how I am trying to preserve some of my culture, by learning how to make the food. My mom is always telling me how easy it is, and then she would take a whole day to cook the dish! But as I have gotten older, I crave Laotian food more. Each dish is prepared with so much care and there is a specific process for each dish.
For my mom, she carries sticky rice with her everywhere she goes - she cannot go a day without rice!
I have never been. All of my family is here in America now. If I were to go back, I would take my mom. We talked about possibly going when the kids are a little older since it will be easier for them to travel then. It’ll be a good chance to let the kids see Laos and understand the conditions my family had to endure, especially my mom, who came from a less privileged village compared to my dad, who was more well-off since his family was in the military. I often joke to my mom that she and my dad are a real life Cinderella story, which my mom laughs off.
There was nothing growing up. We learned about Columbus and other historical figures, but there was never anything about Asians.
What exposed me to (the lack of) Asian representation in general was the media, particularly TV. I see two stereotypes: either the typical nerdy type or exotic-looking female sex symbols who aren’t smart. These flawed representations cause others to see Asians in very limited ways, and help perpetuate (the often sexist) stereotypes.
You can find resources for networking and community support at Laos temples. There are two I can think of in the area such as the Wat Lao Virginia in Lorton and another one near Manassas, VA called Wat Lao Buddhavoing.
I want to raise my kids the way my dad raised me and my siblings; I want my daughter to be strong. I want her to make all women proud, not just Asian or Asian American women. I want her to believe in herself and to be able to be whatever she wants. I want both my kids to strive to be the best.
Both my kids are first generation American on their Portuguese side of the family, and so my husband and his family also have their own stories and struggles about immigrating to America. I want my daughter and son to know both sides of history, and to embrace all identities, both Laos and Portuguese.
My name is Gabby. I am 9 years old, and I am from Germantown, Maryland.
English. My grandma learns English from my little brother and me.
My favorite is fish and sticky rice!