No sitting U.S. president has visited the communist nation of Laos until this week. Minnesotans with roots in that Southeast Asian nation have been watching President Obama’s every move there.
At the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, just west of downtown Minneapolis, Sunny Chanthanouvong couldn’t stop smiling. “We’re talking about Obama all the time,” he said.
As executive director, the 50-year-old Chanthanouvong runs a nonprofit that has served refugees from Laos for more than three decades. Pointing to images of Obama on his Facebook and Instagram feeds, he laughed and asked: “Are you talking about this guy? We’re watching him every day!”
President Obama has been photographed dancing to traditional Lao music, drinking from a fresh coconut and walking barefoot on the grounds of Buddhist temples. And his speeches have been circulating in Lao-American communities across the United States, including in the Twin Cities.
The president teared up during a presentation about unexploded ordnance dropped by U.S. B-52 bombers in the Vietnam War. During that time, an estimated 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos, more than on any other country, per capita, in human history. Leftover cluster bombs, said Chanthanouvong, continue to harm and in some cases kill Lao farmers and their children.
While in Laos, Obama announced he would pledge $90 million over the next three years to help the Lao government clear the land. It was welcome news for Linda Homsombath, who was born in Minneapolis but grew up speaking both Lao and English.
When people ask about her ethnicity, she often has to give people a geography lesson first, explaining that Laos is next to Thailand or below China, bordering Myanmar and Vietnam.
“The Vietnam War, everyone thinks of what happened in Vietnam,” she said. “But nobody thinks about what happened in Laos.”
Homsombath, 30, helps Lao-Americans find jobs and housing in Minnesota. She said her heart is both American and Lao. “I’m proud to be both,” she said.
She hopes Obama’s visit will educate more Americans about relations between the two countries and their shared history. It’s a history that Mysee Chang of Mounds View is still learning. She is 25 years old and ethnically Hmong.
“For President Obama to go to Laos and to talk about what the history was … it just means a lot to me as a Hmong-American,” she said. “It really validates my family’s history.”
Her father was among the tens of thousands of foot soldiers in the CIA’s lesser-known operations in Laos. Chang wanted to see her parents’ birthplace herself, so she spent a year in Laos as a Fulbright fellow, teaching English.
“That taught me a really powerful lesson, about just how different generations have different stories,” she said. “And now I have my own stories to tell about Laos.”