Interview by Robert O'Malley
Boun Sandraow has just finished work at Boston Asian Youth Essential Services (Y.E.S.) in Chinatown. He feels uneasy talking about the past, but he agrees to tell his story anyway. He's still struggling to find his way in America, struggling to reach his goals.
As a youth counselor in Chinatown, Sandraow tries to help young people avoid some of the pitfalls he experienced when he first came to the US as a refugee from the hill country of Laos. Like him, they are growing up with two cultures competing for their attention.
One night I was sleeping and heard guns going off in the village, he says. The communists came in and two or three months later they moved us to the lowland. They didn't want us to live in the highland because they thought we were supporting the rebel army.
Anyway my village was against the communists and my father was serving in the rebel army against the communists. My brother and so many other people were doing the same thing. They couldn't come home because the communists had targeted to kill them in our small village. And the communists would say: "Oh you people lie. Look at your son and your daughter, your brother and your sister; they're still in the jungle. Now I tell you to bring them back."
And whenever those rebels got hungry they would come home to get food. And if the communists saw them they could get shot. There was one man who was forced to dig a hole for himself in the cemetery; they put him inside the hole. I remember it like a dream. They forced us to stand around the hole. They said, "If you don't tell the truth this thing will happen to you one by one." And they shot him right there, right in his head. I was around 5.
After that they moved us to the lowland and my father and brother were forced into a re-education camp. Then I went to a new village and a lot of people died there because it was a new land and not our ancestors' land; we believe in ancestors. Ancestors are not really ghosts even though we call them that. When our ancestor dies, we put a buffalo head in a small hut. No one can touch it. We kill a buffalo and eat all the meat. Then we clean everything up and put the head in the hut. The hut is called the spiritual house of the ancestors. Only my father could touch that whenever we did the sacrifice. But when the communists came in they ripped everything up, kicked it and burned it.
Most of the people who went to the new land died and wanted to leave their home. That's why I and my two friends left when I was 9. I was thinking about going to Thailand so I could get some money and buy clothes. After that I would go back home to see my family again. In the place where I was born we don't have clothes. It's a very primitive place.
I didn't even know which way was Thailand; we just took off. We walked one month in the jungle before we reached the Mekong River. My two friends and I swam across the river but my two friends drowned.
In Thailand I was forced to serve in the army for almost three years. I was going back and forth across the border trying to fight those communists. My life was not that peaceful. The Thais forced us to serve in the rebel army because they didn't want to waste their own people. Instead they wanted us to stay on the border and fight with them.
The rebel army had a base in Thailand and we were there to control the border. It was more like spying. If you died, who cared? Who gave a damn? That's basically how I thought at the time. A lot of my friends passed away during the civil war. Sometimes they'd go back and forth and sometimes they'd get shot crossing the river and sometimes they'd step on mines. The communists knew when you came in and out. Eventually I escaped from the army and went to the refugee camp. Then I got accepted by the United Nations program and came to America.
I came into San Francisco airport in 1990, early in the morning. I was so scared because I'd never been in an airplane before. I was just so anxious. Oh what's it gonna be like? What's it gonna be like? And when I was there my heart was jumping. I got off the airplane. I looked beyond the national airport and there was a highway, a big big highway. I saw many many cars. I said, "Wow, what is this?" I was surprised. I'd never seen that before. I thought it was paradise.
I went and lived with my friend who had come here earlier. He was older than me and had his family here. The church sponsored me but they let me live with him. When I first arrived I believed that America was a place where people could have a better life and a better future, a place where I could reach my goal and realize my dreams. I had that in my head.
But the big problem was I had no idea how to start toward my goal. I didn't know where to go. I stayed with friends and started hanging around with all my bad friends. For that short period of time I collected welfare and lived with this family.
The parents of the people I knew had come here earlier and the kids kind of got involved in gangs and ended up on the street a lot. And I hung around with them. I felt it was really cool to hang with those powerful guys. It made me feel I was a big man. I didn't want to get shot by other gang members, but I just enjoyed the thrill, the edge between life and death. I liked the idea.
My friends smoked marijuana. Here you just smoke it. I would pretend I was smoking it but even when you pretend you still have to smoke a little bit. I know that if I smoked it too much I would get so drunk and the next time I'd want to do it again. I was just trying to be in the group so I could be powerful like them.
My friends formed a group called the KB or Kamu Boys. But we didn't start this group because we wanted to fight with other groups. It just meant we had our group with so many people around us and you feel so cool. Our group was made up of Laotians and Kammu kids.
The other group was also Laotians and Cambodians. But we weren't at war with particular groups. Sometimes you'd meet with blacks; sometimes you'd meet Hispanics; sometimes you'd meet with whoever was trying to mess with you and you would just start to fight. Everybody felt comfortable being in the group and having these friends.
Like I said I wasn't involved in any fighting and wasn't trying to do this myself; I just liked being there; I liked the thrill of being on the edge of life and death, but I didn't want to get shot.
So one night there was a fight. My friend smacked one of those Cambodian kids with a baseball bat and they arrested him; they put him in court for smacking him. And when I went back home after this happened my friend didn't welcome me; he kicked me out; he was actually a friend and was saying: " I wanted you to come to this country to go to school or go to work, to earn some money and go back home to see your family; I didn't want you to come here and do all these things."
And after he kicked me out I was sitting outside the house and wondering where to go. I was still thinking about the day I had come to this country; it seemed like paradise and I really liked it so much, but all these things got mixed up and I met with these bad people here and they just forced me to become more like them. If I could have just had two or three good friends who said, "Okay, you go to school; you do this, this and this. Instead of going the way I went I could have gone another way.
Because my intention in coming here had always been to have a better life and a better future. But when I came here there was no one to guide me. Instead I met all of these people. Seventeen years old - what are you going to do? Get a beer! Go have fun. But inside my head I knew everything; I was 17 but my mentality was older than that. I had a way of thinking about the future but I just couldn't make it happen. I didn't know which way to start and which way to go.
And these kids would call me and say, "Let's go out somewhere," so I would just take off with them. And I think that if I had lived there a little bit longer I would have ended up like them. Most of them are in jail or on probation or have no jobs now.
Coming to Boston
After I got thrown out of the house I knew this friend over here. I had never seen him before but he was a very old friend who knew my family. My friend who threw me out told me about him and bought me a ticket. He said, "You got to go to Boston and live with this person. If you're going to do it again I don't know what he's going to do to you."
So I came here in the autumn of 1990 and he just put me in school, in Brighton High. I started at the 10th grade, started back to my ABC's and counting one, two, three. There weren't a lot of teenagers over here so I just kind of hung around with this old friend. I would drink a little but I didn't feel that excitement or need to go out and just hang around like I did before.
I wanted to change but I couldn't really do it alone; I needed someone to guide me. I came here and my friend said: "You go to school and start from the 10th grade. If you're lucky you can graduate and go to college; if not, you'll just go to work when you graduate."
So I just put everything together and had my commitment; I told myself I was going to graduate from high school. I went to school in the daytime and went to work in a Thai restaurant at night. So I changed a lot when I came here. I went to high school for three years, then graduated.
While I was in high school I joined a program called Upward Bound. There was a lady there who helped me a lot; she was the one who helped me to go to Bradford College. But it was also my commitment to do this. I wanted to go to school; I wanted to go to college. And I wanted to show my friend that I could do this. It wasn't that I couldn't have done it before but I just needed help; I needed a guide, I needed somebody; I needed a role model. Somebody who could say to me: "This is how you do it."
So I had my commitment and my faith. These were the two things that helped me go through all this. Faith helped me cross the Mekong River safely. I had to pray to my father for help: "Please let me cross safely from here to there." That was my belief, my faith. We believe in our ancestors. And so I did it. I made it across the Mekong River even though my two friends drowned; both of them died crossing the river that day. I was the only one who survived.
I believe you have to have faith and commitment. I had to set a goal and work hard to try to reach it. When I went to high school most of my friends said, "Oh, forget about it, you're not going to make it, you're too old and you don't know anything, you didn't even go to school when you were 13 or 14 years old." And I would say: "This is what I feel. I want to be in school. I think I can do it and I'm going to show you how I 'm going to do it."
And I went to school and I did it by trying my best; I wanted to show them. This is also something that makes me strong and encourages me. When I went to high school my friend would laugh at me. I would say, "Okay you laugh at me this time, but next time I will get better."
I would get so mad and try to study more and tell him I was going to come back and show him something. My friend would say, "You're never going to graduate from high school; I was born here and I never graduated from high school." And I would say, "This is you. But this is me, this is my commitment." I said I can do it and I did.
I graduated from Bradford College in '97 with a degree in psychology and political science. Now I'm working at Boston Asian Y.E.S. It's a non-profit organization that provides prevention and deterrence services for kids ages 12 to 22 and their families. We're also committed to working with kids who are facing difficult problems, who have challenges at home, school or in the community. We collaborate with the schools, the courts and community service agencies.
Basically my job is to reach out to the kids. I try to talk to them and build up a relationship with them. Later on I try to find out what their problem is and help them; at this moment I have these kids all over me and we're just all friends. I try to build up some close friends so I can find out what they need or find out what is their problem; sometimes a kid doesn't want to tell you anything. Even though they have problems at home they will say they don't have any.
Basically all these kids have a hard time staying in school and some have a problem with their relationship with their parents. The parents are maybe forcing the kid to stay home to do their homework every day when the kids don't really want to do it. There's a cultural difference; the kid is facing these two worlds; he lives in America but the parents want him to be like they were back home in Asia. The kid will say: "No, it's not right this way; you control me so much; I have to get out."
So we try to help these kids, but it's hard. Sometimes I'll sit down and really talk to them. Some kid will think, "Oh my parents don't know anything. I feel just useless being home and now they try to control me. For what? If I have a problem with my homework they can't help me."
And I just try to explain to them that their parents came from a different place. If they had been born here like you, they would probably have the same education as you. You have to understand they were born in a different place. That's why they can't help you with your homework; they can't help you deal with all this school work because they've never been in school themselves. Sometimes I just try to make them see the differences. Some kids will think their parents just don't know anything.
It's really frustrating. Because some kids will say yes, yes, yes, yes, but two or three days later the parent calls again and says my kid hasn't come home and hasn't gone to school. I'm having a hard time just trying to figure out which method is appropriate and effective to help the kids at least stay in school or at least listen a little bit more to others.
I always give them my own life as an example, but sometimes that doesn't work because I 'm the exception. I want them to think like me, but they can't do that. I tell them I've been in a bad situation too. I ask them why can't they just change their mind? You're just stuck like that forever, I say. I always put myself as a role model. I tell them that if I could do it, then they can do it too.
Sometimes people ask you what is it that made you stay in school. What made you go through all of this. And I just can't answer them. I just stayed in school because it was only way to avoid joining gangs and taking drugs. In the place where I came from, you grew up and did things because other people did them. You had a farm, you had a family, because other people had a farm and family.
But when I came here it was totally different. No one in my family had ever graduated from college, so how I could graduate from college? People ask me what has motivated me to do it. But again I have a hard time to tell them what it was. I had that commitment, which isn't something I can explain to them. I just have it right here inside; I went to school because I wanted to have a better life. That would be the answer.
A lot of kids grow up here and just see their friends and never realize where their parents came from; they just do whatever they want. I just try to be their role model; I try to tell them my story. That's pretty much what I can do at this moment. Maybe I will go back to school in a few years and learn a technique or strategy to help them more. I want to get a master's degree in human studies. I want to go back and do the same thing my boss did here for my own Kammu community.
So my first commitment was to graduate and my next commitment was to go to work. And now after graduating from Bradford College I want to work and go home to see my family. Then that will be the end. But I realize this is not the end yet. I'm here but I have not finished my dream yet; there are a lot of things I still have to do. My dream was to get out of school and go to work and save some money and go home, but it hasn't worked out that way. I'm in debt for $26,000 in student loans and my living costs are a lot, which is why I can't accumulate enough money to go home.
I have no idea where my family is. I haven't seen them in 15 years. I still remember a little bit. This guy came home and I was playing outside my hut. I explained this to my mother and sister and they all screamed and cried. I went back home and asked them what happened because I know that near my home a lot of people died every day and I was just hoping it was not someone in my family.
But when I got home my sister was crying. And I said, "Why are you crying?" And she said, "Our father has died." The thing doesn't affect me at all because I don't see it. To me it's like a dream. I'm trying to absorb how it works but still it doesn't make me cry even though the pain is still in my heart.
When I first came here it was paradise but now it's not. When I first came here the first thing I saw were people driving nice cars, so I thought I would be able to get a car as long as I went to work to make money. It's not like back home where no matter what you do you will never get it.
That's the one thing that's paradise. You see a lot of people who have nice clothes to wear and are nice and very intelligent. It doesn't mean our people are stupid, but the people here know a lot of different things; they have education. But the bad thing right now, the thing that I think is hell is that I'm just trapped here alone. Everything is "me me me me." Student loans, house, food, clothes - everything is kind of me me me. But it's too much for me.
Money pressures? Yeah, that's America. But we also have a problem finding people to marry. Most of the old people here don't get married because they can't find anyone to marry. They're not racist but they just don't feel like being with a person of the other race because they're afraid they're too low for them. It's a self-imposed limitation.
You might say, "Oh I'm going to go talk to her." But you're so afraid and think you're too short and she's too blond and tall; you're afraid she won't love you. So instead of just going out looking for somebody they just stay at home; they forget about it.
So that's my second commitment: I want to get married and build up my family and just keep my father's last name. I don't want to waste the life my mother has given me. It doesn't matter to me if she's Laotian. I used to have this girlfriend. Everybody knows she used to call from Japan. A broken heart right now because she went back home.
I don't really care who the person is as long as she loves me and takes me as a real real real person and respects me and we can complete our life together peacefully; it doesn't matter to me if she's Laotian. That's no big deal to me. I know that someday I'll get one.
Life in America is a different world to me. It's not like the jungle. When you're 18 here, you get out of the house, and when your father dies you come back to bury him and that's it.
But in our culture you should be there with him. He's looking for a wife for you; you're always connected to each other till the end of the world. The close relationship is always there for you. Even though you're 30 or 40, if you have a problem, your father will always be there for you.
So I miss that. I miss that magnificent opportunity. In any case, my father died early so I don't really have that expectation of him. But I still need some warm family. I live with my friend now, in a small room like this. You go to work in the morning, come home, sleep, go to work in the morning, come home, sleep - this is the American way.