View Original News Source: http://www.dglobe.com/event/article/id/52076/
By: Ryan McGaughey, Worthington Daily Globe
Ryan Mcgaughey/daily globe Soom Chandaswang stands with the handmade, silk wedding dress she wore when she married her husband, who is also Laotian.
WORTHINGTON — Soom Chandaswang and her family had to have been thrilled to finally arrive in the United States.
After all, the family had spent 15 years at the Ban Napho refugee camp in Thailand, fleeing their homeland of Laos in the midst of war. Soom arrived in the U.S. at age 8 and after a short stint in Sioux City, Iowa, has called Worthington home since.
The journey here
“My parents are from Laos themselves, and they were farmers,” Soom explained in her office at Nobles County Integration Collaborative in Worthington, where she has worked for the past year. “They worked in the rice fields, and they lived in a small village in Laos with mainly just close family members and relatives.
“Basically, the whole village fled because of the war that was happening in Laos, when Communists took over their village,” she continued. “They had no choice but to escape. Some didn’t make it; they would lose their lives to the jungle, minefields or being captured by soldiers.”
Seven members of Soom’s family finally were able to leave the Thailand refugee camp, and Soom proudly showed souvenirs of that time.
She still has her family’s ICM cards — “it has your name, your identification and is basically like a Social Security card, except it was for us to go to America,” she said. “If you don’t have it, you don’t come.”
The family was in a Philippines camp for a brief time prior to departing for America, and the time spent there as well as in Thailand is still fresh in Soom’s memory.
“It kind of burns in my mind what the camps were like,” she said. “The conditions were very similar. It was very crowded, and the family usually stayed in a one-room house. … The food is portioned out depending on the size of your family, and the food truck comes once a week. So, with our family, we had to portion it out for the rest of the week, and if we didn’t portion it out and we finished our food early, we didn’t eat.”
Soom, her parents and four of her siblings went to Sioux City first because an uncle lived there. After residing there for about three months, they headed north to Worthington.
“My mom’s brother, my other uncle, he lived here in Worthington, plus we got sponsored by a pastor who lives in Bigelow, Pastor Ron Lammers,” Soom detailed. “He speaks Lao — that’s how we communicated with him. He found us our home … and a job for my older sister — all the rest of us were too young. My mom and dad never had a chance to be educated; they stayed home and took care of us.”
Soom entered first grade at Worthington’s Central Elementary knowing “not a word” of English. She proved to be a quick learner, though, and was out of English as a Second Language classes after just a year.
After graduating from Worthington High School in 2001, Soom opted to remain in southwest Minnesota. She received a two-year liberal arts degree from Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington, then went back to Minnesota West and earned a diploma in practical nursing.
“I stayed basically close to home because my family is here in Worthington,” she said.
Soom said she attends Wat Lao Siri Buddharam Temple in Worthington, which she described as a home to a number of celebrations. The biggest of those events, she added, observes Lao New Year, when plenty of activities take place prior to a larger-scale celebration in Brewster.
Food and values
Soom said her third-oldest sister and her husband, as well as a younger sister, have made journeys to Laos to visit. She would also like to travel to her homeland at some juncture.
“I would like to see where my parents grew up,” she said. “And I’ve never met my grandparents, or my dad’s side of the family.”
In the meantime, Soom regularly partakes in food she’d normally eat if in Laos.
“There’s sticky rice, a lot of vegetables, anything that we can basically find that will remind us of Laos,” she stated. “Top Asian (Worthington grocery store) has a lot of that stuff.
“We grew up with nothing, so we’re not picky,” she continued. “My dad, he hunted when we were in Laos, and when he came to Thailand he couldn’t because we were in the camp. … I remember when my brother and dad went hunting — they took a big risk and went hunting, and they came back with a python that we ate for the whole week and shared with the neighbors at the camp. We ate turtles, frogs, insects — whatever we could find. I also remember when we went to the refugee camp in the Philippines, we had kimono dragon; that was my first time eating that. It was what the people on the Philippines hunted, it was what they sold.”
Soom wore a traditional Lao outfit for her wedding day that was hand-made from silk. She said dressing in traditional Lao clothing is not so common among members of the younger generation.
Soom also cited the importance of basic values that are stressed in Laos, including one in particular.
“Listen to your elders, although in the U.S. it has changed,” she said. “Our parents were really strict on that.”
Soom’s family is comprised of six girls and two boys. Her parents, she said, don’t speak English, so she gets plenty of opportunities to speak Lao with them. (Lao is the language; people that hail from Laos are Laotian.)
She also has another special individual she speaks Lao with; her husband.
A traditional wedding
Soom met her husband, Khunteuang Nakhornsak, in Worthington.
“His family is originally from Laos and they also had the same kind of journey where they ended up in Thailand at a camp,” she said. “We just never met each other there.”
Soom’s three older sisters had arranged marriages, she said, and she conceded that “if I were in Laos, it would be different.” Still, Soom and her husband had a very traditional Lao wedding, right down to her Khunteuang’s family paying Soom’s family a dowry.
“All the elders from his side and the family, they had to come to an agreement about how much (to pay),” Soom said. “Even though we were not born in Laos, we still know the traditions. Our parents, they basically guided us on what to do.”