Laos: A Beautiful Country, So Why Leave?

Laos: A Beautiful Country, So Why Leave?

A family's dangerous journey in seeking a better life for generations to come.

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I stem from immigrants and the many sacrifices they made to allow me to live the life I have today. My father's family left Laos to come to America when he was five years old. This is his story.


Six children, two parents, and a grandmother lived in Vientiane, Laos when communism began to spread across the country.

They lived a comfortable middle-class life (this would be lower-class compared to America). At school, the kids were taught communist ideology. Their family was closely monitored due to my grandfather's job in the government. The secret police would randomly stop by the house and inspect it. Calls and actions were also taken note of. If there was any suspicion of conspiracy, they could have been subjected to labor camps or death by firing squad. My grandparents were tired of this and knew the danger associated with staying in a country that was slowly being taken over by a powerful government.

My father was just five years old when his mother told him he was not to go to school one morning.

The family was supposedly going to take a trip to see their relatives. He remembers eating an expensive bowl of pho with his brother and mother before packing a small bag to bring with him. That would be their last meal until they reached the next checkpoint. The older siblings knew what was happening, but since he was the youngest, he did not fully understand until much later in life why future events were to unfold.

His parents hired soldiers of fortune which were paid a hefty sum of money and gold in exchange for their services.

Each parent took three children with the intent to rendezvous at a pre-determined location and time. To ensure that they were meeting the correct people at the checkpoint, his family had one half of a photo and the mercenaries had the other half. Piecing together the photo was used as a strategy to provide information and assurance that they were meeting the right people at the rendezvous point and not the secret police.

Once confirmed, the hired mercenaries loaded them into a dump truck and drove them out of the city.

His family did not know if the soldiers would keep their word or kill them and just keep the money. The soldiers stayed true to their word and drove them out to the countryside. Once dusk settled, they ran into the rain forest and made a campsite. Just past midnight and under a full bright moon, they met up with more soldiers of fortune who would lead them across the Mekong River on canoes. It was monsoon season and the Mekong had overrun its banks making it wider than usual to cross. This increased their chances of being caught because it required more time on the river.

They boarded three canoes and started crossing the river.

While maneuvering around floating debris and dead livestock, they realized that one canoe had a leak. To make matters worse, machine gun patrol boats were cruising in that particular area. Despite these difficulties, they were able to avoid the dangers and made it across to Thailand.

Once they arrived in Thailand, his family gave the mercenaries all of their money and valuables.

It was a very emotional time for his parents because they left everything they had ever known on the other side of the river. All they had were the clothes on their backs and each other to start anew. They found a hut and spent the night. The next morning a local farmer found them and took them to the village. My father walked through leach-infested rice paddies and a few of his siblings fell into the paddies.

In the village, the locals gave them food, but the police took them into custody.

My father became very sick in jail and his parents feared that he was going to be left behind if his health did not improve fast enough. Fortunately, the wife of the local sheriff took pity upon them and helped their family in treating my father.

The group was sent to a refugee camp with other war refugees. Inside the refugee camp, they had shelter in the form of thatched huts and dirt floors. They cooked food in a makeshift stove using ceramic planter pots filled with wood chips. The pots had a grill on top and a mouse hole on the bottom to light the fire. They slept on bamboo beds with mosquito nets placed a few feet above the dirt floor to avoid scorpions and spiders.

His family survived by selling water and ice.

The money made was used to buy rice, vegetables, and water. If they were lucky, the camp would sell pork belly or fermented tuna. Camp conditions were less than ideal and carried much personal risk. Each night they loaded up a rickshaw with their belongings in case there was a fire (thatched huts tend to catch fire quickly). The rickshaw made for a fast escape with possessions.

The original plan was to seek political asylum in France because they had family living there, but America was the quickest way out of the refugee camp in Thailand. This was a last minute change due to an uncle living in America being able to sponsor them. He had escaped to America years earlier and had worked hard to put himself in a position to help them. They left the refugee camp after two years and began the long journey to America.

I asked my father if he thought that his struggles were worth coming to America.

He responded by saying: "Yes, it was worth it. The hardship we endured from the time we landed in Thailand, to the refugee camp, to coming to America, made our family stronger. We were very poor when we arrived in America the week of Thanksgiving. A family of nine that did not speak a word of English or know the culture with $250 in their pocket was going to start a new life. Somehow, someway, our family found a way to survive and thrive in our new country."

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I Visited The "Shameless" Houses And Here's Why You Shouldn't

Glamorizing a less-than-ideal way to live.
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After five hours of driving, hearing the GPS say "Turn right onto South Homan Avenue" was a blessing. My eyes peeled to the side of the road, viciously looking for what I have been driving so long for, when finally, I see it: the house from Shameless.

Shameless is a hit TV show produced by Showtime. It takes place in modern-day Southside, Chicago. The plot, while straying at times, largely revolves around the Gallagher family and their continual struggle with (extreme) poverty. While a majority of the show is filmed offsite in a studio in Los Angeles, many outside scenes are filmed in Southside and the houses of the Gallagher's and side-characters are very much based on real houses.

We walked down the street, stopped in front of the two houses, took pictures and admired seeing the house in real life. It was a surreal experience and I felt out-of-place like I didn't belong there. As we prepared to leave (and see other spots from the show), a man came strolling down on his bicycle and asked how we were doing.

"Great! How are you?"

It fell silent as the man stopped in front of the Gallagher house, opened the gate, parked his bike and entered his home. We left a donation on his front porch, got back to the car and took off.

As we took the drive to downtown Chicago, something didn't sit right with me. While it was exciting to have this experience, I began to feel a sense of guilt or wrongdoing. After discussing it with my friends, I came to a sudden realization: No one should visit the "Gallagher" house.

The plot largely revolves the Gallagher family and their continual struggle with (extreme) poverty. It represents what Southside is like for so many residents. While TV shows always dramatize reality, I realized coming to this house was an exploitation of their conditions. It's entertaining to see Frank's shenanigans on TV, the emotional roller coasters characters endure and the outlandish things they have to do to survive. I didn't come here to help better their conditions, immerse myself in what their reality is or even for the donation I left: I came here for my entertainment.

Southside, Chicago is notoriously dangerous. The thefts, murders and other crimes committed on the show are not a far-fetched fantasy for many of the residents, it's a brutal reality. It's a scary way to live. Besides the Milkovich home, all the houses typically seen by tourists are occupied by homeowners. It's not a corporation or a small museum -- it's their actual property. I don't know how many visitors these homes get per day, week, month or year. Still, these homeowners have to see frequent visitors at any hour of the day, interfering with their lives. In my view, coming to their homes and taking pictures of them is a silent way of glamorizing the cycle of poverty. It's a silent way of saying we find joy in their almost unlivable conditions.

The conceit of the show is not the issue. TV shows have a way of romanticizing very negative things all the time. The issue at hand is that several visitors are privileged enough to live in a higher quality of life.

I myself experienced the desire and excitement to see the houses. I came for the experience but left with a lesson. I understand that tourism will continue to the homes of these individuals and I am aware that my grievances may not be shared with everyone -- however, I think it's important to take a step back and think about if this were your life. Would you want hundreds, potentially thousands, of people coming to your house? Would you want people to find entertainment in your lifestyle, good and bad?

I understand the experience, excitement, and fun the trip can be. While I recommend skipping the houses altogether and just head downtown, it's most important to remember to be respectful to those very individuals whose lives have been affected so deeply by Shameless.

Cover Image Credit: itsfilmedthere.com

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Bon Voyage! College Of Charleston Takes You On A Semester At Sea

I recently learned about a super unique and intriguing opportunity offered through the College of Charleston and just had to share!

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On Monday, I had the privilege (thanks to the hospitality club) to tour the Spirit of South Carolina which is a 140-foot sailing vessel. Spirit gained its fame after defeating a fleet of British yachts and winning what is now called America's Cup. The ship was built from South Carolina live oak, cypress, and long leaf yellow pine. With the staff's continuous care of the ship, it's always well maintained and looking beautiful. Even if you're not into sailing (like me), touring Spirit was a really cool experience. It was obvious how much hard work is put into the ship.

While on tour, we were told about the studying opportunities offered. I had never even heard of "a semester at sea" but after learning all about the program, I wanted to share it with other C of C student! Spirit is actually supposed to be in the Caribbean right now with CofC students for the marine biology program but the trip was canceled because not enough students had signed up for it.

My prediction is that not enough students signed up for the trip because they are not aware of the option. Each trip has a different destination and most times, you make fun stops along the way! The current trip being planned is for the fall is going to start in Boston and makes its way across the east coast.

What's really cool is that you learn to sail while on the trip, no experience is necessary! There are crew members on board but the students are responsible for learning the process and all the steps to sailing as well. While on board, you're still held accountable for completing all school work. There is usually a professor on board but many students just take online classes.

Certain trips are more major oriented, the trip planned to go to the Caribbean was geared towards marine biology majors. Each trip deals with a different major but all students are always welcome. The trip is student-oriented and the crew of the ship is always open to suggestions.

I thought this was an interesting option for anyone looking to study abroad but doesn't think they can afford it. A semester at sea is more affordable and still full of fun! This opportunity allows you to travel, learn, and experience new things.

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