A step off the beaten track

I graduated from college nearly two years ago. It's been a while, but the tumultuous months leading up to my graduation - filled with the intense apprehension that accompanies the transition from college life to the great unknown beyond - remain vivid in my mind.

I had done well academically, and plenty of avenues were available to soothe my uncertainty about the future: the lucrative world of investment banking and management consulting, Internet start-ups that promised to be snapped up, continued student life at graduate school.

But none of these options felt quite right. While my classmates marched off to interviews in suits and ties, I moved in the opposite direction. I felt the need to get away from this world of rankings and Top 10 lists - to escape the endless talk of first quartiles, second tiers, highest salaries, and lowest quality of life. After nearly two decades of uninterrupted formal education, I was ready for a break.

I wanted to do some learning outside of the classroom - before someone sat me right back down in a conference room. I was looking for something that couldn't be ranked.

That something turned out to be a job here in Vientiane, the capital of Laos - a place most of my classmates had never even heard of.

It's true, you won't find Laos on many world records. With a population of about 5 million, it isn't the smallest country in the world, and it certainly isn't the largest. An annual per capita income of less than $400 means it isn't the poorest or the richest either.

There is one list, however, that the nation does top: Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. During its "secret war" against the Communists in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s, the US military dropped more bombs on the landlocked country than it did during all of World War II.

What's more, when the conflict ended in 1975, 564 American soldiers were reported missing in action in Laos. Of these, only 122 have so far been accounted for, while 442 remain missing. Families across America spend at least a part of each day wondering if their sons, brothers, and nephews are still alive somewhere in the remote hills of rural Laos.

Despite their government's deep involvement in the course of Laos's history, most Americans know little about this small Southeast Asian nation. Soon after I moved to Vientiane, a friend tried to send me a letter through the US Postal Service, and was flatly told that no such place existed. She addressed the letter to Vietnam instead, and somehow it arrived. In some ways, the war in Laos remains as secret in America today as it did when the US orchestrated the bombing campaign there so many years ago.

I barely knew about it when I first accepted the internship here in Vientiane. Although I was an East Asian studies major, the word "Laos" had never once crossed my lips - nor my professors' - during my four years at Princeton University in New Jersey. Following graduation, I devoured every book on the country I could find. But nothing could prepare me for what I would soon learn about Laos, the war - and America.

Here in Vientiane, if you look closely, evidence of America's involvement in Laos is not hard to find. A sign for the "Lao American Association," established in the 1970s by the US for English teaching, still stands outside the complex now used as Laos's official news agency's headquarters. US Army parachutes shade vendors selling drinks on the banks of the Mekong River. In the countryside, families use American bomb casings as planters and pylons.

America's presence in Laos was widespread, but when the Communists seized power in Vientiane in December 1975, the US government quickly packed up. There was no way around it: We had lost the battle.

But had they really won the war?

My neighbor in Vientiane, Mon, lives in a one-room house along with her children and her younger sister. Mon is the head of the family. During the day, she and her family convert the living room into a small clothing factory and work together to produce an array of colorful shirts and trousers. I drop by Mon's every once in a while, sit on her floor, and ask, "How's business?"

These days, Mon has more on her mind than fashion: While she can't speak a word of English, she is trying desperately to obtain a visa to visit her brother in the United States. He lives in Wichita, Kan.

When the US pulled out of Laos after the war, hundreds of thousands of Lao citizens - ultimately more than 10 percent of the population - fled the country, fearing the new Communist regime. Most of these refugees, like Mon's brother, ended up in the US.

"But why Kansas?" Mon wonders. "Why not California? That sounds like a nice place to me. It's warm. Or how about Hawaii? I saw it on TV once."

In the 20 years or so since her brother left Laos, Mon has received only two letters from him. She has no idea what he does, what it's like where he lives, or if his children are thriving. As far as Mon is concerned, he is "missing in action," and she just wants to see him.

But for a simple visit to the US, Mon must submit a flurry of documents to the American Embassy in Vientiane: a request for permission to enter the country; her brother's W-2 tax forms; letters from her brother and his employer stating that he is in good standing; the bank statements of everyone involved.

"Why do they make this so difficult?" Mon asks.

Over fresh coconut juice in her living room, I explain that the embassy is probably reluctant to grant her a visa because the staff suspects she might never come back to Laos. Mon assured me that she would never want to live in America.

"It's too cold, and it snows! I can't deal with snow!"

The US embassy's fear of surreptitious immigration is hardly unwarranted. The desire for family reunification and the hope for a better life in America fuels an insatiable demand for visas, and only a handful are granted every year.

All things considered, Mon's chances don't look great.

Happily, communication between Lao families and their relatives in the US has become easier. The government no longer interferes with international financial contributions, and many families in Vientiane depend for their survival on the monthly checks they receive from relatives overseas. Former "traitors" are even allowed to come back and visit, and Mon hopes her brother will one day make the trip.

Like the relatives of American soldiers still missing in Laos, Mon is a victim of a war that continues to wound. Her story is one that needs to be told, one that all Americans should hear.

It is a story I never would have heard had I not made the decision, almost two years ago, to step off the track - away from college rankings, GPAs, and year-end bonuses - and try something different.

It was a difficult choice, but it was the right one.

*Brett Dakin graduated from Princeton University in 1998 and has worked for the past two years in Vientiane, Laos.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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