A Lao journey: From a war-torn homeland to the U.S.

Chanida Phaengdara Potter
Chanida Phaengdara Potter addresses attendees at the opening reception for the exhibit Refuge of the InvisibLao in Minneapolis, Minn.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

As a Lao-American writer, Chanida Phaengdara Potter can't resist a good pun.

She jokes about how lucky she is to come from a country with such a pun-friendly name — as evidenced by the titles of her popular blog "Little Laos on the Prairie" and her current art exhibit "Refuge of the InvisibLao: A Visible Essay," at the Vine Arts Center in Minneapolis.

When Potter welcomed the crowd at the Jan. 10 opening, she told them she might grow emotional.

"This is so personal for me," she said. "This year marks the 40th anniversary of the arrival of the first Lao refugees to the United States."

Through photos and paintings, "Refuge of the InvisibLao" shines a light on the Lao diaspora — the more than 500,000 people who fled their homes following the Laotian Civil War and resulting communist takeover of their homeland in 1975.

Gallery goers check out Refuge of the InvisibLao at the Vine Arts Center in Minneapolis, Minn., on January 10, 2015.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

"I'm always trying to think of different ways to get people to start having conversations about Lao people in general or, really, just anything Lao-related," Potter said.

In that sense, the exhibit is an extension of her blog, which she launched in 2011.

"At first, we thought of it as something very satirical, with entries like '10 Ways to be Lao in Minnesota,'" Potter said with a laugh. "It was really silly things."

There were posts about the animated television show series "King of the Hill," which had a Lao character, and recipes for Lao cuisine.

"I call Lao people the original foodies," Potter said, "because, I swear, if one ingredient is missing they won't have it. They're like, 'No. No. We can't have a plan B or C. We must have the exact ingredients.'"

The blog really took off when Potter started writing about herself. Born in a political reeducation center in Laos, she learned to walk in a Thai refugee camp. She grew up in north Minneapolis, surrounded by hip-hop culture while her parents would only speak to her in Lao — a refugee who could make sticky rice by age five but remains obsessed with McDonald's fries.

"It really fascinated me how people felt like they related to some of the experiences I had shared," she said.

Soon readers from across the country were discussing the nuances of being Lao-American, of being viewed as American when in Laos, and as Lao when in the United States.

Anousone Fongthavisay poses with a portrait of herself as a child. The painting was inspired by a photo taken in a Thai refugee camp.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

"The question always is, 'What level of Lao-ness do they have? How Lao are you?' If I don't eat a certain way or if I don't talk or walk a certain way, I'm less Lao," Potter said. "Every time they question my Lao-ness, I say, 'You try to live in a different society while trying to hold on to two different types of cultures and then you tell me how it goes for you.'"

With more than 1,000 regular visitors, her "Little Laos on the Prairie" blog has become a virtual gathering spot for the Lao diaspora across the nation and beyond. Still, Potter wanted to reach outside the web. For two years, she's been asking Lao people around the world to contribute photos.

Those personal pictures — from wartime in Laos to a birthday party in the United States — became the foundation for "Refuge of the InvisibLao."

One room of the Vine Arts Center is filled with paintings by Chicago artist Chantala Kommanivanh, inspired by the submitted photographs.

One portrait is of a young girl holding a small chalkboard. On it is her name and identification number.

"I tried to capture this scared little girl trying to make sense of what's happening," Kommanivanh said. "To me, it feels very somber, melancholy."

Forty years ago, the first wave of Lao refugees arrived in the United States. The InvisibLao exhibit commemorates that history and the people who lived it.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

The painting, based on a photograph of Anousone Fongthavisay, was taken in a refugee camp when she was four years old.

Fongthavisay, 34, of Minneapolis, has the same image on her iPhone.

"This is the photo that accompanied all of our paperwork as we filed for asylum," said Fongthavisay, who came to the exhibit. "I carry it with me for when I feel defeated because this photo tells me I didn't fail. I shouldn't be defeated because we had overcome so much to be here."

It's this moment that pretty much sums up Potter's hope for the exhibit. The show may be a reflection of the last 40 years of Lao history, but it's also a celebration of Lao heritage.

As important as it is for people to know where they came from, she said they also need to think about where they're going.

"People tend to think about the sad and lonely and the impoverished time of our lives," Potter said. "But then it's also about the future, about what we can become collectively."

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