Sinakhone Chinromany frantically gathered her jewelry and clothes into small bags with shocking urgency. The click-clacking of her shoes was heard in echoes against the granite tiles of a grandiose house. She gripped the hands of her young daughters and the leather handles of her bags as she stepped into her new reality. It was 1975.
Chinromany would say goodbye to a comfortable life and catapult herself into an unknown that no one could prepare for.
Communists had invaded the Laos countryside and were making their way to the capital, where Sinakhone lived with her husband, Khamphouvy Chounramany, who was the president of the only electric company in the country — “the top guy,” as she called him.
One of his employees had warned him of the dangers, but he did not believe, so the employee came to Chinromany.
“This guy experienced the camps before us …” she recalled. “[Khampouvy] told me that I didn’t have any money. He questioned how I could take our whole family and leave. I told him, ‘I have a lot of money … don’t worry about it.’ We had $30,000. I had cash with me, and a lot of gold. That’s why when we crossed over to Thailand I sold all of it, and we had [$30,000] to $40,000 to bring over to the United States.”
After crossing the Mekong River with the help of some people her husband knew in Thailand, they sought sponsorships from Canada and the United States. The family expected to get sponsorship in Canada, seeing as how Khamphouvy got his engineering degree from Montreal. Yet, the United States responded first and led them to Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.
This is the story of my grandparents, told to me by them and my mother. It gives me hope to dream and work toward a better future for myself because of their sacrifices. Generational storytelling within a family is one way to instill hope in their loved ones’ hearts.
The Charlotte Museum of History highlights this story of hope, so common within the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, with its Journey of Hope exhibit, which opened on May 18. Journey of Hope includes folk art, artifacts, photos, and a history of Asian immigration to the U.S., representing over 23 cultures. All artifacts are from the personal belongings of contributors, who are seen as strong leaders and active members in their communities, as well as the AAPI community.
Journey of Hope
Journey of Hope believed to be one of the first — if not the first — exhibit of its kind in the American South.
Dr. Eumelia Nini Bautista and Dr. John C. Chen serve as co-chairs of the exhibit. Bautista is also the chair of the Asian American Foundation for the Carolinas.
“I don’t have a typical story,” Bautista told Queen City Nerve. Her background includes a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering, a master’s in Chemistry, a Ph.D. in Nuclear Chemistry. She’s also worked as chief of chemistry research at the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission, worked for the U.N. in the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, founded the Miss Asia Carolinas festival, and helped to launch other cultural events.
Bautista recognizes that not everyone in the AAPI community has seen such success.
“There are two sides to the ladder: those on the top who are professionals and came legally with an economic advantage, and those on the other side who are refugees and are struggling with the language who need to have two or three jobs to make ends meet,” Bautista said. “When you look at the spectrum, you have the crazy rich Americans and yet you would have those who are struggling. That’s why they need our help.”
Bautista and Chen said their work is aimed at helping those within the AAPI community, providing them with professional opportunities through their networks while celebrating everyone’s cultures together. Journey of Hope is just a part of that.
“These active communities were very enthusiastic in sharing their artifacts and their journeys,” Bautista said. “They are the ones weaving all their stories. You can see how they were able to overcome their challenges and contribute to the economic, political, and educational parts of their communities. They’re truly Asian Americans. They are Americans, but in their heart, they maintain the love of their homes. They’re not forgetting that.”
Eric Wu, a contributor to the Taiwan unit of the exhibit, says he’s lived in the suburbs of Charlotte for the last 30 years. He considers it his home. Wu contributed historical writings and documents written in traditional Chinese — a language used for over 5,000 years.
“I came here from Taiwan in 1987 to study at UNCC with a scholarship in engineering. After I went to school I got a job and started working — I just never left North Carolina,” he said.
Wu has run his own business since 1990, is part of the North Carolina Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce, and is president of Charlotte’s Taiwanese American Association. He feels that part of his job is to be the bridge to connect the East and West, he told Queen City Nerve.
“I try to build understanding and trust between both sides. Especially in business, it’s important that people trust you so they become willing to invest in what you’re doing and invest in the business,” Wu said.
The Journey of Hope for Wu means to acknowledge not only the Asian Americans who arrived here during the 20th century, but those who came even before then, paving the way for others to follow them.
“I mean, when I was younger I didn’t know anything. But the older I am now, I look back and I want to do what I can to help other people,” Wu said. “Family is important to our community, and we need to take care of them.”
A culture of help
It is a common understanding within the AAPI community that one is expected to use the opportunities they were given through the hardships of their elders to help others. Polly and Ali Outhay immigrated from Laos with their family to the United States. The two sisters left Laos in 1985 and stayed in a refugee camp in Thailand until 1988. They have since co-founded AliPolly & Associates to help AAPI families with financial literacy and financial security.
“We landed in Wichita, Arkansas because that’s where our grandma and auntie were; they sponsored us. We stayed there for a few months and then we all moved to southern Massachusetts,” Ali Outhay told Queen City Nerve.
She explained that many of their cousins and family members lived in Massachusetts when the two sisters started high school there. Polly passed through ninth grade, but Ali had to attend summer school.
Polly explained that the refugee camps in Thailand only taught them the fundamentals of English like the ABCs, the alphabet, how to ask where the bathroom was, and how to say you’re hungry. They were also taught how to cook dishes thought to be American, like French toast.
“We had to enroll in ESL,” Polly said, looking to Ali for confirmation. “I don’t know about you, but I still remember Ms. O’Leary. She had left a large impact on my life. She was not only my ESL teacher, but she also was my mentor in life.”
Polly and Ali both spoke of O’Leary with admiration and deep gratitude. She taught them how to live in America while keeping an appreciation of their culture and the life the sisters had to leave behind.
“To have her there … she was like everything to us. She was a second mother to us. Everything. Her passion, her patience, love … all of that,” Polly reverently recalled.
As their assimilation into American culture began, they recalled what it was like to first go to supermarkets: “like heaven.” Food and fruit were stacked as high as the ceiling and touched every corner of the space. Apples and other such things were considered luxuries in Laos because the country was always in shortage.
How could it be possible that there were rows dedicated to the forbidden fruit?
“We didn’t have that back in our country. Apples were expensive. I heard about it, but I never tasted one,” Ali said, smiling. “When we came to this country, I was eating so many apples. I don’t know how many days I asked for them. Having soda was like a treat. That was so awesome to me. Soda and apples.”
The Outhay family lived off government assistance, shopping with food stamps to make ends meet at the beginning of their journey.
“Our mother kept reminding us that if we were going to depend on government food stamps only, we were going to be poor for the rest of our lives,” Polly explained.
They yearned to find ways to escape the grips of poverty as a family. They began harvesting fruit during peak seasons on holidays and weekends for about $50 a day — collectively between five people. If it were a good week, they’d make about $200.
“Gradually, we came out of the government’s support system and our family bought our first car. We felt so rich,” Polly recalled.
The family used the car to take Polly and Ali to work on the weekends. The sisters have done everything together since they landed in America; they went to class together, they worked together picking berries in the fields and at various fast-food restaurants during weekend nights. They eventually graduated together and moved together to Charlotte.
The Outhay sisters now work to help secure people’s financial futures with financial literacy and give back to the Laos and AAPI communities.
Speaking about the AAPI exhibit at the Charlotte Museum of History, Polly said, “It represents unity. It represents being heard. It represents being seen.”
“We are the living proof of that journey of hope,” she continued. “That’s who we truly are. For any community to be helpful to the AAPI community, you have to understand their cultural upbringing. Collectively, I will say we just make one heck of a strong community with a collective effort. I truly believe in that. There’s only so much one person can do or one community can do. But collectively, as an AAPI community, when we all are working together, I believe that we’re going to be an unstoppable community.”
The Charlotte Museum of History will host a family day on July 22 from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. with food, live music and performances celebrating the exhibit. The event is free and includes museum admission.
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