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by Carol Stephenson

Context for Lao Immigration

History and Government

Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, China and Vietnam. Beginning in the 8th century the Lao people migrated from China into what is now Laos. Between the 14th and the 17th centuries, Laos was occupied by a Khmer leader and called the Lane Xang kingdom or “Land of One Million Elephants.” During the 17th century it was split into three kingdoms at constant conflict with each other. At the end of the 18th century it came under Thai control.

In 1893 Laos became a French protectorate and its territory was incorporated into Indochina, with Vientiane as the capital. During World War II, the Japanese invaded Laos but in 1946 the French reestablished a constitutional monarchy. The Pathet Lao, a Communist independence movement headed by Prince Souphanouvong, was established inside North Vietnam in 1951. The Pathet Lao and the Viet Minh invaded central Laos and this led to the division of the country as part of the 1954 Geneva accords. Later the kingdom gained full control, and for a short period the royal premier Prince Souvanna Phouma and the Pathet Lao tried to form a unified government. Fighting broke out again in 1960.

When the U.S. entered in the Vietnam War, Laos was profoundly affected. The Pathet Lao fought alongside the Communist Vietnamese and, in 1964, the U.S. bombed Eastern Laos as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At the same time, the CIA began hiring many ethnic Hmong living in Lao mountain areas to fight against the Communists of Laos and Vietnam. Over the next decade, Laos became the most bombed country in the history of warfare. Thousands of Lao fled their hometowns in fear of the bombing.

In 1973 a ceasefire and coalition government was negotiated in Laos. When communists took over Vietnam in 1975, the Royalists of Laos left, mostly for France. The Pathet Lao then took complete control of the country and established what is now known as Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

During the 1990s the Supreme People’s Assembly adopted a new constitution, retaining one-party rule but dropping the word socialism. The economy became more market-oriented and the U.S. lifted its prohibition of aid to Laos. Today this Communist state is headed by President Khamtai Siphandon and Prime Minister Sisavat Keobounphan. Both assumed power in 1998.


By most accounts, Laos is considered one of the world’s 10 poorest nations., with an average per capita income of $1,260 per year. Economic decentralization efforts that began in the mid 1990s resulted in growth for a short time, but as these efforts slowed growth declined. The 1997 Asian financial crisis hurt Laos and was as its worst in 1999 when the value of the kip plunged. The currency has since stabilized, but inflation is above 100%.

Laos has no railroads and only a simple road system. Electricity is limited to the cities and communications are limited. Subsistence agriculture accounts for 80% of employment and 46% of Lao live below the poverty line.

Lao Immigration

With the fall of the royal government in 1973, most of the highly educated and wealthy Lao left for France. Thousands more fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Although the Communist takeover of Laos was considered peaceful, the average Lao felt great apprehension of the new government. Rumors abounded, and people heard that the Communists would take their families and change their ways of life. Many people who opposed the Communists were sent to “reeducation camps”. Lao on public benefits in Santa Clara County rated war in their homeland and political problems as the top reasons for coming to the U.S.

The Hmong had additional fears. Not only had they been subject to prejudice historically, many were targeted by the new government because they had supported the Royalists as mercenaries for the CIA. Although Hmong make up only a tiny fraction of Lao, nearly 150,000 ethnic Hmong have migrated to the U.S.

The U.S. Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in 1975, beginning the flow of migration to the U.S. However, in the first years of the new Communist government, the U.S. considered most Lao to be economic migrants rather than refugees. In 1975 only 800 Lao were admitted to the U.S. During the three years from 1976 to 1978, less than 20,000 Lao were admitted as refugees. By the late 1970s, however, international attention was focused on Southeast Asia, including Cambodia and Laos, and the flow of migration greatly increased. From 1979 to 1981 105,000 Lao were admitted to the U.S., the highest amount in any three-year period. In 1995 the camps were closed and the remaining Lao were repatriated.

By 1990 about 150,000 Lao, not including Hmong, had immigrated to the United States. One third of those have settled in California with the largest concentration in Fresno.

Social Characteristics of the Lao People

Ethnic and Religious Diversity

The people of Laos are made up of over 50 different ethnic groups with as many different languages and cultures. The ethnic groups are divided into three categories: 68% Lao Loum (lowlanders), 22% Lao Theung (uplanders), 9% Lao Soung (highlanders including the Hmong and Mien) and 1% Vietnamese/Chinese.

The lowland Lao, which make up 2/3 of the population, share a common heritage with the Thai people. Thus, modern day Thai and Lao have many cultural similarities.

The uplanders are mostly tribal Hmong: indigenous people of Southern China who have migrated over the last two hundred years from China to escape Chinese control. Hmong have settled in several Southeast Asian countries. However, Laos is the only Asian country in which they are numerous enough to be recognized as a significant minority. The Hmong resist government control and practice “slash and burn” agriculture. They have been in conflict with the government of Laos for many years and have experienced ethnic prejudice.

Although Communism officially frowns on religion, the Lao government recognizes the importance of Buddhism in Lao culture and it continues to be practiced. The population is 85% Theravada Buddhist, influenced by spirit-based religions and Hinduism

Most of the remaining 15% is animist, which is associated with the uplander tribes. Small minorities of Christians, Muslims and Confucianists exist as well.

Family Life

Family is central to the Lao way of life. Families in Laos generally work together in subsistence agriculture and extended families living together is common. These may include distant relatives and those related by marriage. Both in Laos and in the U.S. family members tend to live close by and provide support, which may contribute to the low divorce rate in the U.S. Marriages are usually arranged by parents, although the bride and groom each has a right to withdraw or refuse. A bride price is generally paid by the groom’s family. Children often stay in their parents’ house after marriage until they establish their own household.

Men are considered the head of the household and the main provider although they may also share household duties. Women perform work associated with childrearing and household duties including finances. The fertility rate in Laos is 5.21 children born to each woman. Men usually hold leadership positions in the community, but women are often involved in decision making and very active in their community. Elders are important sources of information and wisdom for the family. They command respect and obedience.

In Santa Clara County, many grandparents and older children take care of young children, according to the Lao respondents of the public benefits survey.

Health Care Practices

Life expectancy in Laos is 53 years. Infant mortality across the country is 98 deaths to every 1,000 live births. The number is much lower in urban areas and much higher in remote villages. Chronic vitamin and protein deficiencies complicate health problems associated with malaria, respiratory infections and diarrhea. Consequently, nutrition is an important part of preventative health care.

There is no reliable widespread health care system in Laos. Traditional health care by rural Lao involves herbal medicine, massage and healing rituals. Practitioners of traditional medicine are highly valued. Little western medicine is practiced, and where it is, it coexists with traditional medicine. Although there is little preventative health care in Laos, the Ministry of Public Health has a program of vaccination reaching about 50% of targeted children. Buddhist monks often play a role in physical healing. All family members contribute to the care of the sick and physical privacy is important. The concepts of mental health and mental health care are not developed.

Educational System

Public schooling in Laos begins at age six. After six years of elementary school, students take an exit exam and many end their education at that point. At the 10th grade level another round of exams are given. Public education is provided up to the 13th grade; however, further education is basically unavailable. Those who can and wish to keep studying generally must seek international education. The literacy rate in Laos is 70% for men and 44% for women.

Lao in Santa Clara County have a wide range of educational backgrounds, with lowland Lao being more likely to have attended school.

Lao in Santa Clara County


About 7,000 Lao live in Santa Clara County. The first Lao were resettled in the county from refugee camps in 1980, as in other parts of the country. The greatest number also came at that time, so that Lao as a community has experienced twenty years of acculturation. Over time, new arrivals have been more likely to have come based on family unification. The respondents of the survey had lived in the county from one to twenty-one years, with an average of 11 years. Very few Hmong have been resettled in Santa Clara County, and in general, the few who are here have been incorporated into the greater Lao community.

The Lao on public benefits reported living almost exclusively in San Jose. The total number of people living in the household ranges from four to twenty-one. Nearly all had less than six years of education. All had household income of $30,000 per year or less.

Social Customs

Interpersonal Communication

Lao generally greet each other with the nop: placing one’s palms together, with fingertips pointing up, in front of the chest. The higher the hands are held indicates a higher level of respect. Lao are accustomed to using a handshake and, of course, in the U.S. have adopted such greetings, although women may be less likely to do so. Eye to eye contact may be considered disrespectful as may be touching the opposite sex. A kiss is an inappropriate greeting. Saying “no” may also be a sign of disrespect.

The head is the most sacred part of the body and it is inappropriate to touch another person’s head, including a child’s head. The feet are the least sacred and it is rude to use one’s feet to point or move something. Similarly, it is rude to put one’s feet on furniture. People remove their shoes when they enter a home or temple (wat).

Lao have a system to provide for newcomers to this county based on their cultural and religious traditions. When a new family arrives, it is housed by a settled family who teaches them where to shop and how to use American systems.

Emotional Support

Lao on public benefits are most likely to talk to a friend (40%) or relative (40%) about their personal or emotional problems. Buddhist monks are also important to help with these issues. However, 20% of them reported that they would talk to no one.


Since Laos is a country of many cultures, traditional dress varies. However, common traditional dress for women is the sinh, a skirt wrapped around the waist with about two yards of silk brocade material. Another length of material is draped over the left shoulder and under the right arm. It is often worn with a belt of silver buckles or rings. Men might wear the traditional baggy pants, or sampot, at a wedding or ceremony.


The food of Laos is as diverse as its peoples. To Lao, cooking is an art, and mealtime is important. The main staple is sticky rice. Other common dishes include fresh fish, vegetables and chopped or pounded spiced meat (lap). Lime juice, lemon grass, and coriander are used as condiments. Fish sauce, hot chilis, garlic, mint, peanuts, ginger and coconut milk are used for seasoning.

Religious Traditions and Holidays

Buddhism plays an important role in shaping Lao life. Buddhist men are expected to become monks at some point in their lives, usually before marriage, even if only for a few weeks. The temple, or wat, is the center of village life, serving to resolve disputes and provide social services as well as religious worship. In Santa Clara County, Lao share a temple with Thai and Cambodians.

Lao holidays generally revolve around Buddhist traditions. The major holiday of the year is the New Year, or Pi Mai, which is celebrated in mid April for three days. The New Year is a time of giving thanks and of seeking forgiveness. The elders are honored and asked to forgive the wrongs done by the younger people in the previous year.

Challenges in Santa Clara County

The greatest need identified by Lao on public benefits in Santa Clara County is health care, including dental care, eye care and general medical care. Other top concerns included housing, ESL and help with citizenship. The Lao focus group rated education as the number one concern, followed by health care, mental health services, lack of support within the Lao community, housing, and community education.

As solutions to these needs, the focus group urged health education, particularly in the areas of mental health, nutrition and preventative health care, and specifically for the elderly, the young and women. They suggested providing information on health insurance and the U.S. health care system. They stressed that these services must be culturally competent.

The focus group also suggested having a centralized resource center where Lao could network, get family support, and receive referral information. They envisioned programs for leadership training, mentoring, and services for low income Lao.


Lao on public benefits were most likely to feel discriminated against by police. When stopped by police, over 90% of the Lao on public benefits reported feeling scared and nearly half felt mistreated.

Barriers to Services, Benefits and Information

Lao on public benefits rated “not enough English” as the number one reason that Lao do not get services, benefits or information. Other major barriers include no affordable child care, no time, and scheduling problems.

Employment and Working Conditions

Occupational Data

The data collected from the survey of public assistance recipients indicates that the respondents were likely to change their occupations. The number one reason that Lao stated that they have a different job in the U.S. than they did in Laos is their lack of English.

Working Conditions

Most Lao on public benefits have no medical benefits, and half have no sick leave. Almost half work overtime or a swing shift and work on average 40 hours per week.

Small Businesses

Only a small number of the survey respondents reported having one family member being self-employed or having a small business. The respondents reported many barriers to starting a small business such as: lack of English skills, need for information about legal permits and requirements, not getting a loan, and not knowing what kind of a business idea might be successful.

Public Benefits in the Lao Community

Six of ten Lao on public benefits report knowing the requirements for SSI. Five of ten are knowledgeable about food stamps requirements and one-third know General Assistance requirements. Twenty-five percent know the requirements for the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants (CAPI). Less than ten percent know the requirements for CalWORKs.

Lao on public benefits report that they are treated with respect by their eligibility workers for Medical, CalWORKs and food stamps and that the workers communicate well with them. While most Lao receiving public assistance report getting written information in a language they understand from their social workers or eligibility workers, they are less likely to understand the information they receive by telephone.

Educational Access

K-12 Education

Only 5% of Lao in the U.S. are college graduates. A relatively low percentage (26%) of Laotian Americans between 18 and 24 attended college in 1990. Also, the dropout rate of Laotian Americans is relatively high at 12%.

Eighty percent of Lao on public benefits have children in school and nearly half participate in a school or parent organization. Most Lao on public benefits would like their children educated both in English and in Laotian. To address the educational issues of their children, the Lao focus group suggested providing tutoring, mentoring, counseling, and classes in traditional values and culture, as well as after-school activities. Parents felt a lack of understanding of the educational system, which impedes their ability to help their children succeed in school.

The top need in the Lao community determined by the Lao focus group was educational opportunity for all ages. The group saw education as a threshold issue that could address many of the other needs discussed such as income and housing. They described the need for education to improve language and communication skills, to alleviate cultural barriers, to improve career opportunities, and to increase earning capacity.


Nearly all of the Lao on public benefits in the survey rated their English as “average” or “poor.” ESL ranked as a major concern for the survey respondents and the focus group participants. The Lao surveyed said that they would like to improve their English skills for daily living situations, to participate in their children’s education and to further their own education.


A majority of the Lao immigrants who responded to the survey reported being naturalized U.S. citizens.

Communication and Outreach in the Lao Community

Nearly all Lao on public benefits report having a telephone and a television. Over one-half have a radio and a VCR and under half have a computer and/or internet access.

Santa Clara County has no Lao radio, television or newspapers. However, these do exist in the greater Bay Area. Information directed specifically to the Lao community in Santa Clara County should be made available at the Buddhist Temple. The main sources of information for Lao on public benefits are first, through friends, and second, through family.

Lao in Action: Lao Lane Xang of Northern California

Lao in the U.S. have experienced bombing, war and refugee camps. American culture and systems can be difficult to navigate. Older Lao, who were respected without question in Laos, find that their extensive agricultural knowledge is not relevant in suburban California. The Lao community numbers less than 2% of the county population and the country is not well represented or reported in the U.S media.

In response to these needs, the Northern California Lao Lane Xang of Northern California was established in 1977. Five local chapters and 4,000 members make up the association including one in Santa Clara County.

The Santa Clara Chapter of the Lao Lane Xang Association is made up of 200 volunteers who offer services for adjustment, educational support, interpretation services, and social services. Lao Lane Xang Association also provides social events and networking opportunities.

Peter Chittavong leads the Santa Clara Chapter as its President during the time he is not working with Lao for the County Health Department. Lao Lane Xang Association promotes the well being of Lao in the U.S. and a better understanding of Lao to the non-Lao population.