by Pamela Burdman
For most of his life, Phou Phommachack thought he would die in his native village in the lowlands of Vientiane province in Laos. He had ten acres of rice fields and a three-story home where he and his wife raised their eight children. He traveled frequently to the capital city, Vientiane, to run his lucrative business shipping goods up and down the Mekong. There he had taken a second wife. But the village of Sanakham, where he enjoyed the respect and deference of his first wife and children, was still home.
It is a life that seventy-year-old Phommachack sometimes longs for especially after a taste of American-style freedom. Today, though he lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Stockton, California, Phommachack does what he can to retain traditional Laotian values. And as an elder in the Laotian community, he helps pass on traditional culture to the younger generations.
Phommachack is active in the local Buddhist temple, where one of his key functions is performing wedding rituals for young couples. Wearing a colorful Laotian cotton sash, he lights a candle and attaches a string to it, and as the bride and groom hold each end of the string, he summons their souls to love and care for each other.
"Some people want to adapt to the mainstream culture," said Phommachack, "but in my opinion, I’m a Laotian. I was taught to carry on my culture."
Living a traditional Laotian life, however, has been difficult for Phommachack since he left his homeland twenty years ago at the urging of his second wife. They arrived together in California in 1981.
Phommachack recalls a peaceful and harmonious life in the first few years, when their two children were born. But America presented a reversal of roles: His wife, a medical doctor conversant in English and thirty years his junior, was far more independent than he was. Her community college course load kept her away from home much of the time, while Phommachack stayed with the children.
Eventually, she came home so rarely that Phommachack grew suspicious. One day he followed her, and found her with another man.
"If I’d had a rifle I would have killed both of them," he said, noting that that would be standard procedure in Laos. "They’re not going to put you in jail for that. It would be an example for society.
"In Laos, a wife usually respects the opinion of her husband, because the husband looks over the family financially. There’s too much freedom here. Women and men share equally. Because women can work and earn some money, they can do whatever a man can do. They have the freedom to socialize.
"What she did was not right," he says. "She went on and on with another person, and here I had a family."
What happened next to the pair is what has happened to some 70% of Laotian couples living in the United States.
"My ex-wife, she filed for divorce," recalls Phommachack. "When that happened, I got a letter from the court. I went there, but nobody could help me with a translation. So I went home."
Later, as Phommachack tells it, he received a letter from the court saying he was already divorced. It included a restraining order forbidding him from going near his ex-wife or their children.
"I didn’t get a chance to say anything," he recalled.
In Laos, divorces are rare. When they do happen, typically they are initiated by men, because whoever requests the divorce must pay a fine. The process is supervised by village elders. The American system, he says, is biased in favor of females.
At the time of his divorce, Phommachack was left with nothing. Even his initial application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) was turned down. "I had no money to buy food, and my children were gone," he recalled.
Eventually, with the help of a social worker, he was approved for SSI payments. He has been living a frugal existence on $692 a month, just barely enough to cover his rent, utilities, food, and car payments. Forced to living such a meager existence only accentuated Phommachack’s bitterness about being abandoned by his wife.
Phommachack’s dire circumstances and his disdain for American mores are common among elderly Laotian men However, Phommachack’s luck recently changed in the most uncommon of ways.
In January 2000, he and a friend spent $100 on lottery tickets. After our first interview with him, he found out that they had drawn a winning ticket. Not surprisingly, that stroke of luck brightened his outlook considerably. Though he said he is still waiting to collect his half of the prize from his friend, a smiling Phommachack recently showed up at the local community center wearing a shiny new warm-up jacket and carrying a bank deposit slip for $1,786,077.
His first priority for his share, about $890,000, is to help build a new Buddhist temple for the Laotian community in Stockton. Then, he plans to buy a house and pay off his car loan. He hopes there will be enough left for him to make a trip back to Laos to see his family there. The money may also allow him to sponsor his children to join him in the United States. "I didn’t want them to come here," he sighed, "but it’s what they want."