Lunch with Marjorie: Becoming an American

I learned how to spell and pronounce Sonephet Vongprasearth’s name opening a bank account for my daughter, because it’s the bank with both Rockford and Decatur branches. Sonephet is from Laos, but she grew up in the Midwest, and has lived here almost 25 years.

My first question: “Is there a Laotian restaurant in Rockford?” She affirmed.

And always important: “Do you eat there?”

“Yeah, uh-huh. They’re family-owned.”

She chose Thai for our lunch. It was close to the bank. But, the Riverside restaurant was closed Saturdays, so we walked to my new standby, Halsa.

“Do you eat Asian at home?”

“Not every day—but whenever I can.”

She likes fried noodles.

“Is Laotian food mostly stir-fry?”

“Yes, and soup.”

“Are you into organic food?” I asked.

“I know what it is, but I don’t know—what is organic?”

I educated this petite, young woman, who can probably eat fried foods with no repercussions. Life isn’t fair. She gets the beautiful skin, beautiful hair, and the propensity to thinness.

She ordered a roasted chicken sandwich with American cheese.

“Do you relate to women always thinking about weight?”

“I don’t really have that problem. In Laos, they’re really active—they have to be. They walk all the time because they’re poor. They don’t have cars. You’re lucky if you have a bicycle.”

“You’re naturally thin. How tall are you?”

“I’m 5 feet. I’m short,” she giggles.

Sonephet likes Laotian barbeques—chicken and ribs, but with “oyster sauce, fish sauce, MSG, and Hoi Sin sauce.”

“Do you remember coming to America?”

“We started on a boat—then flew here on an airplane.”

“Were you refugees?”

“The whole thing started because we had to escape from the Communists. My dad was a mayor in Laos—of a city. He didn’t like what they were telling him to do, so he left, and didn’t tell anybody. My mom didn’t know. The Communists came to our house and asked, ‘Where is your husband?’ I was probably 4 or 5 then. He escaped, and finally my mom got into contact with him. (We) somehow met in Thailand—across the water. My father had a friend—maybe his best friend…we had to kind of escape, too, so that the Communist people wouldn’t know where we were going. We crossed in the middle of the night, probably about an hour. It wasn’t too far. We got on a boat, and my mom’s friends made us kind of jump, almost half way, because they didn’t want to get caught also. My mom begged them, ‘Please, I’ll swim, and the two boys will swim, but the three girls, you have to get them to shore.’” Others were there, too. “They had to jump. My mom, this is a really good story,” she interjected, “my mom had to actually save a pregnant woman, ‘cause she was jumping and drowning, so my mom got her and brought her back.”

“Scary stuff,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” she said, congenially

“People would kill you?”

“Oh yeah. You had no choice. Either you do it, or you die.”

We drew a map of Southeast Asia on our napkins.

“(My father) was working with an American when he was a mayor. You weren’t allowed to associate with any…if you’re Communist, you’re Communist. I don’t know what happened, but he felt endangered. We landed in California and then went to Brookfield, Wis. Our sponsors were a group of nuns (who) took us in and had a huge mansion—a convent.”

We paused. Our sandwiches arrived.

“It tastes pretty good,” she said, surprised.

I wanted more on the nuns as sponsors.

“Were you Catholic?”

“I was going to (be). I went to a private Catholic school until high school. But (at) baptizing time, I asked (the nun). She said, ‘No.’ She was a nun and she’s telling me no, you need to find your way. You need to know what you’re going to do in life.”

“And now?” I asked.

“I believe that there is one God, a universal God. The difference is the language barrier. It’s how everyone explains it. I go to a (Buddhist) temple, but only to special events. People have to follow all those rules. I don’t think it’s necessary.”

She paused.

“Americans take a lot of things (for granted). I went back to Laos in 1996. There’s so much going on. I’m very fortunate—from my parents…for them bringing me here, letting me learn the American culture, and my own. I feel very lucky. We have both lives. We go back to Laos and see this whole different culture. Then coming back to America…it’s just like, wow!”

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

From the April 27-May 3, 2005, issue

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