In speaking about his life, Lau Yang explains that there are two threads which define his life and he says, they are the key to understanding him. He says “my life is not important. It is my wife’s life that is important,” and he adds “and the story of how I got here is pretty interesting.” So, what about those two threads, woven together over time, that have made Lau Yang who he is?
Lau was born in 1976 in a refugee camp in Thailand. His family – father, mother, and five sisters had fled their home in Laos, where they were born, to escape the intense bombing conducted by the United States in what became known as The Secret War. (see Footnote 1)
Lau and his family are Hmong (moan) people, (see footnote 2) native to China. The movement of the Hmong out of the refugee camps was overseen by the United Nations and other international rescue organizations.
The events that made it possible for Lau to be in America today comprise quite a story involving both the CIA and the Catholic Church.
Lau’s grandfather was a shaman, a spiritual healer and physician. He was treating his daughter who was very ill, but she was not responding. At that point the grandfather became acquainted with a French missionary who told him he would be able to provide medical care that would make his daughter well again. Lau’s grandfather wagered a bet with the French missionary. He would convert to Catholicism if his daughter was cured. She was cured, and he did become a convert. He was the first in Lau’s family to become Catholic. Soon after, one of Lau’s cousins also converted and became the third youngest person to become a deacon in the Catholic Church. Another cousin, who became Catholic, was able to make his way to France where he attended school. There he got a job as an interpreter for Jerry Daniels, the American CIA liaison officer, who was attempting to facilitate the evacuation of about 50,000 refugees to the United States. The connection between Daniels and Lau’s cousin had been a vital factor in getting Lau’s family out. One of Lau’s uncles was among those evacuated to the United States and he ended up living in Kentucky. He then became the sponsor for Lau’s family, which enabled Lau’s entire family to leave the refugee camp and establish residence in Kentucky. In the meantime the cousin, who was the interpreter for the CIA agent, ended up living in Illinois, and he took in the entire family (mom, dad, 5 daughters and the 4 year old Lau). Both Lau’s parents ultimately found jobs and were able to support their family. Lau’s father died 15 years ago, but his mother is still alive and living in Madison, WI.
Lau has a degree from the University of Milwaukee, but he says, “I didn’t really understand what it was all about.” He explains that he lacked direction, had no role models or specific goals. He spent 15-20 years working in the television industry, mostly in the sales area, but he is now doing what he considers to be the most important work of his life, which is caring for his son, Andre, who will be 3 years old this November 11th. Andre was diagnosed with moderate autism when he was 18 months old. Dre, as Lao and his wife call Andre, does not respond to spoken words. Lau and his wife Dawn have become involved with the Spectrum program and the early elementary program here in Ann Arbor. Lau says that without insurance, it would cost about $45,000 a year for Dre’s treatment programs.
Dawn, Lau’s wife, represents the second of the two threads that have interwoven with Lau’s amazing journey from refugee camp to America. Lau emphasizes the point that without Dawn and her abilities he would be nowhere. Life would be extremely difficult. They met when she was just 19. He was in his early 20s. Dawn is also of the Hmong people and she and Lau met at a costume fashion show in Madison, Wisconsin. As Lau puts it, “I just spotted her.” Dawn went on to major in Fashion Design at Mt. Mary College in Milwaukee. At the time her father was extremely displeased with her choice of major. He echoed what many who emigrated to America believed – that if you’re not a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, you’re nothing. He thought she should have studied something “more serious.” Ironically, today Dawn is the Design Manager for Carhart Work Clothes, a product that had always been the choice of, guess who,?Her father! She is now in charge of design for all clothing at Carhart, based in Dearborn, Michigan. Lau says she “works for an amazing company,” Lau and his wife have excellent insurance and adequate income to take care of Dre. Dawn’s career has made it possible for Lau to stay home and care for his son. He takes Dre to therapy in the morning, picks him up and spends the day with him. He says “we are lucky.” Dawn’s job requires some traveling so Lau’s parental responsibilities are very great. Today Dawn’s father could not be more proud of her. Does she allow her dad a discount on his Carhart clothing? That did not come up in our interview.
Lau says of Dawn, “she is truly living the American Dream and I owe everything to her. I’m a stay at home dad and I have the best job in the world. I live in the best city in the United States, and I’m part of the best sport community – pickle ball at the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center.”
Lau just began playing pickle ball earlier this year. He says he had played some basketball, but when he first showed up at MLM to play he “saw a lot of guys much taller than me.” And he also noticed the pickle ball players having a lot of fun. He says the appealing thing about pickle ball is the “community of people.” As far as the most challenging aspect of pickle ball is concerned, Lausays “you know, I don’t even think about that.” He comes mainly for exercise and enjoyment of the people, but does concede that he pays some attention to working on footwork and stroke.
Lau Yang is 41 years old.
In 1964, as more communist forces from North Vietnam began infiltrating South Vietnam the United States began a bombing program in Laos to interdict supplies going from Communist North Vietnam to their growing number of forces in South Vietnam. This supply route which ran mostly through the kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia was dubbed the Ho Chi Min Trail (named for the leader of North Vietnam). As the U.S. bombing of Laos was intense, thousands of Laotian civilians fled the country, Lao’s family among them. His father, a farmer, his mother and 5 sisters made it to Thailand and the refugee camp there.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordinance (UX0) Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased.
The CIA and the French recruited thousands of Hmong people in Laos to fight against forces from north and south Vietnam and the communist Pathet Lao insurgents. This CIA operation is known as the Secret War
Footnote 2 –
The Hmong people originated near the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in China. They are known as industrious farmers and are credited with being among the first people to cultivate rice and to spread this staple throughout Asia. Over centuries conflicts between the Hmong people and Imperial China led a mass exodus to Laos, Burma, and Thailand. Lau’s great grandparents moved to Laos to escape persecution. But even the Laotians oppressed the Hmong demanding one kilo of opium per household, taking away livestock and money from them. Some parents even had to sell their children to pay the taxes. Some parents were so upset they committed suicide by taking poison. WWII split the Hmong people about 60% remained loyal to the Royal Laotian government while the rest joined the communists.