Refugee to Restaurateur
July 5, 2015
"Boom...boom, boom, boom." She heard gunshots and her body froze, stopping her climb up the short cliff just over the Thai border. Then, "Ok, you're safe."
Seng had heard the stories - of bodies floating in the river, killed while trying to get across. Her friend's mother was one of those bodies. She was shot while on a boat and the family decided it was too dangerous to try to take her body with them.
"You hear stories like that and you get scared," said Seng. Luckily for her family, the shots they had heard must have been aimed at somebody behind them, another family trying to escape to safety.
Seng was born in Laos to a large, middle-class family. She lived comfortably with her great-grandmother, grandmother, her grandmother's twelve children - including her mother – her cousins, and her three siblings in one big house. When she, her mother, and two brothers fled Laos in 1981, they were among the last members of the family to leave their home. They had stayed behind to help take care of Seng's grandmother, but ultimately, her grandmother forced them to leave too, out of fear for their safety. Only Seng's youngest sister stayed behind to help take care of their grandmother and great-grandmother.
My grandmother paid a couple of guys who were smugglers...[but] because we were so little and my mother was the only woman, my grandmother didn't feel safe with the smugglers because anything could happen. So, she asked an uncle who lived next door to come with us.
Seng, her mother, and two brothers met their uncle at the bus stop the next morning. But, "when you walk to the bus station in a group like that," Seng explained to me, "people get suspicious." So they lied, saying they were going to visit her father. Since her parents were divorced, it had been common for Seng and her family to visit their father who lived in a separate town. What the neighbors didn't know was that Seng's father had already been taken away.
My dad was already gone - somewhere we don't know. [He was] taken away be the new government. He just didn't come home [one day] so we didn't know exactly how he was taken. As far as we understand though, when something like that happens, they're gone. We didn't know if he's even alive or dead. And, there was no way to find out because back then there was no technology - no cell phones, no information.
Seng and her family fled Laos in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Laotian Civil War. The civil war raged between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao government from 1954 to 1975, in part as a proxy war between the major Cold War powers. Meanwhile, between 1964 and 1973, the United States engaged in 580,000 bombing missions in Laos, as part of the "U.S. Secret War in Laos." The legacy of the American effort to support the Royal Lao government lives on today due to unexploded cluster bombs that continue to unexpectedly detonate.
Seng's mother and father both worked for the Royal Lao government. They faced trouble after the communists succeeded in seizing power in 1975.
We felt we were in danger. Anyone who worked for Americans [was] taken away to camps or killed. My dad was already taken away. Then my mom was also being threatened because she worked for the Department of the Interior with a high-ranking government official. She carried a lot of information because she was doing a secretarial [job], typing all sorts of documents and stuff.
Seng doesn't remember much about the process of leaving Laos - "It all happened so fast," she said, "I was only twelve years old at the time." But she remembers taking the bus ride to a small town near the Laotian/Thai border where they met the men who would take them across the river into Thailand.
It was dark already when we got there, so I can't remember what it looked like. But, we know it's somewhere not in the city. You only hear birds and animals. You don't hear cars.
They were given a meal, pillow, and blankets. Then, at 2 or 3:00 in the morning, the smugglers woke them. It was time to move.
For reasons unknown to Seng, she and her mother were separated from her brothers and uncle.
That's when we got so scared. I was like, 'Ok, why are we women hav[ing] to leave on our own and the men go this way, and the ladies go that way?' But we were like, 'We have no choice because we hired them already. Whatever happens, happens.'
Eventually, the women and men were reunited at a boat. They took the boat to a riverbank, then got out and waded through shallow water on the Thai side. Standing only four feet tall, Seng remembers the fear she felt at having not known how to swim. But, she knew she couldn't scream and just focused on reaching land without getting caught.
Afterwards, climbing the cliff, they heard those deadly shots, "boom...boom, boom, boom." But, Seng and her family got lucky. They made it to Thailand undetected, where they sought refugee status.
Two refugee camps and nearly two years later, Seng and her family arrived in California in 1983. Between the refugee camps in Thailand and their new home in America, Seng and her family made a three-month stop in the Philippines. There, several nonprofits had formed a program where refugees could learn English and begin to learn about life in America. They watched movies and pretended to shop with American dollars. "It's a lot of fun because we get a chance to go to school," said Seng.
Fast forward thirty-two years, Seng has moved across the country to DC where she has opened her own restaurant. She met her husband in America at age seventeen and married him when she was twenty.
I've been cooking ever since I was little. Growing up in a third world country, you had a full responsibility, especially [as] an older girl in the family. Your full responsibility is being at home, helping your mom and grandparents...I was trained by my grandmother who taught me how to cook. Ever since I remember, I was in the kitchen watching her cook.
But, for Seng, cooking was more than a responsibility. It was - and continues to be - a passion. In America, Seng completed high school and community college. She got a job in banking, but all the while continued cooking - first for fun; then she began catering small parties. Eventually, she realized:
Gosh, this is what I want to do for my life. I don't want to do anything else but cooking. I hated 9 to 5 jobs, but I had to do that because I had no knowledge of doing business yet. I [was] still young, still learning.
After opening her catering company - which she ran out of her home kitchen - Seng decided, "I want to open a restaurant. I want to cook in a restaurant."
She spent two years at home conducting research for her new endeavor. She came up with different recipes, tested them, and started over until they were perfect. Her husband even joked, "You need a bed in the kitchen."
Seng's work paid off. In December 2014, Seng opened Thip Khao in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC.
When I like something, I motivate myself and I learn. It doesn't really affect me when people are saying, 'It's hard. Are you sure you want to do this?' Because I know I can trust myself. I go home and I'm exhausted. I have no social life, but the moment that people talk about food, about what I do, that's the happiness. I'd rather be cooking."
Laab Gai, the national dish of Laos
Seng working in her kitchen
Laab Gai (minced chicken salad)
- 1 chopped chicken (white meat, dark meat, or both)
- 3 tsp fish sauce
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 2 tsp lime juice
- 1 tsp toasted rice powder
- 1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh lemongrass
- 1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh kaffir lime leaves
- 2 chopped red bird eye chili (optional)
- 1 tsp ground dried chili flake
- 1/3 cup chopped scallion
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
- 1/3 cup shallot/red onion
- 1/3 cup mint leaves
- Boil a couple cups of water on high heat. Add the chopped chicken and stir for several minutes, until cooked. Strain off all the liquid and run under cold water to cool the meat to room temperature.
- Place the cooked chicken in a small mixing bowl. Add the fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice. Mix well.
- Add the remainder of the ingredients. Mix well.
- Serve with fresh cucumber, lettuce, or cabbage. Eat with sticky rice or as a lettuce wrap.