By Siamphone Louankang
On my recent visit to Laos, I could still find many reminders of the country’s royal past, one of the most prominent being the Royal Palace (or “Haw Kham “) in Luang Prabang, which was converted into a national museum. The palace was built in 1904 during the French colonial era for King Sisavang Vong and his statue can still be found on the palace grounds. King Sisavang Vong remains widely revered because he presided over the country’s independence from the French Union and was one of Asia’s longest ruling monarchs. Upon his death in 1959, the king was given a grand funeral service attended by foreign diplomats and heads of state, his ashes were buried with full honors in Wat That Luang, Vientiane. King Sisavang Vong’s successor-son met with far less fortunate circumstances. In December of 1975, King Savang Vatthana was forced to abdicate and bring an end to the 600 year old monarchy. He and members of his immediate family were taken to an internment camp in Sam Neau, northern Laos. King Savang Vatthana died without a public burial and the precise date of his death is still in dispute.
Many descendants of King Sisavang Vong left Laos after the monarchy came to an end, several re-establishing their lives in Western Europe and North America. One of his descendants, great-granddaughter Dara Stieglitz, now leads an active life in the Garden State of New Jersey. Following the royal form, she would be titled Her Highness Tiao Daraphon Souvanna Phouma Stieglitz. She is the daughter of His Highness Tiao Mangkhala Souvanna Phouma and Her Royal Highness Tiao Ouannarangsi Souphantharangsi. The Princess was later adopted in 1974 by her aunt Her Highness Tiao Moune Souvanna Phouma and her husband Perry Stieglitz. Her father is the first son of His Highness Tiao Souvanna Phouma, the last prime minister of the Kingdom of Laos and Aline Claire Allard, daughter of a French father and a Lao mother. Her mother is the daughter of His Royal Highness Tiao Souphantharangsi, the younger brother of the late King Savang Vatthana, by the same mother and same father. Making light of her heritage, she says “we have an inside joke in the family that my mother married down, that makes us the children halfway up to heaven.”
In the book titled “In a Little Kingdom: The Tragedy of Laos 1960-1980″ Dara’s adopted father Perry Stieglitz explores with intimate detail the dramatic role her paternal grandfather, Prince Souvanna Phouma played in Laotian politics. Stieglitz first visited Laos in 1959 on a Fulbright grant to teach English and returned in 1961 as a U.S. State Department foreign service officer. He married her aunt Princess Moune, daughter of Prince Souvanna Phouma, in 1968 and as a result became a close witness to the political battle for control over Laos between the “Three Lao Princes”. Prince Souvanna Phouma, his half brother Souphanouvong and Boun Oum Na Champassak from the south, alternately led the country against foreign domination and civil wars. Stieglitz greatly admired Prince Souvanna Phouma for being a pragmatic prime minister, continuously working to bring the competing factions together. His neutralist position was supported by U.S. President John F. Kennedy and the Geneva Conference of 1961. Which was in contrast to Souphanouvong, who was called the “Red Prince” for his full support of the socialist revolutionaries and a departure from the conservative Prince Boun Oum, who stood in full opposition to communism. Despite their differences, they are still considered to be three of the most important political leaders of post-colonial Laos. Backed by the Soviet Union and the North Vietnamese Army, the communist Pathet Lao forces overthrew the royalist government. Dara’s maternal grandfather was with his brother, the King, when they were taken away.
Being the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of two tremendously significant figures in modern Lao history is no small burden. She explains that, “Expectations are huge before and when people meet me. Just hearing my family name, I see people wonder what I want from them. Just seeing me, I feel people questioning how to approach me. As one person recently said, ‘OMG How do I talk to a princess?’ (and he is not the first to have this question)”. Her answer to them all is, “We are humans first and foremost. Second we are male or female. Third we are Royals. How I got to be born into such an illustrious family behooves everyone including me …” While she accepts her title, she describes herself as a no “Disney Princess” with grace, beauty and a soft spoken manner, admitting that, “I laugh loudly with joy, rarely wear makeup, I move all muscles in my body to music, I speak from my heart.” She claims that she failed Lao Traditional Dancing when she was 7 and was asked not to dance. But, she reassures me that, “I definitely can salsa and cha-cha!”
Dara has three siblings that she knows of and says, “the more the merrier.” She loves her siblings and their spouses. “Anyone marrying any of us,” she says, “had to have guts.” She herself shunned tradition by marrying her long-time partner, three years after their daughter was born and says it, “makes life exciting.” With regards to her decision to marry a non-Laotian man, she says, “Interracial marriage is beautiful, it strengthens our blood and brings new thoughts and points of view into families and communities. It is well known that with any community that continuously intermarry their children the potential of having genetic issues — case in point certain religious based communities, and royal families.” Dara’s describes her husband as an Irish-English-Catholic-American from Queens, New York whose roots can also be traced to Trinidad and Tobago.
Born in the United Kingdom in 1964 while her maternal grandparents were in London as Ambassadors, Dara understood early on that her life was not ordinary: “I was not the nicest child, spoiled, indulged. I was surrounded by abundance. Abundance for me is defined by how much love I am surrounded with. I am grateful for all my life experiences and for all the individuals who shared of themselves for my well being.” In the ten years she lived in Laos, she recalls traveling back and forth between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, between grandparents, but not seeing much else. She moved every 2-3 years, even in Laos, but was kept grounded by what she describes as the “greatest and most wonderful family and friends.” Some of her oldest friends were ones she had since age 10, and one of them even married into her family, “It’s like yesterday, when we get together whether by phone, by e-mail, Facebook, now Twitter or in person.”
Out of concern for her safety due to the political changes within Laos, Dara was adopted in Thailand by her aunt and her husband who was an American citizen. At age 11 she stood before the court in New York City to take her citizenship oath and recalls not understanding a single word of what she was saying. After going between Thailand, Belgium and France, she finally came to live in the U.S. permanently at age 16. These days, she describes herself as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, cousin, an aunt and a friend. She also doubles as a cook, gardener, chauffeur, house cleaner, painter, webmaster and coach — presently a secretary for the New Jersey Professional Coaches Association. She studied at George Mason University, receiving degrees and training in neonatal and pediatric nursing as well as special education. She is also trained as a Success Coach and Certified Family Coach, “guid[ing] people of all ages and backgrounds to obtain the goals they desire in their lives,” and helping people, “change their environment to support individuals and families as they are undergoing personal growth and transformation.” Her services were colorfully described in a recent Washington Post article titled “Kid Tamer”. She describes herself as spiritual, but nondenominational, having studied and lived within Theravada Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, Catholicism and Judaism.
Regarding the turbulent years of conflict in Laos, Dara prefers to learn from them and not involve herself in the political debates. She teaches her daughter the same, “It was a period in history. It is her choice to learn from it. All I ask is ‘what are you learning from reading, hearing and seeing anything? How are you responding to people who come in contact with you no matter their thoughts, words nor actions?’” She has returned to Laos three times since she left in 1980, to visit her maternal grandmother and to see her paternal grandfather who passed the day she left in 1984. In 2008, she returned with Give Children A Choice, a non-profit organization based in New Jersey. This was her first time in the mountains, being a city child, and she felt that the experience was fabulous, “I went by van from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, four days three nights with my 9 year old daughter, saw parts of Laos I never knew existed nor were so beautiful. When I was young, the fear and possibility of kidnapping was huge, so I was inside the gates most of the time. I apologize to all my uncles who were policemen to whom I gave heart palpitations and maybe even lost their jobs because of my antics.” She loves the work that the people of Give Children a Choice are doing because she feels their mission is in line with her own passion for communication, education and coaching. She plans to return with them to Laos as a volunteer.
Dara is especially proud of her work with the Laotian American National Alliance (LANA), which was started in 1996. She does advocacy work for the group, speaking for many persons of Lao descent, especially in regards to health and education. Her advocacy also includes asking people to keep learning, be involved and knowledgeable of things that might affect them, including available scholarships, health care issues such as Medicare and immigration matters. She joined LANA because she resolved to make it her life purpose to create environments where people can discuss all topics with integrity, honesty and openness. She maintains the www.lana-usa.org website and in collaboration with her colleagues, shares information of interest and of importance to the Lao community. It is entirely volunteer work, which means no pay for travel, mailings or phone calls. She explains that the team is motivated by their concern for the community at large, because they love to connect and empower people for the purpose of promoting the greatest good.
LANA focused on connecting Laotian Americans with the First International Lao New Year Festival held in the San Francisco Bay Area, April 10-12, 2009, http://www.laonewyear.com/. This event was a collaboration with the Center for Lao Studies and Lao Heritage Foundation. Their first event was a commemoration held on April 10th in Novato California, where several thousand Southeast Asians, including Laotians of all ethnicities, immigrated through Hamilton Field in the late 1970s. Starting the following morning, on April 11th, was a full day long celebration of Laotian culture, involving many multiracial and multiethnic groups. It was a mixture of the old and the new, with traditional dance performances as well as popular modern music. The final day included a screening of the Lao-American documentary “Nerakhoon: The Betrayal” which has been nominated this year for an Academy Award (Oscar). Their motto for the event was to “Celebrate, Collaborate, Educate, Advocate 30+ years in the United States.” Indeed, the group worked tirelessly for several months with supporters throughout the country to pull together an awesome celebration.
LANA is also focused on Census 2010, and she relates: “This is very, very important and crucial to our community because we need numbers to support our advocacy work in each state where there are Lao persons of all ethnicity. We need these numbers for education purposes, for health care, for immigration, to let people know we are here and there are lots of us. Census data shapes the future of our emerging community, define our Lao American voice and political influence in Congress. Census information is used to allocate billions of dollars in government funding for important community that we rely upon, such as schools, roads, hospitals, child-care centers and more. Census data is utilized as a source of key statistical information needed to secure federal, state and philanthropic grants from private foundations and tools to advocate for policy changes. The census determines how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the boundaries of legislative districts. Also lack of data continues to perpetuate the myths of overachieving Asian American populations, especially the disparities and achievement gaps among Southeast Asian and Pacific Islanders. This means people believe that Laotian Americans do not need support of any kind which is so far from the truth. We have the second highest dropout rates for highschoolers.”
LANA is actively fundraising to have an Executive Director, who can represent all Laotians in Washington, D.C. She explains, “Having presence is of importance 90% of the time, because then people know we exist and are active in the American society.” While she has no comment about the current political climate in Laos, she does have an opinion about U.S. politics. “YES!” she says, “Change happened. I live in the U.S., I exercise my voting rights. Every voice counts.” Thank you with Dara for sharing your story and yourself with all of us.
Find more about LANA at http://www.lana-usa.org/.