Manophet: Lonely Buffalo

I had the pleasure of meeting a gentleman in Laos, Manophet, whose life story is pretty amazing. As a farmer, monk, soldier, singer, translator, teacher, and father, his life was full of triumph and tragedy, that should make us all think about our own selfish desires and priorities. I’m saddened to hear that he passed away due to a stroke in Laos. I came to know him through a Phil Borges photo while doing work for Legacies of War, and hope that my own humble attempts at documenting what I thought to be some important moments in my own life, preserve the good will and spirit that he sure did emanate.

These are some transcripts from the video that I shot during our group dinners in Xieng Khouang. (Due to the audio quality I might be a bit wrong on some passages, but I transcribed as best as I could) Yeah, good times…


(Manophet telling us the story about how during the bombing campaign in Xieng Khouang, his village and family was torn apart, and how he lost and reunited with a brother)

M: “…and we thought, if he’s alive, he’s probably with mother, and my mother thought, if he was alive he was probably with father.

When both sides came back without him, and we thought he was killed.

But 1994 we knew that he was alive. In Minnesota. In Minneapolis. A Hmong family came back to visit (Xieng Khouang) and they brought the picture to my father, my mother, and they asked, ‘Remember the man?’ They said ‘No,’ it’s been too long, since ’68 til ’94. And then in 1997 he came back to visit.”

FB: “Where was your brother that day?”

M: “He was with a Hmong family during that day, during that night.”

ER: “They protected him. They took him in because he was lost. And they took him to America with them.”

M: “Yeah, and then they trekked from Xieng Khouang to Viengchanh, 3 months, walked until they got to Viengchanh, and then they swam across the Mekong River, and they got caught by the Thai police and got sent to the refugee camp. And from there they got the opportunity to go to America. And then the Hmong family said, ‘What about the boy?’ (referring to Manophet’s brother)

If you would like to come with us you would have to change his name, to be a Hmong name, and then my brother did. He added his name to the family list and then they were gone. They started to settle in Philadelphia, that’s where my brother went to school, and the Hmong family supported him, and he became some sort of a nurse, or some support to a doctor. Now he works for the Hmong community in Minneapolis.”

FB: “Did you ever get to meet him again?”

M: “Yeah, he came back in 1997. On behalf of the family I was holding up the sign. It was a big day, I was you know, suspecting a lot, because I was a soldier before. I was trained in Viet Nam, Russian instructors told me sometimes you will see CIA come to your family with someone’s picture and try to get information. I thought, 50% it could be true and 50% it could be…false, you know…and I keep holding the sign, and finally he walks out. When he saw his name, he dropped everything in front of the gate and he runs to me. He couldn’t say any words to him, because he was shaking me, asking ‘Are you my brother, are you my brother?’ I can’t recognize him because it’s too hard. Then he said ‘Where are our parents?’ Behind me is my family, my father my mother, and my sister, the rest of the family. He pushed me out of his arms and he ran to my parents. All of them were crying…29 years went by, we came back to see each other again.”

“It was the biggest day. And he got to visit only 10 days. And the government only allowed him to visit only Viengchanh. 10 days went by like 10 hours. My mother’s stories with the 3 children in the caves, my father’s stories with the 3 children in the refugee camps, my brother’s stories with the Hmong family on the way to America, life in America.”

“My parent’s nearly forgot him. The family nearly forgot him because it’s been too long. And then one day somebody show up and it was like–“

FB: “Rising from the dead.”

FB: “What was his age, was he older than you?”

M: “Yeah. He was 12 years older than me. He missed the both sides of the parents because the house was burning, and he ran out by himself. So he got lost. And the next day, he found a Hmong family, and the Hmong family kept telling him, ‘Come with us, soon you’ll find your parents.’

That’s why in my (English) class there are many Hmong children. (Points to his adopted son and smiles) Yeah, he’s Hmong.”

For me I don’t care whoever they are, they can come to me whenever they need like to learn. So the kids you have seen in class today, actually I charge them to pay me a little bit, but I usually do not get the money, maybe I got a bunch of bananas, pumpkins, bag of rice, vegetables, a live chicken in a basket. The students would say, ‘My father could not sell it, could we accept it?’ Most of the food they brought me, I have not chance to eat it. Because when they come to read the books during the weekends, they’re hungry, they cook whatever they brought me, they’re being there like it’s their house. (smiles) And some of them respect me more than in their house. They can come anytime.”

CK: “Some of them travel long distances to be in summer school. Some of them travel four hours, where do they stay?”

M: “They have their cousins that live in town. Or some of them they rent a house, 5 or 8 of them rent a little room and stay together.”

FB: “So do you have a wife?”

M: “Me? My wife have gone to America. To Connecticut. Because her father was a Royal Lao Army, and he was in the refugee camp. And so he settled in America for…good business. And he came back and took his family with him. He doesn’t want to leave the family here. He was afraid that sometime, you know, his family would be harmed by him (his past political association).”

FB: “So you live alone over here?”

M: “I have three boys with me. And then I have my own son.”

M: “My parents, are Lao born. And when I was younger they always told me what is good to do. Being nice and generous, that’s it.”

FB: “What happened with me is, I was in Viengchanh with IDS, and I lived in a Lao village for 2 and a half years, so I like the Lao people very much. At the time I didn’t like the Americans—well, I still don’t like the Americans (laughs all around).

ER: “…present company excluded.”

FB: “…in September of 1969, my friend who was a journalist asked me to go in and translate. So we go in on my motorcycle, and it’s the first day that the refugees were at That Luang and I was the first to talk to them, because I spoke Lao, you know.

M: “Could be including my father.”

FB: “Yeah, maybe. You know what you could ask your father? I have a very good friend named Boungeun Leungpraseuth, so he’s an ethnic Chinese but he grew up on the plain of jars, and he came out with the refugees. He became my best friend. So I was very angry about this. I was against the US government bombing the people (of Laos). One day I asked ‘Ngeun to collect the drawings and the essays so we could tell their story. So he collected them, because the people, they would not trust me, cause I’m an American, but they would trust ‘Ngeun because before he was a soldier with the Pathet Lao. So we had the book, ‘Voices from the Plain of Jars.'”

M: “Right! That’s my favorite book!”

FB: “You know it?”

M: “I know that book, very well.”

FB: “He’s the one that edited the book.”

M: “Oh my gosh! What a lucky meeting!”

M: “…especially since they allowed Russian troops to settle here, about 3 or 5 thousand Russian soldiers. I was a young boy, I tried to be a monk, or a novice. They said to me, ‘Why don’t you be a soldier?’ But the Buddhists that Lao people have been respecting for many hundred years, Russians just came for the short period, and said, ‘Why don’t you be a soldier?’ My father would like to go to the temple with food. They would say, ‘Why don’t you offer it to the military? It would be better than offering it to the monk, he’s doing nothing. Just staying there, what do you believe about that? But more than half of Lao population believe in that religion. But then they just come in the short time and they cut it off. Just from 2000 up did everything start to return. Before you wouldn’t see the monk walking around the streets of Phonsavanh. You won’t see any beautiful roof of the temple up in Phonsavanh, no. You won’t see any one to have time, to face in front like me and speaking English to you. If I did that, next day I have to be in the police station. ‘What did you talk about last night?’ ‘Who is he?'”

FB: “What’s your own attitude towards Buddhism today?”

M: “Well, just the first, xieng, or if you call it, you know, novice. Yeah, special occasions for the Buddhist, my family would go together to the Buddhist temple and you know respect whatever, or offering things. Meet the friends and talk the good things. Most of the monks here they like me, because they love me to tell them about about tourists, what do they ask, what do they want to say, what do they think about. Most of the old monks they really like me. Young novice, they also call me “teacher,” can you tell me this word? A lot of young monks, they learn English.”

M: “…and he went to looking for the (bamboo) shoots, and he dug it, and he hit the bombie. It was happening about 2pm. Like today. And later of the day, he doesn’t come home, and his wife try to go out to find him with the neighbors, but nobody found him. Until the next morning, 8am, they found him in the jungle. Both eyes, already gone. Like you said, the meditation will help, if you feel, you know, if you do something good for someone, you just sit down and quiet and think of something nice. That’s alright. And I mentioned it to her, and she was very proud that I gave the money to the blind man. And he used that money to build a fish pond because that’s the only thing he owns that will feed the family. Because only him a person that will affect the family for all. It was very hard to see somebody like that. And then Barbara, she went to the hospital to see the victims, from about 5 boys, 2 immediately died, and other 3 still badly injured. One still in the hospital, the other two already returned home. Just nearby my village. The other side of the hills. The boys found bombies and they tried to hit it and bang. When I thought about it, in that case I feel angry…for America. I tell you the truth, I feel very angry about it. Why did they make something like this? It isn’t an anti-tank, anti-aircraft or any other things, just the human, the little boy who know nothing. They got killed by this.”

M:  “Sometimes I feel I should leave this country.  I don’t want to see any more problem.  I want to be quiet.  I want to be free like the other people it would be easier.  In the other end, when I mention it to my students I stop teaching from tomorrow, many in the back row start to cry.  ‘Teacher if you stop where will we study?’  Well, anywhere you can find, you know for you.  ‘No, we can’t without you, we can’t.  Please don’t.’  It’s very difficult.”

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  1. Pingback: The Meaningful Life of Manophet « Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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