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2 sisters, who fled the Vietnam War as kids, reflect on what they've been through



It's time again for StoryCorps. Sisters Mai Lo Lee and Beth Lo grew up in a large Hmong family on a ginseng farm in Wisconsin. But their story goes back to the Vietnam War. As young children, they came to the U.S. in the early 1980s from a refugee camp in Thailand after their family fled the war. At StoryCorps, they reflected on all they've been through together and one of their favorite family legends.

MAI LO LEE: I was born in a refugee camp.

BETH LO: Right. And I do remember the sense of chaos, of panic. It's not like you dial 911 and, hello, my mother is having a baby.

LEE: Yes, yes.

LO: (Laughter) Right? We didn't have anything to put you in, so we put you into a little rice steamer.

LEE: See, and I heard that I didn't come out crying, so they were worried. So they had to steam me because they thought that I was cold.

LO: Yep.

LEE: And then I started to cry. And that's when they took me out...

LO: Yeah.

LEE: ...And was like, (gasping) yep, she's OK.

LO: (Laughter) That's how you got your Hmong name.

LEE: Yeah, which means rice steamer. And you were a child who remembers when everything got broken in our country.

LO: Yeah. Dad had to leave, or he was going to get killed for being against the communist government at that point. I believe I was 4 when I was separated trying to escape. We were so poor, but he hired people to try to find me because they knew I survived.

LEE: Our parents took all their life savings to find you.

LO: Yes, and that's how I became reunited with our family.

LEE: Do you remember coming to the U.S.?

LO: Yes.

LEE: We grew up in the country as children of ginseng farmers. So we spent so much time with mom and dad on the farm, but it wasn't joyful.

LO: Right.

LEE: You weren't allowed to talk. You weren't allowed to laugh. And you weren't allowed to listen to your Walkman.

LO: There's 10 of us, and it was quite lonely growing up being the oldest in the family.

LEE: Do you think that's why you like book so much?

LO: Yes.

LEE: Yeah?

LO: Yes.

LEE: We used to get yelled at for reading that this wasn't going to be a skill set that brides needed.

LO: Right. But you and I, we snuck it in wherever we could and just kind of flashlights under the blankets.

LEE: Yeah. But when I think about both our parents, they did the best they could with what they had.

LO: Yeah, they did what they needed to survive. And I think a little bit of that did trickle up to us. Mom and Dad passed, but we still have that. I never give up. If Plan A fails, there's always Plan B.

LEE: You know, I don't think I've ever said thank you for you being there for me.

LO: Of course. I just really appreciate you in my life. I don't know what the future holds, but I do know I want to be with you.

LEE: Yeah.

LO: I want to be with family.


MARTIN: That was sisters Mai Lo Lee and Beth Lo, who live together in Wisconsin. Their interview is archived at the Library of Congress.

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