Laos to Lancaster
Ole Hongvanthong's Story, as told by Laura Korzon
When he was 5, Ole Hongvanthong and his mother travelled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to visit his grandmother and other members of his family who immigrated from Laos after the Vietnam War. The two flew into JFK airport, where they were met by Ole's cousins and he ate American ice cream for the first time. A few days into the visit, his grandmother decided that Ole was to stay in Lancaster for school and everyone, including his mother, agreed that the decision was in his best interest.
He didn’t feel sad when he separated from his mother because he was caught up in the moment — the tall buildings, the ice cream, and the American cartoons kept him distracted. Ole was too young to understand that it would be years before he would see his mother again. From the moment he arrived, he was kept busy and the separation from his mother never set in. He didn’t speak any English, but was scheduled to start public school in a few months. He took ESL classes to prepare and spent every summer after that taking extra classes to stay caught up.
Ole grew up feeling like an American, but when he turned 17 he learned that his Visa was about to run out. His family worked together to resolve the situation and it was quickly decided that his aunt would adopt him. This meant his mother would need to give up her parental rights. Ole was willing to do anything to stay and believed that the adoption would be the easiest way for him to become a US citizen. The process proved to be much more difficult than expected, involving piles of paperwork and endless interviews. The long process was dragged out further by constantly changing laws: whenever the laws changed, Ole and his family had to start from scratch with new paperwork and more interviews. At the time, he thought that they intentionally made the process difficult just to see how much he could take.
Most unexpectedly taxing in all of this was the emotional stress. Ole needed to prove he was a good person, but someone was always looking to find fault in him somehow. He found himself questioning his self-worth and his character. He questioned his decision to go through the process, as so many people made sacrifices for him, and wondered if he was worth it. He started to think about his mother who selflessly gave him up.
In 2010, Ole finally became a citizen. He found that he was suddenly treated with more respect even though he was the same person as before. He was was frustrated and wondered if he had lost more than he gained. Today, Ole believes that going through the process made him a more caring and empathetic person, as he gained a deeper appreciation for his family who pulled strings, contributed money, and made sacrifices for him. In 2014, he was finally able to travel back to Laos and see his birth mother, the woman who gave up everything to make his life better.
Ole is happy now, living in downtown Lancaster with his wife Heidi, an immigrant from Brazil. He owns a successful photography business that was recently featured in the New York Times. He is actively involved in community outreach programs and is currently running for school board.
Ole Hongvanthong, Pennsylvania