In the first 5, incredibly uncomfortable minutes of this documentary, we see some of Rockford, Illinois’ bar-goers bemoaning the introduction of a Laotian minority population to their town. Between swigs from their beer steins and puffs from their Marlboro cigarettes, they complain about the adverse economic effect these people have allegedly brought with them. “Any n****r worth their salt makes less than a Laotian, I bet.” There is also the complaint that Buddhist temples are tax-exempt (a luxury that I am very afraid to tell them, is actually afforded to Christian churches as well). Paradoxically, though, there is a similar complaint circulating around the bar that Laotians are un-American and lazy, unwilling to learn American English.
In the next section of this documentary, we see older denizens of Rockford, Illinois recall their own ancestors’ experience coming to America. As we learn, many did it less than 100 years ago, only putting them about a generation, maybe two, ahead of the Laotian immigrants today. It’s funny in hearing these stories just how hypocritical these people’s understanding of history can be. In their recollection of the difficult lives of their ancestors and the hardships they must have faced as first-generation immigrants coming to America in search of a better life, they somehow stop time and assume that no new history can be made. There is a nostalgia for the Rockford that used to be; for the remembered Rockford (make Rockford great again?). Unfortunately for these townies, however, life/history goes on, and these newly-arrived Laotian refugees have just as much a right to be here as anybody else in this country. (Justice for Per!)
In trying to understand this disconnect, we see some notable slivers of truth to the polemics of these bar-goers and later veterans. As a refugee group, it is very likely that U.S. policy during this time gave priority to Laotian migrants over other groups due in large part to guilt over the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War. That being said, however, it is also incredibly likely that these former Laotian refugees (now American citizens) were heavily screened for both their background and work qualifications. For this reason, and the economic desperation inherent in being a war refugee, it makes that the likely highly-qualified Laotian population would seek to do exceptionally well economically. Still, even with this understanding, I am confused by the argument that this somehow brings down working-class Americans. As the mayor admitted in his interview, Laotians are very rarely competing for the types of jobs lower-to-middle-class Americans are searching for.
As a quick aside, probably my favorite part of this documentary has to be when all of these citizens, who were confirmed to be anti-Laotian racists earlier on, act shocked when they hear of a pipe-bomb being thrown through a Laotian temple’s window. Later on, we hear them try to blame it on Nazis or communists, kids, or other “radicals,” which I find especially hilarious considering that the views they themselves hold are already pretty radical. There’s also the fear that these Laotian citizens, by enclaving themselves in fear of nationalist attacks like the one mentioned, are “up to something.” On the opposite end, though, I did appreciate the work the local church did in helping these people get used to American life upon arriving. You can see the obvious gratitude in the community in the way many respond, saying they consider themselves at least partially Christian now.