The documentary Blue Collar and Buddha was an excellent documentary which portrayed the wave of Laotian refugee immigration from both the perspective of the immigrants as well as of the various host country people. One aspect of the general reaction of Americans that stuck out to me was the contradiction of logic presented by people who opposed the admittance of the refugees and the people who supported it. The Americans experienced a culture shock seeing the way the Laotian monks dressed, hearing the Laotian language, and seeing their Buddhist temple. Feeling unwelcomed and ostracized, the Laotian refugees turned to one another for community. The Americans reacted apprehensively and cynically to their behavior and accused them of being a “shady” and “mysterious” people. What the Americans failed to recognize was that the Laotians’ insular tendencies were a natural response to the initial cold and hostile response they received from the Americans after trying to integrate into their communities.
After watching this documentary, I better understand part of why the Americans in the receiving town reacted so negatively to the Laotians’ presence. The United States was experiencing a recession around the end of the Vietnam war, and the host town in particular was experiencing depression levels of unemployment. Therefore, the unemployed Americans were furious when they saw some Laotians employed while they were not. They were further outraged when they heard the government was supporting the refugees and saw American veterans getting denied certain social services at the same time. However, the Americans failed to realize the Laotians were experiencing the same depression they were. The Laotians equally faced the threat of unemployment and equally needed government assistance. Furthermore, the support that the refugees received from the government and private sponsors was aimed to help them acclimate to American society and equalize the playing field, not give the refugees any advantage. The Laotians were initially at a comparative disadvantage because they did not know English and were not accustomed to American customs and so needed assistance. While I recognize some of the American misunderstandings were fueled by economic instability, I also saw from the documentary that some of their sentiments stemmed from mere racism and xenophobia. Some of the interviewees used slurs and baseless stereotypes to characterize the Laotians, and one man his even described his feelings towards them as an instinctual rage. The Buddhist temple was a major target of this American xenophobia, as it was bombed twice.
What I found most interesting in the documentary was the fusion of Buddhism and Christianity in the Laotian community. One of the refugees described a fundamental difference in how Buddhism and Christianity view religion. Buddhism is pacifist while Christianity is active, so Buddhism does not promote conversion while Christianity does. Therefore, the Laotians were able to accept Christianity while confidently simultaneously maintaining a Buddhist identity. To them, religion was not a zero-sum game where one expels the other. As a result, the Laotians would attend church some weeks and temple on others, and they were genuinely invested in both. What was even more interesting was how they came to Christianity. Because their sponsors were mostly Christian churches, they felt a duty to express their gratitude by attending the services of their sponsor churches. This brings me to question just how much they truly believed in the Christian message, and makes it easier to understand how they could identify as Christian and Buddhist simultaneously. This dynamic changed after the Laotian bible was introduced. This is one of the first ways in which the community really sought to integrate Laotians in the community, and the Laotians were receptive of this gesture. More of them were able to connect with the Christian message and on a deeper level as a result.