The International Institute of Akron’s Program Coordinator, Bon Xongmixay, was born in Laos. Her birth name is an adaptation of “Vientiane,” the capital city, and “kham,” the Laotian word for gold: Vieng Kham. Her early childhood was filled with simple joys, such as watching her brother chase birds and delighting at the sound of the last school bell.
Soon, however, dread seeped into their lives as rumors of “re-education camps,” grew. Many men, including an uncle, were eventually detained and never heard from again. To avoid this fate, Bon’s father fled to Thailand, finally gaining passage for his family in 1981. Departure was treacherous, however, because those with relatives abroad were closely watched.
Wearing only the clothes on their backs, Bon’s mother, brother and she, left early one July morning without belongings or even shoes. To avoid detection, the children travelled separately with a man pretending to be their father. They were hidden in a fruit stand until he returned that evening and took them to a boat on the Mekong River; there they were reunited with their mother and joined by many others.
Upon reaching Thailand, they disembarked and were on their own. Bare-footed, directionless and without money, they walked. Bon’s mother was frustrated by her inability to read street signs; the children were crying as rocks cut their feet. Eventually, someone listened to their story and invited them to stay the evening. Though exhausted, Bon’s mother kept vigil: their host having turned out to be not only intoxicated, but threatening.
In the morning, they were directed to a resettlement camp and eventually located Bon’s father. From there, they moved to the Philippines and eventually, to a relative in Akron. While Bon and her brother were in school, their parents attended English and survival classes. Because neither was literate, Bon soon found herself in the role of child-interpreter, a heavy burden for a child of eleven.
She struggled with the new language also at school, frequently using a dictionary to understand a new word, only to discover it contained additional expressions and unfamiliar terms–a journey down a rabbit hole, whose conclusion often left her wondering where she began!
With the help of friends, however, she succeeded in not only in graduating High School, but achieving an Accounting Associate’s Degree. Bon worked in several areas before1995, when she accepted the job at IIA, and eventually advanced to her current position. As luck would have it, she also met and married a fellow Laotian here in 1992.
She believes her three teenage children gained an appreciation for their native language and culture during a visit home in 2008. Though her parents’ property was transferred to relatives and it is unlikely any more family members will leave Laos, Bon and her husband keep the tradition alive and endure the separation by focusing on her parents’ well-being and the bright future their children will inherit through education.