The Last Page

Uniting Two Strangers

By Bill Miles '77

“Excuse me, sir, but what is that you have there?” On the Boston-Attleboro commuter rail, it's not often that strangers strike up conversations. Even less likely is when a petite young lady stretches across the aisle to ask a middle-aged man about anything other than the name of the next train station. But it was happening to me, and I felt like I had just won the MBTA lottery. I was so flustered I didn’t even realize what object the daring damsel was inquiring about. All I registered were her American accent and her pleasant, decidedly Southeast Asian features.

On the 45-minute rail journey we shared she began to tell her story. Her name was Mimi, and she had been born in Laos some 20 years ago. But her mother died when she was barely six, and her father—who already had a second wife—was not all that interested in parenting without her biological mother. And so Mimi’s grandparents, who already had distant relatives in the United States, managed to get all three of them out of Indochina. Mimi recalls the refugee transit stop (which she called a “concentration camp”) through which they first had to pass. Settled in the greater Boston area, Mimi had never been back to her birthland. But she had plans, she said, to return in November. She would see her father for the first time since leaving Laos as a young child.

Unless you came of age or were already grown up in the 1970s, the name Laos probably means very little. But for baby boomers and their elders, Laos inevitably conjures up the whole unsettling mess of the Vietnam War. Although the United States never officially sent troops into this northwestern neighbor of Vietnam, its Communist government and sympathies made it the target of one of the most extensive, and secret, air-bombing campaigns in U.S. military history. Laos was also the theater for the largest-ever CIA-run paramilitary mission. But today who hears or thinks about Laos?

Thirty years from now, I wonder if some random commuter will similarly encounter an immigrant on the commuter rail, only this time one from Iraq. Will Iraq by then also be a vague recollection, as distant a memory as the number of American soldiers who will have died for its “freedom”? Will there be tens of thousands of refugees from the Persian Gulf scattered throughout America, as there are Laotians and Vietnamese and Cambodians today? Is the Pentagon planning to airlift the countless Shi’ites we have trained and supported—as it did for our allies the Hmongs—just in case Baghdad deteriorates badly? It is clear that we are suffering from not having planned for the aftermath of our initial victory in Iraq. Surely we ought to be planning in case our withdrawal goes awry as well.

Oh, yes—the object of Mimi’s curiosity on the southbound line? Her grandmother had taught her the Laotian custom of tying a braided string around a visitor’s wrist, as a sign of friendship. Mimi was noticing the string around my own wrist. It was secured there, I explained, just weeks before, as I was preparing to leave Luang Prabang, the UNESCO-designated world heritage site in her native land. By now more Bostonian than Laotian, Mimi had never heard of this haven of Buddhist temples. But out of her once-tormented land, the one we had bombed and bombed, this ancient rite of friendship had survived, uniting two strangers on a train. Between former enemies, even a fragile string can secure friendship.

Miles is a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston, from which he conducts anthropological-style research throughout the developing world. He returned from Laos this past June, this time with wife Loïza. Three months later, they were still wearing the new pair of string bracelets that were tied around their wrists.