A Laotian Journey to the Land of the Giants

by Kenneth Champeon, May 15, 2004 | Destinations: Laos / Mekong River

One would think by its title that Laotian-American T.C. Huo's novel Land of Smiles is about Thailand, given that Thailand has laid claim to that title despite the other smiley lands of Southeast Asia. But most of the novel's action takes place in America, where the narrator and some of his relatives have fled to escape the civil war in Laos, which was waged sporadically from the country's independence in 1949 until the Communist "emancipation" in 1975.

The narrator, a teenager named Boontakorn, escapes from Laos by swimming across the Mekong River into Thailand. His father soon joins him in a refugee camp there. But his mother and sister perish while making the attempts, a fate shared by countless others, who either drowned or were shot by border guards. Yet because of this mass exodus, there are now more ethnic Laotians in Thailand than in Laos. Add to this the power conferred by using the language of economically dominant Thailand, and, writes Huo, "Those at the Thai side of the border spoke Lao, and those at the Lao side of the border spoke Thai."

Boontakorn and father arrive in "the great America". Boontakorn is overwhelmed by how BIG Americans are: "Big bodies, big heads, large faces." But he is underwhelmed by the emptiness of American streets: "The whole of America seemed to have been evacuated." They begin in Ohio, but find it too cold. And Americans can be cold too. Boontakorn is told: "They'll respect you for being rude." He leaves Ohio for sunny California, or rather foggy San Francisco. Though already familiar with English, Boontakorn enrolls in an ESL class dominated by Hispanics and Vietnamese. Boontakorn is forlorn.

At sea in America, he is nonetheless determined to stay. But then he meets a Chinese-American woman who convinces him to return to Laos. They go together. The Laotian immigration officials are suspicious, surly. Boontakorn is scared that he will be deemed a traitor, but his worries are needless. He meets family and acquaintances, and by the end of the novel he seems reconciled to his homeland, though resolved to remain in his adopted one. Huo himself, having emigrated from Laos to the United States in 1979, now lives in California.

In certain ways a conventional novel of the bittersweet Asian diaspora, Land of Smiles is told in an aloof and tragicomic tone that defies comparison, and with a wit as dry as Vientiane in March. Some of its incidents are nearly hallucinatory, as when Boontakorn imagines that Superman has swooped down to the Bay Area to rescue an endangered bus.

Laotians are a gentle and unassuming people, who like Boontakorn's father are perhaps more at home with song than with prose. Thus the Laotian contribution to world literature has been small. A welcome sign that this trend may be reversing, Land of Smiles is the source of many a smile.

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Review of T.C. Huo's Land of Smiles, Plume, 2000.

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