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Carrying On Culture A Long Way from Laos: A Conversation With Vansana Nolintha

Vansana Nolintha was sent from Laos to live in the United States when he was just 12 years old. His parents wanted a better life for him and his sister Vanvisa who soon followed her brother to Greensboro, North Carolina. There were major hurdles right from the start. 

I knew I wanted her to remember my parents' cooking.

Vansana could not communicate with other kids, and loneliness permeated his early experiences in the U.S. Once his sister arrived, Vansana became like a father to her and took on a lot of responsibility, including the role of disciplinarian. With time the siblings found their stride and eventually success.

The first thing we did was go to Barnes & Noble after we landed in Raleigh and bought 'How to Open a Restaurant for Dummies.'

Today Vansana and Vanvisa are the co-owners of Bida Manda restaurant in Raleigh and two of the partners behind Brewery Bhavana. The former is a tribute to their parents and their family’s deep history in Laos. Their newest venture Brewery Bhavana is a fusion of their family heritage and the traditions of their adoptive community in North Carolina. 

Vansana Nolintha joins host Frank Stasio to talk about spirituality, family and his drive to share Laotian cuisine and culture. 

Interview Highlights

Vansana Nolintha on Laotian buddhist rituals around honoring ancestors:

Back in Laos when someone passes away their spirit enters this space that's quite silent and dark. And the only way for that spirit to find light and find direction is through the positivity — and through the Boun [spiritual currency ceremony] —  that's conducted by the living. So there's this interconnected web between the living and the dead … I think we grew up [with] a tradition where there's not a separation between, you know, life and death. In fact, there's no Laotian word for death.

On his parents upbringing during civil war in Laos:

My parents grew up during the war. We call the Vietnam War “The American War” in Asia. Laos is the most bombed country per capita in our history. Roughly about 2 million tons of bombs were dropped in Laos in nine years, which is roughly around the size of a plane load every nine minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years. I remember my grandparents telling stories of having to dig big giant holes so that the children can hide underground during the day so that American planes wouldn't see movement or any moving lights. And my mom’s siblings and her would come out from the holes at night to bath and to study and to cook.

On his relationship with his sister when she first joined him in the U.S.:

She was so young, and I knew I wanted her to remember home. I knew I wanted her to remember my parents’ cooking. I knew that as a young child growing up in the states, I wanted her to feel like mom and dad still love her. So we did everything we could to make sure that she remembers home. And one of those things was cooking [mom and dad’s recipes] for her.

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Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.