Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
December 31
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at


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NOVEMBER 4, 2011 8:31AM

The Laos Project #5: Writer Seeks Laotians in Pittsburgh

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Pole Vault 

This excerpt continues my story of Laos, a nation I plan to explore at the end of November. My book project, called One Million Elephants, concerns the aftermath of the Laotian Civil War. For the first part of this serial, click here. Photograph of martial arts performer, taken at the Pittsburgh Dragon Boat Festival, an annual celebration of Pan-Asian cultures and cuisines.


For the last six months of graduate school, I kept thinking about Laos. I’d sit in classes, read required texts, join discussions—but my mind was elsewhere. For every assignment I received, I wished I was using that time for Laos. To save money for my flight. To learn a few phrases. To contact anyone who might help me.

Pittsburgh may not be the worst city in America to find Laotian people, but they’re unbelievably hard to track, and I found none. By reputation, Asian-Americans tend to gravitate toward Carnegie-Mellon University, where thousands of transplants study engineering and international business. I’ve taken hundreds of walks across campus, and crowds of East Asian people cluster in doorways and ride bicycles and tap at Smart Phones. They speak a dozen languages, from Mandarin and Korean to Tagalog and Japanese.

            “CMU is so Asian,” someone will say.

            “CMU is really Asian,” someone else will agree.

            A neutral adjective, without particular judgment. Just an awareness, like a change in temperature. This is where Pittsburghers know East Asians to be. Also engineering nerds and robots. It's a racist observation, yes, but in the most disaffected possible way.

            But anywhere else in Pittsburgh, Asians are noticeably absent. Mine is a black and white town, a place of dead factories and new hospitals, far from either coast. Pittsburgh has no Chinatown, nor any history of Asian influx. The railroads here were built by Poles and Irish. More Pittsburghers were born in India than in China or Taiwan. Less than three percent of residents classify themselves as Asian or Asian-American.

            The hints of Southeast Asia pop up as restaurants—Thai places are everywhere, from Bangkok Balcony to Thai Me Up. There are plenty of Vietnamese fans who end up at Tram’s Kitchen and order steaming bowls of Pho soup. The “food trucks” are a personal favorite, and I have frequented them for years. These weather-beaten vans line up along the curb, where they cook their curried dishes and take orders from hungry students. Their menus are hand-written on paper, and the stews are dished into Styrofoam boxes. These people come from all over the world, as diverse as their cuisines—Thai, Tandoori, Chinese and Pakistani—and sometimes people ask them questions. But the talk is short. There’s food to serve, and the customer queues are long.

            In the Strip District, I’ve visited several Pan-Asian grocers, whose aisles are lined with sesame snacks, seaweed sheets, sacks of rice, jars of pickled ginger. I’ve always marveled at the refrigerators in the back, which contain the gamut of fish balls and mollusks, primly packaged and frozen. If you want fresh tofu, this is the place—entire platters are covered in warm, jiggling blocks. No one speaks fluent English, not even the blank-faced cashiers. Even the racks in the vestibule sell only Chinese-language newspapers.

But none of this is Laotian. I couldn’t find a Lao language class, a Hmong community center, or even a serious Buddhist shrine. The refugees didn’t flee to Pittsburgh. We see some Boat People, the escapees from Vietnam, but even they are hard to find or know. And even if I found them, why would they talk to me? Who am I but a curious farang? So I happen to know about the saddest period in Laotian life. What do I want? A medal?

My foreignness blunted my every effort. I wrote to organizations, and they never replied. I wanted information, contacts, maybe sponsorship. Why not? I wrote to the Dalai Lama Foundation. Nothing. I wrote the Cluster Munition [sic] Coalition, based in the United Kingdom. Nothing. I introduced myself the Tricycle FoundationThe Asia Foundation and The Aftermath Project. At most, I received a cursory note, thanking me for my interest and politely declining any further correspondence. The bureaus I contacted in Laos never replied, but that I understood—I had to write them by email, in English. What did I expect?

            After nine months of searching, I cut my losses. Clearly, no one on the planet was equipped to help me. My parents offered a generous gift for airfare—as a graduation present. But as I finished my graduate studies and returned to the regular world, I sobered up: If I went, I’d have to do this alone. Completely, abjectly alone.

Which was fine. I wanted to go to Laos. No, I needed to go to Laos, I burned with desire to see it, I needed to walk the land that even the U.S. military had never bothered to touch. But now, without support, I really had to go. There was no one I could meet halfway. I was venturing into the jungle, in every conceivable way.

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Hi Robert! I learned how to read Lao at the Center for Laos Studies site: Learning Lao is pretty complicated. Good luck!
Hi Robert! I learned how to read Lao at the Center for Laos Studies site: Learning Lao is pretty complicated. Good luck!
Hi Robert! I learned how to read Lao at the Center for Laos Studies site: Learning Lao is pretty complicated. Good luck!