It took almost 18 years and an 8,500-mile plane ride for Amphone Nolintha to get a restful night’s sleep.
Nolintha, 60, is the mother of Vansana “Van” and Vanvisa Nolintha, the brother and sister who own Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant in downtown Raleigh.
When her two youngest children each reached the age of 12, Amphone Nolintha and her husband, Sompheng, 61, sent them from Laos to the United States. The siblings came to Greensboro to live with a family friend, went to school, learned English and were able to stay for college.
“As a mother, it was never a question to send [my children] away. I wanted my children to have better lives,” Amphone Nolintha said during a recent interview with her son translating. “The doubts came later.”
It took almost two decades for the parents to get visas to visit their children in America. This summer, for the first time, they were able to see the life that their children had created in Raleigh, meet the friends that they heard about and see the successful business their children run together. These two months are the longest these parents and their children have spent together since Van left Laos in 1998.
At dinner one night, Van, his parents and several friends sat down to eat khao poon, a spicy vermicelli soup that his mother had made. As everyone sat down around the dining room table, his parents took the opportunity to have Van translate for them.
Her voice cracking, Amphone Nolintha explained that she had not slept well for the last 18 years. Van translated: “Since she came for her visit, she’s had no issue sleeping.”
Then for his father, Van said: “They want to thank the higher being but also want to thank our friends for taking care of us.”
Celebration, then homesickness
When Amphone and Sompheng Nolintha were children in the early 1960s, Laos was in the midst of a civil war. Their mother grew up mainly in Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos. During the war, she and her family hid during the day in vegetation-covered holes to avoid being seen by soldiers. Sompheng Nolintha grew up in the neighboring province of Xam Neua, which bordered North Vietnam.
Their homes were in two of the most heavily bombed areas of Laos during the Vietnam War. U.S.-supported fighters in Laos attempted to disrupt the North Vietnamese forces using the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos as a way to resupply its soldiers in South Vietnam. The conflict is known as the U.S.’s secret war in Laos.
Amphone and Sompheng met in the 1970s while working as schoolteachers. They supplemented their meager pay by selling bean sprouts, ice and lanterns made from recycled condensed milk cans. Eventually, Amphone became a pharmacist, a role in Laos involving not only selling medicine but providing health consultations.
By the time Van was in middle school, his parents had eked out a middle-class existence in Laos and owned a boutique hotel. They sent their oldest son to Vientiane, Laos’ capital city, for high school. In 1998, his parents arranged for Van – then age 12 – to go to the United States to live with the daughter of a family friend. Van was to learn English, go to school and work at the Greensboro family’s restaurant, the Japanese steakhouse Sapporo, and eventually return to Laos.
When Van got his visa, it was a time for celebration. His homesickness only came later. He entered middle school and struggled most with the unstructured times of the day, like homeroom and gym, when the other children weren’t forced to interact with him. On his first day, he spent the entire lunch period in the bathroom.
“I couldn’t speak English. I didn’t have any friends,” Van said. “Those times highlighted how alien I was in the community.”
Van threw himself into school, mastering English, becoming a straight-A student and getting involved in extracurricular activities. A year later, his sister, Vanvisa, joined him.
Vanvisa said she had a similar transition. Unsure in school, she followed a girl named Han whose family were Montagnards from North Vietnam to learn what to do. At lunch that first day, whatever Han picked up, Vanvisa also put on her tray.
“She grabbed a Rice Krispies treat, so did I,” Vanvisa said.
A restaurant family
It would be five years before they were able to visit their parents. During those years, Vanvisa said her brother became a mother, a father and a sibling. He was very strict, so much so that he refused to let her go to prom. (That’s the reason Bida Manda’s annual anniversary party is “Bida Promda” so Vanvisa can enjoy what she missed as a teenager.)
The siblings were able to stay in the United States for college because the family that sponsored them ended up adopting them. The adoption was finalized on Dec. 4, 2004 – eight days before Van’s 18th birthday. If he hadn’t been adopted by then, he would have had to return to Laos.
Van, 29, graduated from N.C. State University with a design degree. Vanvisa, 28, received a hospitality degree from the UNC Greensboro. They had originally planned to return to Laos after graduation and Vanvisa had talked about opening a school. Instead, the siblings struck on the idea of opening a restaurant. Their parents offered to sell some land to fund the enterprise.
Bida Manda, which opened in 2012, is different from most restaurants. Job applicants have to write an essay about why they want to work there. Waiters and bartenders have two weeks of training with required reading and watching: Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode on Laos, a few chapters of Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table,” a well-regarded hospitality tome, and an essay by “Eat Pray Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert about a perfect meal she had in Laos.
In the kitchen, the siblings have made a concerted effort to hire refugees, about 11 since they opened. Their first hire was Nai Tar Yuk, 40, a massage therapist and father of three from Burma who started out busing tables in 2013, and now works behind the bar. Yuk has become a patriarch to the other refugees hired to work at Bida Manda.
Hiring refugees has its own challenges. There’s often a language barrier as well as cultural differences. Van explains that much of what they do is make sure the workplace feels safe for them; workplaces back home were often hierarchical and fear was used as motivation. Bida Manda offers family-like support: collecting coats for the refugees and their families in winter, staff giving English lessons to the adults and their children, raising money to help buy cars. For Yuk, funds were raised to pay for massage therapist school so he can get licensed here.
To honor Van and Vanvisa’s parents during their visit, Yuk cooked a traditional meal as a thank you. “When I came here, I had zero,” Yuk said. “Now I have a house. I have a car. I have friends.”
The four years since the restaurant opened have been the hardest on their parents, especially on their mother’s ability to sleep. Bida Manda meant her children were no longer planning to return to Laos. Amphone and Sompheng Nolintha were twice denied visas to visit the United States. Their mom would often stay up until 3 a.m. (Laotian time) to call them between lunch and dinner at the restaurant. She wanted to know: were they eating enough, sleeping enough, working too hard, wearing sunscreen?
Finally, this year they were approved. On Aug. 13, after their flight landed at 4:50 p.m., they were whisked from the airport to the restaurant. (The name, Bida Manda, means “father mother” in Laotian. A banner showing the parents’ wedding portrait hangs above the hostess stand.) About 30 people were there to greet them; many with bouquets of flowers.
A hush fell over the restaurant when they arrived. Within moments, their mom insisted on sitting on the kitchen floor to pray and make an offering, a common practice in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. “It was making the kitchen sacred and saying, ‘Thank you,’ ” Van explained.
Van had envisioned this visit as a chance to show his parents the fruits of their sacrifice: their full lives, core group of friends and growing business with a brewery, flower shop and another restaurant expected to open in December next door to Bida Manda in the former Tir na nOg space.
They have taken trips to the mountains and the beach. They have hosted dinner parties, even a Thanksgiving celebration. They celebrated Bida Manda’s fourth anniversary with a party at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh.
Their parents have reveled in the little things: car rides, Vanvisa’s dog, Spike, trips to Target, sitting in Bida Manda and watching the busy restaurant and their children at work, walking the streets of Raleigh and finally having a frame of reference for the life their children have described for years on the phone.
But those 18 years apart keep surfacing.
During a trip to Oak Island, Van and his mother were walking along the beach when they came upon a mother and three children who were about the same age as he and his siblings when he came to the America. The kids were running and playing in the surf.
Van commented: “They are so happy.”
His mother turned to him, her face flushed with emotion and asked: “Were you a happy kid?”
In that moment, Van realized they couldn’t ignore the 18 years they had been apart. His parents didn’t want to only see the rosy ending. They wanted to know the ups and downs and details of that time apart. They wanted to express their concerns and regrets. During that same conversation, his mother told him: “I’m sorry. I wasn’t a part of your life.”
On that same trip to the beach, Van also found some peace about those 18 years. The family went out for a boat ride to watch the sunset. Van, who often takes photos with his camera or phone, loves taking pictures of the water, which reminds him of the scales on a fish or snake skin. He has never shared that observation with his mother or talked about art or design with her much at all.
While watching the sunset, she made a similar observation, comparing the water to naga, a serpent in an early Buddha story and protector of Laos’ capital city, Vientiane. It gave Van the chills.
Reflecting on it afterward, Van said, “Perhaps those 18 years were not lost. They were there.”
Bida Manda is a Laotian restaurant at 222 S. Blount St., Raleigh, 919-829-9999, bidamanda.com