By Youngjin Kim, Research Intern, East-West Center in Washington. She is a student at the George Washington University.
Note: this article originally appeared in the East-West Center’s Asia Matters for America/America Matters for Asia initiative on August 24, 2017.
This summer, Elgin, Illinois hosted two programs in efforts to reconnect its Laotian American community with Laos and to reinvigorate its sister city relationship with the City of Vientiane—the capital of Laos. The first initiative, largely spearheaded by the Lao American Organization of Elgin, was a three-week long trip to Vientiane, Laos and Thailand between June and July. The trip gave nine Elgin-area Laotian American youths both an opportunity to reconnect with their culture and a chance to volunteer in the Laotian community. Following the trip, Elgin hosted the eighth annual Laotian American National Alliance Conference for the first in the last week of July. Participants gathered from all across America to enjoy traditional art performances and to discuss the future of the Laotian American community.
The connection between Laos and Elgin began in 1967, when Elgin and Vientiane became sister cities. Since then, Elgin has been a forerunner in bridging the Laotian and American communities; during the Communist overthrow of Laos between the 70s and 80s, Elgin’s religious community helped the settlement of the Laotian refugees. Today, Elgin is home to the largest Laotian population of any city outside of California with more than 500 Laotian families. Elgin’s growing Laotian population formally established the Lao American Organization of Elgin in 1996. The city’s recent initiatives aim to improve both the educational exchange opportunities, and business and infrastructure development opportunities in Laos and the greater ASEAN community.
US-ASEAN trade has increased by 78% since 2004. Of all ASEAN countries, Laos is the third fastest growing economy. US-Laos bilateral trade has increased by 500% over the last decade; the growing bilateral trade volume led to the establishment of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement between the two countries in 2016. In this period of growing US-Laos exchanges and Laotian American community, local-level initiatives by the city of Elgin and the Lao American Organization of Elgin lead the effort in connecting the two countries and cultures.