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2 sisters, who fled the Vietnam War as kids, reflect on what they've been through

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's time again for StoryCorps. Sisters Mai Lo Lee and Beth Lo grew up in a large Hmong family on a ginseng farm in Wisconsin. But their story goes back to the Vietnam War. As young children, they came to the U.S. in the early 1980s from a refugee camp in Thailand after their family fled the war. At StoryCorps, they reflected on all they've been through together and one of their favorite family legends.

MAI LO LEE: I was born in a refugee camp.

BETH LO: Right. And I do remember the sense of chaos, of panic. It's not like you dial 911 and, hello, my mother is having a baby.

LEE: Yes, yes.

LO: (Laughter) Right? We didn't have anything to put you in, so we put you into a little rice steamer.

LEE: See, and I heard that I didn't come out crying, so they were worried. So they had to steam me because they thought that I was cold.

LO: Yep.

LEE: And then I started to cry. And that's when they took me out...

LO: Yeah.

LEE: ...And was like, (gasping) yep, she's OK.

LO: (Laughter) That's how you got your Hmong name.

LEE: Yeah, which means rice steamer. And you were a child who remembers when everything got broken in our country.

LO: Yeah. Dad had to leave, or he was going to get killed for being against the communist government at that point. I believe I was 4 when I was separated trying to escape. We were so poor, but he hired people to try to find me because they knew I survived.

LEE: Our parents took all their life savings to find you.

LO: Yes, and that's how I became reunited with our family.

LEE: Do you remember coming to the U.S.?

LO: Yes.

LEE: We grew up in the country as children of ginseng farmers. So we spent so much time with mom and dad on the farm, but it wasn't joyful.

LO: Right.

LEE: You weren't allowed to talk. You weren't allowed to laugh. And you weren't allowed to listen to your Walkman.

LO: There's 10 of us, and it was quite lonely growing up being the oldest in the family.

LEE: Do you think that's why you like book so much?

LO: Yes.

LEE: Yeah?

LO: Yes.

LEE: We used to get yelled at for reading that this wasn't going to be a skill set that brides needed.

LO: Right. But you and I, we snuck it in wherever we could and just kind of flashlights under the blankets.

LEE: Yeah. But when I think about both our parents, they did the best they could with what they had.

LO: Yeah, they did what they needed to survive. And I think a little bit of that did trickle up to us. Mom and Dad passed, but we still have that. I never give up. If Plan A fails, there's always Plan B.

LEE: You know, I don't think I've ever said thank you for you being there for me.

LO: Of course. I just really appreciate you in my life. I don't know what the future holds, but I do know I want to be with you.

LEE: Yeah.

LO: I want to be with family.

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MARTIN: That was sisters Mai Lo Lee and Beth Lo, who live together in Wisconsin. Their interview is archived at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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