Vivacious Mimi Liu speaks six languages, all but one learned under duress.
Now in her early 50s, the industrious Liu spent five years of her young life stuck in four refugee camps in Southeast Asia. Escaping Laos with her family, she eventually landed in California at 16. Six years later she found her way to Murfreesboro.
For the past five and a half years, the Laotian refugee and proud American citizen has worked at the Alvin C. York Veterans’ Administration Medical Center, most recently as a beneficiary travel program claims assistant.
“I get emotional working with the veterans. I sympathize. I really feel touched. Some have no legs, no arms. Some don’t even have a home,” said Liu. “I meet a lot who served in Vietnam. They get excited when they see me. They ask, ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘Laos,’ and they ask, ‘Where’s that?’ ”
Laos, the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, shares borders with China, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. The unitary Marxist-Leninist, one-party socialist republic has a population of about seven and three-quarter million.
Retired U.S. Army colonel Jerry McFarland of Lebanon met Liu at the VA hospital and because of his military experiences he recognized she was from Laos.
“She opened up and told me about her ordeal, and I was very impressed about what she went through with her family in getting to the United States. She came over here last year for our Veterans Day Parade. What got to me most was her saying she didn’t know how it feels to have a father living and that she couldn’t have closure,” said McFarland, who chaired the committee that coordinated the building of the Wilson County Veterans Museum.
Liu was the youngest of seven in her family and was born in Laos’ capital city of Vientiane in 1970.
“One morning three Communist guys walked up from the street and told my mom, ‘Excuse me, ma’am. Where is your husband?’ She told them, ‘He’s upstairs getting ready to go to work.’ They told him, ‘Sir, you have to go with us to town hall. We need to ask you some questions.’ Then they tied him up and kicked him on a truck.
“My mom asked, ‘Where are you taking my husband?’ They said, ‘To town hall for a few hours to question him.’ They never released him from city jail. I watched them taking him away from me and I cried. I can still replay that in my mind.”
Without a breadwinner in the house, Liu’s mother constructed a frame for weaving and told her youngest daughter she would have to weave and sell clothes to buy her food and books.
“In 1981, a man escaped the camp and came to my mother and told her, ‘Your husband did not make it. He died three years ago (from an asthma attack). Your husband said whoever makes it out alive; please go tell my wife and kids I did not make it.’ They put him in a pit on an island. We have no clues where he is buried. It’s heavy, isn’t it? That’s why I cry,” Liu shared.
Liu’s mother decided the family should attempt to flee Laos after two of her daughters escaped. The matriarch had no money but was able to borrow some which she used to bribe Communists to guide them across the border into Thailand.
“We made our plan. We left during the day, one person at a time per hour to go meet in the market. We got on a farmer’s truck, and he dropped us off (out of town). We walked at nighttime with two Communist people. One walked in front and one walked behind,” said Liu, who was 11.
“The camp was full, and there was no place for us. They put us in a cremation house, and we slept on a cement floor. The camp got burned down. They moved us to different places. We had to interview with the country where we wanted to go and the United States and France were at the top of our list because we had a sister living in the U.S. and one living in France.
“The second place was Nakhon Phanom Refugee Camp. When we arrived, the buildings had no windows and no doors. There were 20 rooms with 10 of us in each room. We slept head-to-head on cement, and there were no doors to close. Someone could come in and kill you. There were armed guards and barbed wires surrounding camp. We could not leave. We stayed there two or three years. We received rice and meat twice a week and lived in starvation.”
The American Dream
When her mother interviewed with American immigration officials, she was told her family could not be accepted because she had a daughter in France. They had to wait 18 more months in Thailand before her mother had a second appointment with American officials.
“This time Mom said, ‘No, not France. We want to go to U.S. I want to go to the U.S., the father of the world. I want to go to United States of America,’” Liu recollected. “So, we interviewed and we passed and our names got on the list in 1985.”
“I moved four times before arriving in America. Bataan was our fourth refugee camp. We can smell our first freedom. Then they prepare us for five months to learn English. We graduated and waited one more month before we had our names on the list to come to United States. We got our pre-green card. My mom could not read or write in Laos. She had to draw her name in English on her card.”
Liu and her family then flew across the Pacific to San Francisco where they next took a commuter plane to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif.
“Touch down USA! It was on Memorial Day weekend 1986. It was unbelievable. A long journey. I was 16,” said Liu, who moved in with her sister’s family in Huntington Beach, Calif.
“I went straight to high school. I got all the letters first year on my report card: A, B, C, D and F.
I was excelling so fast. I went to summer school. I loved learning. My ESL (English second language) teacher at end of my first year said, ‘You need to look at next year’s classes. You need to take a foreign language.’
“I said, ‘What foreign language? English is my foreign language.’ I already knew three or four languages in refugee camp: Laos, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese. So, I took Spanish, and while I was learning my English, I got an A in Spanish. I graduated in three years and got five As and one B my last year and graduated from Huntingdon Beach High School in 1989.”
Going straight to into the labor market, she worked two jobs, stuffing computer boxes at Electronics Express and serving diners at Jack in the Box. She set two goals for herself: to get out of California and to go to college.
“I was living with my sister and her six kids. There were 13 of us in a three-bedroom apartment. I knew a friend in Nashville, and in 1992, I came here and worked at a temp service. People made fun of me and my accent. I worked at Taco Bell and did packing at Auto Parts. I went from temp to temp job and then worked with Whirlpool in La Vergne from 1993 to 1997.
“In 1998, I moved to Smyrna to work at Nissan and got on the assembly line. I thought, ‘OK, I’m so tired. I only want to work one job.’ After one year I enrolled myself for college. Nissan reimbursed me. I worked from 1998 to 2008 on third shift and was still going to school. When they announced buyout in 2008, I took it and paid off my home and went to school full time. I got a degree in business administration and majored in office management and minored in accounting and finance and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in 2011.
“I went to work here and there until I got a job at the VA. I was jogging and saw the VA and thought, ‘I really want to work here. Please somebody help me.’ I was just talking to myself. I always wanted to work for the government.
“I ran into an HR (human resources) person at the VA, and told her, ‘I want to work there. Is there any job opening?’ She said, ‘Yes, we have only part time.’ I wanted to put my foot in the door and applied online. They did not call me till December or January, three months later. I got job on Feb. 22, 2017. I went to work for the VA, and I love it,” said Liu, who has a nephew serving in the Army.
“At first I was helping in community care for six months and then went to the podiatry clinic, eye clinic, central scheduling and credentialing. I’ve been in benefitting travel department since April. I help process claims. Since COVID, the last two years I’ve been working from home and at the travel window two days a week. I worked hard for everything. I don’t want any free stuff.”
When she first came to Nashville, Liu said she couldn’t stand country music but now likes it a little. She enjoys watching TV shows and movies and is a fan of French action star Jean-Claude Van Damme.
“In my spare time I make origami flowers. This is my signature,” she said, holding a colorful bouquet of papers flowers. “I’ve been doing this since I was 8 or 9. When I was 40, I started running. I decided to train myself. I went through hell. I wanted to run a marathon.”
She since has run two marathons and multiple half marathons and next plans to tackle skydiving.
As for her country of origin, Liu stated, “I don’t want to go back to Laos. I’m not going back. This is my country. This is where I have lived for 40 years. This is where I’m gonna die. My story, it doesn’t go away. When I share it, I cry still.”