If you keep praying, they won't see you."
Daravanh "Donna" Sayarath was fifteen years old when her mother gave her this advice. It was 1975, during the civil war in Laos. Sayarath's mother pulled her out of class on a sunny afternoon. They lay flat against their backs in a long wooden paddle boat—and fled.
Holding her breath down the Mekong River, Sayarath prayed.
She remembers soldiers armed with rifles all along the riverbank. Her mother told her to hold her breath as much as she could during the one-hour journey until they reached Thailand. She supposes it was because, in case they were found and shot, the brain would be occupied with breathing, and not register a bullet. If they were to die, her mother wanted them to die in peace.
More than forty years later, she remembers not much else about the journey but the prayers she softly chanted while lying in that boat. It's a series she recites daily in four parts: a prayer to the Buddha, a prayer to his teachings, a prayer to her community, and a prayer to "bida manda," or the positivity gleaned from one's parents.
So it felt almost serendipitous when, in 2012, she noticed an ad for open positions at a new Laotian restaurant in Raleigh, her adopted home. The name struck her: Bida Manda. She giggles thinking about it now.
"I just wanted to go see Lao people," she says.
Vansana Nolintha, one of the restaurant's owners, translates what Sayarath next articulates in her mother tongue: "She says she felt a sense of pride and dignity that a Laotian restaurant was opening. It's such a reflection of how Laotian Americans feel about their identity because of the war. Being a Lao person is not a proud thing in the United States."
Sayarath is among 10 percent of Laotians who became refugees between 1975–85 following Americans' covert involvement in the Laotian civil war during the Vietnam War.
In an article for the food journal Gravy, Katy Clune, a local folklorist who researches Lao migration to North Carolina, writes: "In an effort to stanch the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, the United States secretly enlisted approximately 30,000 Hmong—an ethnic minority in Laos—to fight against their countrymen. We also dropped more than two million tons of bombs on the country."
During the war, the CIA backed the royalists and the Hmong against the communists. After the communists won, the Hmong and others—including Sayarath—were hunted down as American collaborators.
Nolintha says the bida manda prayer isn't common in most households. Sayarath offers an explanation, especially as it pertains to the way her life changed on the day she fled: it isn't the Buddha who is the most sacred figure in one's life, but one's parents.
"The highest form of prayer is remembering your parents' sacrifice," she says.
For Sayarath, a powerful ritual of prayer brings harmony. This especially resonates at work. Her official position at Bida Manda is to prepare the spring rolls every morning. But first she prays at the front of the restaurant, where warm sunlight streams through a grand window and dapples onto an altar built by Sayarath's husband. She lights incense both inside and outside and sets out tiny glasses of water, the essence of life, as gratitude.
Water cups are tucked high on the shelves in Sayarath's nook of the kitchen, where she shares a narrow space with two other prep cooks: Iris from Honduras and a former monk from Burma. Iris says Bida Manda is the best place she's ever worked in Raleigh, and that she shares a lot of homemade food and jokes with Sayarath as they work side by side.
"I respect her tradition," she says of Sayarath's rituals. "Donna is cariñosa [affectionate], and it's peaceful here."
Sayarath hand wraps fifteen hundred spring rolls per week—one thousand pork and five hundred vegetable. Through Nolintha, she explains that women took charge in her family and says her job empowers her to feed her family and help maintain financial security. She maneuvers the tight space with agility and purpose, not too rushed. Her obsessive attention to detail not only parlays into the gentle mechanics of preparing each roll but in her diligence to pray. Her workspace is almost a makeshift temple. She lifts each tray of fifty-five rolls to her forehead and softly mutters a chant before they go into the cooler.
It looks like a blessing of the dish, but when I ask, she realizes I have misunderstood.
"I'm not blessing the spring rolls. I'm blessing whoever eats them."