San Jose Mercury News

July 18, 2004

 

HMONG JOURNEY

 

THEY FOUGHT WITH THE U.S. IN LAOS DURING THE VIETNAM WAR. THEY

ENDURED DECADES IN THAI REFUGEE CAMPS. NOW, MANY ARE ELIGIBLE TO

RESETTLE IN AMERICA, WHERE CULTURE SHOCK AWAITS THEM.

 

By BEN STOCKING, Mercury News Vietnam Bureau

 

WAT THAM KRABOK, Thailand — Teng Yang and his family live on the other side of the

earth from the home they will soon make in California. But in many ways, they inhabit

another universe.

 

If they get sick, they slaughter a pig and two chickens as offerings to the spirits. A 13-

year-old bride, a man with two wives — these are accepted social arrangements in the

dusty squatters’ colony where they have spent the past 11 years of their drifters’ lives.

Teng and his family — a Hmong clan of 27 people from the jungles of Laos — are moving

to Fresno, a middle-class, Central Valley town whose social mores will be as baffling to

them as the drive-through line at McDonald’s.

 

Over the next several months, 15,000 other Laotian Hmong who live at this makeshift

refugee camp will follow them, most settling in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the

three U.S. states with the largest established Hmong populations.

 

Teng’s younger brother Tong and his wife arrived in Fresno last week, and the rest of

the family will follow over the summer and fall.

 

The new refugees are former soldiers or the children of former soldiers who fought with

the United States in the jungles of Laos during the Vietnam War. They fled their

homeland after the communist victory and have spent the ensuing years at refugee

camps in Thailand, finally settling at this squatters’ colony that sprang up around Wat

Tham Krabok, a Buddhist temple about 80 miles north of Bangkok.

 

With the Thai government threatening to shut the place down, the U.S. government

agreed late last year to resettle them in the United States.

 

The Hmong are selected for resettlement by the U.S. State Department, which allows a

certain number of refugees from around the world to come to America each year.

Virtually all the Hmong at the Wat, as the temple community is known, will be allowed to

participate. The fate of thousands of other Hmong who live elsewhere around Thailand

has yet to be resolved.

 

Like thousands of other Hmong immigrants who have come to America since the

Vietnam War, they are settling in cities where churches and civic groups were especially

hospitable to the first wave of newcomers.

 

The first refugees were settled around the country. But the Hmong, who come from a

clan-based culture, gravitated toward one another in hubs like Fresno, Sacramento and

St. Paul, Minn., which is now home to America’s largest Hmong population.

 

The social networks that have been established in these hubs will make it easier for this

new group of Hmong to adapt to life in the United States than it was for their

predecessors who arrived in the 1980s. Still, it will be a difficult adjustment.

 

Teng Yang and three of his seven brothers and sisters live in a one-room house with

their wives and 11 children. With bamboo walls, a tin roof and a dirt floor, their home has

electricity but no plumbing or running water. Out back, a small stream of sewage trickles

past, one of many that crisscross the Wat.

 

When the grown-ups need to go to the bathroom, they dig a hole outside or walk to an

outhouse. When the small children need to go, they use the floor and their mothers

swiftly tidy up after them with a broom.

 

The Yangs have decorated their place with family photos — their late mother in a

traditional Hmong-style dress, their late father looking proud and handsome in a

Western business suit.

 

Teng’s 20-year-old brother, Tong, who stands just over 5 feet, adorned one wall with a

blond Playboy centerfold who would tower over him if she walked into the room.

 

”I think it’s disgusting,” said Mai Lee, Tong’s 22-year-old wife, ”but my husband likes it.”

 

The women cook indoors, placing pots on burning embers that create blistering heat.

The dimly lit abode is about 15 feet by 30 feet, bigger than most houses in the village,

but a tight squeeze for 19 people.

 

They sleep on straw mats on wooden platforms. Tong’s family of four shares one bed.

Teng and his wife, Shoua, fit six in theirs.

 

”It gets really crazy when all the kids come back and everyone is shouting and

screaming,” said Teng, at 28 the oldest of the eight Yang siblings, four of whom live

elsewhere in the Wat with their children.

 

The Hmong don’t keep track of their ages. They had to make up approximate birthdays

to put on the documents they needed to go to America.

 

Before the Thai military took over management of the Wat a year ago, surrounding it

with barbed wire, the residents came and went as they pleased. The men often got jobs

as day laborers in the small cities and towns near the Wat, which is surrounded by

mountains.

 

These days, work is scarce. Many of the women make traditional Hmong embroidery,

which they sell to relatives in the United States.

 

Shoua, Teng’s wife, was making a funeral jacket — a black robe with brightly

embroidered borders that is placed on the dead before burial.

 

She earns $200 to $300 a year embroidering these and other traditional Hmong

garments, which she sells to friends and relatives overseas.

 

Families at the camp rely on the good will of their relatives in the States, who send

money whenever they can. While many Hmong in the States are stuck in low-wage

jobs, some have entered the middle class and purchased homes. In Minnesota, two

Hmong have been elected to the state Legislature.

 

The Yangs get money from relatives in the United States, including Pheng Yang, an

uncle who works as a bilingual educator in the Fresno public schools. That assistance

has helped them buy a secondhand Yamaha motorbike as well as a Sony television and

a DVD player.

 

”I like Rambo, he’s a good fighter,” Tong said. ”And ‘The Terminator’ is one of my

favorite movies. It’s full of action.”

 

Tong is pleased that a real-life action figure is governing his new state.

 

”I don’t want to live here anymore,” Tong said. ”I just want to get away as fast as I can.”

 

But if life is hard in the camp, it is also intimate and familiar. Residents can embrace

Hmong traditions without worrying whether Westerners might find them peculiar.

Babies are everywhere, many with mothers who themselves look like children. Fiveyear-

olds care for their infant siblings, carrying them around on their backs with no

parents in sight.

 

If a man here has more than one wife — and a small percentage do — nobody bats an

eye.

 

”What a shame for your culture!” Chong Vang Yang replies when told that polygamy is

illegal in the United States.

 

Chong, who is not related to Teng and Tong, has two wives and 12 children, nine by his

first bride, three by his second.

 

”When we have meals together, it’s always great fun,” he said, looking dapper in a

bowler hat.

 

Yang was hard at work in a blacksmithing area at the camp, heating metal rods in a fire

and pounding the hot metal into traditional Hmong knives.

 

The Wat community seems medieval in some ways, but there are modern touches. Kids

play in a video-game room; adults who are literate tap out e-mail in a small Internet

cafe.

 

And when the residents bid farewell to friends leaving for the States, many document

the occasion with the latest in video technology.

 

The first groups started leaving in mid-June. And every day, residents wander past a

bulletin board near the center of the camp to see if their names have appeared on the

departure list.

 

When the buses roll away, a tearful crowd gathers to watch.

 

Each trip separates extended families that have lived in easy proximity forever. The

Hmong have no word for ”goodbye” — only ”see you again.” But it’s not clear when they

will be reunited.

 

”I’ll miss you,” Xiong Nhia Lue said as his close friend, Thao Vue, boarded the bus,

carrying a traditional bamboo wind instrument called a khuj. ”When you get to the

United States, remember to write me.”

 

Many of the Hmong here have fathers and grandfathers who fought with U.S. troops in

a conflict that claimed the lives of an estimated 20,000 Hmong soldiers. When the war

ended, about 120,000 Hmong, nearly half the Hmong population in Laos, had been

displaced.

 

Among the Hmong fighters was Mai Lee’s father, Kay Ying Thao, 56, who still

remembers a lot of the English he picked up from American soldiers.

 

Kay was shot twice, once in the buttocks, once in the head, and he jumped out of two

airplanes, losing consciousness each time he landed.

 

True Vang relates these details of her husband’s war biography with pride. And then she

starts to cry.

 

”I have a lot of regrets,” she said. ”We’re a people with no land. We have no place to

call home.”

 

The couple have become respected members of the Wat community. Both are shamans

who conduct rituals to heal the sick and bring good fortune.

 

These involve slaughtering a pig and two chickens, offerings intended to lure back

wayward spirits that, by their absence, have thrown the lives of Hmong out of balance.

”The ritual is always the same,” Kay said, ”but the spiritual journey is always different.”

Kay conducted a farewell ritual for his daughter, Mai Lee, and son-in-law, Tong Yang,

before they left for California last week.

 

Like all the other Hmong leaving the Wat, they also prepared for their journey by

attending a cultural-orientation class conducted by staffers from the International

Organization for Migration, a group of governments and private organizations that help

resettle refugees worldwide.

 

They learned that they should call 911 in an emergency. They learned that Americans

appreciate punctuality. And they learned about concepts like independence and

freedom and equality.

 

Over the centuries, as they have wandered, the Hmong have faced discrimination at

every turn — in China, in Laos, in Vietnam, in Thailand.

 

”Equality — they liked that idea a lot,” said Ka Ying Yang, a Hmong American who

teaches one of the classes. ”I tell them we aspire to equality in the United States.”

 

The students also learned that hitting your children is not acceptable in the United

States, a concept that bewildered Tong.

 

”If we don’t discipline them, how can we teach them to be a good person?” he asked.

 

The classes included a videotaped message from Alan Autry, Fresno’s mayor: ”We just

can’t wait to see you. God bless you and God bless America.”

 

Like immigrants who have come before them from all corners of the globe, Mai Lee and

Tong hunger for the basics of the American Dream: a steady job, a comfortable home

and a secure future for their children.

 

”We know nothing about Fresno,” Tong said, ”but as long as our house is better than

this one, everything will be fine.”