American Odyssey

They fled terror in Laos after secretly aiding American forces in the Vietnam War. Now 200,000 Hmong prosper-and struggle-in the United States

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Late one night this past April in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, a window in Cha Vang’s split-level house shattered and a container filled with fire accelerant landed inside. Vang, his wife and three daughters, ages 12, 10 and 3, escaped the blaze, but the $400,000 house was destroyed. “If you want to terrorize a person or send a message, you slash a tire,” Vang, a 39-year-old prominent Hmong-American businessman and political figure, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “To burn down a house with people sleeping in it is attempted murder.”

Police believe that the incident may have been connected to two previous near-fatal attacks—a shooting and another firebombing—directed at members of the local Hmong community. The St. Paul-Minneapolis metropolitan area is home to 60,000 of the nation’s roughly 200,000 Hmong (pronounced “mong”), an ethnic group from Laos who began seeking sanctuary in the United States following the Vietnam War. Vang is the son of Gen. Vang Pao, the legendary commander of the Hmong guerrillas whom the CIA recruited in the early 1960s to aid U.S. pilots shot down in Laos and bordering Vietnam and also to harry communist forces there. Today, Gen. Vang Pao, who resides near Los Angeles, is the acknowledged patriarch of his exiled countrymen. Many Hmong-Americans are convinced that agents of the communist Laotian government were behind the attack on Vang’s family.

The violence in St. Paul briefly cast a light, albeit a harsh one, on what otherwise may be the most extraordinary immigrant story in this immigrant nation in a long time. No group of refugees has been less prepared for modern American life than the Hmong, and yet none has succeeded more quickly in making itself at home here. In Laos, the Hmong inhabited isolated highland hamlets and lived as subsistence farmers, some also growing opium poppies as a cash crop. Though they are an ancient people tracing their ancestry to China, where they endured more than 4,000 years as an oppressed minority before fleeing to Laos 200 years ago, the Hmong, at least as far as scholars know, did not have a written language until the 1950s. After the Vietnam War and their largely unheralded efforts on behalf of U.S. forces, the Hmong were hunted by the communists; many escaped to refugee camps in Thailand before being granted sanctuary in the United States.

“When they arrived here, the Hmong were the least westernized, most unprepared for life in the United States of all the Southeast Asian refugee groups,” said Toyo Biddle, formerly of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, who during the 1980s was the primary official overseeing that transition. “What they’ve achieved since then is really remarkable.”

Thousands of Hmong-Americans have earned college degrees. In their homeland there existed only a handful of Hmong professionals, primarily fighter pilots and military officers; today, the American Hmong community boasts scores of physicians, lawyers and university professors. Newly literate, Hmong writers are producing a growing body of literature; a compilation of their stories and poems about life in America, Bamboo Among the Oaks, was published in 2002. Hmong-Americans own shopping malls and recording studios; ginseng farms in Wisconsin; chicken farms across the South; and more than 100 restaurants in the state of Michigan alone. In Minnesota, more than half of the state’s 10,000 or so Hmong families own their homes. Not bad for an ethnic group that former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson characterized in 1987 as virtually incapable of integrating into American culture, or as he put it, “the most indigestible group in society.”

To be sure, accounts of Hmong life in the United States have tended to focus on their troubles. Shortly after arriving in California, the Upper Midwest and the Southeast, they became known for a high rate of dependence on welfare, for violent gangs and drive-by shootings, and for a despair that too often led to suicide or murder. The Hmong community’s problems remain quite real, as shown by the burned wreckage of Vang’s house in St. Paul and the poverty endured by many, but the difficulties have a way of obscuring the more important story of this displaced people’s embrace of American ideals. “Hmong culture is very democratic,” says Kou Yang, a 49-yearold Hmong born in Laos who is now an associate professor of Asian-American studies at CaliforniaStateUniversity at Stanislaus. Except perhaps in ancient times, he says, the Hmong “never had kings or queens or nobles. The customs, ceremonies, even the language generally put people on the same level. It’s a very good fit with America and democracy.”

The best evidence for that notion could be seen one afternoon this past winter in an unlikely place: the gaudy expanse of the artificial grass in Minneapolis’ Metrodome.

It was December 27, the eve of the Hmong New Year, and the home of baseball’s Twins and football’s Vikings was given over to a Hmong celebration attended by some 12,000 people. Hmong women and men, girls and boys, stood in long lines on the field, tossing balls back and forth in a reprise of an ancient courtship ritual. Others played toulou, an elaborate team sport requiring skill at spinning large wooden tops. On the sidelines, wizened elders sold medicinal herbs and finely stitched wall hangings, many depicting scenes from Hmong folklore and history.

The highlight of the program was a speech by Minnesota state senator Mee Moua—the first Southeast Asian refugee to be elected to a state legislature in the United States. Moua, 35, was garbed in traditional Hmong dress: an ornately embroidered skirt, black blouse and tightly wound black turban. Around her waist she wore a silver chain strung with dozens of antique French coins. Their musical jangle announced her arrival in the end zone as she approached a microphone placed on a wooden stage, its backdrop depicting a Hmong village in Laos.

“We Hmong are a proud people,” Moua began. “We have great hopes and awesome dreams, but historically, we have never had the opportunity to truly live out those hopes and dreams.” She went on, “We have been chasing those hopes and dreams through many valleys and mountains, through war, death and starvation, crossing countless borders. . . . And here we are today . . . living in the greatest country on earth, the United States of America. In just 28 years . . . we have made more progress than in the 200 years that we have endured life in southern China and Southeast Asia.” The crowd erupted in applause.


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