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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Moua’s own story embodies that ascendancy. Born in a mountain village in Laos in 1969, she and her family spent three years in a Thai refugee camp before they resettled in Providence, Rhode Island, and from there moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where her father eventually found work in a television-components factory. After the plant closed, he worked at odd jobs, including a mundane occupation shared by many unskilled, illiterate Hmong newly arrived in the Midwest. The job was described in a 1980 song written by a 15-year-old Hmong refugee, Xab Pheej Kim, then living across the border in Canada:

I’m picking up nightcrawlers

In the middle of the night.

I’m picking up nightcrawlers

The world’s so cool, so quiet.

For the others, it’s the time to sleep sound.

So why is it my time to be up earning my living?

For the others, it’s time to sleep on the bed.

So why is it my time to pick up nightcrawlers?

Kim’s verses (written in Hmong and now at the Hmong Nationality Archives in St. Paul) document the once-commonplace job of plucking up earthworms, which were sold as bait to fishermen. Moua’s family harvested worms in Wisconsin when she was a girl. “It was hard and pretty yucky,” she recalls, “but we were always looking for ways to make a little cash.”


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