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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On this morning, they were seeking advice from Moua on a number of problems. For instance, there were only two or three fluent bilingual Hmong speakers in the area capable of serving as interpreters in courtrooms and the like. The interpreters had been donating their services, but the work was interfering with their other jobs. “What you have to do is make a translation business and then sign contracts with the hospitals and courts,” Moua suggested. Perhaps a member of the Minnesota Supreme Court, she said, could contact a judge on the North Carolina Supreme Court to discuss adopting such a program already in place in Minnesota. The North Carolina Hmong readily agreed to follow up on her suggestions.

Most of the estimated 15,000 Hmong in North Carolina work in furniture factories and mills, but many have turned to chickens. One of the first poultry farmers in the Morganton area was Toua Lo, a former school principal in Laos. Lo owns 53 acres, four chicken houses and thousands of breeding hens. “Hmong people call me all the time for advice on how to start a chicken farm, and maybe 20 come down to my farm every year,” he says.

Later that day, in front of about 500 Hmong and local and state officials at a Morganton high-school cafeteria, Moua recalled the time local toughs showed up at her house in Appleton, Wisconsin, when she was about 12 years old. They pelted the house with eggs. She wanted to confront the group, some of whom she suspected had been among those who had earlier defaced the house with racial epithets, but her parents intervened. “ Go out there now, and maybe you will get killed, and we won’t have a daughter,” she remembers her father saying. Her mother added, “Stay inside, work hard and make something with your life: maybe someday that boy will work for you and give you respect.” Moua paused. “When I go to places around the country now,” she concluded, “I’m very happy to tell you that I get respect.”

Ger yang, 43, represents the other face of the Hmong exile in America. He lives in a three-room apartment with 11 family members in Stockton, California. Neither Yang nor his wife, Mee Cheng, 38, speaks English; neither has worked since their arrival in 1990; they subsist on welfare. Their eight children, ranging in age from 3 to 21, attend school or work only sporadically, and their 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. The family holds to a traditional belief that the newborn and its parents must leave the family home for 30 days out of respect for ancestral spirits, but the daughter and her boyfriend have no place to go. (In Laos, expectant couples simply construct a small hut next to the house.) If “the baby and new parents don’t leave the house,” Yang says, “the ancestors will be offended and the entire family will die.”

Like Yang, many Hmong-Americans in Stockton are jobless and receive government assistance. Some youths drop out of school in their early teens, and violence is often a problem. This past August, youths gunned down Tong Lo, a 48-year-old Hmong grocery store owner, in front of his market. (He left behind a 36-year-old wife, Xiong Mee Vue Lo, and seven children.) Police suspect that Hmong gang members committed the murder, although they have yet to determine a motive or apprehend the gunmen. “I’ve seen hostilities start with just a look,” says Tracy Barries of Stockton’s Operation Peacekeepers, an outreach program, “and it will escalate from there.”

Pheng Lo, director of Stockton’s Lao Family Community, a nonprofit social service agency, says parents are vying with gangs for the hearts and minds of many Hmong youths. “You either win them over or you lose,” he says. “Many parents don’t know English and can’t work, and the children start to take the power in the family. Soon, the parents can’t control their own children.” In Laos, Lo said, parents had strict control over their children, and they must assert it here too.

The Hmong have always been adaptable, taking in the cultures around them, but they hold tight to many customs. After the Hmong grocery store owner was gunned down, his widow, Mee Vue Lo, considered leaving Stockton. But her husband’s clan, the Los, following the Hmong tradition, sought another clan member to be her husband and provide for the children. Vue Lo, who had been in the United States for 25 years, spoke good English and considered herself American, resisted the idea. Still, the clan leader, Pheng Lo, approached Tom Lor, 40, a recently divorced benefits officer at the county welfare office. Lor also wanted nothing to do with old Hmong marrying customs.

And that’s where things might have stood if Lor hadn’t learned that Vue Lo’s 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was in the hospital with a pulmonary infection and few would visit her; she’d witnessed the shooting, and people were afraid that members of the gang that allegedly killed her father might show up. When Lor visited Elizabeth, she smiled and curled up in his lap. “I couldn’t get the girl out of my mind,” he recalls. “I was suffering myself from my divorce, and was away from my son.” When Lor returned to the hospital a couple of days later, the girl’s mother was there.

The two agreed that the clan’s marriage idea was silly, but they talked, and one thing led to another. Lor moved into Vue Lo’s house, along with the seven children, and they were married in a Hmong ceremony. The marriage took place just a few weeks after Lo’s death, a perhaps shockingly short time by American standards. But in traditional Hmong culture, the new husband-to-be is usually chosen and present at the funeral of a man leaving behind a wife and children.

on a rainy night this past March, Mee Moua greeted a delegation of government and business leaders from Taiwan at Cedarhurst, a 26-room mansion on ten acres southeast of St. Paul. Built in 1863, the Classical Revival landmark originally belonged to Cordenio Severance, a lawyer and friend of Frank B. Kellogg, a U.S. senator and the secretary of state under Calvin Coolidge. It is now owned by two of Moua’s uncles, Xoua Thao, 41, a physician, and True Thao, 39, the first licensed Hmong social worker in Minnesota. The brothers, who were destitute, came to the United States in 1976 from a family that knew only farming and fighting in Laos. In 2001, they bought the $1 million mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


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