The Hmong Oral History Project Interviews

Excerpts From Interviews

(Arranged roughly by time and theme)


“In Laos, there was little free time. Only after the harvest season was over were we able to celebrate Nau Paichow. This is our New Year celebration. This is the only time when we were given new sets of clothes to wear. We were discouraged from working. The youth were encouraged to come together to have fun and to find suitable spouses. The New Year would usually last four to five days. After this event, it was back to the farm. Since I was a White Hmong [There are different types of Hmong due to Chinese segregation in the past], I could wear whatever type of White Hmong costumes I chose. There are some that wanted to wear the traditional female White Hmong pants instead of the skirt. For the men, they sometimes wore the traditional costume that included the cap. Even if our clothes were new they were not beautiful or decorative because we lacked the materials and time to do this”

“In the old days, you did not tell each other verbally that you liked them, but used the traditional pipe instrument and other means to tell them. The passions in the tunes of the instruments expressed feelings that no words could. These tunes would tell how much you loved someone and that you wanted to marry them. We were too embarrassed to talk openly to someone that we were attracted to, not like you youth these days. We did not date; there was only courtship. The man would never enter our house. At midnight, the man that likes you will come like a thief to talk to you (the thin bamboo walls make this possible). When both are ready for marriage and are in love, the groom’s family would bring some rice wine over and would tried to offer a dowry for the girl’s marriage. Sometimes the groom would come and ‘kidnap’ the bride. In Laos, the dowry is to compensate for the loss of a valuable worker in the bride’s family. The dowry would be about 600 American dollars. Sometimes the bride’s parents will give marriage presents that will be as valuable and as expensive at 600 dollars. In Laos, the marriage age usually was around 16 years old. If you were younger than this, the in-laws considered that you were still too young to do work. It is by tradition that the new bride cannot work for three full days when she first enters into the groom’s house. It was taboo to work. The in-laws would go kill some chicken or a pig to offer to their ancestors so that the bride would be accepted into her new clan family. The groom was expected to work and help out at the in-law’s house and farm as much as he worked on his or his parent’s farm. The newly wedded are to call their in-laws ‘mother’ and ‘father.’ It is an unspoken law and tradition that the bride must put her new family before herself, no matter the circumstances. She must cook and look after the well being of her husband’s family.”

– Xai Thao

“I miss the freedom. Time wasn’t very important. We didn’t have a lot of clocks or watches in Laos, so time was not important. In Laos, we were free. The weather was great. It was not too hot or too cold. It was like spring all the time.”

– Karry Moua

“It wasn’t easy, like living here in the United States. After the New Year, we went back to gardening. In January or February, it was the time where we would go and cut down the forest or field and prepare the field for another year of rice patties and cornfields. After we cut down the forest, we would let it dry for about one month. Then we would go back and burn it. If all of it did not burn away, we would have to go and pick up the remains and put it in a pile and burn it. We had to do that so the field would be nice and flat and clear to plant, and when weeds started to grow, it would be easier to pull them out and destroy them. First we would plant the corn seeds, then the rice patty. After we were done planting the rice patty, the cornfields were already full of weeds for us to pick. After we were done weeding the corn, the rice needed weeding, too. Throughout the whole year we would have to weed the fields twice before the corn and rice fields started to grow. The corn was the first to be ready, and then the rice. After we had put the corn away, then we would go back and harvest the rice. After we harvested the rice, if we had the time, we would hit it for the seeds to come down and then we would have the New Year. If we didn’t have time then we would just bring it in and stack it up in the storage room until after the New Year. Then we would go back and hit the rice. After we were done hitting it and all the seeds came out we would put it away in the storage room. This was our everyday life. This was the cycle of our lives. Gardening, farming and harvesting was our daily cycle. Back in those days there were no cars, unlike now. N o matter how far or near, we would have to walk and all we used were our backs and shoulders to carry things. But then there was a lot of freedom during that lifetime. There were no debts to pay, no taxes to pay, no one to boss you around, and no one to tell me what to do. The only thing that was scary back then in the days were the tigers. When I learned how to garden I was probably around six or seven years old. When gardening we would have to burn in the sun, get wet in the rain, get bit by little bugs and mosquitoes. We would start our day every morning at about five in the morning until seven at night. This is if we lived far from the garden and would sleep over there. If we were going from our house, we would start at about seven in the morning and come back home at five at night. Farming is not an easy job; there is no time to rest. The only time is when we would rest was after we finished a row of rice or corn or when we took a break to eat lunch for about 30 or 40 minutes.”

– Khu Thao

“In my home country you walked far distances. If you walked a full day and rested in a neighboring town or were on the way to the town you were going to, when you ate, you would have to call upon *daj tej daj chuy[bad/wild spirits]. You would say: ‘We have arrived at this location and we ask for you to help protect us to arrive at our destination. Please do not harm us. Now that we are eating, please come and join us in your share. Whether we eat in small or large portions, we are eating with you. Please come join us in exchange for our protection and help get us to our destination.’ Whenever you eat, you have to call upon them to join you. If you do not call upon them in my home country, when you arrive to a town or city that is far away, surrounded by jungle, and you go there, there are bad spirits called *pe kong quoi and *pe yu vui. They are bad spirits that drink blood. If you call upon them, you sleep throughout the night without any disturbances–also if you don’t set up a fire that has a sour stench. If you come to a place that is surrounded by a large number of bad spirits [a feeling of coldness] or you hear strange cries, it is wise to call upon these spirits to join you when you eat. I’ve heard them before, especially in places that are cold and in towns filled with jungles. You have to remember to call upon them to protect you from even greater threats like *daj ku haj or any kind of *daj that are really evil and mean. There are nice and evil spirits, as the elders once told us. Some will help you while others will bite you and another will drink your blood. There are some *daj that will love you and help you. The elders once told us that but I’ve never seen it for myself. I’ve heard it before when you’ve arrived to some towns that are cold or in places filled with jungles, there is the feeling of being scared of sleeping at night, even when you have nine to ten people with you, you follow this trail and when you sleep you have this feeling of being scared and you feel like you have to call upon the spirits to protect you [poj yeej]. When you do this calling, when you arrive to your destination you will have to sacrifice something in return for the spiritual protection.

“When you go into places that are no good or into a place when it is the wrong time to be there, you will become very ill. They say that you have found *daj quo. When you get home, you become very sick. Some will go and return home dead. This person will have bad luck and end up dying. Others who travel in good times will return home without a problem. This person will not have any trouble. Sometimes when your blood isn’t too healthy and you go to a place that is very cold; a place that you have never been before or place of *daj territory–my mom used to tell me that if you go to a place that you have never been to before, this place will be cold and when you return home later you will end up dying.

“In addition, when you arrive in such a place, you should not kill any kind of animal that has always lived there. If you go and want to eat an animal you will have to ask. These animals belong to the *daj quo. You have to remember that when you go, you should burn incense and say that you want to eat one of their animals. It is only then that you are able to kill one of their animals to eat. There will be no problem. But if you go and kill the animals without asking or deliberately slaughter the animals for fun, when you return home, you will become very ill. When the shaman does a spiritual healing, the shaman will say that the reason why you are ill is because when you arrived at this certain place, you deliberately killed their animals without permission. They want someone’s head in return. This was why you are ill.”

– Xao Vang Vue


“The war against the Vietnamese started when we were little, when the province of *Xieng Khouang was taken [by the Vietnamese] in 1962. *Pho Dong and *Pho Qua [two important towns in northern Laos] were taken, and that’s why we joined in the fight against the Vietnamese. If we didn’t protect them, the Vietnamese troops were going to take all our property and lands. That was the reason we joined our government in fighting the Vietnamese.”

– Noj Her Vang

“They first sent us to *Pon Kou [a northern frontier in Laos] in 1966-67. It was a very intense battle up there. We would set up forward observation bases. These bases contained about 25-30 men. Bases with larger numbers of men usually drew mortar and howitzer fire, whereas the Vietnamese considered smaller groups less valuable. Before nightfall we usually took three crates of grenades and made it into one big crate of 96 grenades. Each man was issued a big crate and this is how we fought the Vietnamese. We weren’t allowed to use our guns, because the flash of the muzzle would give our position away. We also put dried tree branches along with dried leaves all around the perimeter of our bases. Whenever enemies tried to sneak up on us they would make noise when they stepped on these dried branches and leaves. When we heard this we would toss a grenade in the direction of the noise. If we saw the enemy shooting at us (by the flashes of their gun muzzles), we would toss a grenade in that area. These two methods were very effective. One example was a base where all the defenders would flee except for one person. By throwing grenades all night long and without firing his gun the enemies thought that there were more soldiers in the base than one man. In the morning he could see all the dead bodies of the enemies all around the perimeter. The Vietnamese would usually fire red and green flares before advancing on our bases. This was a sign for their troops, but it was also a good warning sign for us to prepare. Most battles usually lasted from midnight to five or six in the morning. If they withdrew, then it meant we won the battle. During the course of the battle, as I mentioned before, we couldn’t use our guns to fire back. If we did, they’d know our position and use a B-40 [an anti-tank/anti-bunker bazooka-like weapon] to take us out. Those who did fire back at the Vietnamese with their guns were usually taken out within a matter of seconds. Most experienced soldiers used grenades instead. This is one of the reasons it was hard for them to overrun us.

The US usually sent in airplanes called ‘Spookies’ [C-4 and C-130 gun ships] to parachute in flares so we could see where the enemies were. The Vietnamese usually hid themselves when the flares were dropped. The planes contained weapons such as M-60 machine guns. They asked us to use a 60mm mortar smoke round to shoot into the area where the enemies were; then they would know what they could take out with their guns. They would also send in some propeller airplanes called ‘Skyraiders’ which were flown solely by US pilots. US pilots also flew the ‘Spookies.’ When they were running out of ammunition and flares, there were more airplanes to take their place.”

– Nhia Lor Vang

“In 1969, I was serving with the US force in Laos. I was a radio operator who eavesdropped on the enemy. For example, we would listen to all the conversations going from the field troops back to Hanoi regarding which logistical supplies were in demand. We would record the radio messages and translate them in *Chen Meng Un Dor, Thailand. The [South] Vietnamese there would translate these messages into Laotian and English. We would relay this vital information back to our forts in Laos that the Vietnamese planned to attack. In this way, our troops were well prepared for the [North] Vietnamese assaults.

“I wasn’t trained to fire the weapons; my specialty was in radio recording. There were four Thai and three American instructors who taught us. The Americans were ‘Mr. Moose,’ ‘Mr. Scroll’ and ‘Mr. Mathis.’ [CIA operatives were given code names.] Mr. Mathis was in charge of the CIA supply from the Thailand air base at *San Chen Oua Doua. This was the big US airbase in Thailand where all the fighter/bomber planes were deployed to fight in South Vietnam and Laos. Mr. Moose was stationed in *Mua Na. He controlled the radio operators who were stationed with the frontline troops in the *San Khoua area. In December 1971, Communist Chinese troops together with the Vietnamese tried to take Long Cheng. I was stationed on Skyline 2 [hills surrounding Long Cheng]. The Vietnamese were just at the base of our hill sending radio messages to *Lang Seng to direct accurate artillery fire into Long Cheng. [The Vietnamese’s 122mm Russian-made artillery, had a longer range than any of the Hmong’s artillery.] That night, my friend and I were stationed up there with a company of Thai volunteers. We intercepted the Vietnamese radio messages. One Vietnamese radio operator was far off while the other operator seemed to be close to our base. The closer radio operator would call for coordinated artillery barrage. If it was not accurate, he would call in to re-correct the coordinates. Their two artillery pieces became very accurate after a while. They were targeting the residence of Colonel *Vang Seng and the Buddhist Temple. Some of the houses were burning. They fired all night until the morning. During the morning, one of our Thai instructors flew into Long Cheng to get the recording from us. We gave the tape to him and he flew off to *Na Sue. Na Sue was still a safe place while Long Cheng had primarily become a military base. Before nightfall, the plane carrying our Thai instructor came back. He ordered us to depart because the Vietnamese were planning a massive attack that night. Our bombers were going to carpet bomb all our positions to deny the enemy everything of value. Our options were to depart with him to Thailand or go back to our homes. We both quickly packed up our equipment and belongings and put them in the airplane and we flew to *Na Sue.

– Phoumee Xiong

“The first day it was we, the Green Hmong, who said that we were pushing on [to go to Thailand], but Vietnamese soldiers were blocking the way and didn’t allow us to pass. They threatened to kill us if we went. We were frightened and came back [to the village] and slept a second night there. The White Hmong decided to be in the front this time, and the soldiers still wouldn’t let us pass. [The White Hmong] were determined and they pushed the soldiers aside. The soldiers instantly killed those who were in the front and the people panicked. The Vietnamese killed and wounded a couple of people. Two died immediately on that bridge. Thousands of people panicked and rushed back. The older people were trampling over the young ones. We couldn’t get to *Vien Xieng because the Vietnamese were blocking the way. We stayed at *Na Sue, but we didn’t know what to do, because there was not a grain of rice to eat. When we got to Na Sue, we searched for everything edible and ate it. We decided to go back to our old farms so we could at least find some food.

“When we came back to our old farms we discussed our situation. We agreed that if we did not ‘become Vietnamese’ we would all be killed. We decided to become ‘Vietnamese’ [meaning that we would act like we were communist] when the Vietnamese came to visit us. We hid all of our weapons and didn’t shoot any of them.

“We had been there for about a year when Hmong guerilla fighters [soldiers who stayed behind instead of fleeing to Thailand–the Chao Fa] from Phon Bia came and told us that General Vang Pao had come back and that it was time for us to fight against the Vietnamese. They were lying, but we didn’t know anything, so we thought it was true. Everyone went back to find their weapons that they had hidden and started to ambush Vietnamese convoys on the roads. The Vietnamese couldn’t come in to our village, and they became very angry. They sent a lot of soldiers to come and fight us. In 1977, they attacked our region. They came by night, and by morning when they started to fight us they had set up artillery in all the high ground. They didn’t even bother to come in to our village, and they started to shell us from north of *Na Mooe. From there they shelled us, and everybody panicked and ran. They fired on the whole region, including Small Slim Mountain and the Big Slim Mountain areas. It took them one day to do it. People didn’t know where to flee. Some who were in the garden fields ran all about and those in the villages ran into their garden fields. Mothers went one way and children went another way. It took us all night just to regroup and to find more people that we knew near Mount–I think it was called Mount Kou-yeh. We were there for 20 days. The Vietnamese still shelled us and we couldn’t live there anymore, so we fled to *Na Feng. There was no food in this region. There were so many Hmong here that we crossed over to *Sa La and lived there. We didn’t know what to. We could become ‘Vietnamese’ again and live in the city of *Phon Sa Vaj or go somewhere else. We were very worried. We decided to make a garden there and some of our relatives came back from Thailand to fight the Vietnamese in this area. During this time there was much anti-Vietnamese activity in this area; the Vietnamese didn’t dare to come near. Those who had come from Thailand told us we should go there, too.”

– Pang Her Vang

“When we were issued weapons we didn’t know what we were fighting for. It was only later that we were told that we were protecting our country from the enemy. Only when the war was going on for a long time did you begin to realize why you were fighting. Our government started to run away and then I started to take responsibility. When I took responsibility, only then did I see a larger picture of what was going on. When the Vietnamese troops started to attack our villages and we started to take casualties, the people started to take sides. When our older brother *Chong Koua was killed. *Chong Koua was a good moral person and if the Vietnamese could kill someone decent like him then they wouldn’t spare us. The Vietnamese came and lived among us and they just killed him in his house. That’s when we decided to take action and fight the Vietnamese. The only reason we fought was they started to kill us, and it wasn’t because we wanted to gain a high military position or to win medals. We took action against the Vietnamese so there was no going back. We decided to head for *Long Cheng and took the long dangerous road to it.

“The war destroyed my family completely. After the war my life was filled with death and destruction. The whole village was wiped out. I had over 200 cattle, 200 goats and some horses that were all killed because of the war. My property and money were all gone. One of my sons was also killed by the Vietnamese. Everything that I knew was destroyed. That was why when we lost the war I just moved out of the country. I had nothing left to go back to.”

– Pa Seng Thao

“I was married during the start of the war. I lived in *Poa-Ing. I moved to another place for about 10 years before the war started. When the war began, we heard that Kong Le was coming our way. One day, while we were steaming some rice, we saw many soldiers marching into our village. We did not know what to do, so we fed them and they went on their way. The soldiers continued into the village of *Von-Via. It took them half a day to march out of our village. When we heard that the Vietnamese were winning, we decided to run. The Vietnamese were at *Pong-Dong and they were fighting everywhere. We moved to *San-Tong, then to *Moung-Pieng, then to *Long Cheng. After Long Cheng we decided to move to *Pa-Kaig and lived there for 10 years. The Vietnamese came once again and we moved to another area. It was our first glimpse of the tough Vietnamese soldiers. The Vietnamese held on strongly to the territories they won. Once the Vietnamese won the war we moved to Thailand and lived there for three years.

“I had no feelings or thoughts of staying behind. We knew that the Vietnamese were taking over our villages and we could not go back. We traveled for one month but we could not catch up with General Vang Pao. [He had flown into Thailand already.] The Vietnamese took over the village of Hin Heup. We walked another nine days before the road was blocked. They put a rope over the road and threatened to kill any one of us who crossed over it. Our Vang clan crossed over the rope and they started to shoot at us. There were many who were killed and there were those who survived. I was still far behind the roadblock when I heard the shooting. Someone told me that it was too dangerous to go forward, so we decided to stay back. Our father was very sick at that time, so we tried to ask for some medicines from some of the Hmong leaders who were still in charge of their villages. We stayed in Laos for another month waiting for my father to get better. It took us all day to get a taxi to take us to Vientiane. My father almost died on the way there. When we reached Vientiane, we were welcomed by my grandmother who lived there. There were many Hmong refugees in Vientiane. I bribed the Laotian boatmen 100,000 kiep to take me across the Mekong into Thailand.”

– Geu Vang

“I was 25 years old when I became a soldier in May of 1965. I lost many relatives and friends. Those of us who survived were few when compared to those who were killed. When the Americans pulled back, we went back to our old villages where we used to live before the war. The Vietnamese and Pathet Lao continued to persecute us (even when the war was over and an agreement was made). They started to kill the elders, leaders and political figures who used to work for General Vang Pao and the Americans. We decided to wage guerilla war against them by using American weapons that we hid away. We would rather have fought and died than for the Vietnamese to kill us helplessly. We waged a guerilla war against them until 1979.

“We tried to help the Americans with all our strength but they turned their backs on us. I am very disappointed in them. After the Americans abandoned us, we lost many Hmong to the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao. The Vietnamese even killed the women and children. If I would have known that the Americans would not help us, I would not have become a soldier in the first place. Now we know that the Americans lied to us.”

– Blia Pao Vang

“My first trip north, which was, naturally, to Long Cheng, Site 20 Alternate, depressed me. They had boys carrying rifles; that’s the kind of–if you’re an American soldier, that takes a little getting used to, to see that. I got used to it a lot, over time. They had already suffered a lot of casualties (this was, what? 1966). So it wasn’t just in the last few years of the war that they suffered, they had been suffering for some time. And with a limited population, widely dispersed, it hit some parts harder than others. But–the other thing that was quite striking to me when I first got there was Vang Pao’s complete control that he had managed to put together. Vang Pao, by the way, is one of the best field generals I’ve observed, and I’ve seen a hell of a lot of field generals…He had a feel for the fight and tactics and–I wouldn’t necessarily say strategically, but he had a feel for the fight that was eerie. He didn’t have modern intelligence, overhead cameras, and all this kind of stuff, but he sure knew the enemy, and he knew what they were likely to do in certain circumstances…In South Vietnam, which is what I was used to, it was really weird. The enemy, which were mainly guerilla–VC aided by irregulars, until later in the war–were out in the jungle, and the US and allied forces and ARVN forces were very much road-bound–not entirely, but very much so. In the northern part of Laos, it was the opposite. Theenemy was road-bound. They didn’t ever go off the road two clicks–it was very rare that you’d see the enemy patrol much more than a couple of clicks off of a motorable road–very rare. So rare that when they were observed, it was news. So it was a flip-flop; it took a little getting used to–which made them susceptible to air power, which we used a lot of–and it grew during my time…

“Long Cheng, to any first visitor there, especially to an airman, it was pretty startling. [In] the first place, it’s a one-way runway. Now, I’ve seen a number of runways, but this one was pretty stark, because at the west end of the runway is an escarpment–that’s the barrier. That’s it. You overshoot that runway, you’re dead. Going out the other way isn’t exactly a piece of cake, either, because you’ve got a pretty good slope…[Y]ou’ve got to get a pretty good climb rate to get out through that pass out there. The weather has a way of clogging up these passes, so it isn’t a very interesting place to operate…But over the years that became a really busy airport. That’s a remarkable–they had some accidents there, but not a lot. When I first saw it, if you’d have told me there was going to be a really big air operation out of there, I’d have said, ‘You’re nuts.’ But it worked. The Air America pilots and the Continental [Air Service] pilots, they were really good at it, and…different guys would have their own let-downs. I mean, there’s no IFR [Instrument Flight Rules] approach there, obviously…[T]hat means ILS [Instrument Landing System] or radar. Hell, there wasn’t even a radio beacon approach, which is a non-precision approach. The terrain wouldn’t permit it. So they had made up their own little visual approaches with a key rock here and a key rock there, and turn so many degrees over the stream bed here, and let down to a certain altitude here. It was not the school of aviation that I came from, but I learned. I learned. So they were good. Other than that it was pretty well-laid out, with the Agency facilities there, which were sparse and austere–to understate it, they were austere. But they were co-located with Vang Pao’s headquarters, and that’s why they were there.’

Richard Secord, Major General, Air Force (Ret.), CIA detailee in Laos, 1966-68.

“The war changed my life for the better. Because we Hmong lived in the village only; we didn’t get to be around anyone else. This war helped me learn how to become a soldier, become a nurse/doctor. I learned how to cure the people who had become injured in the war. My family was also affected because they became smarter, became soldiers, and learned how to do business.”

– Chang Tao Vang

“When [my husband and his older brother] were in prison camp we were in such a terrible state. All we could do was cry because there was nothing else to do. After not hearing from them for a year we thought they were both dead. When we were detained in Vietnam, we cried daily. We constantly prayed every day for their lives and to hear from them again. We prayed continuously even though we didn’t know about God at this time. After a long time, our relatives from the village of *Pho Luj told us the news that my husband and his older brother were alive. That’s when we decided to get passage documents from the authorities there to allow us to travel back to *Phon Savah. There, for the first time, we heard reliable news that they were alive. When they were in prison, we suffered heavily and so did our children. When we were deported [to *Noj Het, Vietnam] there was no one to provide food for us and it was very hard. The only thing we had was our lives. Our six day journey back was difficult, because there was no one to guide us and show us the way. Knowing no one, we just made our way over. When it got dark, we would beg Hmong families for places to stay for the night.”

– Poj Noj Her


“We went to *Na-Sue [trying to flee the country] but the main road was closed off. The Pathet Lao soldiers were guarding the roads. We could not do anything so we stayed at *Na-Sue. Meanwhile on one of the roadblocks, daughters from the Her (my own clan) and Kong clans decided to break down the roadblock, and they were successful because the soldiers did not know how to stop these girls. If our sons had done it they would have been shot. We did not tell the girls to do it; they decided to risk it on their own. Then everybody that came to *Na-Sue followed these young girls out and the guards could not prevent our escape. The Pathet Lao decided to put up another roadblock at *Heng-Her. The roadblock was on the Nan-Li Bridge. It took us about seven or eight days to reach it. We were not satisfied with the conditions in Laos at that time. All our political leaders had left and we wanted to follow them. The guards pulled out their guns and were ready to shoot us. They asked us if we wanted to go see Touby LyFong and Teng [former Hmong political figures who were in power during the time of the French Colonization] We decided to go see them. Our group decided to send six of us to meet with Touby LyFong and Teng. I was one of the six chosen. A Pathet Lao officer took us by car to Vientiane. We did not meet Touby, but we met Ly Teng–[He] told us that we could not leave. We agreed with him since he was a man with authority. We slept in his house for the night. While we were shopping at the local market early the next day, sounds of a gunfight could be heard back at the roadblock. We heard the sounds of B-40s that the Communists fired. It was very close, like from St. Paul to Minneapolis. The Hmong had only small arms and were massacred. The Hmong retreated back into the hills. There were dead bodies everywhere on one side of the bridge. Most of them were Hmong. I saw one who lay dying on the foot of the bridge. There was another moaning on one side of the road. At the site of the roadblock, there was a lady sprawled dead on the road; one side of her face was missing. After we passed her by, there was a child crying for its parents from the side of the road. It was raining the whole day and mud was thick. The road was very narrow for the vehicle to travel on. [They took a vehicle back to the roadblock.] There were lots of belongings dropped on the road as the Hmong fled back–I only saw three bodies at the roadblock but we heard that many of the bodies were thrown by the Communist troops into the river below. The river was filled with blood and blood was everywhere. There were so many belongings left behind on the road. Even valuable items were discarded. We finally reached our people at *Pon-Song. I asked Tsu Fong to go get a taxi from *Na-Sue to pick us up. He rode up to *Na-Sue and found a taxi and came back to pick us up. At *Na-Sue we all went back to our old villages. We all went to find our weapons that we hid away and started to ambush communist convoys. We fought guerilla warfare for two to three years. We fled to *Pon-Bia and the Vietnamese attacked us there. We then decided to give ourselves up and the Vietnamese took us back to *Trau Yia [Straight Mountain]. We planted and harvested rice there for that season. We heard on the Communist radio that those who were trying to escape were Vang Pao’s people and would be dealt with [the radio was talking about the incident on the roadblock.] We decided that we were in danger. Another radio announcement came up again. This radio announcement said that we were free to do whatever we wanted if we filled out some papers in the town square. We pretended to ask for farmland near the Thai boarder and when we were allowed to move there, we escaped quietly into Thailand. The Thais picked us up and that is how we came to Thailand.”

– Wang Her

“As long as I could remember, we were always running from the Vietnamese. My mother became ill during this time of hardship and she died because there was no hospital nearby. After my mother passed away, it was just my father, my little eight-month-old brother, an older brother and myself. After constantly running away from the Vietnamese, my father moved us to a region near *Long Cheng. After the war was lost and General Vang Pao went into exile, we had no place to go so we became Chao Fa [partisans /guerilla fighters]. We could not farm when we became Chao Fa. The Vietnamese would burn our farms down. We had no food to eat so we ate anything that could be eaten. We ate many types of roots. Some were called ‘pig potatoes.’ All these roots were very bitter and we only ate them to survive. For most of the roots, we would take the skin off first, then boil them down and then tried to eat them. We also ate the branches of certain types of tropical trees that grew along rivers and streams. Some trees we had to cut down and eat the soft tissues inside. For these inner tree tissues, we sun-dried it first and then pounded it and mixed it with water. You took the liquid formed by the mixing and baked it till it became mushy starch. If we had rice with us, we would not have eaten these types of things.”

– Goua Lee

“In 1972-73, there were many large battles in our area. From 1969-70, *Long Cheng was under siege, and many people were fleeing that area. It was very intense; the US even used B-52 bombers to bomb the North Vietnamese in and around Long Cheng. In 1974, I went into the Long Cheng area and I saw that there were many sites where battles had taken place.

“In 1975, all the high officials flew by planes into Thailand. The country was in chaos. The Vietnamese were in control and their laws varied constantly from day to day. The Vietnamese vowed to eliminate us Hmong because we helped the Americans. They wanted to put all adult males into ‘re-education’ camps and to exterminate them all. We were all scared. My family moved into the area of *Heng-Her. There, even Hmong who were on the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese side were being killed. We were scared and moved back into our old villages. There were many who were killed along the way. I asked my older brother Nhia Lor what we should do. He told me that since I was not married I should flee to Thailand by myself. And that is what I did. In July of 1975, I fled to Thailand by myself.”

– Moua Vang

“When we got to Thailand, the Thai people did not like foreigners; they did not like refugees. So they were beating up [Hmong] people. The morning that we reached Thailand, we were in a big group so a lot of the people around us got robbed and beaten up. Luckily my family was not beaten or robbed. But whatever that we had, whatever money that we had, they came by and searched everything. So they got everything. We were brought into a camp, we were fed that morning and we were shifted to the refugee camp where we stayed about a year and a half.”

– Fong Her


“It was probably the most boring existence you can possibly imagine, because they weren’t allowed to do anything. There were folks, particularly young folks would clamor to come and work for the agencies that were setting up programs in the camp and they’d learn skills and there were a lot of folks that would enroll in both child and adult education programs in the camps, but there wasn’t anything to do. It was just–it was enforced idleness. It was so unnatural. It was painful to hear kids talk about, ‘Yeah, I know where rice comes from. It comes from the back of the UN truck.’ And that’s what they were growing up in. Kids growing up and spending fifteen years and never seeing dad or mom work–not a normal, healthy situation whatsoever. It was amazing to me that there weren’t more problems in the camp, because–you know, just sort of interfamilial conflicts, because, you know, there’s so much time on your hands. It was just–I was struck when we went to *Wat Tham Krabok, which was a very, very different situation entirely, because it was basically a free-standing village and everybody had to work. They weren’t being provided any services or anything, period–and everybody talked about–particularly up until a couple years ago when the Thai military moved to consolidate control over the camp, that it was far, far preferable. I mean it was a real life, and they liked it there, as opposed to the refugee camps, which almost universally they talked about hating. They’d have to troop down once or twice a week to get their rice supply off the back of the trucks and drag it home. That was one of the more exciting points of the week. And you’d see kids running around playing everywhere, but there was just this look of depression upon all of the adults. They’d just sit there and–there’s nothing to do, and I’m sure they were just bored out of their minds. And there wasn’t any way to relieve that, which is perhaps why the birth rate remained so high in the camp. [Chuckles] So not a pleasant experience at all. They had basic amenities. I mean, nobody was starving to death, everybody had housing, everybody had access to medical care–so everything was being provided, but it was just a totally empty experience.”

– Jim Anderson, Former IRC worker in Thailand

“In Vinai, you had to help because although we lived like that, we were afraid of the Thai and so at night time we rounded up the young boys to keep watch. They had nothing [no weapons], but made signal noises, because I was already trained, so I taught signal noises to everyone. It’s not yelling or calling but it’s an odd noise, but every night we changed to a different noise. By doing that we were able to help each other, because sometimes the Thai came, but when the noise was made everyone rose together so Thai couldn’t do anything bad to us. As I see it, since we ran from a war, first they [the Thai guards] wanted to get girlfriends; that was the main reason. The second reason was wanting to rape young women, and the third was to steal money. But although we didn’t have weapons we were well prepared. We didn’t have any problems, but after I left, there were problems. But since I wasn’t there, I don’t know about it.

“We had no one, but after being there for one or two years, my two younger brothers were still bachelors. At that time they transported young men with no parents, so we signed them up so they were able to come to this country. I’ll always remember how the fact that the family wasn’t separated gave you peace. Being separated makes you heartbroken because this land, no one had been here [yet], all we knew was that it went past the horizon. We didn’t know if there were people or demons on the other side. But if you stayed, you had no idea how to find food or how your life would end. So when separated we never thought to see each other again, because the person who left would never come back and you would never be able to visit them. In truth, you missed them more, your heart hurt and burned more than if the person died, because when they’re dead, you see that their body is decaying, but when they leave and are still alive, you miss them more.”

– Pa Sher Yang

“In Vinai I suffered the most, because we did not have anything. We had to wait for relatives to send us money in order to buy anything to eat. We couldn’t do things we wanted to do, because we were forbidden. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have come to America, but I had no other choice. Here in America they don’t let us suffer, but I am not complete here. The older generation does not want to live here.”

– Sy Yang


“We came [to the US] when I was five and a half. It was pretty shocking, but probably to a lesser extent [than my parents] because I was just a kid. When we came to this country, an organization sponsored us, so we came to Chicago, Illinois. I guess the surprising thing was coming right into Chicago. We never knew there was forest or jungle in this country at all, because all we saw was building after building. Skyscrapers were very impressive. The amount of people was really impressive. You’d see people walking all the time and the city lights were on 24 hours every day. I remember the first winter. We came to this country in November, so shortly after we got here the first snow storm was surprising. We thought someone was throwing cotton from the top story because we lived in the middle of the building. So we thought someone was throwing the pillow or whatever, blankets were coming down. We observed that for a little while. One of our uncles actually came to this country a year and a half before us, so he kind of told us that it was winter time and [what we saw was] snow.

Language was probably the biggest barrier. The language was the toughest because they didn’t know who to talk to and what to say. Basic things like ‘hospitals,’ ‘stores,’ even that was kind of tough because we were sponsored by an organization, so all they did was show us where we were supposed to live. No one actually took us from place to place and said, ‘This is where you do your grocery [shopping], this is where you shop for clothing, this is how you carry your money.’ We didn’t have any of those survival skills, so they just threw us into the building and just kind of told us to live there. Then they contacted us every once in a while saying, ‘What do you need?’ They took us to the welfare place to show us where to ask for money. Besides that, there wasn’t much help.”

– Vaj Tsuj Xiong

“When I left Thailand, I left my parents, my younger brothers, aunts and uncles. When I got here, I didn’t know how to go to the store. Here I faced a lot of problems. When it got dark, I didn’t know where to go. I looked everywhere, and I saw windows outside–but I was not sure. I thought it might be caves. We lived in Chicago. I walked to my aunt’s house, and we went to the store together. But we get lost, and didn’t know how to get back. We didn’t know how to take the bus, because we had never lived in the city before. We saw that the stores were very beautiful. There were a lot of things placed neatly everywhere. I didn’t know where to begin or what to buy.”

– Xee Lee

“We became aware of what appropriate manners are and what are not. Here in the U.S., you cannot trespass into someone else’s yard and land. Also, in the U.S., there is no free giving from one neighbor to another. You cannot depend on your neighbor for mutual support and giving like in Laos. Whatever you make and whatever you have, you keep to yourself. If you don’t make enough for yourself, then you become homeless and a beggar in the street. When it comes to childbirth, in Laos, the husband assisted the wife in child birth. By custom and tradition, the parents must bury the baby’s placenta inside the house; you cannot throw it away. Here in the U.S., you cannot have a child in the house, instead, you must go to the hospital. You don’t know what they do with the placenta–perhaps they throw it away or do tests on it. The husband no longer helps in child birth; it is left to the doctors and nurses. In regard to raising children, it is now easier to raise children. There are fewer health problems for our children because of modern medical healthcare. It is also easier to find food and clothing compared to Laos. Even the poor can get financial assistance from the government. Those who work can buy milk products from the stores to feed their babies, making it easier to raise children. In the U.S. the children are required to go to school so they can someday get a job and have a good life. One thing that I worry about is that as our children become teens they are conforming to the culture of the people living here. They hang out late at night–I worry about them when they are 12 to 18 years old. This makes us the parents really stressed out. However, the majority of the students don’t go this route and they stay in school to get an education.”

– Pastor Cheng Vang

“My father had always been a shaman, so many people knew that he was a shaman. They did not know that he was converted to being a Christian, that he had found his new faith or new religion to be rewarding, because he was willing to leave all that behind and he had found peace in his life for once. But eventually when more Hmong people came to Lansing [Michigan], and they knew that he was a shaman back in the days, they came and begged and begged him. I remember going to the Lutheran church–we each were given a cross, and we had worn our cross every day, and my father had a much bigger cross that he wore, and he had told the fellow that came–he had told him that he no longer performed the shaman ritual anymore, because he is a Christian now. Well, that fellow doesn’t know anything about being a Christian, yet my father is also a newly converted Christian, and as the guy begged and begged, and–my father was always a kind person. He decided, ‘Well, maybe one time will be OK. Maybe just this once.’ And he went to perform the shaman ritual and he came back and he told us that he didn’t feel the same anymore, that he felt the shaman spirit wasn’t with him anymore. It was more of a fake. He couldn’t really see how he saw, but he realized he had the cross with him. More people came and asked him to perform. And more and more people came. And as he got into that again, every time he went he took the cross off. And then he felt, ‘OK, maybe this is becoming something [where] I can’t just hide behind the church anymore. I need to do something.’ Because, according to the shamans, if you perform shamanism, you have to have an altar for the spirits to communicate. And so we had an altar built in our apartment, and when we had bible study they would cover the altar. Later on, my father had asked the pastor if it was OK for him to perform shamanism. Well, I guess the translation of what he was doing, when my pastor heard it, he had questioned, ‘Are you doing something to harm someone or is it something good?’ My father had replied that it was a goodthing. And the pastor, without realizing what my father was doing, said, ‘It’s OK. If it’s good, it’s OK.’ So later on when the lay minister came and ministered to us, that got across [to] my pastor, and then that’s when they said, ‘I didn’t know this. If I knew about this, I would have told him not to do this.’ And then they took my parents to church and they talked to them about taking down the altar and really just being Christians, sticking to the word of God. And during this time there were a lot of Hmong people in Lansing already. A lot of people had a lot of expectations of my father and he decided with the pastor and also the lay minister by his side that–I felt he was pressured into taking down the altar. So I got home one day and saw the pastor and the lay minister, along with my father, and asked them what they were doing, and the pastor told me, ‘Your father has decided that he wants to take down the altar.’ And I–obviously my father was there, too, and I thought my father was happy. I was glad he wanted to do that, because like I said at the beginning, he wanted to escape that. I was happy for him, and I took part in it. So I helped him take down the altar. And then later on my sister-in-law came and said, ‘What are you guys doing? Do you guys know that if you do this the shaman spirit is going to attack my father?’ And that–reality just hit him or something. And he was scared to death. And he experienced many–he was traumatized… He experienced a lot of sickness, and then the–we didn’t have the support from the church. They didn’t come to pray for him. Also he was upset at the pastor, so the pastor had–you know, cut the communication between him[self] and my parents. And it was me–I would still go to church, but it was just me.”

– Keith Vang

“One thing that made us worry in the U.S. was that Americans didn’t know how much we helped them during the war. When we first got here, the Americans hated us because we looked different from them. When they saw us, they spat at us. When they saw us driving newer-model cars, they cursed at us. When we were driving old rusty cars around, they also cursed at us.

“The generation that was born here will become Americanized and will lack the close family bonds that we used to have. They will isolate themselves and live as they choose. In the future, when the Hmong who were born here become able leaders, they will no longer keep to the traditional religious culture but became Christianized. Those who do not want to be Christian will have no faith of their own any longer.”

– Pastor Chang Tao Vang

“Well, I think overwhelmingly the concern has always been–well, twofold, really. One is for that group of folks who were adults when they arrived–have really had a very difficult time here. I mean, it’s been very, very hard–and I think increasingly so as time went on, because it became easier and easier to sort of settle into a Hmong enclave in St. Paul, and the sense of urgency about learning English and moving into our culture more, reduced for folks, because, you know, for those folks who were 25 years of age or older, who had never been to school, who knew not a single word of English when they arrived, it’s hard to imagine just how difficult it was for them. So the big concern for the Hmong families and the Hmong community agencies trying to work with the Hmong refugees has largely been around that adult population when they arrived, and now the rapidly aging population, many of whom still have never made that acculturation, who still feel as foreign here as they did the first day they got off the plane. And that’s terrifically sad. The other group of folks, really–I think that because, for a lot of the Hmong parents, their decision to come to the United States, whether reluctant or enthusiastic, was, for many if them, at least, was an admission that, essentially their life was no longer the focus, that everything now was being officially transferred to their children. And that put a lot of pressure on those kids, a lot of pressure to–you’ve got to do well. If your American classmate is spending an hour a night on homework, you have to spend three hours a night on homework. You have to observe Hmong rules in–heaven forbid–dating and, you know, socializing in general. You’re not to become too American, although you have to learn English right away and you have to learn all about this culture but you have to stay Hmong. A lot of pressure, tremendous amount of pressure that kids went under, and what is so amazing is how many kids responded so wonderfully and successfully to that kind of pressure. But for a lot of kids it was really more than they could handle, and so you saw kids dropping out, a lot of, sort of the first intergenerational conflict, as far as I know, in Hmong history [Chuckles]–that suddenly there’s this huge gap between parents and their kids. And the parents no longer start–you know, they don’t understand these kids, and these are the first kids going through adolescence. And just how difficult that was for both sides of that generational gap–and some kids wound up either directly and defiantly disobeying and sort of forcing the hand of their parents who said, ‘We have no choice but to kick you out,’ or the kids themselves chose to leave. And so that also has been very tragic–I think tragic on all kinds of levels. These kids who are getting kicked out of their Hmong families because they’re too American, but not really being American enough to really fit in, and so sort of being stuck somewhere in the middle and being really lost and isolated. And no wonder there’s an allure of joining some compatriots in a gang, because it’s the only sense of family or belonging or understanding that you can find. So there’s been that, that’s been real difficult and real tragic for a lot of Hmong families. But I still think the overwhelming sense is that–just how miraculous it is that so many have done so well, and how justifiably proud they are that they’ve been able to do that, after what they’ve gone through, [to] come out the other side.

– Jim Anderson, former IRC worker in Thailand, now Planner for Immigrant, Refugee, and Homeless Services for Ramsey Country (MN).

In 1980, Marlin Heise, already an employee of the Minnesota Historical Society for about seven years, was asked to help two new Hmong employees find their way in an unfamiliar work environment. He had spent many hours sipping coffee and chatting with them over their breaks. [A]t Christmas 1980 Chong Toua had said, ‘All the people at the office come to his house’ up at McDonough Homes in St. Paul and then they will have baby party for Baby Jack. And you think about Christmas Day how many people do you go and visit other than your nearest of blood relatives unless you really can’t stand them. And so I had stayed overnight with friends in South Minneapolis, and they dropped me off in Mount Airy…I found the place–walked up Jackson and found McDonough Homes and found Bigelow and the right address, and there they were in the kitchen. And since it was only an hour late, it was about right time. [Laughs] Ka Yeng is Chong Toua’s wife, and was standing there holding Baby Jack. And there were about 15 or 20 men in the kitchen, and one was slightly taller, and everybody had lot of things to say in Hmong, and the slightly taller man said he would translate for me. And so on the formica and chrome table were big…aluminum roaster kind of pans…of steamed rice and some kind of barbecued beef and egg rolls and salad. And so everybody is standing in a big circle around the room. And somebody does a prayer, because they were all Hmong Baptist from Roseville Baptist church. And the prayer goes on and on and on and on until they say ‘Amen,’ and then the slightly taller man said, in complete, total translation, ‘That was the prayer’ [Laughs]. And then we were to eat, and each of us had a bowl…and then if you want to eat this, you just spoon it in with your spoon, and if you want more, you just use your spoon from the main serving aluminum pan, and it seemed a little bit strange. And the food was not totally recognizable. It wasn’t what we would have done on Christmas day. And all of the people talking and talking and talking, and then everybody standing there and eating and talking–only the men–and then there was a wedding in the neighborhood, so about 90% of the people just left. And that got explained…And then afterwards there were still a dozen…in the house. And they began to sing old familiar Christmas songs like ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’ in Hmong–good old ‘Silent Night,’ and several others (they were all Baptists), and it seemed like a good thing for people to do. And I would say about 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock, Chong Toua’s older brother Houa drove me home…And I thought, ‘You know, for a Christmas Day, that was a pretty good day.’ It was a lot more meaningful than many of them that I had been to, and just to be able to listen to Christmas songs like the old days was not so bad, and out on the farm when we had, maybe once a month we had some sort of a birthday party or Thanksgiving or Christmas or some other big event, it was a lot the same, other than usually the whole mob of children would go in and fill up their plates and disappear, and then the men would go in and get whatever it was they were going to eat, or else men first and children next, and then the women would just sit out in the kitchen and eat and talk. So to have just a whole group of men together, that wasn’t quite so strange; that was a little bit just like out on the farm. And I found later on so many of those other connections–the same with almost everybody, because they all grew up in villages, and they all were farm people and they had dirt under their fingernails until they became real city people, and that’s kind of what we did, too.”


MayKao Hang

MayKao Hang
Interviewed: March 21, 2012
Interviewer, Editor: Paul Hillmer
Transcribers: Jillian Humlie, Paul Hillmer

Dr. MayKao Hang is president and CEO of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Born in war-torn Laos, Hang’s family escaped to Thailand and eventually settled in the Twin Cities in 1976, when only a small number of Hmong families had yet arrived. Dr. Hang reviews her life story, focusing on her family’s history and adjustment to life in Minnesota, her education, and memories of various issues in the Hmong community related to resettlement, including clan and gender issues, community leadership, generational conflict, and changing understandings and definitions of Hmong identity. The final portion of the interview covers her professional experiences and how her life has prepared her in many ways to be the head of one of Minnesota’s most respected non-profit organizations. Dr. Hang graduated from Como Park Senior High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Brown University, an MA degree in Social Policy and Distributive Justice from the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and a Doctorate in Public Administration from Hamline University, the final degree not quite completed when the interview took place.

(00:05) Let’s start with the obvious state your name please
Yes, My name is MayKao Yang Long Zhoua Hang

(00:10) And what are your parent’s names
My Dad’s name is Blong Yang and my mom’s name is Sua Vu Yang. Vue is her maiden clan and Yang is obviously my dad’s clan

(00:22) And where were you born?
My parents were born in Xieng Khouang Province, but I was born in Sayaboury, Laos, right as the war was kind of kicking up and the CIA was involved.

(00:36) So if and when someone asks you about childhood stories of your life in Laos what kinds of things are you inclined to talk about?
I don’t remember much about my childhood in Laos. So, my first actual vivid memory is of running away from Laos. I thought for years that the dream that I had of running and hearing gun shots and being afraid, it was actually just a nightmare. I had these recurring nightmares when I was a child. And finally, I think I must have been in like my late teens, early twenties then and I was talking to my mom about this recurring nightmare I never really talked to her about it before and she finally said “Oh well those, that’s not really a nightmare. It actually did happen.” And it turned out that my—this is years later, you know, a kind of discovery about my own history. My mom had fled with us three girls. I think I was about three at the time. And my sister, who is a couple years older and at the time my other sister was a couple years younger—we were just kind of babies at the time. My dad was a teacher in Laos. Actually one of the few Hmong teachers. He was in a different place, he had been thrown into a reeducation camp; they called them seminars there.
Right, the French word. So my mom and some other villagers decided to flee. And she took us and tried to get across to Thailand and had paid a cousin of hers, actually, to lead us off to safety. And we got to one of these check points. You know, roads were few and far between there, obviously. Her cousin betrayed us at the check point, so the villagers scattered, the soldiers just ran after us. We spent the night in an open field. A second night we actually wandered into a village of lepers. Hmoob Mob Nruas [Chuckles]

(2:48) Believe it or not, that’s not the first time I’ve heard that
Right so, these lepers, they quarantined them; they actually saved us. They sheltered us for a couple weeks. My uncle was with us at the time—this was my dad’s older brother. He’s since died, he never made it over. He went, found my dad and my dad came back and got us and then we tried to flee the second time. And so I think what my memories are, are really of running. And then I lived for a year in a refugee camp in Thailand. So I was about four when we came to the US.

(3:22) Okay so you don’t really have pre American memories of your own
Yeah, more emotions, thoughts, kind of nightmares, you know, trauma from remembering just little snippets of things, remembering the trees, the noises, the guns, that kind of thing. So I don’t have many but actually my most vivid memory is getting off the plane and seeing all these white people who have big noses [Interviewer laughs]. I got a Barbie, I think my older sister got a Barbie, and my youngest sister, there were only three of us kids at the time, she got a Raggedy Ann and I just remember that she hated it. So you know that was my first memory was getting this box with this Barbie inside.

(4:08) So how did your father get out of Seminar and get back to you?
They released him after a week and then they told him that he was to report back to a different place; he was going to be sent up north. North I don’t know maybe the northeastern border of Laos for more training. And of course he was terrified, he had heard that basically you were just taken there basically to be killed. Having found us he then said, “Okay we’re going to try to figure out how we’re gonna get out of this place,” because he had lost all hope for us actually having a life there. And I think at the time because there were many educated Hmong who were involved with the war, or were involved in some way. And my dad really wasn’t; he kind of was one of these fellows who was an educator. You know, there weren’t a lot of people back then who could actually buy an education. He was just a really, really smart poor village kid who somehow tested into the university of Vientiane, Laos. So he was one of two individuals who tested into the university and was on free scholarship. Because at the time I think it was—per every province you could have these scholarship kids and he was one of these scholarship kids. So unlike—I’ve talked to other Hmong people who were around his age and they actually—either they were involved with the military or they were people of means, had money to pay for the university. My dad really didn’t, and so he just felt like the war was not something to be engaged in, it wasn’t his politics. So he kind of stayed away from it and didn’t get really involved until the very end, because he was an educator and obviously that wasn’t a good thing to be at the time.

(6:15) So I’m sorry, just to close the circle here. You were hiding in a community of lepers, your family went to where then to reunite with your father?
He came and got us.

At that place?
Yes. Because my uncle who was his older brother basically went back and tried to find him. Found him, he had been released, my dad and my uncle came back. We went back to our home village, pretended like things were fine. And then we stole away in the middle of the night. My dad actually said, because back in the old days all the teachers had uniforms, they all had to be dressed a certain way, so he actually traded his school uniform for someone else. At the time there were Hmong people who were falling on both sides of the political divide. So apparently there was some guy, this is according to my dad, who was willing to trade and not say anything for the clothes that he was wearing, so he did that. And we just stole away and we actually went back to a place where he had taught in northern Laos. Crossing through the mountains
Nong Het?
Nong Het and then down to Nam Yao which was eventually the refugee camp that we ended up in. We walked. There were a bunch of us who left kind of at the same time from the village—again, attempt number two. There were a couple uncles who were with us, things like that. So anyway, that’s how we escaped the second time. My mom said that we hid, we apparently had some house up north like by the border where dad had taught. We kind of waltzed in there and pretended we were going to live there. And so the women were the ones who had made all the preparations for the village because they were less suspicious. They went and got everything ready and then, you know, stealing away at night again so that no one would see us.

(8:24) Moving ahead a little bit—we’ll get back to the thread of the story, but—at what age are you hearing these details? Are you getting them in sort of as snippets as you’re growing up or is there a particular time that suddenly you are curious and are asking your parents these things?
They all came in snippets over time because I think—I don’t know. I never even knew my dad was in a re-education camp until much later. I think I was in my twenties when I decided to interview my parents in an oral history project. I had gotten really curious about my own family’s history, and so decided why not, you know? So I actually interviewed my parents and that’s when more of the full story came out and I have to say even after the oral histories more detail came out. So some of these things came out in little snippets, like I always knew that a village of lepers saved us, [Chuckles] like from the time when I was a little girl my mom would say, “Well—“ and she would talk about it matter-of-factly like we would be sitting around doing pa ntaub sewing or something and she would say “Well, there was a really great woman in the leper village that we lived in for a time” and then she’d go “I thought we were all going to die.” [Interviewer laughs]   But she would never associate it with the flight.
And so I thought, “Oh, I guess we lived in a village of lepers at some time.” And so all these little snippets coming out and usually not always sad but with some triumph. Like we survived and this is kind of what happened. But the whole story didn’t come out until I was in my twenties. And it was just because I asked. It wasn’t because—I mean, I think they would have been fine telling me the story earlier, they just maybe didn’t think I was that curious thought it was maybe because I wasn’t that curious. And I also think growing up bilingual and bicultural my English surpassed my Hmong in so many ways and then when I actually learned how to speak Hmong a lot better, I could actually understand the meaning behind some of the words, because it’s very disorienting when you are bicultural and bilingual. You go to the public schools and all the teachers are shushing you because you’re speaking in Hmong. “Well you should speak English.” Well when I grew up, when I was growing up in St. Paul in the eighties, there weren’t a lot of Hmong kids. And so I was an anomaly and teachers didn’t know what to do with me. I would be back in ESL and back out of ESL [Chuckles] They had no idea what to do with me. And then what they decided to do with me for a period probably of ten years was integrate, integrate, integrate. “You have to speak English.” And I don’t think anyone really knew what they were doing. They didn’t have a lot of ESL experts at the time in the public schools, so I grew up during the time when the Hmong language and culture wasn’t really fostered and so it was just like, “Well, how do I even talk to my parents? I don’t even know if I have the right words to ask, the right questions to ask them.”

(11:33) So where did you go to school?
I went to public schools. I grew up on the north end of St. Paul and then I went to Brown University for college. I won a full scholarship to Brown. And I came back here and studied public affairs at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. And then—I’m in school again, I’m actually not done with school. I’m doing a doctorate program at Hamline University and I’m pretty much done with all my course work and I passed my exam and I’m working on a dissertation right now.

(12:08) You said you grew up here at a time when you didn’t have a lot of Hmong classmates,
So you were in North St. Paul and not sort of in the midst of a place where there tended to be a greater accumulation of Hmong students.
I grew up on the north end of St. Paul, so not North St. Paul, the north end of St. Paul. So Rice St. and Wheelock, and things like that. I think I started getting more Hmong classmates around sixth or seventh grade, something like that. And then by the time I was in high school there were a lot more Hmong kids that came in classes behind mine. So I graduated from Como Park Senior High in 1990.

(12:50) So you came here in what year?
Oh wow! OK, I didn’t put two and two together there.
Yeah, 1976.
So you were just here so early that the second big wave—
Yeah, the second wave hadn’t hit yet. When my family moved to St. Paul there were ten Hmong families here. [Laughs] So my dad and my mom had—they helped shape this Hmong community, actually. My dad was one of the cofounders of Lao Community Center. He cofounded the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, the Hmong Cultural Center, [Laughs] the Hmong Yang Vang Meng Association which is the Yang Clan Family Association. So he did a lot civically in this community. But I have really seen this community both as a kid and I think as an adult go through lots of change.
(13:40) We’ll talk about that, I’m sure.
Well let’s go back to you arriving here, getting a Barbie doll and seeing all these funny looking, pale, big nosed people. How—as you remember as an adult of course childhood memories have a sort of different cast to them. But what do you remember about that early phase of trying to make sense of life in this new place?
Well I remember learning how to speak English, being terrified on the playground because I was on the monkey bars and there was this little girl next door who kept—she was standing below me and she kept saying “Let go” and I thought, “What is she talking about?” [Interviewer laughs] “What is she talking about? And they were Latino kids, her and her brother. And I can remember thinking, “I’m really scared I think I’m going to have to let go” and she kept saying, “Let go” And then I let go and there was suddenly a meaning to those words. I mean, I remember things like that. I remember the acculturation process with media, like looking at media. I think Elvis Presley died some time in there. I remember when Elvis died and my dad was like, he used to call him Alvin because he couldn’t say Elvis, I remember him saying “Oh Alvin is the most handsome man I have ever seen in America and now he’s dead.” [Laughter]. It would be things like that. I remember not understanding Christmas, because as a kid our sponsors who were all white—the first Christmas they brought over wooden ornaments that we had to paint and then hang on the tree. I remember my mom mumbling about “well these Mika people, they’re really strange. Why would you cut wood, do this, and then hang it on a tree? The tree is made of wood.” [Laughter] So all the holidays and no one understood what Halloween was like why would you dress up like crazy goblins and ghosts and—because spirits mean something very specific in the Hmong culture, I remember my parents going “Well, why would you do that?” You would never want to package yourself as a spirit of any kind. And it’s all evil stuff and evil spirits are bad.

(16:04) And the school experience specifically, as you mentioned, it didn’t seem that, this early in the game, people really understood how to deal with students who were coming in with different needs, different languages, things like that.
How do you remember that experience? Was it, despite some of those challenges, still a positive experience or were there some challenges?
I think it was fairly positive although I think that I was [Pauses] I had a hard time learning how to read. And that’s not unusual for a kid who’s bilingual and has already acquired a first language and all these other things, but I think I was in really low reading groups for a long time and because I couldn’t have my learning reinforced at home because my parents didn’t really speak English.it was really tough.  I signed my own field trip forms—I mean, they couldn’t read them anyway, so why bother? [Laughs] So I remember doing that and when I got older I would sign my siblings’ field trip forms. I became really good at being a parent to my younger siblings, being the translator. I spent a lot of my childhood translating and interpreting for people, very badly. [Laughs] at health clinics, enrolling cousins in school. I think teachers were curious but didn’t know how to deal with kids from different cultures. They didn’t know what Hmong was; I had to explain a lot what Hmong was. But I myself didn’t know myself what being Hmong was, because I had nothing that validated my identity as a kid. So it was just like [Pauses] it was very disorienting, because schools are great socializers, they are really socializing you civically. So I learned about the constitution and I think, “Well, it doesn’t say anything about Asian people [Laughs] it says stuff about slaves or there was a certain measurement of slaves, three fifths of a person for representation, and I thought, “Well, what about Asians?” Teachers didn’t explain really what that meant, so I remember school in the early years being a very disorienting process and I would say because it’s hard to separate being an immigrant from being low income that class was a big socializer and race was a big socializer just because Hmong people tended to live in low income neighborhoods with other low income people so I grew up with a lot of low income whites. And that’s very different maybe now than how the city of St. Paul looks like. But my conceptualization of poor people in America were poor whites who lived in public housing, because that’s who was living in public housing. There was a little boy who lived next door who would like to come and take my jacks and was very disruptive. I think he must have—he looked huge but he must have been probably about thirteen or something. [Laughs]  It wasn’t unusual to be called bad names in school, be told to go home, just kind of all the really racist hate oriented behaviors; I experienced all of that in school. And I think there was a lot of segregation of different types of kids from each other, not just in the cafeteria, but just in terms of interaction with teachers and things like that

(19:37) It’s sad that this isn’t the sort of thing where you can take a poll, but did you have a sense that at least on some level these people thought you were Vietnamese or—?
Oh yeah, I was called Vietnamese constantly I was called Laotian constantly. People didn’t know that being Hmong and being Laotian were totally different, that they had different languages and cultures, that linguistically there’s not even a match. [Laughs] So I just think being mischaracterized all the time—and then—it was really funny there was actually a point where my English really surpassed my Hmong and I didn’t have an accent anymore and everything, and then people thought I was Korean or Chinese or Japanese [Laughs], so there was just this mischaracterization all the time of what type of Asian you were, and not really a good understanding of [Pauses] Asia is a really big country and there are so many languages and cultures and Minnesota is very homogenous and at the time was even more so. So people just had no understanding what it meant.

(20:39) So you talked about assuming this adult role in your family, signing documents and things like that. So did your parents come to teacher conferences and if so did you translate for them, or—?
I never had any parents come to any teacher conference my entire education. I never had them come to any activities at school. I think by the time my other siblings came along they had been sort of—they were getting more active at school. But my parents, especially my dad, his conceptualization of school was still how school was back in Laos. He just felt like if there were things that the teacher really needed to talk to him about, they would really be calling him, not realizing that this was a totally different type of system and then I think by the time he finally caught on he was kind of mad. [Both laugh] He was sort of mad about it

(21:36) Mad that he missed out? Mad at American or Lao or–?
Yeah, mad because he really thought that—in Laos, the education of children is also character education and moral education and education about ethics; it was a lot more comprehensive. I think more of what you maybe see here in private religious schools, and so he was thinking that public schools did that. And then I think at some point in time he realized they weren’t doing that and he would say stuff like “God damn it”—you know, in English [Laughs] [Speaks in Hmong starting 22:15] so basically it was “God damn it, I thought they were trying to teach you how to be good people and I find out they’re teaching you all these things that I don’t agree with.” So he just decided to take matters into his own hand and do his own thing.

(22:36) Well teachers were sort of unquestionable authority figures back in Laos.
Yes they were, they were. They were. And then he kind of realized “Oh they are not unquestionable characters here. Wow maybe they don’t have my children’s best interests at heart.” And I think it disheartened him, but I think it also think it made him very, very strict. He was a very strict disciplinarian. And [Pauses, laughs] his way of managing the kids was “If the teacher is on chapter two, you should be on chapter four!” So he’d like force us to study ahead.

(23:14) Did all the kids respond to that reasonably well? Were there differences between you and your siblings?
Yeah there were differences. I think some of us were more motivated than others and some of us were less able to deliver on the expectations that he had or that my parents both had. My mother had her own ways, they were a little softer but no less difficult to sort of rise to that level of expectation. But they did turn out five kids who actually graduated from college and did fine in life, so they must have known what they were doing.

(23:52) How did your parents fare as they first came here in terms of finding employment, in terms of feeling secure and being able to take care of their family and those kinds of things?
I think probably the first fifteen years were a constant struggle. And there were times when they, my parents voluntarily stayed poor for the good of the family. So my dad’s first job [Chuckling]—you know, teachers in another country are really revered figures and that was kind of what he was expecting, and he had aspirations to become an educator here, and it was really, for him, the land of opportunity and that’s actually why he wanted to resettle here, and he was one of the first in all these other things because he wanted a better life, and my mom wanted a better life for us. But his first job was working the graveyard shift at a bowling alley. And in the ‘70s or even the later ‘70s, they were kind of the punk rock years. Well he thought [Chuckles briefly]—and there were all these rumors in the refugee camp about America being the land of giants and America being a land where there were evil monsters and with Halloween, who knows? But when he stepped into the bowling alley he really thought he had entered the land of monsters, [Both laugh] because of all the beer drinking, smoking, punk rockers with blue and green hair. He just thought he had made the biggest mistake of his life. He did that for a while. He cleaned out ash trays and toilets; he was basically the assistant to the janitor.
And my mom, she had two babies in a row when she came to the US, finally started working, I think, when my brother was about a year and half. We were on welfare and lived in public housing; and she had found a home daycare provider for us in the neighborhood. And after a while she, my sister at the time, the one right after me, she was a preschooler and so she would half time to be in daycare to this woman’s home, and she had discovered after a couple weeks or a few months and Naly kept saying “Well our little brother keeps crying, Mom,” and it turned out that the daycare provider was locking my brother in the basement. [Laughs gently] Whenever he cried or needed attention, she was just leaving him down there and he would be crying and crying on his own. And occasionally my sister who was a little older, Carol, would be down there, but sometimes it was him alone, and so sometimes my mom quit work and she just said “You know I don’t care what this country is telling me to do. I don’t care if I lose my welfare benefits or whatever it might be. I’m taking care of my family.” And so she quit work and she kept going to school when my dad was home and could take care of us but she just basically voluntarily exited the work force, because [Pauses] When I talk to her now she still gets angry about it, “How could you do this to a child, a small child, a baby, really?!” So she feels a lot of guilt for abandoning the kids, and because she couldn’t upgrade her skills as fast because we were little, we just stayed poor for another six or seven years until we grew up more, and then she went and found work. And I think by then I and May Song, who was a little older than I, could actually help take care of the younger ones a little bit longer. So I think it was touch and go and she did retraining programs. She is one of the few women that I know now, she’s in her sixties, who at the time actually took the time to go to evening high school, finished high school, did a two-year vocational degree and finished that, then went on and did some other work. So then she was fine. But you know, the retraining and all of that takes a really long time, you have to invest a lot of time, especially if English isn’t your primary language.

(28:03) Were there—on some level obviously, there had to be—but were there tensions in the family over some of these things that you just discussed? You mentioned school and obviously your father was upset about, the American school system. It’s typical to go through these things as a family and not just make sacrifices but also, I would assume, experience some tension between various family members.
Yeah, there was tension with family members. My parents were very charitable. They had almost nothing themselves and yet they still found time to share their resources with many other Hmong. My dad especially felt an obligation to family members because he was one of the few educated ones sponsoring. Once we were able to, we kept sponsoring families from Laos because he would be like “Okay one more family we have saved from death” [Both laugh] So I actually grew up with revolving—I felt like I had grown up in a social services organization, which I kind of did. So there were periodic tensions between sharing resources and some people are more stingy than others with paying for gas and everybody would complain. And some people would complain about food—I mean, just basic needs. We were constantly giving clothes away and showing people where to go to the Goodwill you know Salvation Army and all of that. And then there was tension in my family because of most of us were girls and there were family members who felt that my parents should continue to have kids—you know, that whole thing. There was a split in my family and there were also—when you help that many people there are also misunderstandings about what you can and can’t do and there was a family member who felt that the reason why one of our relatives couldn’t come over was because my dad really didn’t focus on the paperwork right and so there was a rift and he sent this terribly ugly letter, really kind of ostracizing my dad and yelling at him, basically telling him that he was worthless because he had a family of girls you know, there were four girls in the family and just one boy. So my dad in typical fashion in one of our photo albums [Laughs] laminated the letter and stuck it in there. [Both laugh] And then whenever we weren’t doing well he’d say “See?!?! This is why you have to do well in school so you don’t do this kind of stuff later on: accuse people who know more than you of not doing enough and letting other people be the mouthpiece for you. So he just—all these different tensions and hardships, it did lead to a big rift in the Yang clan, because that uncle then became Christian and then my dad didn’t agree with that and so we just stopped interacting. So there are rifts around gender and religion and treatment of different jobs, because when resources are scarce people fight. But as much fighting as there was, I think there was more helping and support of each other. My parents were the kind of people who would give the shirt off their back for a new relative to America. Even if the pot wasn’t old they would say “This is a really old pot and I think you should take it. [Borh laugh]. That’s how we were.  So we grew up with little, and then we shared what little we had. And that was just kind of how we grew up. And it led to, I think, most of us in the family becoming very community-oriented because that’s how our parents were.

(31:55) Was this idea of being a girl in a patriarchal society something that you felt on a regular basis or was this something that some guy was throwing at your dad at this particular time of stress?
No I think because as gender roles changed there was stress around my mom going to work, stress around women earning more. My dad was very supportive of us as girls and at the same time was very much a product of his own culture. So I always had to grow up with that duality of my dad thinks I can be very successful and then “Oh gee my dad’s going out and talking to women,” and my dad is going out and doing all these other things that really—I think is disrespectful to my mom. So I think its—you know, people are really creatures of their environment and what they’ve been socialized to do, and unfortunately in the Hmong clan system, women do take a secondary role. And like in the Hmong belief system, if you act really bad and uncharitably as a man you can come back as a woman—I mean, that’s the threat [Laughs] in the cosmology of the Hmong, so what does that say about women? It means you are supposed to be second class citizens and you are supposed to be deferential, and all these different things because you are less high on the social status. So while my dad believed that women should be educated and girls should go to school and all these other things, I had to live with the duality of, “Well, this is his belief system”—and it’s my mom’s too. I mean, she believes the same thing. And some of it’s like protective and some is just, “Well, this is just how things are.” I think any father would say, “Well, if you have a teenage daughter you better be as careful as possible and you want to screen every young man who comes through the door.” So I think it’s that, but it’s magnified. It was magnified because my parents were living in a culture that wasn’t their own. And they had to be extra diligent. So the way they took care of that was by being very strong disciplinarians and then also by saying, “You can be anything you want.” And then what you see as role modeling is, “Oh, mom’s in the kitchen all the time, she’s cooking, she’s not eating with the men,” and there are all these other things that are going on then.

(34:17) I assume that along with “You can be anything you want,” there’s also “and that will make you a good wife for some husband” on some level.
Right, right. Yeah.  “You’ll be a good wife.”  The messages I got growing up was “Your primary responsibility is you to be a good wife and mother.” Now that was counter to the messages my own parents gave to me which was, “Your primary responsibility is to become educated”. And then “we want you to marry a nice Hmong man, and then have kids.” [Both laugh.] Which ironically I pretty much followed, because I completed my education before I actually did get married. But they had these very—both of them had this very strong value around education. I mean, its like “Education is your priority. You will not have any other priority other than education; you will not have friends before you can get an education. You will not have— ” I mean, the only thing that maybe trumped that was, “You will support your sisters [Both laugh] in their education!” Those were all the messages, but it was very counter to what the rest of the community was saying to me, so when I went other places, even when I was about sixteen or seventeen, it would be, “Well, you are such a lovely young woman. Boy, why you aren’t married yet?”
Of course, yeah.
All my friends started marrying each other starting at around age thirteen or fourteen. By the time I graduated from high school all my friends were pretty much married with the exception of one person. I out of my graduating class at Como Park Senior High was the only person—young woman—who graduated from college unmarried. Everybody else was married. So it was a lonely experience to have that level of pressure culturally and to really defy it, to say, “Well, but I am going to become educated, I am going to go to school.”

(36:16) Were you confident enough in that vision that you didn’t spend too much time second-guessing yourself and sort of wondering why you weren’t getting married?
No I wasn’t confident, because I wasn’t receiving any support, or very little support for what I was doing, so—I tell this story all the time of why social change needs to happen in our Hmong community to support education for all. I was part of this really interesting focus group one time that the Federal TRIO programs were doing around first-generation college students in the Hmong community, and I was one of the few women who was in the group. And I realized in reflection at that meeting, in that focus group that I as a student—I had already graduated from my master’s degree then—that as a Hmong girl, the only support that I had gotten from my clan—and it wasn’t even a clan member, it was someone from my mother’s clan giving me cash to spend—was twenty dollars. Twenty dollars was given to me to spend freely from an aunt of mine who lived on welfare and had been orphaned at a young age. She wasn’t educated herself, but for some reason she sent me this crisp twenty dollar bill, and I cried in the mail room. [Laughing, but moved still.] It was amazing. Because Hmong boys don’t have to experience that level of lack of support. And I actually remember crying one time when I came home from college. . .
It moves you even now
I know I know.
That’s how significant it is.
I was crying ‘cause I said “Mom, I’m such a good student and there are all these Hmong boys who are getting money from their clan members to buy books and all these other things. What about me? Why isn’t any one supporting me?” and she said “Well honey it’s because you’re a girl and you’re going to marry and benefit some other clan.” [Laughs] But she said, “But I don’t think that you should be sad about it” and I said, “Well why not? Why can’t I be sad about it, or even outraged?” She said, “Because honey, all these Hmong boys who are getting all this money from their relatives, when they grow up and when they finish, they can never claim that they did it on their own”

(38:46) [Chuckles] There is an interesting insight from your mother.
And—I mean, she was trying to make me feel better. And she said, “Honey, you’re not going to owe anybody anything. You can become whatever you want you can do anything you want. You’re not going to be obligated to all these clan members or relatives. So you remember every single person who is helping you now, because you’re going to become somebody someday, and not many people are going to be able to claim that they did anything to help you”
Not legitimately, anyway.
And you know—not legitimately, anyway. [Interviewer laughs.] And she was right. She was right. Because—I think that the concept of moral debt and obligation crosses so many generations and really for me, because there was no expectation, or very little, and then very little assistance. I really don’t owe a lot, necessarily, to other people. And that’s OK.
Yeah, it’s OK. But it was a freeing moment. But I think that those gender dynamics are really strong. I’ve talked to a Hmong boy who’s graduated from college and says the same things that I do. I remember that every time I give money to clan members that I have to give equally to Hmong girls and women who are in school, because they are struggling so much.

(40:02) And this was a theme that came across even with my Hmong students, who are women, all the time.
“Why is this happening, and why—?” I even had a young woman when I spoke at the HND [Hmong National Development] conference last year say “Oh yes we have a name for it: Hmong prince syndrome”. [Dr. Hang laughs] I had never heard that before.
I have never heard that, but [Laughs]
So yeah, clearly it’s a big deal
It’s a big deal to the extent that it doesn’t create a return. It doesn’t create value in terms of women giving back to the community at some future date. It also doesn’t improve the community, because you know that everybody has to have an education in order to be economically self-sufficient and do well and break that generation—break that cycle of poverty and all these different things we know.

(40:57) And of course my grandparents probably didn’t think all that differently at that time either. Those same patriarchal ideas, I think, have existed in most cultures at one time or another.
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, what does that say about us as a country that we think we are progressive and there have been more Muslim countries that have had women as prime ministers than we have had presidents in our nation’s history? So I don’t think you have to look so far beyond the Hmong community to see those gender differences and those dynamics, still so persistent.

(41:30) This probably wasn’t the case since your father was an educator; it’s sort of an odd question anyway, but it seems, with some people I’ve spoken to, that the very thing parents want for their children, which is an education and success and college and a profession, can also be the very things that can alienate them from their children,
that it creates more distance between parent and child. Did that happen at all with you in some way?
It did, I think, for my mother because she had never really received a formal education; the education she did have wasn’t about living in the world of ideas. There is a very dramatic split when you become educated, because you move beyond kind of survival—“I work so that I can earn an income” to “I need to be self-actualized in my work.” It’s a very different type of activity—not that it’s always so clear, but when you’re not as educated or when you’re basically in survival mode, you can’t afford the luxury of living in the world of ideas. And the minute you do that, it creates a class difference that’s pretty substantial in terms of connecting a divide and sharing knowledge. So it’s like you can’t talk to your mom, I couldn’t talk to my mom, even today, in terms of living in the world of ideas. It has to be about the here and now and the present. And I think that it took me a long time to realize that that was the schism that had been created by me going to school, and I am much more able to understand the world that she lives in than she is to understand mine, because she’s never lived in my world. How could she? She never had those opportunities, and so it’s dependent on me to actually figure out how to bridge that difference, because I have lived in that other world too. I mean, I have lived in both worlds. So when you cross classes, you cross that idea divide, it becomes very difficult to communicate with people who haven’t been there. And I see this divide and this schism happen all the time for the college educated Hmong and those who aren’t educated or people who are older and younger. It’s not that what makes us happy is so different, but we can’t express those things that we care about in a way that is actually understandable across language, across cultures, or across classes. I mean, it’s a significant difference.

(44:24) What do you think this generation of Hmong young people doesn’t appreciate about what your generation did when you came here and you were—I mean, it’s still the case for many Hmong kids today so I’m not trying to create an artificial distinction, but it seems to me at least on some level that the so-called step and a half generation, who really did serve as a bridge between both their parents and this culture they found themselves in, probably took on their shoulders some things that perhaps the second generation can’t appreciate.
Yeah, like students now in their twenties probably can’t appreciate any more, because their parents are my age cause they got married so young. [Both laugh] Yeah, well it’s true. I think when you are a part of a bridge generation like mine, you can see cultural problems from multiple angles. There’s that additional flexibility to actually have some tolerance and patience for things that can’t change as quickly. What I see with a lot younger people, or people who are ten years younger than I am, because they don’t remember the refugee experience, not even like I do, because I—.(I think you can define those periods of years however you want to; I would no longer consider myself to be a refugee, obviously)—But being that close to the refugee experience was a gift and a curse in a lot of ways. It was a gift because it allowed me the opportunity to see things from multiple angles, and it was a curse because it was such a burden and still is, [Brief laugh] even though I am much better able to deal with it now. I mean, the trauma alone is a burden.  I think for younger people, younger adults there is a lack of awareness or understanding or appreciation for that refugee experience, for the cultural elements that have needed to change in order to really adapt to this country, in order to be successful. No acculturation happens without some sacrifice. And I think because Hmong kids these days are largely divorced from how rich and vibrant and wonderful Hmong culture is, they actually don’t really have a great appreciation for it, about who they are as human beings and as cultural beings. Cutural identity is a powerful force in shaping your self-esteem, who you are and how you think of yourself, whether or not you feel anchored in any type of reality of why and how you experience certain things. So because I think the Hmong are racially different than the dominant culture, at least the dominant culture now (although you could make some arguments St. Paul and certain places that they’re pretty dominant). I think what I see is that because there’s a lack of appreciation or even tolerance or understanding for learning because our educational institutions by and large don’t teach these kids about who they are and how rich the culture is that it’s disappearing and that part of the American story is going to probably be lost if we don’t document and do things. And that’s partially why I agreed to do this oral history interview, because I think the Hmong are a proud people and it’s a two thousand year-old culture and history, and there’s a lot there. And so like what I see teenagers wanting to be is Korean now, which I think is really funny. [Interviewer laughs] There’s this whole fascination with Korean pop culture, because we do youth leadership work here at the Wilder Foundation and everybody’s obsessed with Korean culture. And so whenever I talk to young people, especially if they’re in high school, I talk about Hmong culture and how cool it is to be Hmong and what it is like to be Hmong and why being Hmong is cooler than being Korean. [Laughs]
Sure, if you are Hmong, anyway, yeah.
Right, if you’re Hmong and you are a Hmong kid. So I think there is this desire to sprout into a different type of tree, even though you’re a Hmong seed and you’re not going to. So there’s that lack of understanding.
(48:43) What’s your take on the use of hip-hop culture with a lot of the Hmong youth? Would you see that as a way to express one’s Hmong identity, but just through this avenue of expression, or—?
Yeah, through a different vehicle. Culturally the Hmong have always been an oral tradition. Oral traditions are the most robust, I think, in our culture, so it’s not unusual that that would be translated into hip hop, kind of that whole rap culture, whatever it might be, spoken word poetry. If you look at the history of the Hmong it’s not unusual that the arts community is completely vibrant. The Hmong have expressed themselves through art for generations, so there are new mediums new vehicles for doing that, yeah.
(49:41) So as you mentioned, your family came here quite early. You’re bringing relatives over, the Hmong community is growing. How connected did you feel to that community? Were you more concerned about your educational accomplishments in your own family or did you see yourself becoming sort of a part of this community in a way that helped you sort of cement your identity in this new place?
Yeah, I think if there were an order to how I was socialized to group, it was education, then community. So my dad didn’t have an older son, so I think I was his older son [Both laugh] So I went with him to community meetings and I was at meetings at Lao Family. So I think that [Pauses] that I’ve always felt connected to the Hmong community, and the community has certainly grown and changed a lot. I remember the first Hmong sports festival, I remember the first Hmong New Year. And I remember—my family was a part of co-creating all of that, so I feel an investment in the community, and I think [Pauses, Chuckles]  I think I do represent the new St. Paul in a lot of ways, because this is my community. I mean, I grew up in it, I live in it. It was cross cultural to me. And I feel connected to the Hmong community, I feel connected to the St. Paul community. There were a lot of people who were here in this community when I was growing up who weren’t Hmong, and I feel connected to those individuals. So I feel like I really have been very well woven into the fabric of this community. And I haven’t felt the disconnect. I mean, I don’t feel disconnected from the Hmong community. I don’t feel disconnected from the African American community, I don’t feel disconnected to the white community.. Probably why I’m at Wilder, because these different types of communities were the communities that were a part of my upbringing here. But cultural identity for me was really centered around being a Hmong person. In fact I don’t go around saying I’m Asian, I don’t know what Asian is outside of being Hmong, really. I think I was grouped into that group when I went out east for college, and then there were way more East Asians than Southeast Asians and I thought “Who are these people [Both laugh] Third generation Chinese American from California. OK!” Now that would be a very different experience because I have nothing in common with those folks other than my racial identity and maybe some cultural elements around Confucius and Buddhism, who knows how long ago, many generations ago.

(52:28) So what do you remember about the establishment of these Hmong institutions and how they served to—well,  to serve, but also to bring together the Hmong community that was growing here in the Twin Cities?
Well, I think my memories of this are that there was a lot of conflict between public entities and the Hmong community, that public organizations in particular that had to serve all people, didn’t understand what this new cultural group was and didn’t understand how to work with them. I remember people not understanding, “Well why is animal sacrifice happening in public housing?” [Both laugh] That was kind of a big deal. And then I remember things around city ordinances that weren’t being enforced—I mean, I remember in the early years—and this is what community organizations would help educate other Hmong people about: “You know there is a public entity that regulates when hunting happens. You can’t shoot robins!” [Both laugh] And then everybody would start talking about “Robins—you mean the ones with the orange belly? You can’t eat those?” [Both laugh] I mean, those were the kind of conflicts that happened early on in this community. Or seeing a live pig outside of McDonough homes is really bad, you know, really bad, [Both laugh] even if it is for a spiritual ceremony, like that’s really bad. Public housing really doesn’t like that,” and then brokering, “Well Why?” And then the whole issue of early marriage, statutory rape for people who over eighteen marrying individuals who are under the age of sixteen. Well, in the Hmong culture that’s not statutory rape, that’s a marriage. And when a young man who is eighteen is marrying someone who is fifteen, they’re really promising to love this person forever and those marriages do last, and so [Pauses]  Just the conflicts with the court system and all of that, I mean, there was a fair amount of conflict, I think, in the Eighties around all of that, and the Hmong organizations helped bridge some of those conversations. My dad talks about showing up in court one day saying “You know this is wrong. Here is what our culture is and this really isn’t a bad thing happening. This is what’s happening here.” So I think there was a really important functional role in terms of educating the Hmong people about public institutions and educating them the public systems here about how to be more culturally competent and not interfering with things that were happening that were not bad, just a part of regular cultural practices.

(55:23) What about the practice of bride kidnapping? Where did that fit in the spectrum of things? I would assume on some level there was some level of uneasiness about the practice in the United States but also a sense that yes, this is a cultural practice.
Yeah it was a cultural practice. And I remember when some of that was happening and the press was releasing stuff. I think Lao Family might have stepped into some of those. But it’s not really kidnapping in the sense of white western culture of kidnapping and absconding with a teenager. In the Hmong language it’s actually a totally different word, so kidnapping is nyiag getting a bride is zij, which is a cultural form of taking someone to be your wife, and sometimes is put on as a big show for people. So the in-laws don’t feel bad that you are actually taking this young woman to be married. [Interviewer laughs] Now some cases really were kidnapping and not right, but most of it was zij which is taking this woman to be my wife. And you know, sometimes it was putting on a show. But I don’t think that public entities understood that. And I think that practice has largely disappeared because people kind of don’t see the need for it anymore. And then the other is—you know it’s just not culturally accepted in this country to do that. So you see a little—you see the clan elders come to the bride’s home to actually ask for that young woman’s hand in marriage and things like that.

(57:01) Well, you mentioned that one of your relatives adopted Christianity. Obviously that happens in many cases, and in others obviously traditional practices are maintained. When you add the mix of that, living in a culture where as you say, things aren’t understood and sometimes even as a result of education people might say “Well we don’t really quite practice it the same anymore,” how are you finding your sense of cultural identity where at least in those aspects of your family is concerned? How did those—
Well my dad, I think in the refugee camp, actually thought about Christianity. He and my mom have crossed that Christian divide a couple times. [Both chuckle] So I think my dad was thinking about becoming Christian in the refugee camp. But then when we were sponsored into the US we had a group of churches, across denominations, actually, formed a little coalition and sponsored our family into the US. And then there was a guy who was a pastor who lived on our block in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who taught my dad how to drive and do all these other things. And because the churches had sponsored us, I think there was maybe even some feeling of obligation or whatever. So we were promptly baptized and we became Christian. So I was Christian, I think, from the age of five or so until I was about twelve. And then my grandfather had been resettled into the US and said, “No you can’t do this,” and then we became animist again. So half my childhood was growing up Lutheran [both laugh] and the other half was being animist. And then when I got married my husband actually was sponsored by a Lutheran church in Michigan of all places, Richfield Michigan, and.so we had to decide as a family whether I would convert or he would. And he wasn’t going to, and frankly as a woman I can’t be animist on my own. It requires that there is some patriarchal relationship to brothers and other things. So I converted so now I’m Lutheran and have been for like the past ten years or so.
Welcome to the club.
Right. [Interviewer laughs] So I’m Missouri Synod Lutheran, the conservative branch of the Lutheran church. My husband’s president of the congregation at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Paul. I have never looked back. And I have—this is the thing about, as I said, being a part of that bridge generation is having grown up in both religions, understanding the merits of both, I think I have maybe a religious flexibility that maybe even my husband doesn’t even have, because his family became Christian back in Laos. Their clan has been Christian for a very long time. But I think what causes a schism in the clan, within a clan, is actually when someone decides to become Christian. And then the relatives, the clan members don’t follow along, so what you see is clans that are split up within families— ib cuab kwv tij is what Hmong people call it—into different sects of “We’re Christian you’re not we can’t associate with you anymore.” So it’s painful, it’s very painful. And there are elders who tell stories about becoming Christian and then having all their relatives turn their backs on them, and having built their own new clan and family and it’s awful. I know examples like that too. And because my father didn’t want to make that choice once my grandpa came, because he was the patriarch of the family, he just said, “OK, we’ll go back to not being Christian again, because it’s easier.” And frankly for a period of ten years or so we couldn’t be animist! [Laughs] There were no other people to be animist with, there were no shamans. I mean, how would you do it? You couldn’t do it. You couldn’t call the soul home, you couldn’t do it. So it was a problem.

(1:01:23) It seems like some of the people I have spoken to who are Hmong Christians but who certainly are open not just to having relationships with but even attending shamanistic practices—
They would say that some of the most intolerant people regarding that kind of ecumenical spirit would be Hmong pastors,
that of all the people who are intolerant about Hmong Christians trying to hang on to some sense of their cultural practice or identity, pastors are the ones who are just, “Nope you have to cut all the ties,” it’s got to be “all in,” as it were.
Yea, I think that’s really interesting, and I have seen that among some Hmong pastors. You know, some are more tolerant. I think it kind of depends on which church you go to and all these other things. But because animism and ancestral worship is woven into so many aspects of Hmong culture, I don’t know how you can actually just say “Now you’re not anymore,” and it’s like, “Well, I’m not going to become some lutefisk eating person and all these other things.”  So like my husband and I, even as–being Missouri Synod Lutheran, we’ll go to blessing ceremonies and we’ll participate. We’re not doing them, but even if you think about evangelism, it’s like, “How can you do that if you’re not willing to associate with people who are different from you and you are so intolerant? So because I do belong to a very conservative branch of the Lutheran church, I think there is more intolerance, probably, in terms of thinking a specific way about other people who are different. And every now and then I threaten Lue saying that we have to—at least if we stay Lutheran—go to some more progressive—
ELCA or—
Yeah, you know, and it’s what he knows and it’s what he believes in, so I think I’m the one who is the compromiser and that’s OK  Just because we are that way and belong to that sect or whatever it might be, doesn’t mean that there isn’t the possibility for change or even—they’re still working on me, I think— [Laughs] you know. . .

(1:03:43) Well, I think for many women it’s hard to belong to a church that doesn’t allow women to be ordained.
Well, yeah, to be ordained or even to have a leadership role within the church.
And that can vary between churches, even the within the Missouri synod.
Right, right. But when they sat down to ask if my husband would be on the board of Lay Ministry and they sat down with Lue and I and they asked Lue to do it and my support and I said, “He’s fine; I don’t need to take leadership at church, too, I’ve got enough going on in the community. [Interviewer laughs] But it is odd, because I am a feminist; I do believe in the fact that women should be able to be ordained and do certain things.

(1:04:25) So I’m going to switch themes a little bit. As you think—I don’t know where this would start. This might be as a teenager or even a little later. As you think about how your family and your clan and members of the community regarded the Hmong back in Laos—not even the ones from the refugee camps in Thailand, but the Hmong in Laos—what do you remember about discussions, ideas, whether there were sort of different political strands within the community about what to do with this situation and how to best help those people or to try not do anything because to try to do something might involve a collaboration with the communist government. Any different sort of strands of ideas about that that you recall?
Yeah I think [Long pause] I think there were different roles for men and women related to that. I think the women’s roles quite frankly were to house and feed people if there were big meetings around. How do we help the cause? How do we get more people out of Laos? How do we help our own people here? The movement with General Vang Pao, with really organized structure, I think my family was always on the loose fringe. It’s sort of—my dad didn’t want to alienate those folks but he really wasn’t all fully in. But that’s how he was about the war, too. He didn’t believe in the war. He was sad about it but he didn’t want to actively participate in it. So he always walked this sort of fine political line. So he’d attend meeting but he never took an active role. He tried to stay away from some of it because he didn’t believe that was the path to prosperity, either here in the US or even back in Laos. I think he was more fixated on how do I become an important person here? How do I contribute here? How do I really work hard to feed my family and do things I need to do here? And I think for him it was confronting the realities of what we were dealing with here was already so bad he just had no energy for thinking about back there. I mean, not ‘til much later and prosperity had been gained somewhat, moved up and out of poverty, bought a house, doing all these other things. So I remember attendance at meetings. He was always deferential towards the General, because my grandfather and General Vang Pao grew up together in the same village. General Vang Pao’s oldest sister was my grandpa’s step-mom. So his [my father’s] half-siblings, all his half-siblings, were General Vang Pao’s nieces and nephews. And my grandfather’s own mother died when he was quite young, so General Vang Pao’s sister was his mom. So my dad just kind of felt like “There’s a meeting; I just feel like I just have to go.”  But my Grandpa always told us stories about General Vang Pao when he was young and what he used to do and what antics he would get into, because they were about the same age and they were more like brothers than they were uncle and nephew.
So I think because the cause was being rallied by the General and many other people, my dad would show up. But I don’t think that he really ever believed in doing anything over there. Because I think that when he left [Laos] he really did psychologically leave. I just think that if he ever did want to return, it would be as something else. I mean not with a military cause or anything like that.

(1:08:19) But would it be fair to say just as someone who’s looking from the outside someone like me just asking someone who was at least a part of the community that there were different groups who took this cause more or less seriously than others.
Some thought, “We’re contributing money and we know one day we’re going to go back and others who were maybe more ambivalent and others thought of it more as a joke.
Yea I don’t think that—I think there were different sects, I mean different sub groups and I think our family kind of fell into the “We’re ambivalent about this; we want to see where it goes.”
Don’t want to be rude for certain
Right, but not for us probably. We’ve got to focus on where we are now and where we need to go. But a lot of deference towards those who actually did want to do something, because that was OK for them; it wasn’t necessarily OK for us.

(1:09:17) Did those divisions ever cause problems within the Hmong organizations that were designed to serve the community, that you had people who were so divided over what the ultimate strategy should be concerning what was going on in Laos that they didn’t like working together and they had a difficult time–?
Oh yeah, there were notorious factions of people who, even if they didn’t like each other—it’s not like they disrespected each other or anything, but they would just avoid each other. {Both laugh] They just wouldn’t talk about stuff. They just wouldn’t talk about their politics they’d just be side- stepping around it. And I think in particular if you were a Hmong man you were probably confronted a lot more often with having to make choices about “Do you support this or don’t you support this?” And I tend to think because of the Hmong clan structure there are different factions that fall along clan lines. If you’re a Vang, “Why aren’t you supporting General Vang Pao?” I think it would be really hard to be a Vang and not supporting Vang Pao. So I think it was maybe just easier to be in the Yang clan because you just didn’t have to. And I don’t even know if General Vang Pao’s wives, because women—General Vang Pao’s wives—he married a lot of wives and really unified the community that way, because he could claim relationships from all these different clans and I can’t remember if he actually had a Yang wife.
I’m not sure. I met two of them at his Tso Plig ceremony last year.
My grandfather and my dad always used to say that we were the really poor side of the Yang family, so we never had any prominence or wealth of any kind. My grandfather, because he was orphaned and didn’t have his real mom and his dad died at a relatively young age was pretty much on his own and didn’t have a lot of clan support. So our side of the Yang family has no prominence whatsoever. I mean no claim to fame, nothing, other than the fact of General Vang growing up in the same village. No ambitions—[Laughs]
That’s not all bad, either.
No, no. No like—nothing worth tooting about, really
No fights to get into over—
No fights to get into, and [Pauses] I mean nothing to live up to. [Laughs]  My dad was really the first person in the Yang family to become educated. And I think now—and ironically and this is so funny, our Yang family is not known for being prolific with sons. We’re actually known for being pretty prolific with daughters, so all the girls do great. So there’s this whole belief in where people are buried, the ancestors are buried, and how they are buried with where mountains are pointing and all this other stuff
Oh, yes, geomancy and all that.
Yeah, the geomancy stuff. When my dad went back to Laos finally and looked at where my great grandfather was buried, he said that the way his grave was tipped was all towards the girls and women in the Yang clan [Interviewer laughs.] He said—
It’s his fault!
He said that all the power and prestige was going to go to the women in the family, who would keep marrying out of the family. I just laughed, I guess that’s how it is sometimes, dad.

(1:13:01) Well, I want to get to your getting into college in a moment, but since we’re sort of in this area, I want to stick with what seems to be to the present day a big issue, particularly when I talk with Hmong women. And that is this persistent sense that Hmong men, at least of a certain age, still feel entitled to go back to Laos and Thailand and get a girlfriend or get involved in all these matters that really do undermine their relationships if not destroy their relationships with their wives.
How do you see that—and realize I not asking you to be an expert on the topic, but just as an observer, do you see this as a generational issue that’s sort slowly working its way out, or do you think that attitude to some degree is still permeating into a younger generation of Hmong men?
I think there’s definitely a generational thing going on there, and then I think it is permeating to younger men as well. And I think part of it is it’s a permissive culture. I mean, the culture actually allows that. There’s more stigma that’s starting to be gained around that, but there aren’t really social sanctions that people can make related to that, and so I think until there is more of that, it will continue to happen. And frankly it’s sort of your classic imperialistic exploitation of people who have wealth with people who have less wealth of the same kind, and then the ability to do it without a lot of consequences. So I think it’s a problem, I think it creeps into people who are younger; I’ve seen people who are my age. I’m in my late thirties; I see people who are doing it in their late thirties. And I think until Hmong men recognize that it’s a problem for them—the good ones, that is, the ones who see it as a real social problem—and start uninviting these people from public events and putting them in leadership roles, it probably won’t change, becaise I don’t think that women—women can object, and women are getting very organized in the Hmong community. They are. They’re just a lot more organized. I see them being way more organized than the men are at this point about social issues.
[Laughs] Oh, yes.
And it’s scaring me, ‘cause I keep thinking, “Where are all the good Hmong guys? When are they going to step up and really say “No, this wrong and it’s not good and it’s destroying our families” and all these other things. But yeah, I think that whole transcontinental wealth transfer, traveling, all of that. We see it here at Wilder as a lot of depressed women whose husbands have abandoned them and then they’re dealing with basic needs and the consequences of those decisions. And I think what—I see rejection of—I call it rejection of modernity in the American world: women who are becoming more educated, refusing to marry Hmong men, who they’re afraid will carry out this behavior, and then Hmong men who are older, basically, telling younger Hmong men to marry women who are much younger so that they can kind of control them; and the rejection of marriages with educated women, because you don’t want someone that you can’t control. I mean, it’s like this Catch Twenty-two. And then there are couples like my husband and I who are both educated, who just look in horror at all of this stuff happening, and go “Holy Cow, where do we start stopping some this?” and are just deeply concerned for our kids, our families, living with it within our clans and seeing it happen, so we just make the choice to not support any of those types of marriages. We don’t give money, we don’t attend clan events that may have, we don’t support people in leadership positions who are like that. It’s just—we vote with our money, our presence, our time, our attention, and we just dedicate time, attention, and resources to organizations and people who are making a difference, and then we express ourselves when we disagree and that’s all we can really do, in terms of taking personal actions.
But that’s a lot
Well, and I think you still see couples who don’t agree with this kind of thing but will still show up and support a clan leader who has multiple wives or someone who is really acting poorly, and so I think until people who are my age who are the bridge generation who know more and have seen the struggles that the community has gone through and can understand multiple sets of belief systems to say, “No, we’ve had it, this is enough,” and to also hold the elders accountable, because what we see now is young Hmong men who are in their twenties being very disenfranchised, who are trying to make something of themselves, who are disenchanted with the Hmong culture because they think that is what the Hmong culture is all this other stuff going on, and they’ve lost the respect for the elders who should have it, but are using it to their own ends. They’re just not satisfied. You know, it’s like the whole community is going through some type of intergenerational trauma [Laughs] related to “I’ve worked so hard for thirty years and now I’m going to go have fun.” Having fun is marrying someone who is like seventeen and doing an international marriage or having two sets of wives? It’s a little crazy.
[Interviewer pauses recorder to tell Dr. Hang a story.]
(1:19:17) Gender is a really powerful force in the Hmong community. And I think one of the things that is greatly misunderstood, even from people who know me or they want to pass judgment or whatever, because I’ve been really on the forefront of creating women’s organizations in the Hmong community and really lifting women up to say “No, it’s okay, you can become educated; [Laughs] you can leave an abusive husband.” I mean, all these things I have been saying for fifteen years. I like to tell people that the only difference between me now and me fifteen years ago when I was doing this work in human services is I’m so much cooler now because I’m president of the Wilder Foundation. [Interviewer laughs] And back then I was just a twenty-something without kids who kept talking about social justice issues and gender equity and domestic abuse and getting hate letters from people in the community, that the empowerment in terms of becoming educated and gaining social and economic status is not about the disempowerment of men, but it’s about the lifting up of the whole community. And until we recognize that as a community, as a society, not just for Hmong women but for all women, that we’ll never be better. And so it’s like even if you look at mainstream America, the predictor of how far a child goes in education is the level of education of the mother, it’s the only variable that’s been shown over and over in studies as a predictor of how children do, how well they do, and nothing else. And so I just keep thinking we have it wrong and we need to really think this through. But I think there is this thing about how about a loss of social status in addition to having feelings of privilege, about being entitled to something, that is working against being successful. Because they just don’t have to work as hard to still be acknowledged and be respected, and so [Pauses] I see it with my own son. I mean Lue and I we are raising him, we think, the same, but that doesn’t mean that people are treating him the same. You know, they are still treating him differently.

(1:21:46) So how do you encourage these kinds of changes while still making it clear to members of your community who may be on the fence that you’re not trying to destroy or disrespect Hmong culture, you’re just trying to, as you’ve already said, help the entire community take the next step by empowering everyone?
Well, I used to think that the way to do this would be to actually talk to the people that disagree with me, but now I’ve decided that we actually need to work with the people who are wanting to work with us, Hmong or not Hmong. I mean, I used to just think “Well if we just work in the Hmong community and do this”—and the levers for change have to be shaped somewhat, if you are truly going to make it, by outsiders, and by people who are just a little off the edge. I feel like that’s what I’ve been all my life; I’ve just been a little bit more than what people expected. [Both l;augh] And that’s OK. I used to think it was because I was odd and thought very differently from others, but now I recognize that it’s because I’ve just never truly been satisfied with what people tell me the reality is. And I think it’s a requirement of leadership to stand up for what you believe in and then to have the courage to actually create a vision where others can feel like they belong and there are so many people in the Hmong community who feel like they don’t belong. And because there are so many people who feel like they don’t belong right now in the Hmong community, it can actually be a force for change, so [Pauses] about, oh, fourteen years ago, I was in my twenties and I was actually working here at the Wilder Foundation, and I had been hired to create a violence prevention initiative in Ramsey County for the Hmong community. So here I am, young community organizer, don’t know what the heck I’m doing, just graduated from the Humphrey Institute. I get this job, I’ve just returned from working in the refugee camp, by the way, because of some lobbying effort that I was involved in for the Hmong who were in the Napho repatriation center. I get back here and then I end up with this community organizing job and spent a year talking to a thousand people about “What do you think creates violence in the Hmong community? What do you think causes our—? Gender and sexism rose up, obviously, and I decided to have a retreat for Hmong women out at Wilder Forest. About thirty of us got together and we had this planning session, and I got use all the neat things I learned at Humphrey about strategic planning and all that, and there was a small group of us who wanted to meet—keep meeting to just keep talking about this, because we really hadn’t had these conversations and so there were only two women and I who kept meeting. Bo Thao—[Laughs] Bo Thao and I kept meeting. She’s now the national—she’s now the bridge director for Asian and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy; she’s working on this large gender and equity campaign. We decide we’re going to do something about this gender inequity and we create this team called the Hmong Women’s Action Team, which—the purpose was to prevent violence by decreasing sexism in the Hmong community. Fast forward nine years later, we’re still doing projects and then we decide to hold another big retreat. So we did, and what we found was that by in large even the women’s roles inside of their nuclear families had changed but outside, in the larger community their roles had not changed; they were still feeling they weren’t appreciated, and young Hmong women in college were crying, talking about not having role models, and we thought “Wow, here we are, almost nine years later and nothing has changed systemically. We’ve got to get more organized.” So they asked me to be a chair of this process and I became the chair of a newly-incorporated organization called Hnub Tshiab, Hmong Women Achieving Together. So I was the first chair, a chair of the actual organization. We incorporated the organization, we started getting very organized around leadership development, around research, around the creation of a space to have family dialogues to talk about gender and sexism issues, all with a platform of saying “All are welcome.” We’re a women-focused organization; the mission is to be a catalyst to improve the lives of Hmong women doing culture, social, and institutional change. Great mission, but all are welcome, because we need everybody here to actually create the change that we want to see in the world. By the way we welcome everybody. If you’re white, you’re black, if you’re a man or a woman, who cares? [Laughs] As long as you believe in the mission, we’re fine. And, you know, it is actually starting to make a difference. We’ve now [Pauses] After this year we’ll have had thirty nine young Hmong women going through the Hmong Women’s Leadership Institute. We’ve created documents that cross a span nine or ten years. We’re sharing our lessons with other people, we’re holding family dialogues. It’s a tiny organization, [but a] huge volunteer force. But it’s really from working with people who are feeling like they are outsiders: college-educated women, Hmong women, women who are married to men who are not Hmong, women who have been divorced, women who are widows, women who are feeling disenfranchised, sons of fathers who have not supported them because they’ve gone back to Laos and have married other women. And literally, it’s like three quarters of the Hmong community. I think we’re really on to something here! [Both laugh.] So it’s a social change organization that’s focused on people who don’t really feel like they have a place and it turns out that that place is everyone’s place. How profound is that? I mean, it’s wonderful, and it’ great, because the forces of change are on the Hmong community, and if we don’t create a vision for what that change will look like. We’re going to be changing in ways that we don’t really like.

(1:28:18) I was talking to Diana Rankin about something else and she told about Hnub Tshiab, gave me a pamphlet and everything. It’s very exciting.
Right, because Diana was like “I’ll sort of pseudo-volunteer and write grants for you!” and we were like, “OK, that’s fine.” [Laughs] We’ll pay you two thousand dollars for a year’s worth of grant writing.” She was like, “Yeah, sure, [Laughs] that’s fine with us.” Yea, she is something, she’s great.

(1:28:44) So let’s get back to your life story a little bit. What were the forces, do you think, that got you to the point where you were getting in school to learn a language and figure things out to the point where you were saying, “I’m good at this, I have a sense of what I want to do with my life, I have a sense of where I might want to go to college”—that sort of process in your life.
Yeah, certainly there were caring adults outside of my own family, because it wasn’t enough only to have my parents. There were wonderful teachers I had who believed in me and didn’t give up on me when I was struggling in terms of learning how to read. And it’s funny because I remember all their names. I remember every adult who, whether a stranger or not, said a kind word about what I could accomplish. It’s amazing how powerful adult words are in terms of talking to a teenager who is either not from your own culture or is just someone who is needing support during a time of need. I almost gave up applying to Brown University because I had a counselor at the time who was preparing me at Como Park Senior High for disappointment.
Oh boy
Because I had applied to Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Carlton, and the University of Minnesota at Morris. And I graduated second in my class. So here I was, a straight A student with a wonderful GPA, my junior year in high school I was an exchange student to Germany and lived in Berlin for a year, so I speak German on top of being Missouri Synod Lutheran, which is really funny. [Interviewer laughs] I and the pastor re the only two people who actually can speak Hmong, English, and German. So at Christmas services we’re the only two people who can probably sing all three songs. And here I was, a very well-intended person in my life preparing me for disappointment to not get into any of these great schools. Well, and I was moping around and I kept thinking “Well, should I apply or not? It’s a lot of money” and I didn’t know Brown was an Ivy League school. I just knew it was a really good school because I looked it up in the Barron’s Book of Colleges and it had a ninety nine percent retention rate, and I figured, “OK, that’s a school I want to go to.” And there was this women who was teaching at a completely different school—I think she was in Highland Park and her name was Helena Ylonen, and she must have been an advisor to one of the math teams or debate things. I would occasionally see her. I was chatting with her one day and I mentioned that I was thinking of applying to Brown, and she said, “Well, my son went there.” And I said, “Yeah, I don’t know if I should apply because my counselor says that I’m not going to get in. She stops me in the hallway she looks at me and she goes, “You need to apply!” I don’t know what that woman’s talking about, because I think you can get in. And you know, it was just enough of a push to actually make me apply. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have, ‘cause I was feeling so low, ‘cause I thought, “Well, who am I to apply to these really good schools? Maybe I really don’t have what it takes.” And I hadn’t scored very well on my standardized exams—you know, kids who speak multiple languages typically don’t. But anyway I made it.

(1:32:17) So what was it like going there? You talked a bit about being connected to East Asian as opposed to Southeast Asian kids.
Right. Well, it was hard. I showed up with no computer. [Pauses] I was competing with people who had gone to prep schools all their lives or really, really good public schools. I mean Como Park gave me a great education. I was completely outclassed with study habits. I think by the time I figured out that maybe I was pretty smart I was like a senior in high school. [Both laugh] And then when I got to Brown I thought, “Holy Cow am I doing here?” Every other person I met was a national merit scholar; every other person I met was like a valedictorian.  They were very accomplished young people who had worked at newspapers, had done all these amazing things and I thought, “I just don’t belong here.”

(1:33:22) Probably often with very well connected parents.
Very well connected parents. The prime minister of Guam’s nephew lives across the hall from me. Some guy down the hall from me [Pauses] I don’t know. . . was the lead doctor at some wealthy, prestigious Beverly Hills hospital. I just felt like I had stepped into a really, really difficult space. And I didn’t have the resources to really go to college in the same way that a middle class kid even would. I mean, I went to college with a typewriter that had some word processing function [Laughs], and I still needed carbon paper to duplicate my papers. It was just horrible! So I had to be way more organized with how I wrote my papers, I had to [Pauses]  I mean, I don’t even know how I survived my first year. I did OK, but I just don’t know how I did it, because I had to be so organized, because I couldn’t buy as much paper to type through multiple drafts, I had no printer I couldn’t make corrections—I  used correction fluid. By the time I turned in a paper I probably spent twenty more hours than anyone else did, because I just didn’t have the resources. And then there were the little things like I felt like I really couldn’t afford to be on the meal plan, even though I was on a full scholarship, it was a full tuition scholarship. So I didn’t have room and board, I had to pay for my own books. Luckily I had gotten a scholarship for the first year to pay for books, so I wasn’t so stressed out about that. I finally figured out that I could go to the Financial Aid office and ask for more money to actually buy books and stuff, so I did that my second year. But I had never had anybody in my family who’d finished college, so I had no idea what to do. And I had no idea how to use the adults at Brown to help me. I mean, I had a resident counselor, I had a women’s peer counselor, Brown was really into retention so they had all these counselors, and my biggest fear was “Is this going to be a really dumb question if I ask them about this?” [Interviewer chuckles] Because I was so used to being independent and self-reliant and not showing anybody how stressed out I was, I just simply didn’t even know how to ask for help. So I finally figured out, I think it was my sophomore year that there were computer clusters, and I could actually go use the computer cluster. Well, the only problem was, I had to actually use the computer cluster when it wasn’t busy with people who were in programming classes. So then I had to wait outside the door and wait until they were done, and then kind of figure out—well, then eventually I figured out, “Well hey, if I become a computer consultant and I work for the IS department, I can have access to a computer all the time,” so I became a computer consultant. I signed myself up, because I kind of got tired of waiting for this revolving door to work on papers when the timing was right, and [Pauses] People who have means have no idea how hard it is to get through college when you don’t have the resources, and here I was waiting outside of computer clusters and [thinking] “Oh, maybe I can get a good two hours in to write my paper for biology, whereas all the wealthy kids had computers. I mean, they weren’t stressed about it. They were fine. So then I became a computer consultant for a couple of years, I learned all about networking, I learned how to program things, I learned how to have free access to the computer and I signed myself up for the quietest computer cluster at Brown University [Interviewer laughs] so I could finish all my papers. And it worked out just fine. So I worked two jobs to get myself through college, to get room and board, books, and all these different things.

(1:37:27) Did your parents have any qualms about seeing you go so far away for college?
My parents didn’t have qualms because by then I had actually been to Germany and back.
Oh, of course!
But my relatives had a lot of qualms and there were a lot of people who told my parents that allowing a daughter to go that far away to college would be would be a great shame to the clan and the community. [Audible gasp from interviewer, Dr. Hang chuckles] I actually had—now he wasn’t really a close relative, but I actually had a distant uncle who had come—I think it was a going away party I had for one of my events, and said to everybody that I shouldn’t be going because I was a girl, and that—
Germany was okay but Brown wasn’t?
Well you know it was more—longer and it was farther, and psychologically it was a lot of years. So I just think there was a great misunderstanding. And people really were afraid that I would come home pregnant and that I would marry some white person, and that I wasn’t going to be Hmong anymore, and there was way too much freedom for me as a Hmong woman being that far away from my parents, that I would be ill disciplined and that I would just bring great shame to everybody. So there was that opposition. My parents were very supportive. I think they really lacked a full understanding of what it meant for me to be in college that far away, and that I needed way more resources than they had given me, and that I was suffering a lot but I just never said a word. I mean there were holidays that I stayed at Brown and I didn’t come home, and if I did come home I would try to work part-time jobs to get the plane ticket to come home. And I got off the meal plan my second year ‘cause I figured I could cook, and I had no transportation so I walked every week to the grocery store over a mile with my little back pack. [Laughs]

Can you fit a week’s worth of groceries in a backpack?
Cooking my own meals—No, you can’t! I found out that you really couldn’t. [Laughs] You really couldn’t. If you had grains you could, but otherwise, you couldn’t.
That’s a heavy backpack.
It’s a heavy back pack and I had to walk down a hill. I had to walk down College Hill, back up College Hill. My senior year I did actually have a friend who had a car, so occasionally she’d be nice to me. I finally figured out that if I saved enough money to buy a bike I could bike to the grocery store instead of—But biking up a hill is really bad, really bad, so [Pause] yeah.
(1:40:01) There were a group of Ivy League Hmong students at a conference in San Francisco last year. And one of them was a young woman, I think from the Twin Cities (maybe I’m wrong), who went to Brown. And she convinced her parents that Brown was the only school that accepted her, so she had to go there rather than some place closer, which I thought was somewhat ironic.
Yeah, I didn’t tell my parents which colleges I was applying to until I was actually at the interview phase. And when I went to Germany, ‘cause I knew that that was way too far and I was already a finalist, a semi-finalist when I kind of told my dad about it, and then it was only because I needed him to drive me to the interview. [Interviewer laughs] So it was actually a big deal when I won that scholarship to go study overseas, because it was just unheard of to let a sixteen-year-old Hmong girl go that far, and I think I might have been the first, –the first in the Hmong community. But my dad was really great about it, and he gave me all kinds of tips like “If you stick a pocket knife in your sock no one will see,” and [both laugh] “Here’s how to give a handshake:  hold your keys between your knuckles.” He was just your classic dad worrying about stuff like that, but he did let me go.

(1:41:21) So there were certain things that you told your parents pretty much only on a need-to-know basis.
Yeah, right, like “I need you to take me now because I’m a semi-finalist [Interviewer laughs] for a national program with the Congress.”
Was it more about—again there’s too long to remember exactly—was it more about thinking you might fail and so you just didn’t want to tell them you tried?
No, no I was much less afraid of failure than afraid of them—of actually winning and them not letting me go. I mean, it wasn’t that I was cocky I didn’t know that I would get to go; there was a lot of insecurity related to that. But it was more the fear of “I’m going to be disappointed because if I do this and I get it, I’m not going to get to go,” because I’d heard so many stories about people—you know, girls not being able to do the things they should do and all the messages I was getting from outside my family was “You shouldn’t be doing any of this.”  And so I felt really guilty and bad every time I did something. And it’s funny because [Pause] I have met a few young people now who remind me of myself when I was a lot younger. Because even with kids who are teenagers or in high school or whatever, you can tell how spectacular they are and how wonderful they’re going to be. But I never felt any of that. I just thought I was—and it’s just part of the insecurity of youth but also the messages you get, because if you are really so different and so spectacular, sometimes people kind of don’t appreciate it because you’re just so different you just kind of [Pauses] and I always got the feedback that I was a snob, which I wasn’t; I was just quiet. Because the minute I opened my mouth I would say something that people didn’t expect me to say and then everybody—I just always felt like everybody would shut down because I had said something with some—Now as I think about it as an an adult, it was probably because I said something with a lot of insight that maybe they didn’t expect from a fourteen-year-old or something. But back then I just thought it was, “Oh, I am just awful. People don’t want to talk to me! [Laughs]

(1:43:43) Kao Kalia Yang is a good friend of mine, and she said people used to say “There goes the snob from the projects”
Yeah, right, right because I was so quiet people actually thought I didn’t really talk that much. And I think people actually thought that I wasn’t that smart until all the grades would come out, and then I’d get As. People just had no idea.
Oh it’s the quiet ones. [Laughs]
Yeah, right. Because I realize now that it was probably because someone would ask me a question they wouldn’t expect the answer I was giving them. And I would give them a really different answer and then it would be like “Well, wait a second, where’d that come from?” And frankly I didn’t—and I’m fairly impatient, so I probably didn’t have the patience then to explain to them what exactly I meant. So I think it was the fear of, “Wow, if I do this and it’s really great, am I going to be weird again? Are people going to laugh at me, and if I go to Germany—I mean, what Hmong kid speaks German? I mean, really.” By the time I went to Germany I had already had four years of German. But I really didn’t say much in German class especially in seventh and eighth grade. I heard later that the teacher that I’d had in seventh and eighth grade said, “Well, why was she picked? She never said anything in class.” [Interviewer laughs] You know, killing with kindness. So anyway. . .

(1:45:12) So were you, when you graduated from Brown, were you already sort of moving on to the Humphrey Institute or was there a period in between where you were sort of deciding what you wanted to do next?
Well I had an opportunity at Brown to do an Odyssey Fellowship, which was studying and doing research overseas with a professor from Brown, studying the HIV AIDS crisis there. So I did an independent study and then [Pauses]
Where did you go?
I was in Chiang Mai Thailand, and I lived in a Hmong village for two months—with Senator Mee Moua, actually [Laughs] because she was in Texas then. And we were research assistants to Dr. Symonds. But I had convinced myself that I wanted to be an anthropologist, so applied to a couple of PhD programs in anthropology. And then I applied to some public policy schools. And I never completed my applications to the anthropology schools. I think it was sort of my way of saying, “Gee I really don’t think I want to be an anthropologist.”  But there were expectations that I somehow had created for myself or maybe Dr. Symonds had created for me. I didn’t want to disappoint her, and so I applied and then I really didn’t finish my application process, and then I thought, “Huh, I guess this is me telling myself I really don’t want to be an anthropologist. So I got accepted to a number of public policy schools and I chose to come back here to the Humphrey School because [Pauses] it was a financial decision. They gave me the best financial aid package and they weren’t going to have me attain a ridiculous GPA like another school wanted me to; they wanted me to retain a 3.8 GPA to stay on a scholarship that was half that size. I mean I know I’m good, but I don’t know if I’m that good. What if I go and I can’t maintain this really ridiculous GPA? So I came here to the Humphrey School; I had a wonderful experience. I graduated from the Humphrey almost a semester early. I was twenty three when I finished. And the reason why was because I had an opportunity to work with a group of progressive-minded Hmong people to do some advocate work in Ban Napho Repatriation Center. So I ended up finishing up my masters paper early, defending, leaving and being overseas and Washington D.C. and doing some work with a joint volunteer agency, the International Rescue Committee, and some other things.

(1:48:09) Anthropology, public policy. Were those sort of two different interests at the same time? Did one—?
Yeah, they kind of were. I always knew [Pauses]  I had no idea what public policy was.
OK. [Laughs]
I just thought it sounded cool. And then I was reading the descriptions of what types of things students did when they were done and I thought, “Well, you know, I care a lot about public issues. I think this is what I want to do. I wasn’t sure, but I had always has this—at Brown I was very active on campus because I cared about women’s issues, and so I became a women’s peer counselor, lived in a freshman dorm, became one of those people I couldn’t ask for help from earlier on, knew exactly what some of the freshman were thinking. And then then my senior year I actually ended up coordinating the program and worked with some deans on doing that. So I became a women’s peer counseling coordinator. So I ended up being a team of four people running all of the peer counseling for women at Brown University. And I really enjoyed that, and I enjoyed the social justice peace of that. I enjoyed supporting people, and I thought, “You know, I don’t think I want to be a social worker, but I think I want to do something more socially oriented. I think it was just kind of like a parallel passion. And then I thought, “Well, I don’t know if I’m ready to commit to another six or seven years of school, but I think I’m ready to commit to another couple years of school. I wasn’t really seeing anyone so seriously; I thought this is the time to do it. So that’s what led me to the Humphrey School.

(1:49:53) Well, before we go on to the Humphrey School let’s talk about your two months in Chiang Mai in this Hmong village. What was that experience like?
Well I had really never been back to Southeast Asia, and it was shocking to me to go back. I mean, shocking as in when I saw what was there I started remembering things about my own experience.
What was the name of the village by the way?
I can’t tell you.
OK. OK. I’ve been to villages around Chiang Mai, so I was just wondering—
It was a village in the highlands and it’s been written about, so the identity of the village has to be protected. But it was a village in the highlands. You could only walk up there—well, partly take a truck up there. But when the research first started you could only get there by walking with a load. So [Pauses] I remembered the trees, I remembered the food, I remembered the noises. I mean, it was just really an interesting experience. The minute I got off the plane I thought “Wow, this is what home was like,” so that was fun. And then when I got to the village, that was really eerie for me, because I suddenly realized I kind of knew what a Hmong village was all about! [Laughs] Because I’d only had these images in my brain from stories my parents had told and then the minute I got to the village I was like, “Oh my gosh, I know exactly what this is about; I know where things are located, I know where doors are,” because Hmong houses are set up a certain way, and I realized I knew all of that. And it was also an interesting experience because I did not speak Hmong very well, and I was forced to speak Hmong over and over and over and over again. And luckily it was a White Hmong village, which is my dialect. So I spoke Hmong constantly for two months and my Hmong got really, really good, because I just was constantly interacting with elders and I had to ask questions about what people thought of blood and how they were conceptualizing diseases and I had to explain heating and cooling systems in America over and over and over again. [Interviewer laughs] because these were Hmong who had been very sheltered from the Western world. And it’s quite different now, but back then there were very few Hmong Americans who had actually returned to Thailand or even Laos, and so they were so curious about the Hmong in America and how they had lived and how they survived and I told them about snow and they were just amazed at snow and they said “You would die because it was so cold. How do you do this?” Yeah, really, explaining heating and cooling systems over and over, explaining airplanes, I mean, things that we take for granted here, so I had to use a lot of vocabulary, and that was really good. I think I also got a really, really wonderful view of what life in Laos in a Hmong village that was untouched by the rest of the world would be like. Because there really was nothing there. I mean, it was just very rustic: life as my parents knew it, even [Pauses] I mean, half of my mom’s growing up time, war was already starting. It was really interesting to be there.

(1:53:33) So there was at least a small sense, I assume,  that if there hadn’t been a war this could be me?
Yeah. Oh yeah. Or every now and then I say, “I met myself in a Hmong village and how I would have been.”  And you know, it was sort of like a Twilight Zone experience, one of those things that you go, “Wow, this really could be me.” And how different I am from all these other women and yet how similar I am in so many ways. So my professor was funny, ‘cause she would come up to me day after day, you know, like every couple of weeks and she’d go “MayKao you’re looking more Hmong” [Interviewer laughs] “You’re becoming more of a Hmong woman!” And it was true. It was true, because I was just getting darker and I was getting skinnier, the way you eat is very different. It was just very different.
(1:54:20) So does that give you any sense of reflecting on what it means to be culturally Hmong? I would assume that you don’t think of yourself as any less Hmong as someone who lived in that village that you visited.
No I don’t, and the wonderful thing about having made a study of at least some anthropology in my life is that culture is what we make it. It’s basically your shared understanding and meaning of what that culture is, and so while the culture is changing a lot. there is also new shared meaning about what being Hmong is, and so there’s always the jeopardy or risk of people not thinking that you’re Hmong enough to be doing some of the things that you’re doing, and I’ve heard that certainly over the years: “Well MayKao, you’re just not Hmong enough to know this stuff”.
(1:55:12) [Laughs] Whatever that means.
Right. Whatever that means. And I think that people typically use it as an excuse to dismiss how the culture is changing, and how it needs to change in order to survive and adapt and be renewed again. Because the meaning-making that we make in the world is how we choose to interpret it at that point in time. And actually that’s been the wonderful thing about the history of human beings is that we’ve done and redone that for so many generations, and that for the next three, four hundred years that’s going to continue to happen. And it should be OK, but I think the dismissive words that people use: “You’re not Hmong enough,” or “You’re not a guy, you’re not a man” I heard one one time ‘cause I was the executive director of the Hmong Cultural Center at one point when I was in my twenties. I was on the board and then I stepped off to help them with fundraising and actually running the organization. I think I was like twenty two or twenty three. And what I heard back from the 18 Clan Council was “Well she’s a young Hmong woman, and Hmong women cannot be the keepers of culture” so this has to be something that is temporary. [Laughter]
And here in the meantime I’m being a representative of the Hmong Cultural Center, I’m running out—my whole tenure there I was paid a full eight hundred dollars for the year’s worth of the work, [Interviewer chuckles] paying for the salaries of the teachers, cleaning toilets, taking care of the ninety-some students while I was at the Humphrey School. So I think people usually use those types of things to legitimize their perspective and to create less legitimacy for a new perspective. And it took me a long time to realize that and I think when I did realize that that was what it was about, it freed me from feeling small and not believing in the work that needs to get done.

(1:57:18) So you were at Ban Napho, you said?
Was that part of your Humphrey Institute time?
Well I graduated from Humphrey, I finished Humphrey and then I left, but I finished early.
Oh, that’s right. . .
I didn’t walk. I basically completed all my requirements, defended, and left, and then never graduated—I mean never formally. I got my certificate in the mail.
Didn’t put the funny suit on.
Didn’t put the funny suit on, had no recognition, walking, anything like that. [Pauses] And I was OK with that, ‘cause I knew that this was a once-in-a-life time opportunity to actually apply my public policy skills maybe in a different way. So my job was—well, my first job was to fly to New York with Kaying Yang and talk to the IRC about this small advocacy project that we wanted to be engaged in, to go overseas to provide cultural orientation for the refugees who had been at the repatriation center for so many years. Refugees International was supportive, doing some work. In fact, I don’t know that Lionel Rosenblatt remembers me, but I think I might actually get to sit with him at this upcoming Hmong International Conference.
Oh, he’s not coming.
Oh he’s not coming? OK, well then I won’t get to see him again.
That’s unfortunate.
I will tell him. We correspond a bit.
Oh, yeah. I don’t know that he ever remembers me. I did this small project with Kaying, he came to Thailand, visited, we chatted, had dinner with him. He probably has no clue what I’ve become. But it might be fun for you to tell him.
I’m sure he’d be thrilled. I actually got to meet Kaying Yang when I was in Vientiane.
Yes, Kaying Yang is in Vientiane now. So Kaying and I did this little project and then we organized a Hmong American delegation, went to Napho, they left me there; I did cultural orientation for about two thousand five hundred refugees.

(1:59:14) What’s that mean?
What, cultural orientation? Teaching people—by the time Ban Napho re-opened for processing, there were no funds left to orient people.
What to expect in America.
What to expect in America, what a plane was going to be like, what appropriate clothes they should be wearing, how the food would like, nothing.  So I oriented people until I was hoarse. I actually lost my voice because I did so much orientation. [Interviewer chuckles] We did them in groups, but I had to come up with all the resources, I had to mobilize resources with little to nothing. So I worked with the International Organization for Migration as a volunteer, ‘cause they’re the ones that do international refugee transport across the world. They helped me, the IRC helped me, I was placed with the IOM by the good graces of whoever was there. I got permission to go into the camp from the Ministry of the Interior, mobilize training equipment, got shoes for Hmong refugee kids, interviewed about six hundred-some families who had no refugee status, wrote policy briefs to the US State Department, got reprocessing opened up, and have several small children named after me. [Both laugh] That’s what I heard, anyway.
Yeah. So you know, it was for me just a labor of love, and thinking, “Well, there aren’t a lot of people in the world who could probably do what I’m doing. I speak Hmong fairly well, I have no strings attached to me, no kids, no family that I need to be here for; yeah, I can graduate early from the Humphrey and do this crazy project. [Both laugh]

(2:01:08) How did you get hooked up with this?
Kaying gave me a call and said “Hey the US—” I think she was at SEARAC at the time. She said “Hey, there are five thousand Hmong refugees who are sitting at a repatriation center, and the state’s going to open the camp up for reprocessing, but there are lots of women and kids there, and they haven’t seen people from the outside world. Would you help me?” And I said “Well I don’t have any money, but I can charge my ticket to New York if you want me to come with you.” [Both laugh]

(2:01:42) What year was this?
This was 1996. So two young women—Pao Her [Paul Herr] was someone who was just, I think he’s in the US State Department, the federal one. But you know he just would connect stuff, so he and this guy from St. Paul William Yang, Boua Fu Yang, who has now since passed—he was a man in his late fifties. We decided we were going to do a male/female team. So Kaying never went over there. But May Zong Vue (she works for the Wisconsin Office of Refugee Resettlement) and I, and Boua Fu, and Pao, we all went. And they were there for a week and a half and then I was there for two months, because they all had jobs and families and I didn’t. And they must have thought that I spoke Hmong well enough to actually do my job over there, and so I did, and when I came home Foung Heu from here actually came to replace me there, and he did the cultural orientation for the rest of the Hmong refugees in the camp.
Foung whose father is a pastor who lives in the south and whose brother is Fue—
and ran for the state legislature?
Right, the guy who does videography and some other things. And so we tag teamed and then there was another guy who went after him, because we were all trying to tag team, because we all had [Pauses] My only pressure was I was engaged and I was supposed to come back here and get married and my fiancé was getting a little impatient with me [Interviewer laughs] so I got married a like three weeks after I came home.
Yeah. He’d been waiting; we had been engaged for six months and I said like “Well, you know, Lue I do love you but I kind of need to go to Thailand now and do this–”
I’m thinking he understood the importance of what you were doing.
Yeah, he’s still a little bitter, [Interviewer guffaws], but now that we’ve been married for fifteen years, he’s OK with it now.

(2:03:43) So who knew those two months in Chiang Mai were going to come in so handy?
Don’t knows what life is going to bring you, because then when I was working at Ramsey County a number of years ago, I was—a county manager re-deployed me and asked me to lead the assessment team in the Wat Tham Krabok effort with the mayor of St. Paul. Then I was in charge of—was county director of adult services by then, managing all the county-based social services for people with mental health, CD [chemical dependency], seniors, people with disabilities in Ramsey County. I took a very local job, because I had started having kids then, and I thought that’s where I’d stay, and lo and behold, I end up on this international delegation and ended up being in Wat Tham Krabok for two weeks doing mental health assessments, school assessments. So that report that was broadly used? That was a report that I coordinated out of Ramsey County.

(2:04:39) So you, Mo Chang, Jim Anderson, the fellow from Catholic Charities. . .
Jim Bordon from the International Institute, yeah, right. So there was a small team that was left—
Tom Kosel.
Tom Kosel, yeah. So there was a small team that was left behind and did all the data collection. I had received strict orders from my evaluation manager at Ramsey County that these are the things I needed to do, so brought back all the data, helped write the report along with people in the planning office. I must have given that presentation over 60 times to organizations in St. Paul, foundations, government entities, all that. And I can’t take credit for the transformations that occurred after that, but it was really valuable, and I think helped change our approach in St. Paul and in Ramsey County to how we work with refugees when there’s a big influx.

(2:05:43) How well do you think the Hmong community that was more established in the Twin Cities welcomed or dealt with this newer influx of Hmong people who came in 2005?
I think there was tremendous love and support for them. I think that people really reached out and did a lot of things that would make them more comfortable. I think it was hard for the new refugees, and they said this to me in the camp: that looking at me was like looking at a vision of what they could have been if their parents had actually left. And so it was a painful experience for many of them to see all these well-educated Hmong there doing all of these things, and I think particularly for the Hmong women who were around my age. They were just [Pauses] I mean, they were inspired, but they were so sad, because [Pauses] they had no opportunities. I mean, they just saw what they could have become. And for many of the people who went to Wat Tham Krabok, it’s because they couldn’t stand the repatriation center; they couldn’t stand to be in this holding cell, for all purposes, forever. And what kind of life is that?

(2:06:58) What do you think kept people, at least the people you spoke to, what do you think kept people there for so long?
I talked to so many people at Napho, and then I talked to a lot of people at Wat Tham Krabok and interviewed a lot of people, and it was because the elders and their wives refused to come. And then they would die, because they were old, and they didn’t want to change, and then all these young people would be stuck there. That’s pretty much it. And then, I think for some, it was the hope that Laos would be won, that something would happen and they would go back. And then I think the third category were people with no status or couldn’t establish status. One of the saddest stories I ever encountered was the story of an orphan boy. He was eight or nine, he lost his parents, he somehow made it to Thailand on his own with strangers. When he was interviewed, he said, “I don’t know where my parents are.” “Well, you can’t go; you’re a kid.” His uncles couldn’t claim him, ‘cause he wasn’t theirs. One time, he said, one of his relatives tried to pass him off as one of their kids who had died, ‘cause that was fairly common. And when they asked him, because he was a truthful and honest boy—I think by then he was maybe 10 or 11—“Is this your dad?” “No, that’s my uncle.” [Dr. Hang laughs, interviewer groans] I mean, this young man, by the time I met him he was like in his early 30s, he had married, he had a couple of kids, and he fled to Wat Tham Krabok. He couldn’t stand it anymore. He’d been living in refugee camps for 30 years, and by then he had a family. He just said, “Am I going to be here for another 30 years like this?” Is this any life? And he said no, so he fled. But there were certainly lots of stories of orphans, widows who couldn’t establish—I mean, if you couldn’t establish a relationship with some guy who’d been in war, your husband who’d since died, you were just—I mean, who were you in the world, really? You were a person without status.

[Hillmer checks to see if Dr. Hang has any other meetings coming up. They have about 10 minutes of time left.]

(2:09:32) What was your career path between doing that and coming to Wilder?
So I graduated from Humphrey—the whole time I was at Humphrey I worked. I was at the Hmong Cultural Center, I worked as a research assistant and there was a stint there in between finishing at Brown and going to the Humphrey where I was employed at Catholic Charities as a volunteer coordinator. I tried to keep that up, but it was too much. So I quit. When I graduated, I started here at the Wilder Foundation—actually I went to Napho, I came back. [Pauses] OK, this when the world is a really small place. There was a job opening.  A friend of mine, I think at the Humphrey, said ‘This would be perfect for you. Can I send in your résumé?” She sent in my résumé, I came back, I had an interview, interviewed numerous times for this community organizer position at Wilder, and they just wouldn’t make a decision, and I started applying for other things. Well, finally they decided maybe I was the right person, but on the interview panel was a guy whose wife was best friends with the woman who had sheltered me in Bangkok. So I ended up working here, I did this community organizing, helped found Hnub Tsiab, you know, back then, volunteer organization. mobilized about a thousand people a year doing stuff, created a couple of programs: the first sexual assault program for Hmong women and girls with Sexual offense Services and the Women’s Association of Hmong and Lao; created a domestic abuse program for Hmong kids and families, and was pretty actively working in the community, and then in the course of that, managed the Community Violence Response Team to the murders of the six children at McDonough Homes and the woman who also tried to kill herself but didn’t succeed. [Khoua Her, 1998] And there weren’t a lot of Hmong people who had clinical experience then or who could do this. Since I was at Wilder and I was part of the CVRT Team, I couldn’t participate because I was actually in labor with my son. This was when this was all happening. [I] connected the community, go stuff going, talked to the press, managed all this stuff. Afterwards [I] ended up meeting with the executive director of the St. Paul Public Housing Agency, talking about this family and the fact that there had been 17 calls for service there from the police, with no significant social welfare intervention, even though there were social workers on site at McDonough Homes and all public housing, and I thought at the time, gave him a really hard time. I didn’t think that he would want to recruit me to work there, but that’s actually what ended up happening later. So in the meantime this position—we had transitioned the program that was here at Wilder to Ramsey County and I made a job change, went to be the director of the Resident Services Department at the St. Paul Public Housing Agency. So I ran all the low-income housing affordable units in St. Paul and the community centers. I have a passion for affordable housing because that’s—I think it does stabilize families. I worked there for a number of years, kept having babies; I have four children. Pregnant or nursing for ten years. I was at home on maternity leave with my third child when there was a job opportunity that came to my house, which is fairly unusual for public systems. The new director of human services was trying to reach out in different communities of color to hire a director. He actually had two director positions open. I read through the requirements, and I thought, “You know, I don’t know anybody who’s qualified to do this. You’ve got to have so many numbers of years of experience at an executive level, blah blah blah, and then I kind of thought about it and I said, “Well, if you actually count all of my experiences, grad school plus, I think I could qualify.” So I applied and ended up at Ramsey County for five years being the director of adult services, running ll of the services in Ramsey County for people who are 18 and over, plus kids with disabilities. And then ended up here at the Wilder Foundation because of some of my joint work with—some of it with Wilder, but a lot just in the community. Because I had worked at Wilder before Tom Kingston knew of me. He was the president then, a force in the community, had been here for 20 years. He and I had gone on this delegation to Thailand together to Wat Tham Krabok. It had changed his life and understanding of refugee issues, and he somehow convinced me to apply for a director-level position here at the Wilder Foundation and by then I thought, “You know, I’d really like to work more with kids and families and less just with single adults. So I applied and they kept calling me back and I ended up here and two years into my job here, Tom decided to retire on me [Both laugh]
(2:15:03) How dare he!
And after he made the announcement I remember what I said to him as we left the leadership team meeting. I said, “Tom, I’m not ready for you to retire!” [Laughs] I’ve only been here two years and there was a lot of change happening at Wilder and we were going through a lot of difficult things in human services and one thing led to another and I [Pauses] I ended up applying for this position because I asked myself what it was that I wanted to foster in the community, and what could I contribute differently that maybe some other candidate couldn’t contribute. And I always ask myself this whenever I take a job: what is the unique value that I can contribute? Why am I a person who could contribute any more or less than anybody else in the community? And I had convinced myself at that point that I had something different to offer, perhaps, than maybe a different type of leader, because I’ve seen the Wilder Foundation from many angles. I’ve been a recipient of services, I’ve participated—there’s a program here called the Shannon Leadership Institute for Reflective—it’s a reflective leadership institute. I had participated in that six-some years ago even before I came to Wilder. I’ve funded the Wilder Foundation as a county director, giving contracts to Wilder. I’d seen Wilder as a collaborative partner from my public housing days, because of their co-locations with senior services, and I thought, “You know, there probably aren’t a lot of people in this community who really appreciate the Wilder Foundation and all it does, and the many perspectives and ways that Wilder has touched this community. And outside of that, I think I am what St. Paul is becoming. And Wilder has always been about responding to community needs, and having a really broad mission to provide relief, but also to promote the social welfare of people who live in the East Metropolitan area. Well, that where I’ve had my career. So then I applied. Now I didn’t know I would be the next president. It was a fairly scary thing. But I have to say I’m glad that I did, and I think one of the most difficult and challenging things for me has been as a Hmong person who is bicultural, bilingual, having to meet the same tests and criteria as those who are only English-speaking or those who only understand one culture. I don’t view anything from a monocultural lens, and it’s hard for me when I see people only doing that. And then there was that full day and a half of testing that I had to do [Both chuckle] around values, around altruism, around personality, around intellect—intelligence exams, logical reasoning, numerical reasoning—
I thought it was a lot to ask someone from my type of background. And you know, at a certain point (and this is really funny) after I took the exam I was very upset actually, and I almost withdrew from the process. In fact, the search firm had to talk me down, because I was just like, “You know, I can’t work for an organization that violates my values around how we make people go through these things in order to actually say ‘there’s competency here.’” And I actually ended up having lunch with a very wise Native American person who’s been around the community for a long time, and I said, “This is what I’m upset about, and this is what I’m unhappy about. What do you think?” And he goes, “Well, no one said that becoming the next president of the Wilder Foundation would be easy. [Both laugh]  There’s a reason why a lot of people of color don’t make it into these top-level positions. And I think that you might be OK.” And he said, “You’ve already done all of the testing, right?” And I said yes. And he said, “OK. Well, what have you got to lose? It’s already in.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” And he was right. He was right. But I just stuck in there. But I think there was a point—and you always ask yourself this whenever you’re taking a risk on something is, “Is it worth that compromise that I personally or professionally have to make in order to fit into what this organization truly needs?” And you know, this organization truly does need someone who can overcome some of those personal and professional obstacles to actually make a point, and that’s what in the end it’s about hopefully championing the mission in different ways that maybe perhaps someone who looks very different or has a very different background would do it. So anyway, here I am.  That’s the journey, that’s the career path.

Colonel Gao Moua

Interviewer: Peter Vang
Transcribed by: Mai Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer

Please let us know your name, your parents’ names, and what village you were born in.
My name is Colonel Gao Moua, I was born in the village of *Khoun Sam. I was born on January of the year 1947 in Laos.

Before the war reached your land, when you were still a boy, what kind of jobs did you do, and what kind of work did your parents do?
My great grandfather was a general/leader of his generation of Hmong till year 1956. My father is Col. Txia Pao Moua; he was a leader from 1956-1960.

When you were still a boy what kind of work did you do in your village? Did you help your parents with anything?
At that time when I was young I was the second in my father’s family. I was eight years old before I could go to school. But during school the war became more threatening so I couldn’t finish one of my years. Not only that, in Laos there was a General, he was a captain holding a group of soldiers who parachuted. He took his army and betrayed the Laotian government by joining with the Red Laos to help take over Laos. This was what started the big problems.

When the war started, and as you were a young man, what influenced you to join the war? And where did you train to be a soldier?
There was so much going on in the war at that time. During that time though, my father and the rest of us lived in the village of *Nam Bien, which was in the middle of Route 7, which led to many important places. They came and we couldn’t stay so Dad led the villagers to *Blongmong. In 1961 I came from *Blongmong to continue schooling in Vientiane for two more years. I was of age then, so when I reached Vientiane I went to ***. I saw that we Hmong had not been highly educated like other cultures. There were a lot of Hmong in Vientiane. Because of this, before I came to work and help the Hmong I went to train as a soldier for four months. I was small and at that time the Laotians treated us roughly. We crawled through holes and barbed wires carrying a backpack and a gun. After four months I couldn’t do any more because they were all so very mean and I was tired.

Were you trained under Lao or Thai soldiers?
They were Lao soldiers.

Were these Laotian soldiers commanded by the Americans to train the Hmong?
We had training centers led by Lao soldiers.

After those four months, what did you do?
After those four months, General Vang Pao said, “Uncle Moua Gao, since you want to be a soldier so much, you should come help me work at Vientiane and be an officer ***.” So then I became a soldier in June of 1963, after school.

When you came to work for General Vang Pao with the CIA and USAID, had you already learned English?
I was taught for a year at Laos-American association school. At that time, a friend and his wife were also taught with me. The pronunciation was very hard. That school had huge mirrors and when you speak you have to look at your mouth. We studied together for three months then I didn’t see my friend and his wife come anymore. They were educated in French but when “pronouncing” English, they could do it well, so then they stopped. I studied for about a year.

After one year, did you think you spoke English well?
I wasn’t very exact, but at that time there were less then 20 Hmong leaders who could speak understandable English.

And you were one of those 20, then?
Yes, that’s all.

Please let us know, when you worked for General Vang Pao, what kind of jobs did you do?
In June of 1963 I worked in Vientiane as an officer for the CIA and USA, which means US Act.
At that time Hmong came from far places to Vientiane, so when they got there I helped in finding places for them to stay and when they went back home I found rented planes to send them back. In one day I would run once or twice to the CIA to ask for a plane. At this time there was Air Continental and Air America, but if the CIA used them then they had to pay the airlines.

When you first met and saw the Americans, what did you think?
First of all, I want to say something. The first American who came to meet General Vang Pao was named Captain Jack F. Matthews. He was from Los Angelos, CA. They met in 1958 in Laos. After contacting General Vang Pao he reported back to his boss at the CIA and then they arranged a way to come talk to General Vang Pao. Then the first time I met and talked to an American was when they came to work for our land. Most of them were educated so even though we couldn’t speak well, they understood us.

When you met the Americans did you trust them? Or did you think that they wanted to only use you to fight for them? What were your thoughts during that time?
When the Americans came they were well educated. They were mainly CIA agents. Before they came they had already talked about the law.

Please let us know what the CIA said were the reasons you should help them fight against the Vietnamese.
The reason why the CIA contacted the Hmong and General Vang Pao is because the war in Laos became harder in 1960. The North Vietnamese used the Ho Chi Minh Trail located on the border line of Northern Laos to come to Southern Laos. They used it to attack Southern Laotians and Americans there. The border line is filled with mountains and caves which made the Navy and Air Force think, “If we don’t find some people to watch this area when our planes pass they will be shot down and we would have no way to rescue our people.” Because of this they contacted General Vang Pao to ask the Hmong to help the Americans watch over this trail and this land area. They also needed people to spy and report about where the Vietnamese were located so they would know where to bomb.

In your own opinion, why did the Hmong decide to join with the Americans and fight this fight? As we see it, it seems like the Laotians were not as determined in fighting as the Hmong.
The important reason why the Americans decided to ask the Hmong was because as they looked into Hmong history they saw that Hmong were upright and just people in their work. For example, the children listened to their elders right? So because of this they needed people who were righteous to help them. At that time there were no contracts with the Americans about what would happen after the war was over and how the Americans would help the Hmong.

Please let us know, during the war, as you served under General Vang Pao, what work did you do and when did they raise your position [rank]?
When I came to work for the Hmong I was in Vientiane as an officer from 1963 to1968. I received the rank of First Lieutenant. Then they told me to go train in order to raise my position. So then I went to train in Management School [MR2] in Long Cheng. The professors who taught there were Thai Generals. I trained in the Army of the Thai’s Management School for five months; then I became General Vang Pao’s secretary from 1968 to 1970.

During the war, and as you were working for General Vang Pao, do you remember having many worries? And what did you do to survive?
At that time as I was working for General Vang Pao I noticed that the Hmong generals and the Hmong people were all of one heart and spirit. In everything they did, they were honestly and truly helpful. Because of this the Americans trusted us, cared about us, and wanted to help us.

As I’ve read and studied, I’ve seen estimates that 50% of the Hmong who fought in the war died, leaving many widows behind. How did the Hmong help each other to survive through this time?
At that time, the Hmong soldiers didn’t have enough training — even the ones who became leaders and commanders. But we did have wisdom and knowledge we learned through life. So no matter how many Vietnamese attacked us, we still had heart to come together and say, “this is our land.” We’ve never taken over someone else?s land; they came to take ours so we had to help each other. This is why we Hmong worked so hard.

Were there any other people who lived in Laos and helped you fight against the Vietnamese?
In 1971, the North Vietnamese sent close to 100,000 soldiers to attack us and take over Long Cheng. General Vang Pao then asked the King of Thai and the Americans to help support. The Americans helped paid so the Thai’s special forces could come help us protected Long Cheing, up to 30,000 soldiers. If it wasn’t for that, having only us Hmong and Laos we wouldn?t have ever been able to protect Long Cheing that time. (105 min)

From your observations, which people fought the hardest in 1971: The Hmong, the Laotians, or the Thai?
It was the Hmong [who fought] the most, the other people only came to help defend a certain place. They wouldn’t travel and fight with us.

In MR2, did General Vang Pao watch over all the Thai, Laotians and Hmong?
Yes, all of them.

As a soldier, how were you paid? Did the CIA give money to the Laotian government and have them pay you or did the CIA give the money directly to you?
In that war I should say that we Hmong were very lucky, because we were able to trust each other — even from the leaders all the way to the small. The law is that the CIA cannot come to Laos unless through the Lao government. But then the CIA rode in planes right from Washington DC to General Vang Pao, then had planes contact the Hmong in all different places without the approval of the Laotian government. As you look at these facts, it’s as if we Hmong were our own government and after being encouraged by the Americans we became more powerful. They sent money right to us Hmong soldiers and they sent money to General Vang Pao to help him make hospitals and schools to educate the Hmong.

During that time how much was paid to a soldier and how much to a family when a soldier died? And how did you disperse the money given to you by the government?
If an officer dies, at first they only gave 50,000 kiep. Then ever since 1972 they gave 75,000 kiep. At that time 1 dollar equaled 500 kiep. So that means [the family of] a person who died was only given 100 dollars. For the soldiers who are still alive, they were given 15 dollars a month.

Please tell us, when you first started fighting, what kind of weapons were given to you by the US government? And later, during 1971-72, were the weapons given to you different?
Truthfully, we were all disappointed in the US. If they truly wanted to us to win, to protect the land from the North Vietnamese, whatever came, we would have won. Each time we were about to win, no supplies [bullets] were sent so we had no way to win.

So according to their policy you were only meant to defend, and not attack?

If it was your choice, what supplies did you think were more effective against the Vietnamese?
At that time we asked the CIA and they gave us the best weapons.

From what you know of other Hmong soldiers, did they like the *black gun* or what gun did they like more?
The *black guns* were light for everyone and had great range and were easy to shoot. Everyone liked those.

What about the big guns, the 81, 105? Did the Hmong use them regularly?
The 81s were mobile and you could move them easily, but the 105s were very heavy and could only shoot a short distance. At that time we didn’t use those much, but now they’ve advanced the 105s so they can shoot very far.

What planes did you think were most helpful?
At that time the ground soldiers were very obedient. The American planes, the skylighter* and the T28. These were flown by the Hmong and Laotians. Before that, the Thai helped us but after the Hmong learned how to pilot the planes it became only the Hmong and Laotians. The Hmong worked very hard for us to be able to still continue.

How many Hmong pilots were there? And how many of those were killed?
The first pilot was Major Lee Lue [also spelled Ly Lue and Le Lue]. In one day you’re supposed to only fly three or four missions, but in one day [Hmogn pilots would] fly about 10 missions, so consequently the planes wore out fast. These were also very old planes. The Hmong pilots grew to about 40 some, and about half of them died.

How many T28s were given to you by the Americans?
We were only given 12 planes.

Out of those 12, how many of them were shot down?
We were given 12 in the beginning but every time one of them was shot down, it was replaced so the number of planes remained around 12.

OK. From your knowledge being a secretary for General Vang Pao, what is your estimate of Hmong losses?
As I’ve said before, son, at that time we Hmong cared a lot for each other. Although we weren’t educated, we were wise, and so compared to many larger groups, our losses were small. [Going back from] May 1975 [covering] the actual 15 years of fighting, there weren’t many killed. After the war when the Hmong ran and the Red Laotians chased after and killed them, there were twice the number of losses than in the 15 years of fighting.

Now I’m going to talk about the Red Laotians who attacked your country. What were everyone’s thoughts on the Red Laotians?
The Vietnamese don?t have old soldiers, they only have young ones. The age only ranged from around 18-22. The officers were older but the ones who fought against us were all young. This was because they are more likely to not have a wife and family at home, and so they were there to only serve their country, making death not something to dread. The Vietnamese who fought against us had good training, unlike us. (149 min)

Of all the Vietnamese weapons, which ones were most feared?
Their weapons weren’t enough for us Hmong to fear, it was just that their people were very determined. If we were lazy and didn’t keep watch then when they attacked us, if they had 100 soldiers it would be OK if there were only 10 left, as long as they won.

As I’ve researched, I’ve read that they used the 122s in the attack at Long Cheng, right?

At that time, were their 122s powerful?
Their 122s weren’t so powerful, but during that time the Chinese gave them the 130s and these could shoot far — 27-plus miles.

The American weapons, 155 and 105 that were given to you, were they effective?The 105s could only reach 12 miles and the 155 only 17 miles. If it wasn’t for planes we wouldn’t have been able to do much.

Were there Red Chinese who attacked your country as well? I’ve talked to other soldiers and they said there were Red Chinese.
There were. The amount of Red Chinese who were killed in Long Cheng were a couple 10 thousands and the ones who died at *Blongmong were also around there.

How did you know they were Red Chinese?
They had different signs [insignia?] and their people were different, as well as their uniforms.

According to your estimates, how many Vietnamese attacked Laos?
Many 100 thousands for the Vietnamese, and the Red Chinese, around a couple 100 thousands. If we compare the ratio of deaths, it’s as if there were hardly any Hmong killed.

When the country split, what else did you do? And how was your journey to Thailand?
At that time I worked with the citizens by helping them make food. The Red Laotians came and spoke out against the ***. Then General Vang Pao asked if we wanted to run or try to bear it. If we run, will we able to take all our people? Then we decided that if we ran it would be better than if we stay. Our supplies would not last us. We then chose to ask the Americans to help us Hmong to Thailand. General Vang Pao flew to Thailand to meet with the king, asking for permission for the Hmong to temporarily stay in Thailand until we found a way to go wherever it was we’d want to go next. The Americans then said, “It’s not possible for us to take everyone to America. But the officers who have broken the law greatly, about 1-2 million, we’ll take. In two days we’ll take them all for you. The ones that are left, we’ll discuss about afterwards.” The date was set at December of 1975, and then they took the officers as well as their families to Napong.

When you reached Thailand, what jobs did you perform?
When I reached there we had close to 3 million people, so we divided ourselves into five groups. I led one of those groups, finding and making food until we came to Vinai.

What did you do in Vinai?
I was only in there for eight months, and then we came to America.

After those eight months, did you want to come to America? Or was it only something you had to do?
At that time I had many children and when they were sick there wasn’t any medicine for them. So then we decided that it would be best to come to America, to bring my wife and kids so that they could go to school and us Hmong would be able to see a broader road, giving us more options for the future.

When you came to this country, where did you land and stay at first?

When you first landed and saw America, what did you think?
When we first landed it was like looking into the sky. We couldn’t understand the language. The fortunate thing for us Hmong was that we had relatives who came before. It was harder for the ones who came first, but because of them it became easier for the ones who came afterwards.

What are your thoughts in the Hmong getting their country, Laos, back? Or do you not believe there is any more chance of that happening? (204 min)
When the Hmong were in China we had our own land. When it comes to helping out even when we?re not related, we Hmong do that, but because of this willingness to trust, it is easy for others to manipulate us. I do see that Laos was a great place for us Hmong. You, the younger generation, had heard of how the Hmong were badly treated in China, Laos, Thailand, etc. But in America, it hasn?t been 30 years, only about one generation. I’ve seen the young people, a hundred thousand, receiving GEDs, Bachleosr, Masters, and PhDs. So wherever we are, it’s up to us to come back and love and help each other. The people outside won’t help us, only when they need our help do they come and talk sweetly to us. If we lecture among ourselves then that is possible, but if we ask for help for others to raise us up they will say, “Oh, this person says he is educated but if you give him a high position to hold, he is less able.” In America, the rich and prosperous country, they challenge each other in finding food for the country and so it will be good for all. They don’t pay attention to personal problems. But Laos is a great country for us Hmong if we want our own country, although we shouldn’t brag about it until we finally have it as our own. It is very dangerous for us to say right now that it will be the Hmong?s country. Laos is a great opportunity because its hasn’t been 30 years and yet we’ve prospered so much. If we could control our own country think of how much we could do!

If in the future there was a way opened for the Hmong to go back to Laos, do you think the Laotians would still have a grudge against the Hmong?
Because the Laos [run the] government [in] that area they will never be happy for us, but the reason we were able to live together was because we all helped support and lead the country. If you are the “top”, I will be the “assistant”, and vice versa. We would have to pull together for our country to be prosperous.

Do you have any words or wisdom, any advice you want to say to the young Hmong who will be listening to your words in the next 10 years or so?
I do want to speak to the Hmong, especially the young men and women. Like the Americans say, you’re very lucky. Your parents, along with other elders have worked hard so that we can reach the sky. It hasn’t been 30 years and we Hmong have already advanced a lot. So because of this, I want to say to the young men and women, you are living in a country of many opportunities. Your eyes have seen the way people govern and lead their country. When discussing about the [future of the] USA, both the Republicans and Democrats work on making the country better. They debate when there are elections and argue about ideas to better the country. They only want to build up the country with ideas and not destroy their own people. So to the young ones, the day I see that you all are wealthy together, you call speak the same language and no one is jealous of the other, you’re not afraid that I’ll beat you or you’ll beat me, then that day is when we Hmong will be successful. If we still have thoughts fearing that you’ll beat me or I’ll beat you, you’ll have more than me or I’ll have more than you, if I teach you then you’ll be skilled and I’ll fall, if we still have hearts like this then we will never go far. If we all learn together and have the same, then we’ll go far. We have to remember all the way back to the Vietnam War. Your mothers, fathers, and we have not been educated but we were able to achieve that much. There weren’t a lot of lives lost. This generation can look back and see this, so I want you to not discriminate among each other. Do not say things against your parents or elders by saying, “This is not Laos, it is now America.” If this generation still has the heart to speak against your parents or elders then you haven’t learned enough. I promise you that by doing this, the country of America will think that although you’ve received your degree you don’t have a heart to love your own people. These are only a couple of words for you all, whatever is good then remember it and study it, but whatever I may have spoken “over” you can throw away.

Thank you for the words you have spoken; is there anything else you want to say?
I am a person who has helped the Hmong for a long time. Back then I’ve seen that the Hmong have loved each other. Coming to this county I’ve seen that you children have worked hard in earning your education. I want you all to come back and remember your parents and the elders who have led the Hmong to make you what you are today. Remember what we’ve learned, what we’ve accomplished and learn from it to motivate yourselves into being better. Do this so the Hmong will be able to take another level that?s greater then the last generations. I ask you this because this is very important.

Thank you for your words of wisdom you’ve given to us.


Dr. Dia Cha

Interviewer/Transcriber/Editor: Paul Hillmer
5 October, 2005

Dr. Dia Cha left Laos with her family in 1975 and lived in a Thai refugee camp until coming to the US in 1979. She commenced formal classroom studies in ninth grade, graduating four years later from Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver, Colorado. After earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology in 1989 from Metropolitan State College in Denver, Colorado, she went on to receive her Master of Arts in Applied Anthropology from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1992. In 2000, she received a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado in Boulder. She is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University (SCSU), St. Cloud, Minnesota, and is a Research Associate with the Science Museum of Minnesota, in St. Paul. She is widely published (works include Hmong American Concepts of Health, Healing, and Conventional Medicine and Dia’s Story Cloth: The Hmong People’s Journey to Freedom) and has been honored with more than fifteen awards from academic and social groups all across the United States in recognition of the high caliber of her research and her teaching, her service to the community, and her tireless work as a champion of gender and ethnic equality. She participated in a convocation at Concordia University and graciously agreed to be interviewed. Because of the brief time we had together, our conversation focused on Hmong cosmology and spirituality.

(0:09) Could you give us a brief overview of your early life from the time of living in Laos to being in the refugee camps to living in the United States?
I was born in Laos and raised, grew up, during the Vietnam War. I have two sisters and three brothers, and my father was recruited by the American CIA and he was a soldier; he was gone most of the time. When I remember him, he was never home for more than three days. So I don’t really have a good picture of him. But he was declared Missing in Action in 1972. He went to fight in a battle and just never came back, so we don’t know what happened to him. Then when Laos became a communist country, we fled to Thailand and became refugees, and we lived there for almost five years and came to this country in 1979. At the time [still in Laos and Thailand] I was a teenager, and because of the war in Laos we constantly moved from place to place all the time, and I did not get to go to school, so I had no formal education. When we got to the refugee camp, the first year there was no school, but the second year that we stayed in the camp there was some elementary school: first grade through sixth grade. And at the time I was big, so I went to elementary school — first grade, with the little kids, and I was always teased and made fun of because I was considered too old for elementary school, but I had to start somewhere. And at the school, every day, the little kids would tease me that I didn’t belong there, so I quit and I went to study with the adults — they had an adult literacy program there. The older people went to study for two or three hours a day, and I went to study with the adults, and then they would always tease me that I was too childish, that I didn’t belong with them because I was not mature enough. And so I was always in the middle and had a very hard time. And I studied Thai — learned to read and write Hmong with the Roman alphabet in Thailand, so when I got to this country I knew how to write a little Thai and how to read and write Hmong. And so we first arrived in California, in Santa Anna, Orange County, and I was in the middle again. I had one younger brother and one younger sister who went to middle school, and then I had an older brother and an older sister who were over 18, and they went to adult school. And I was 16 going on 17 and I didn’t belong anywhere because I didn’t have any formal education, so my family did not know what to do with me. So they put me? — I stayed home for a month, and then after a while they decided that because I didn’t have any formal education I wouldn’t make it in high school, so they took me to an adult school. And we went to the adult school to register, and they wouldn’t accept me, either. They said that I was too young, so I came back come, stayed home for another month, and then they finally took me to a high school that had an ESL [English as a Second Language] program. So I started high school in ninth grade, and that’s how I began my education in this country. Then I finished my high school in four years. Then I went to my college, so I got my Bachelor’s degree. I worked for a year or two and then went back. And that’s how I earned my education.

(4:19) I?ve spoken to a lot of Hmong students here at Concordia who say their parents wanted them to be practical.” They want them to go into business or to be a doctor. Did your family support your decision to study Hmong culture?or was that not your original plan? If not, how did your interest in Hmong cosmology and culture develop?
Well, because my mother was illiterate and didn’t know what to advise us about our majors, we were left alone to choose whatever we want to study — she brought us here but she’s a widow, she never have any formal education. My father was gone when we were little, so she was the only one who raised us and brought us up. We were very poor throughout my high school years. We were on welfare and I worked part-time to support myself, so my mother didn’t really have any clue in terms of what I studied or how to help me. All she knew how to do was to do what she could do best in the home, like cook and clean, and help me when I had to study very hard, she would wash my clothes so I would have time to study. She would just say, “You do what you think is best,” and so I could go to college, I could study whatever I wanted. And that was good, but also it was very hard that I had no guidance, so I was totally in the dark. I changed my major four times in undergraduate school because during that time I had no role model. There was no Hmong woman who had gone to college before me that I could consult with. When I went to college there were only six Hmong men and another Hmong woman who were in college in Colorado, so at that time I did not know what to major in. I had no idea, so I went and took an introduction course for each of the different disciplines. I took English and – it was so hard! I mean the literature, English literature. I loved it, but it was very hard for me to understand. And then I took accounting, I took graphic arts, I took finance, and I always fell asleep [ Both laugh] So I know that that is not good for me! And then I went to take Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, and I loved it! I just loved to read whatever I got my hands on. And so that’s how I decided to major in Anthropology. But it was just by accident that I tried?– no one told me, no one advised me, so I had that choice — I can go on to college or I don’t go. No one really told me to go, and no one stopped me either. So that’s my experience. It’s very different from other Hmong students.

(7:18) Let’s talk about the Hmong distinction between the visible [Yaj Ceeb] and invisible [Yeeb Ceeb] world. Can you talk a little bit more about the Hmong sensibility regarding that distinction?
The Hmong discussion about that is that the shaman is the one who uses that concept a lot when they perform the ceremony. They would say they are now going to the unseen world or they are back to the unseen world. And, again, the distinction is, in terms of ceremony, they do that, but in reality, in their daily lives we always have in the back of our minds, if you live in traditional Hmong society, that you must have respect for the others that we do not see. Even though you and I cannot see the other dimension, the spirits can see us. So we cannot say bad things about the other spirits or the other gods, or our ancestors who are long gone, because they are always with us. So that is one of the things, because the Hmong have this tendency that when they go to the forest or when they walk by a river or a lake, you see young people will throw rocks into the forest or into the water, and the parent will stop that. They say, “Don’t do that, because it’s not good.” And usually the children won’t understand, and will keep asking, “Why? Why? I just threw the rock in the water! Why?” And they [the parents] say, “No, you’re going to harm the spirit who lives in the lake.” And so, in the practical [world] that’s how they interpret it, but on the other hand, the Hmong will not want anyone to do anything harmful to the forest, like [leaving] trash or throwing a rock. They think that it’s something that you shouldn’t do, because there are other beings that you cannot see. So those are some of the practical things.

(9:22) So if you were to go into the forest and you wanted to cut wood or you wanted to hunt animals, would there be some ritual that you might perform to appease the wild spirits?
Usually when they will cut down an old trees, then they will ask for permission or inform the spirits who may occupy the tree that they would cut down the tree. There are certainly people who will not go into an area where people have not gone before. Usually, people who do not have any knowledge are not encouraged to go and explore a wild area, but only other people who have some knowledge and know how to ask for permission, are the ones who are willing to enter unexplored territories. When Hmong sacrifice an animal for different ceremonies, they always ask for permission. They always tell the chicken or the pig or the cow that, “We sacrifice you because God created you to serve this purpose.” We do it, and we know it is a life that we’re taking, and we apologize for it. And so they have this kind of “respect ritual” that reminds or tells the animal that they don’t just make the sacrifice without a purpose.

(10:35) So there?s a recognition of the role that this sacrificial animal is playing, and an apology!
Yeah, it’s an apology. It’s a way to recognize that their lives are precious and valuable as ours, that they are just as significant as we are.

(10:54) You mentioned that there are different classifications of gods, and that the chief god is really a married couple, and that titles for this couple entity would include “Lord of the Sky, “Creator of the World”, “King of Heaven,” “Master of the Universe.”
Uh-huh. These are the different terms that the Hmong use to refer to that one god or couple.

(11:17) So what — is this a god who is simply recognized as being all of those things, or are there roles in everyday life that this god plays?
Well, Hmong believe that there is one couple of gods who are in charge of the universe, the world that we live in, but you have different ones, too, who are under this bigger god. But because Hmong society is very egalitarian, some people do not necessarily see it the way we see in the Western world. Hmong have other gods or deities we can call on; it’s similar to St. Peter, when a person dies and you go through this gate where there is a lady who washes you, and then after she washes you she erases all your memory of your life on earth, and that’s why you totally forget about your past life. And then that’s how you pass the gate and you move on. So the same thing — you have different levels and different gates that you journey to the other world.

(12:34) So this Master of the Universe doesn’t have an everyday role to play, but is sort of transcendant, or above it all?
Yes, above it all.

(12:46) Well let’s talk about some of these other categories (and category may not be a good word to use, I realize) of gods. You talked about Lords of the Otherworld, the [Hillmer doesn’t try to pronounce them, but shows the words to Dr. Cha] Ntxwg Yug, or Devil, and the Nyuj Vaj Tuam Teem, or Secretary who issues the “mandate of life”.
Usually, Hmong perception of — I keep asking the Hmong shamans and also the ritualists how do they imagine Ntxwg Yug looks like, and they think there is a magnificent mountain where his center is located, and this is the area that he occupies, in a high mountain. Ntxwg Yug’s secretary is Nyuj Vaj Tuam Teem who knows how to read and write, has a pen, sits behind a desk, and issues the visa, the “mandate of life” [which dictates how long a person will live in this world during a particular incarnation].

(13:58) So he’s sort of the Chief of Staff [for the “Devil”].
Yes, he is the Chief of staff for Ntxwg Nyug. Prior to contact with Christian missionaries, Hmong didn’t perceive Ntxwg Nyug as the “Devil”. It’s the missionaries who labeled him as such. He is just an important figure in the Other World. So that’s how they perceive him. So each person has to go to his gate, his desk, and he will make judgment in terms of what form — either they will be born as animal, as human being, in terms of what morality — it’s based on their previous life.

(14:24) Then there are these other beings you spoke of: “guardian angels” [Kab Yeeb]. Do I have that right?

So are these representatives of the Master of the Universe?

So life issues from the Chief God?

and you arrive in this world in your golden jacket [physically represented on this earth by the placenta[1]] sent forth with your guardian spirit [who watches over you until you die and are sent back to the spirit world], but when you die you’re sent to “the Devil,” so to speak, or the judge and his administrator
(14:58) No, because when you die you have three souls. [In fact, Dr. Cha said earlier in her presentation, each person has a MINIMUM of three souls, but could have many more. The three “main” souls occupy the head, the torso, and a leg]. And one of the souls goes and stays with your ancestors who live with the Lord of the Sky, and then the other soul is the one who goes to the Nyuj Vaj Tuam Teem to re-issue the visa to come back and be re-born.

(15:30) So what happens to the third soul?
The third soul is the one who stays at the grave and watches over the grave eternally. [In her presentation Dr. Cha mentioned that Hmong people will bring food to the grave site for the soul that resides there. Non-Hmong people might ask, “When will the soul come to eat the food you have left?” A Hmong person might reply, “When is your loved one coming to smell the flowers you have brought?”]. And that’s why Hmong people say that when a person dies and after you bury them, Hmong always go back and take care of the grave, because they know that a soul is there, to watch over the grave, so the living family members should take care of the grave and bring food for this soul to eat symbolically. From an anthropological perspective, such visits serve to maintain continuity or attachment between the living and the death. And also the Hmong are very worried about being buried far away from family members in this country and no one will come to visit their graves; they worry that the soul will have no food to eat at the grave, and then the soul will have no place to go.

(16:05) So going to visit the grave site is a common Hmong practice, because there is a soul that remains there. Sometimes when white Americans go to visit graves we’re told we’re just being silly, that it’s just a dead body. The American Christian idea is that the soul is up in heaven somewhere [though the teaching is actually of a bodily resurrection that comes at the end of time], but the Hmong believe that, no, there is a soul that resides in this place for an eternity.

(16:40) What about the household spirits and the wild or evil spirits?
The household spirits, when the Hmong are going to build a house, they always do a ceremony to ask the spirit of the ancestor to see if this is a proper place to build a house. If the ceremony indicates that it is OK, then they will build a house. And when they build the house then they will have a ceremony to invite the ancestor to come and stay and live with them, and there?s a belief that every Hmong house has a spirit who watches over the people, like I showed the Xwm Kab, the house spirit stays there and watches over the other members in terms of good health and prosperity. And so every year, at the New Year, the Hmong perform a ceremony and they clean out the altar for the household sprits and redecorated it with new ceremonial paper to start the new year!

(17:54) Clean out the altar?
Yeah, they move the old decoration and they put on the new ones, and they will thank the household spirit for protecting them over the year and they will ask him to continue to protect the family in the New Year.

(18:09) What do these new decorations signify? Why aren’t the old ones good enough?
Because they use this joss paper to make a decoration, so it gets dusty and old after a year of hanging in the house. It’s just like your Christmas decoration, you change it every year. It’s the New Year, so everything needs to be renewed.

(18:20) I’m sorry to interrupt, but what is joss paper?
Well, the joss paper that you buy — traditionally the Hmong made it from bamboo. They made their own ceremonial paper. They used the young bamboo shoot and they pounded it and then they go through a process where they make their own paper, and they use it mostly for ceremonial purposes. They will carve and they will decorate it, and sometimes they will put chicken feathers [on it] if they’re sacrificing chicken, put chicken feathers on it and on the paper, they may put a few drops of blood from the chicken on it to sparkle the paper. But today the Hmong cannot do that anymore, so they buy from the store, which are commercially made by Chinese company that makes this joss paper. So the papers are used for the household spirit, and they hang it up on the wall of the house. That symbolizes the altar for the house spirit to occupy, and then in that area you are not supposed to do anything to disturb it, like children should not be playing there. People should not go in and lean against it. It is considered very rude if you go into a Hmong home and you just go stand so close or to lean against it or to touch it. It is not OK to do that. And then they also use the joss paper money for the ceremony, like the shaman performing a healing ceremony — they cut it into different shapes, different designs, to symbolize different kinds of things, like a different form of payment. They make it into, like, they fold into a boat shape — that means a bar of silver.

(20:04) A bar of silver?
Yeah, uh-huh.

In a boat shape?
Yeah, they fold it like a little boat shape, and it symbolizes a bar of silver in the other world. And then they also — if you make it like a square, like this piece of paper, you just call that, it could be like a dollar, or whatever you call it, or whatever monetary value that you want it. It depends on if it is Laos or here. Here it is called a dollar, but in Thailand it’s a baht. But it is the same paper [both laugh]. (20:36)

(20:36) The spirits don’t care.
Yeah, and so that’s how they use it, but when you see at a funeral, they have this joss paper that they carve into a very, very elaborate branch, and it symbolizes silver and gold and jewels — everything, especially when an elder person dies. That’s when you have this big paper that they carve into and they burn when they bury the person. It’s sort of like to send the person to the other world so that they have money to spend, to use for the rest of their life on the other side.

(21:18) Do you have any sense of how old that practice is — of using joss paper to either pay the spirits or provide currency for ancestors? Does this go?
Yeah, it goes way back — centuries.

(21:33) You also said that there are medicinal spirits? Now are they another kind of household spirit, or?
Yes, they are part of household spirits, but the medicinal spirits, only the herbalists and the shamans maintain it. So if you go to a Hmong house, you see the household altar, which is the joss paper, and then you see another altar, a smaller one, which is usually a medicinal spirit, and then you see the shaman altar. And so when you see all these three, then you know that in that house, the family still maintains the traditional animist religion, and they have someone who knows how to practice medicine, herbal medicine, and they also have a shaman. But if you only see a shaman altar, then only a shaman; if only a medicinal altar, then only the medicine. Usually you always have the house spirit and either the shaman altar or the medicine altar, not a lot of families will have all three altars.

(22:38) OK. Now, as you mentioned earlier, there are many outsiders who think of a shaman as a healer, which is a very different concept. What kinds of herbs and what kinds of medicine would a healer prescribe, as opposed to a shaman who might analyze the soul(s), see what’s wrong, and maybe prescribe some kind of ritual or some kind of intervention. Please help us distinguish between those two things.
Usually when someone has a cut, it’s bleeding, and of course they know it’s some kind of physical thing, so you have to use some kind of medicine or herbal medicine to stop the bleeding or swelling so that you will recover. So that’s how they heal it. But when a person has not injured him- or herself, but just suddenly cannot sleep at night, has lost weight, or is depressed, and has started to feel weak, that’s when they think it’s been caused by spirits. That is — the person has not done anything physically to hurt himself. So that is how usually, you know that you can go consult a sharman and usually this is what Hmong do, they usually consult both of those, the herbalist and the spirit, because you never know which of those is the problem. So usually the herbalist will give you some medicine to boost your system, so that you feel more energized. And then the shamans or the other spiritual healers will try to diagnose, to see if everything is OK. Are all of your souls with you? [The Hmong believe that sickness is often caused when one or more of a person’s souls leaves the body. The longer the soul is absent, and the more souls that have left, the sicker the person becomes. The shaman must try to lure or cajole the souls back into the body to restore health.] Have you been frightened recently, have you been put in a situation that might have frightened your spirit away, or might your soul be lost? Things like that?

(24:31) You mentioned earlier that a soul can be like a child; it can just get curious and wander off on its own.

So how is that distinguished from it being frightened off or sort of forced away in some way?
That’s why Hmong do not encourage people to go to frightening places, like riding a rollercoaster. Hmong say you shouldn’t do it, because if you ride a rollercoaster you’re going to scream, you’re going to get scared, and you’re going to scream at the top of your voice and you?re going to frighten your spirit away. Also, there are certain places where Hmong are very careful. These are Hmong perceptions of prevention, like you must take care of your soul — you do not let your soul fall down. If you fall down you frighten them; I mean, your soul falls down when you fall down. So if you should happen to fall down accidentally, then when you get up, you need to call, say, “Oh, come, get up, go, let’s go, don’t stay here! This is not a place for you to stay!” And usually, the other Hmong parents, or whoever, you are with always call like that. When they have babies or small children, when they go visit their in-laws or to other places that’s not their home, when they come out they always call by saying, “Let’s go home, everybody! Let’s go home, don’t stay behind.” But usually, if people don’t understand they will ask, “Why are they talking to themselves?” But it’s really for the purpose of [summoning] the soul that you call. Sometimes young couples who are not used to — they don’t know these things, and they have their first baby and they don’t do that and they come back home and the child will cry all night, right? And they couldn’t figure out why until they will bring a flashlight to the door, and they will say, “Come! We forgot to call you! We are home, so now come back. We are home, so don’t wander around.” So this is how it is practiced.

(26:32) Are there specific herbs you can discuss that herbalists use, that Hmong people see as most effective for treating certain physical ailments?
Lots of the herbs that Hmong use are very unique to the Hmong, and I don’t see an American store where they brought [these herbs] with them. But the other thing, like the lemon grass. The Hmong use the lemon grass. They boil the lemon grass until it’s very hot and they add some cold water to cool it a bit, then they use it to wash their body to reduce swelling. They also have so many different kinds of herbs that they use, sometimes they use one herb or one plant alone; sometimes they use in combination with two or three other independent units. And usually the herbalist is the one who has practiced, who has learned from someone who has practiced for a long time. And so they will just take on their knowledge, which is not written down. It’s transmitted orally, so they usually do practice by observation. They’re also training so that they have the same knowledge that has been practiced for centuries and that they still maintain. So — and again, that’s disappearing now, because lots of young people are not interested, and because we don’t know or have all the plants that we need. You might have one or two, but not three. So the herbalist may not be able to do his job well due to lack of herbal plants.

(28:07) And also shows why your work is so important in helping to record, to maintain these traditions, at least in our memory. It seems that there are also rituals that Hmong people participate in, not only to cure or diagnose but to prevent. In many of the stories about the Hmong fighting in Laos, there would be stories about a ritual in which strings were tied around people’s wrists. Could you expalin the significance of that ritual?
Yes. The blessing string is, for example, used for many purposes. It’s a multi-purpose ceremony. The Hmong use [it] when you have a new baby, after three days, traditionally, after the baby is born, on the third day they have the naming ceremony. They give a name to the child and perform the ceremony, and so they usually prepare a meal and then everybody are invited to attend. The adult males, will tie a string onto the baby’s wrist and bless him as the string is being tied, and will call the soul to come into the body, so like an invitation that you are now a member of the family. Not only the string, but the Hmong will have one of these necklaces made of silver that every child will have to wear, and that is what, in Hmong we call xauv or kuaj toog, which means a lock, you know, like a locker, that means “to lock your soul in your body” so that the soul will not wander away but know that it belongs in this person, in this family.

(29:55) Is that [the power of the necklace] more of a function of its being silver, because of the way it’s made, or that it has a certain ceremonial significance?
It has a symbolic meaning which serves the purpose of protecting the child’s soul. The silver is a sign of wealth that provides comfort and security to the child. The necklace was made, back in the old day, in a particular style. It had to be round and silver, and they made it small because it was for a child. And then as the child gets older, they make a bigger one. But the child will always wear it.  In my generation, when I was little I always had one. But then because of the war, eventually we got to the situation that we were so poor that we had nothing, so my mother had to trade for some money so we could buy food and clothes, and eventually we lost everything. But that?s how it used to be practiced in my generation. And then after that, now no one knows that this practice of wearing silver necklace during childhood had existed anymore. The war and the migration erased everything. But the string ceremony was used for naming a new baby, used for weddings when a couple just got married, they tie a blessing for each other. It’s used when a person recovers from a long illness, used when a person is going to travel on a long journey, or when a soldier is going to go to war — usually the family does that as a blessing; for safety and protection. So it’s used for many events, such as graduation, birthday, etc.?this is a way of showing love and gratitude.

(31:29) How much of what you have learned has come from Hmong people here in the United States and how much of it have you had to learn by traveling?you?ve been to Laos, to Thailand, to China?
I conducted most of my research on Hmong religion, cosmology, and healing practices in the U.S. However, when I travel to Laos, Thailand, and China, I also collected information related to my research interests to compare and contrast with various topics. These cultural beliefs and practices are similar across national boundaries.

How much of this have you picked up overseas?
I picked up a lot — I think the core exists everywhere, but there’s a variation in terms of practice and belief, and so most of my research about the cosmologies and all the spiritual beings is my research in this country, so when I travel around, I check around and see what I can compare with the similar and different versions — and the change –there is a lot of change.

(32:22) What do you see as some of the most significant changes in Hmong cosmology that have taken place here in the United States since the Hmong have come here?
Right now we have lots of diffusion. There’s lots of borrowing, and a lot of the ritual that’s like some of the ceremonial tools or accessories. Back in a Hmong village they would make a hand-carved bamboo bowl, out of wood, but now we use whatever we can buy from the store that looks nice and we use whatever to decorate. And so — like I described in the presentation, they used to just use a lamp or a candle, but now they have this artificial light that the shaman puts on the altar to make it look nice, and also to symbolize this light that leads into the other world. And so I see a lot of physical change. The spiritual — it’s just a little bit hard to tell now that that the shamans start to explain the illness and they perform the ceremony in terms of, in comparison to Western perceptions, in order to make sense of their experience or contemporary life.

(33:46) So more rationality?
Yeah, more rationality, where before it was more subtle. They just did it, they didn’t really explain what it was. But now they’ve learned how to explain the meaning or purpose of the ritual.

(34:00) Have you seen certain individuals or families or communities where individuals have converted to Christianity, but there has still been a sort of blending of the old Hmong spirituality with the accepted or received form of Christianity?
Yeah, there are Hmong who are — again, it depends on, in Christianity, what denomination they are converted to — there are those who become very strict, who follow the new form of religion and abandon everything of Hmong traditional practices. There are lots of things in Hmong culture that have nothing to do with belief or the spiritual, and they still abandon that. And there are also Hmong who are able to isolate — you know, to separate what is culture from religion, and they will still maintain their culture. For example, a lot of Hmong Christians?who become Christian now, they don’t use the shaman in terms of ceremony or healing practices anymore, but still use the herbalist, because they consider that just a physical thing, and a lot of them still use them [herbal medicines]. And then there are some Hmong Christians who don’t maintain either form of healing practices whether herbal medicine or shamanism. And then we have some Hmong Christians who use both the herbalist and the shaman, because they think that the shaman is not a religion. The shaman is just a healing practice, and so when you — and this is where you spot the change? — is that whether you believe in Christ or you believe in shamans; in animism, we all know that a person has a soul. And we all know that the soul goes to heaven or goes to the other world to be with your ancestors. And the soul exists. So when people understand this way, they think that if the shaman’s going to make you become better, then why not use it? Your faith is your faith. You don’t question about your faith; you know there is a God. So you pray for God to help you, if you get better, then that’s fine; if you don’t, then ask the shaman to help you, and that’s fine, because the shamans are God’s children who are sent into this world to help people. So there’s nothing wrong with that. And so you have this variation. And so today there is a lot of variation in Hmong beharior, belief, and value? It’s very dangerous for me to make a statement that, “This is the Hmong way? ”
Of course–
because “Hmong” represents a wide range of experiences.

(36:42) Let’s talk about the role of the shaman. You mentioned an array of tools and accessories that are at the shaman’s disposal to use for what I’m sure are a wide variety of purposes. I particularly enjoyed your description of the shaman as someone who not only communicates but who bargains with the spirits. You also mentioned that shamans sort of have the role of shaman thrust upon them, that it’s not something they choose to do, but that they?re almost tormented into becoming a shaman. Could you talk more about the calling of becoming the shaman, and about the tools and accessories the shaman uses and how they play into the different rituals that s/he might perform?
Well, like I said earlier, the shaman will usually be called into the profession, and they will get sick for a period of time, and they will continue to try and find medicine to cure it, and eventually nothing works. And then they will see other shamans, and other shamans, one after the other, will keep telling them that “you’re going to become a shaman. This is the shaman spirit that has come to you and calls you to join the profession.” And so some of the people accept readily and some people don’t, especially if they are younger. But eventually they give in. And when they start to go and see a master shaman who is an established shaman. And then they start to get the training, initially the two persons will go to a place where no one is around, and they will start to teach about the way of the other world, the spiritual world, and how do you call your spiritual helper, and all those things. They go through those processes.

(38:47) So you kind of get a mentor who shows you the way.
Yeah, shows you the way?


So when they are first performing, they will sit at the same bench, and the master sits on one end and the apprentice sits on the other end, and they perform together. And so the master will lead the way, and the apprentice will follow. And they do that, at least the first time or a few times, until the new shaman feels comfortable to be on his or her own. And usually, even when they perform on their own, the master usually sits around, trying to make sure that everything will go all right

(39:29) Sort of “quality control.”
Yeah, uh-huh. So they do that. And usually when a shaman dies, then the altar will be destroyed, but some of the tools will be kept by the family. They will keep it, and if they have someone in the family who becomes a shaman, then they will use it. Otherwise they will keep it, but then during the war, the times that I remember, because we were constantly moving, it was very hard to do that. Sometimes we had to flee in the middle of the night, and the shaman would forget to pack his or her tools, so then you wouldn’t have anything. When you’re in a new place you just have to do with whatever you have. You have to buy new tools, things like that. But a new shaman will have a new tool that he will keep in a bag. And when they use it they take it out; when they don’t use it they put it back, so that children cannot come and play with it. And when they need to travel, like a doctor, they just grab their bag and go. And so it?s very routine that a shaman will go to a patient’s house to perform the ceremony, because the patient is too sick to come. [And] the family wants to go over there [to the sick person’s house]. Because when you have a ceremony, it involves animal sacrifice — chickens and pigs — and usually people feel better that they do it in their own house. So the shaman often goes and does that. There are times when, just for diagnostic purposes, the shaman may perform a healing ceremony for someone else, but another person can come and ask the shaman to do a diagnosis for another patient also. So he can do the same thing. He can diagnose three or four patients while performing a healing ceremony. So that’s how it works. But the tool I mentioned earlier, the little cloth that they put over their heads and that every shaman has to have — and again, that is to blind them from this world and makes it so they are now in the other world. Then they have the finger rattles that they put on their fingers, because they are constantly shaking. And when they shake, they create a momentum, a musical. It’s like a [pauses]

(42:02) A rhythm.
A rhythm, [yes]. And then when they first begin the ceremony they have this gong that the shaman assistant, who sits next to the shaman, will just bang on. And he creates this loud noise. And they have the incense burning, and the rattle. And all of this creates a momentum that invites the spirit helper, that [says], “Oh, it is time to begin, to initiate a ceremony so we all should just go and help.” And so that’s when the shaman will begin, just like I’m sitting down now, and he will just start shaking and shaking and shaking and they will be going into a trance, and that’s when they are ready and then they will go and travel to the other world and to carry out their mission. So that’s how they perform the ceremony. And then when a shaman goes into a deep trance, then he or she will be constantly chanting, and chanting. And lots of the chanting that they do will be in Hmong, and a lot is in words that we don’t understand. People will say, “That is Chinese,” but then, because in China there are so many dialects, we don’t know if it is one of the Chinese dialects or is it more than one that they use? But then the shaman, when he or she comes out of the ceremony, they have no idea what they were saying. So it’s something where I keep wondering — it would be fascinating to record it and perhaps transcribe it and look into the different Chinese dialects to see which language or dialects they are, or is it a purely an spiritual or ceremonial language? That’s what we don-t know.

(0:00) Would you say there?s a kind of patron spirit that works with the shaman, or does the he or she really have access to the whole variety of spirits?

No, the shamans have their own specific spirits and — again, there are two main ones the shaman works closely with, and these two are the ones who go, if they need help they call their assistants or soldiers to come and help them, to come in different troops. That’s how they see it, but then the shaman uses these spirits, and that’s why they have the altar, and they keep the water and the incense, and sort like roasted rice, and they constantly change the roasted rice and water in the shaman altar — every time they perform their ceremony they change the roasted rice and water. So in a way it’s like a feast for the spirit helpers, and then toward the end of the year, the shaman will send his or her spirit helpers on vacation, and then when the [New] Year comes, he will perform a ceremony and invite them back to his or her altar? [interrupted]

And so during the time that his spirit helpers are on vacation, the shaman won’t perform any ceremonies, and then after the New Year, or when the New Year has arrived, the shaman will invite the spirit back, and that’s when they will start to perform healing ceremony again. So every year, when they have the New Year and they invite the spirit helper back, that’s when they redecorate the altar with the new design, decoration — new ceremonial paper.

(1:44) Can there also be spirits that torment or work against a shaman?
Yes, they will — you know, evil spirits or wild spirits that are taking the soul, and so in the way the shaman goes is they look at the other world like in this world here, like you go to different counties and there?s a mayor or a president or whatever. And so every time the shaman goes to this different space, they always have to talk with this leader and negotiate and go into their territory. So that?s what happens?they will go to different places like that. That’s what they have to work against. And then, especially when a person’s soul has been lost for a long time and it’s hard to bring back, maybe the soul has transformed to become another, reborn to become another human being, it’s in the fetus of another, so that makes it very hard for the shaman. And so that becomes very complex. You have to take at least two or three complex ceremonies in order to bring the soul or spirit back — sometimes you’re successful, sometimes you fail. So when the shamans do the diagnosis, he or she does their best. If they cannot bring [the soul] back they usually tell the family that it may not work. It’s too late. And it just — and sometimes they explain that, because it’s already taken another form, or maybe their spirits had already left, so it’s impossible to bring back. There are times when the shaman can rescue the spirits and the sick person would recover. or their mandate of life have expired, and the shaman can’t do much. And so people understand that, even though it’s hard.


[1] Back in Laos, the placenta of a child was buried after birth. Boys’ placentas were buried under the main pole of the house, girls’ placentas buried under the pole in the bedroom. It is believed that when a person dies, his/her soul that travels back to the other world must first travel back to the place where the placenta is buried.

Dr. Gary Yia Lee

30 December, 2005
Interviewer/Transcriber/Editor – Paul Hillmer

Dr. Gary Yia Lee and Dr. Paul Hillmer
Dr. Gary Yia Lee, Mr. Tou Thao, and Mr. Vu Thao

Dr. Gary Yia Lee, distinguished anthropologist and scholar, traveled from his home in Sydney, Australia to California for a funeral, then made a stop to visit family in the Twin Cities. Tou Thao, his nephew, is an alumnus of Concordia University and a founder of the Hmong Oral History Project. He prevailed on his kind uncle, despite jet lag, the exhausting effects of a three-day funeral, and many, many demands on his time (including a presentation at Concordia University on 29 December), to sit down with me. I owe many thanks-and apologies-to Dr. Lee, his wife Maylee Lee, and the Thao family for taking so much of their precious family time to conduct this interview. Tou sat with us as we were talking, occasionally asking a question (plainly marked below). Whenever Dr. Lee says ‘your dad,’ ‘your mom,’ ‘your cousin,’ etc., he is addressing Tou. Dr. Lee also very kindly proofed this entire interview. – PH


(00:15) So, just for the record, your name, Sir?
My name is- well, I’ve got several names. I’ve got a Hmong name and an Anglicized name. My Hmong name is Yia- my given name; and my surname or clan name is Lee. And my alternate name is Gary, as you know. But that is something that I adapted from my Hmong name, which is a name that I gave myself, also to indicate that I am married and I have family [it is traditional for a Hmong to receive an adult or ‘ordination’ name from his in-laws when he is married], and that’s – I give myself this name, which is quite out of the norm, but it is because I was doing my Ph.D. research and I needed to put down some sort of ‘real’ Hmong name on my thesis. So I called myself Gar Yia Lee, and it later became Gary, Gary Yia Lee. The married name my father-in-law finally gave me is Txawj Yias (Jer Yia).
[Because interview is taking place in a house full of people, interviewer stops to make sure Dr. Lee is coming through all right. New track begins]

(0:02) So what are your parents’ names, and where were you born?
My father is called Nor Lue Lee, and my mother is Mai Yang. And in our customs, as you know, we don’t change the wife’s name to the husband’s so, maybe as a mark of equality, they keep their maiden name. But where I was born-I was born in a little village near the border of Laos and Vietnam sometime after the Japanese occupation. The village was called Ban Huei Kouang (Deer River Village). That’s all my parents could tell me. On paper, I was born in 1949, but I believe it should have been 1947. My parents said it was around New Year’s time, so I put it down on paper as being December. So that’s how we figure out our birthday. So on paper I’m born in December 1949.

(1:12) So you don’t even put a day?
The day is [the] 11th, but it’s a made-up day.

(1:17) You just picked a date out of thin air?
That’s right-like everybody who came from Laos, except the children who are born here.

(1:28) What are some of your earliest memories of being a boy in this village?
Oh, my earliest is-the first thing I remember is I saw a big ox facing me. And as a baby I was sitting on my haunches facing this big bull with the long horns. And it was munching some grass in a stable. And I was wondering what that was. But my family had always had horses, buffaloes and bulls, so we-in a way, my earliest memory was the fact that we were living in a city rather than in a village. That is the first thing that I remember: that we were in a city. Even though the bull might be in a stable, it’s behind a house that was made from bricks, and-

(2:59) So you didn’t stay where you were born for very long.
No, no. The problem was that when I was one month old, Mr. Tou Thao Yang, which, if you read a lot of the accounts about the conflict between the Lo and the Lee [or Ly] clans, Tou Thao was the military leader of the Lo clan-but on account of it was related to him by marriage. And his daughter is now the Deputy Chair of the Lao General Assembly, Pranee Yang. In any case, because of the conflict between the Lo and the Lee, and because we happened to belong to the Lee clan, a month after I was born (or so my mother told me), this man and a few of his soldiers came to our village and confiscated all the possessions and burned down our house and so my parents decided to move from their village to the city to follow Touby Lyfoung, because Touby was already by that time-and by that time I mean 1950-he was already in Xieng Khouang town, and he was organizing village militia for the French, and my father decided to join him and to join the village militia. So about a month after I was born, my mother carried me on her back and we moved to the city. And we were living there and my father became a soldier in the colonial army, which at that time was still the colonial army to the French-because Laos wasn’t independent from France until 1954, and we’re talking about the early ’50s. So anyway, my father was stationed in different parts of Xieng Khouang Province, in Northeastern Laos, so our life was just like the life of any soldier’s family, moving around, and we then, in 1953, when the Viet Minh came to Laos, we-that’s when I remember very distinctly, from then on, about a war, about us going and hiding in the jungle with other Hmong people, and mostly with soldiers’ families.

(6:44) Did you know of any soldiers who fought at Dienbienphu [Jane Hamilton-Merritt asserts that there were about 200 Hmong fighting alongside the French when Dienbienphu fell in 1954]?
No, I didn’t know any and I don’t think there was any from Laos. I believe that Vang Pao, who was at that time a lieutenant, was going with about a hundred Hmong soldiers on their way to Dienbienphu, but before they even got outside Laos, the French lost the battle, so they just returned. That’s my understanding. So for that reason, I didn’t know any Hmong soldiers who participated in [the] Dienbienphu battle. But the soldiers, the French soldiers who were defeated at Dienbienphu and who escaped from Dienbienphu into Laos-I did see a lot of them. And that was my first experience of seeing people from different races. Before that, I only saw Asians-in other words, I only saw Vietnamese, Chinese, Lao, Hmong, et cetera, but there were, in 1954, after the defeat at Dienbienphu, a lot of French soldiers [who] just filtered into Laos slowly. And- [Dr. Lee needed to say goodbye to some friends. New track begins] (0:08) As I said, in terms of actual Hmong who went from Laos to fight in Dienbienphu, I don’t think there was any at all. But in terms of Hmong in Vietnam, yes-who participated in both sides, definitely. Because I did see a lot of Hmong escaping from Vietnam into Laos after Dienbienphu. And many of [Dr.] Yang Dao’s family were part of this group. So definitely there were a lot of Hmong involved, either with the French or with the Vietnamese. But I would say that from my research, and as far as I could get information on, there really wasn’t any Hmong from Laos going into Dienbienphu.

(1:17) You were talking about seeing Frenchmen for the first time
? Yes. By that time, as I was saying earlier, in 1953 the Viet Minh had a military incursion into Laos. And we were all going into the jungle. Do you want all of these little details?

(1:41) I do! It’s the little details that fascinate me
. All right. Well, at that time I think I was about five or six. And in 1953, we were all thinking, ‘Oh, the Viet Minh are coming!’ Around that time there was a lot of propaganda against the Viet Minh by the French. They had posters stuck everywhere-in people’s homes, in the street-depicting nasty Viet Minh in their triangular hats and-big teeth. ‘They’re trying to bite you!’ So that’s how the French tried to convince people to believe that they are the ‘goodies,’ and that the Viet Minh were the ‘baddies.’ Around that time, the Vietnamese Revolutionary movement and its soldiers were all described as Viet Minh, as you know. Anyway, after we went hiding in the jungle, and after whatever happened between the French and the Viet Minh in the battle in the town that we were living in, it was decided that they should have this big battle in Dienbienphu, instead of having an invasion in Laos by the Vietnamese. So that’s how Dienbienphu came to be. In any case, the year after, I didn’t know much about this political maneuvering, being just a kid, but the year after 1954, so after the Viet Minh left Laos, we all came back to the village, to the city, and continued living as before. But then not long after, we saw all these black soldiers, French soldiers coming, in big number into Xieng Khouang town (which now doesn’t exist anymore). But that was the first time we saw big, black soldiers. And they said, ‘Oh, these are Moroccans.’ We always just called all of them as Moroccans. And the big, white Western soldiers were all ‘French, French.’ And by that time we were living in a compound that (I think) was used before by colonial officials with big lots-big blocks of land-and now it’s brick houses. So we were using one of these big plots of land with the nice brick house. And the French soldiers were just all living, taking all of the houses around us, and they were growing tomatoes in their back yards to feed themselves. I remember this one big black, Moroccan-whatever he was-military guy. Every morning he just came out and [looking for the right phrase] passed water [makes a motion with his hand]-

(5:59) He just threw water out into the street [confused]?
No, no, no-piss [Interviewer laughs. Now he understands] right in front of everybody. Just facing the street, he just did it. He didn’t care. And this was the first time we see this thing happen. You know, people had a lot of modesty in Laos, but not this guy. And so a lot of people were talking about, ‘Oh, what are these people doing’? Also, I witnessed black and white soldiers being punished by their officers. I was just a school kid on my way to school, and coming back from school, and I would see-I saw two soldiers being forced to dig like a grave, and they were told to get inside, and they were buried up to their neck, as some sort of punishment for, I don’t know, whatever they did. I saw this happen twice: one black guy, one white guy. We never did this sort of thing, so we thought, ‘Wow, this is how these people are punishing their people.’ And every morning I heard the-on top of us is a big barracks, full of French soldiers, every morning they would blow on the [pauses]-they would wake the soldiers up-

(7:59) A bugle?
Yeah, by blowing on a bugle. Every morning we hear this. And also, in the sky, lots of planes, dropping things for them. You know, these old planes with the big body in front and two long things in the back [trying to remember the name, interviewer is no help]. You see some of these in books-with a body like this [holds his two hands in a large circle] and then two long things like that [making wings] with the tail [similar to Gotha Go 242 twin-boom gliders]. We saw a lot of those planes, funny-looking planes, dropping things for these soldiers. But they were not there for very long-for about only five, six months. And suddenly they were all gone. They all disappeared. That was around 1954, during which I just carried on going to school. My father, who was by then a police officer, no longer served as a soldier in the French colonial army. He transferred to the local police force, and we were also doing what other people are doing, which is farming rice-we were growing on rice land. I believe we were among the first Hmong who did irrigated rice growing around that time. Because in Xieng Khouang city at that time, there probably would be about 50 to 60 Hmong families living there. Some of them were doing dry farming around the town; some of them were laboring, and some of them were soldiers; some of them were public servants. But it’s never enough just to rely on your own salary, so people had to grow their own crops, their own food. So we were doing rice land, along with four other Hmong families, just next to the town.

(10:53) Who was running the school that you attended?
Yeah, that was very interesting, too. I believe that it was run by the French or the Lao Ministry, with a lot of help from the French government. That is because the syllabus is all French, from primary school up to college level. We learned everything in French. We started off learning to write and read ABCs in French, using French books. I believe that the books that we used were the same textbooks that the French children used in France at the time. And our teachers were Vietnamese, not Lao-Vietnamese at the primary level. At the college [what US people think of as high school] level all teachers were French during the time that I went to primary and high school. When I reached upper primary school, we started to have some Lao teachers who completed teacher training in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, but every student [was] taught in French, even though we had teachers who were Lao or Hmong. So my early education was completely in French. We did have Lao taught by a Buddhist monk. But that was pretty much like a foreign language, you know? It’s like two, three hours a week, and the regular lessons were all taught in French. So that was about 1954 to 1959, my primary school years, so all done like that. And then in 1960, I finished primary school and went to college, which is high school – college- in French ‘college.’

(13:22) The old Gymnasium model?
That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. But it’s really high school. And as I said, we had one African or black professor. And all the college teachers were called ‘professor’ in French. And we had this really scary, big, burly black mathematics teacher who was very keen to use corporal punishment, and he would pinch, he would slap anyone who can’t do a mathematic problem, and we were always scared of him. But I was doing all right. [Interviewer laughs] But all through this part-this is just to show you that I have always been very interested in schooling and studying. So all through my primary school I was nearly always the top student. And when I was-when I reached grade nine and ten, I was competing to be first with the current Lao Minister of Trade.

(15:19) Oh really?
Yeah. We were together in primary school and his uncle was our teacher. His uncle always wanted him to be first every time-

(15:29) That doesn’t sound like a very fair system!
-second [was] no good. If we were not doing well, we would get the cane. In those days there were a lot of corporal punishments using the cane. And they would use it with no hesitation at all. Even if you just fail to simply greet the teacher when the teacher first walked into the compound or the school classroom, you had to put your hands together [palms together] and pay respect. You don’t do that, you get the cane-from him. So anyway, I was trying very hard to be first all the time, because the French system gives a lot of recognition, academically speaking. People were good at sports and all that, they don’t pay a lot of attention to, but people who are very good academically get a lot of attention. And so everybody tried very hard to be good, even though they may not be first all the time. So that’s how the French tried to encourage competition and learning. And we were learning all by rote-nothing to do with understanding at all-Books, but also by rote. You just get in front of everybody and recite what was in the book or what the teacher just wrote on the blackboard as the lesson for that particular subject on that day.

(17:19) Memorization and recitation.
Yeah. Someone with a good memory is the best. Yeah. So when I got to this college, I was trying-it’s different. They bring in a little bit of understanding to the learning process, as well as memorizing, so I spent about one term there, and I was doing good, I was still doing very well, but then the civil war broke out. That was on the first of January, 1961. And I remember that I was so sad that school had to-that college had to close. And all of our French teachers were running for their lives. And we were also running for our lives, because my father was in the right wing police force, and the invading force is the Neutralist force of Kong Le. You know his background. Anyway, we woke up one morning on the first of January, and BOOM, we hear these big artillery guns, the sound of guns exploding from a distance. And then they came closer and closer. Everybody’s running around like mad. So we were trying to [pauses].

(19:08) So were you at college or at home when this was happening?
I was at home, but well before that, when I was in my last grade in primary school all through that year, there were rumors about the war coming, and we see long columns of soldiers going to the front near the Vietnamese border. And some day we were in class and they would say, ‘Oh! The war is here! The enemy soldiers are here! So everybody run from school to home!’ And then the next day they would say, ‘Oh, it was a false alarm.’ They would come back again. That happened many, many times, so we were quite used to the rumors. But on the first of January, it wasn’t just a rumor, it was real when we hear guns-big guns for the first time. And then we saw all these big Russian airplanes, cargo carriers in the skies, coming from North Vietnam, dropping I don’t know what, maybe military supplies or food or whatever-

(20:31) Now did you know they were Russian at the time, or-
Yeah, we knew they were Russian. Well, we didn’t know that they were Russian, but definitely we knew they were enemy planes, because they came from North Vietnam, right? They came from North Vietnam. They were big, and they were painted gray-dark gray or something very dark, either dark green or dark gray. And before that, most of the planes we were familiar with were silver. This was a very different color, different noise, different size. Anyway, on the radio they were also saying, ‘The Russians are ferrying materials and supplies for Kong Le.’ And so by that time Kong Le was in the Plain of Jars, advancing on Xieng Khouang town. So a lot of these planes just flew over us into the Plain of Jars, which is only about a half an hour away by car. We saw lots and lots of them coming, so we were always scared and running into the jungle again.

(22:03) Now as you were growing up, were you still in this area where the French soldiers had been, or had you moved elsewhere?
At that time we had moved like about a mile away because the compound that we were using, where I first saw the French soldiers, was only a temporary shelter for our family after the 1953 Viet Minh incursion. So after the French soldiers left in 1954, we moved to build a house on our rice land, and by that time there were four families, my three cousins and my father were living on some wet rice land that we were using. So when the civil war came and all these big Russian planes came, we were living there, on the rice land, which is about one or two miles from town.

(23:13) And what was the town?
The town is Xieng Khouang. It’s now called Muong Khoun under the new [regime].

(23:22) So when you said the planes were coming right overhead and you could see where they were going you weren’t kidding. You could literally seeing right where they were going.
Oh yeah, because they were passing Xieng Khouang here, going to Phon Savanh or the Plain of Jars, which, as I said, is only half an hour away by car. But at the time, because I was small, the two places appeared to be very far from each other. Anyway, that was my last memory of living in Xieng Khouang. By that time Vang Pao and all his soldiers had fled south. They had given up fighting Kong Le, so everybody on the Royal Lao Army side, the right wing side of the conflict, was just in disarray, running in every direction. And my father, that night when the Kong Le troops came to town, my father was at the police headquarters, so he never came home. He just escaped south with Gen.Vang Pao, Vang Pao’s soldiers, and all the police officers. They all went together. So my mother and my four brothers and two sisters, along with other relatives, we just went hiding into the jungle again, somewhere like about 10 miles north of Xieng Khouang town. And we were there for about two weeks. The first week we were hiding in a cave, and one day this big noise above us-it was the first time we ever saw an American jet bomber. I don’t know what it was doing there, but it was flying in two sweeps. It was making two sweeps over Xieng Khouang town, and then disappeared. And then we knew it was American, because we saw a picture of it before, but also because at that time the Russians hadn’t brought in any fighter bombers into Laos yet. And the direction into which it disappeared-into Thailand-indicated to us that this is not a Russian plane or a Vietnamese plane. So we were very hopeful that the town would be recaptured and we could go back there, but we stayed in that hiding place for about two weeks, and my father had paid someone to come and get us out of that place.

(27:13) For those who have absolutely no idea what it’s like, how did you live in the jungle with no food?I mean, I assume you were able to take some food with you, but still, this is a very difficult way to live.
Sure. It was very difficult. But as I said before, we were used to this kind of hiding in 1953. And also because, as I said before, there were rumors of the war coming, so we always prepared some rice and some kind of dried food. We kept them in the house and always-but when the real thing came, we escaped with these supplies. But obviously they didn’t last very long. When we were in the jungle during these two weeks I was talking about, we were sharing food with other Hmong who were there with us. A whole village of Hmong, from a village not far from the town where they ate with us, not far from where we were hiding, there was a Hmong village where we could go and buy rice from, and we could go and buy vegetables from, so that wasn’t a problem.

(28:48) And they felt that they were safe, they were far enough away from what was going on that they could stay in their homes and survive?
Yeah, because the village was hidden behind a number of hills and a big forest.

(29:08) Do you remember the name of that village?
Yeah, Tham Kat. So we went hiding around Tham Kat. So we were there, and we were contacted by this man who was paid by my father to come and get us (and he was actually a distant cousin of my mother). We just left everybody there, we took whatever we could on our backs, and just followed him. We had to cross the main road and go to the other side’big mountain’we were really scared of meeting enemy soldiers at the crossing but we were lucky no one saw us. We had to walk for many days, and then on the third day (well, we had to walk for three days), and then on the third day my father came to meet us for the first time. And by that time [he] was dressed in a green military uniform-not the yellow khaki police officer uniform anymore, and he had a gun with him. I asked him, ‘What does that mean?’ And he said he is now a soldier in the army and not a police officer anymore. And he was a Forward Intelligence Officer, gathering information on the enemy lines. That’s what he said. But anyway, he took us all the way from there to Padong. You may have read about Padong. Padong by that time was the headquarters for Vang Pao. It took us three months to get to Padong. It’s not very distant. [If] you keep walking every single day, you probably would take about three or four days. But because my father’s work has to be near enemy lines, he was doing his work as well, and we were also hopeful that they would re-take the town and we could go back, so we were just making [biding] time, hiding.

(32:04) So your father would just go off for several days?
Go off for a few days, yes, and come back to us. And by that time we were joined by three or four other families, including my brother-in-law’s [Vu Thao’s] family. (Well, we did not know each other in the town previously. We were only young men at the time, but our parents and his parents knew each other.) So anyway, we met up with each other and then we were trying to make time by just hiding in the jungle, changing locations every few days. And one day he nearly threw a grenade on me. I still remember that, and I’m still not very happy when he married my sister [Interviewer laughs].

(33:05) So it wasn’t your father, it was Tou’s father who did this!
No, it was his [points at Tou] father [Tou laughs]. See, I was only a young boy, and to help carry our family possessions, my mother decided to buy a horse. So I had to go and feed the horse in the jungle. And there’s lots of very high grass, about shoulder level. So [I was] with two other boys. And we were just grazing our horses there, and he and his older brother with a few other older people-because they were older than us. They went to Padong, they came back dressed in soldier uniforms with guns and the whole thing-grenades and all. I think they were very eager to show off, too, you know [Tou and interviewer laugh] So we were just grazing the horses along the trail and they were calling, ‘Who’s there? Who’s there?’ And so we were scared and we stooped down and tried to hide in tall grass, and he was ready to throw the grenade and I said, ‘Hang on, it’s only us’ [Tou and interviewer laugh]! And he said, ‘You’d better show yourself, or else you’ll be dead. I was a bit upset with him for a long time. Anyway, we were together there for about, maybe a little bit more than a month. Then we heard gun fights not far at all from where we were hiding. It sounded like it was a battle, so we said, ‘Oh no!’ We couldn’t stand it. They must have been very near us now-all the soldiers from both sides. So we decided to move from there and go to another location nearer to Padong, but not quite at Padong. We were there for two, three weeks – we were hiding in a rice field. We were just building these little straw huts in a recently harvested rice field, where the rice [was] already collected, and it was just empty. So we were there one day. We didn’t have-well, we could still buy rice from the local village, but there was nothing else to go with the rice, and often we’d just go and set traps for birds and for squirrels and rats and whatever we could find. So one day I was inspecting my traps, and I just heard this burst of gun sounds right over my head-this is real big jungle-thick, real tall trees. And we were running for our lives. And then after about ten minutes, the gunfire stopped, but a few days later we heard two T-28 bombers come to bomb a Khmu [a local ethnic group that often clashed with the Hmong and sided with the Pathet Lao] village not far from where we were hiding. We could see the planes flying, so we decided-the two families that were with us decided that maybe it’s time to actually give up the idea of staying around to see the town recaptured and actually go to Padong. So we packed up and went to Padong. We walked about three or four days, then we reached [it]. And that was a really difficult walk-a long, long distance. We didn’t walk through the jungle. We actually took a normal trail that people used to take from one village to another. So it wasn’t so bad, it was just a long distance. We went to-we didn’t quite go to Padong, either. We went to a village from where you can actually see Padong, like there’s two big hills. We were on this side [of one hill], and Padong is on here [the other hill], and down there is a deep valley between. Anyway, we stayed at this village, which is called Ban Pha Lai, and we stayed there for about a month, and we saw soldiers being carried back, wounded soldiers being carried back from the front. We saw soldiers marching from Padong through that village to the front. And then one day there was actually fighting in the next village, which is not far at all-about two blocks away-gunfights and artillery. So we had to run again. So then we decided to go to Padong. And when we reached Padong, it was something very strange for me. It was full of soldiers, the big air strip, and the planes overhead nearly all hours of the day dropping military supplies and big bags of rice for refugees. And we were told that those big bags of rice had hit people on the ground and killed some of them. We still had the horse with us, so I was grazing the horse near a river next to the air strip, and as these planes came to drop the supplies and when you look from the ground up, it looks like the thing with the parachute is going to fall on you-it doesn’t matter from what direction. So I and my younger brother -because we were very naive in our youth to this kind of thing, we were running, running around and around all day. And no matter what direction we run, this thing is falling-looks like it’s falling directly on us! Because the planes drop these things all day long, we were still running and running all along that river forgetting about the horses and all. Anyway, I came to some soldiers that we knew, and asked, ‘Why this thing looks like it is dropping on you all of the time? How do you people manage without running? You seem to just stay where you are or walk around without a care.’ [And they answered], ‘No, it just looks like it’s falling on you, but it doesn’t actually fall on you. It falls a long distance away, because it’s very high up, and looks like it’s coming directly down on you.’ So that was something that I remember to be both funny and also very scary. And we also for the first time saw a few American soldiers who are-well, they’re not soldiers, but they’re dressed in soldier uniform, right? (

42:06) CIA.
Yeah, CIA. But to us, they’re just soldiers. We saw Americans, we saw Thai, a lot of Thai, too. Yeah, the Thai were always with the Americans, more [numerous] than the Americans. I think that there might be six or eight Thai to one American. And I thought, ‘Wow, these are the people that are helping us. They are the ones that bring over these supplies and they are helping Vang Pao to fight a war.’ But I was-well, let’s say about 12-very curious, because I was not unfamiliar with Western people, because I was studying under some French teachers, but I’d never seen Americans before, and so I always went near the tent where they worked and tried to look at them. I remember I saw one very young, blond American, maybe about 30-very slim, tall. I don’t know-he was reading or he was writing away, going from one Thai, Hmong officer to another. So that was my first encounter with Americans. And we were there-oh, and also, there were a lot of helicopters. At that time, they were using these noisy helicopters with the big round nose all painted green [USMC UH-34D utility helicopters, also known as the ‘choctow’]. [Dr. Lee is needed for a moment. New track begins.]

[Before the recorder was turned back on, Tou had asked if his uncle knew of any Hmong who chose to fight with the Neutralists or the Pathet Lao.]
(0:23) Yes, I knew a few. I mean, I didn’t know at the time that they were on the side of the Pathet Lao. In terms of Hmong who were with the Neutralists, when we escaped from Xieng Khouang town, as I said, I don’t think that those of us who were in that town, had any idea of what Kong Le represented. We only knew about nya la [Hmong word for Vietnamese which also means ‘enemy’] -you know, being communist, or being Viet Minh, but we didn’t all know about this third force, the Neutralists. I think the older people probably would hear a lot of radio broadcasts from Vientiane about Kong Le and Phoumi Nosavan fighting each other down there, but I think the normal, average Hmong probably had no idea and little interest. But after we left the town and those people who decided not to escape, to stay, and the town became occupied by Kong Le and his Neutralist troops-yeah, a lot of those Hmong who stayed behind decided to ‘join’ the Neutralists. I think it was more a force of circumstances rather than choice or real understanding of what’s going on. Some of my cousins who now live in Montana, who stayed behind, did this, because actually when Kong Le came into a town, for those who panicked and escaped, they would chase them. But those who stayed on, they would just reorganize into normal life. So a lot of the Hmong who stayed behind just lived under the neutralist force. Some might become teachers, some might become soldiers if you wanted to be a soldier for the Neutralists, but you would need to have Neutralist ideology. I know that a nephew of mine, he became a teacher for the Neutralists. I don’t know much under what situation, but I didn’t know many Hmong who became soldiers. In terms of the Hmong who joined the Pathet Lao, there are many Hmong we used to know as relatives, distant relatives, who used to live near the Vietnamese border, and who we never suspected of having any interests in this factional fight. One family that was very prominent actually stayed behind, and we later learned that he was related to Fay Dang, the Hmong Pathet Lao leader. He was Fay Dang’s nephew. Fay Dang Lo, you know about him, right?

(4:08) Touby LyFoung’s rival.
Yeah. So when we escaped, he didn’t escape, and he stayed behind. And later he joined Fay Dang. So he’s the only family we know who were there maybe on-you know, who was actually put there. But he was later executed by the Neutralist soldiers – [Dr. Lee needs to speak to his wife. New track begins.] (0:00) So anyway, that’s my early memory about the war and life -I wasn’t [in Padong] for very long. We were there only a week, and then Kong Le, with lots of North Vietnamese troops, organized a big push to capture Padong. And so again we had to flee for our lives, and we had to again put everything on horseback and flee to a neighboring hiding place. Those [were] very steep [mountains], so [it was] very hard to get to there-we were hiding in another very deep enclave, and at the direction of Vang Pao, because by then we were with all the other Hmong refugees. And when we got there, we saw soldiers just running away from the battle, coming to join their families -Vang Pao’s soldiers-not a lot of them, just the odd ones that managed to escape. We saw people crying because they had lost their father or brothers or husbands in the battle –

(2:04) Tou Thao: How often did you guys actually see Vang Pao himself?
I didn’t see him at all until then. He was at Padong, but because I was a little boy and because I was scared of big people, and also he was very busy. He was, by that time, someone very important and-oh! I did see him once when he was in Xieng Khouang town. I saw him with some of his soldiers. That was before the war-I did see him. He came to stay in a military-in a French colonial residence that was reserved for military officers, and I saw him come in and out, but that’s all I saw. That was before the war. But a lot of people said that, as you know, he lost the town because he spent most of his time with girls, playing the ball game at New Year’s time [It is customary for young men and women to engage in ‘ball tossing,’ a ritual that allows males and females to get to know each other, during the New Year], because as I said to you, Kong Le came to Xieng Khouang town on the first of January, which is around the Hmong New Year. And instead of ordering his solders around and being in command, he was playing ball games in a distant Hmong village, and he left his soldiers to some of his officers-one of his officers. I only know about one man your dad knows well [pointing to Tou Thao] with a handful of soldiers to actually block Kong Le’s way, but they couldn’t. So by the time he realized that defeat was imminent, and he had to give up the ball game and come and do the real job, it was already too late. So all he did was just escape with his soldiers down south. And then when they reached down south (this is just a little aside to what I was telling you earlier about the war), when my father and Vang Pao and his soldiers and the other officers of the Royal Lao Government, public service or officials, escaped from the town, they turned directly south [towards Vientiane]. And after about two days’ walk away (of course they all went on foot) they stopped and decided to re-assess the situation. And that’s when they were contacted by [Colonel] Bill Lair. And then you can take up that story from there [Tou laughs]. And my father was with them. So anyway, my father was told to do the job that he was doing, and because the place where they stopped was not suitable as a rear guard [defensive] position, they decided to come to Padong, and to reorganize themselves there. And when Padong was taken over by the Vietnamese and the Neutralist troops, they then went to Pha Khao. The soldiers went to Pha Khao and the civilians went to where I was telling you about us going there, which is called Blia Hia. We were there for about three months. That’s where I saw for the first time my future father-in-law. He actually came to court my older sister, your mother-yeah, your mother was about 18, I was about 14-maybe your mother was about 16. And my father was with the soldiers all the time, so I had to act like the man of the family, built a little hut for the family and I didn’t know much about how you build a house, how you build a hut. And I had to act like the head of the family, which was very hard. I didn’t do it well-that was the first time I had to do that kind of thing. And while we were there, soldiers that were wounded would be taken in by helicopter, and I again saw this very blonde American medic who was trying to get a bullet or shrapnel or whatever from the leg of a Hmong soldier, and because he didn’t have any anesthetic, the Hmong soldier kept screaming and he wanted to-he was trying to dig the thing out. We were all peering. And also that was the first time I saw a woman dressed as a soldier. I never saw a woman dressed as a soldier before. So we kids all went and looked at her-stared at her!

(8:51) Probably a field nurse?
Yeah, a Lao field nurse. She was either Lao or Thai-dark-skinned. But she was a woman. We were all there, surrounding her and staring at her. I wonder how she felt [Tou and interviewer laugh]. Anyway, she wasn’t there for very long. She was there for one or two days and then she disappeared-must have been taken away somewhere by helicopter. They used helicopters back and forth, back and forth. And the rice was dropped in bags from this big cargo plane called – I can’t remember anymore [nobody can come up with the name of this plane]. You see one of them in the picture when they were evacuating Long Cheng in 1975. Not the C-130, very old and famous. It’s got a local name like the Dakota or something [it’s actually a C-47]. Anyway, they used this noisy cargo plane to drop rice for the refugees. And we were in that valley for about four or five months. But then they said, ‘Oh! The Vietnamese are coming again!’ And so we all had to escape again and we came to Pha Khao. We had to walk from Blia Hia to Pha Khao, then at Pha Khao they said, ‘You can’t live here. The Vietnamese are coming. You can’t stay here anymore.’ We had to go to Vientiane. So they evacuated us by plane to Vientiane. That was my first encounter with a big city-which is not very big at all now [compared to American cities]. But for us at that time, that was the biggest city we had ever seen-and very hot, sticky, humid, and very strange, lots of cars, and all Lao-no more Hmong. Very alien, very strange to us. But we stayed there for-we stayed in some people’s house and were given food. And then very quickly we had to find renting accommodation. We were renting a timber place, which is just a long house partitioned into rooms, and each family rents one of the rooms. And at the back is a cooking place, but that’s all there is. And we were there for about four, five months. And by that time I enrolled in the lyc’e, which is the very famous high school in Vientiane-Lyc’e de Pavie. At that time it was still called Lyc’e de Pavie. You know Pavie? Auguste de Pavie, the guy who explored and took Laos as a French colony in 1893. Anyway, so that school was named after him. And it’s the only high school in Vientiane. I decided to enroll there, and when I got there-oh! My French teachers were there from Xieng Khouang! And they were actually helping me to register-they were checking that we were real, that we were from Xieng Khouang, that we were entitled to enroll there. And so I was lucky to get into there, and I was lucky to get into the boarding school part of the college. So I, along with about 30 other Hmong students, were taken in as boarders in that lyc’e.

(14:19) Now did your entire family go to Vientiane? Did your father stay behind?
Yeah, my father stayed behind, the whole family went to Vientiane, and I became separated from them, because I went to study at the lyc’e as a boarder. And sometimes we were given bread with butter on, which we were very eager to taste, to eat. We thought, ‘Oh, this is prestige food-French.’ But a lot of the time the food was just Lao. That’s how I became separated from my family from then on and spent most of my time at the lyc’e. And gradually my family, they stayed in Vientiane for about five or six months, and the situation in Pha Khao became better. And by that time Vang Pao moved from Pha Khao to Long Cheng, because Pha Khao was too foggy, and the airplanes and the helicopters couldn’t land. That’s what he told me. I did an interview with him. I went to Thailand [in 1985]. I was following him to Thailand for about a month and was trying to get little bits if interview with him. And he said, ‘Oh, the reason we didn’t stay on in Pha Khao is because the air strip was directly in front of a big cliff, and the little helio-planes sometimes couldn’t make it over, and as well it was very foggy, very dangerous,’ so they moved to Long Cheng. But anyway, all this I only learned about much later. I was just studying there [in Vientiane], just concentrating on my studies, concentrating again on being first and coming first in my class. And my French teachers were very happy with me, so they put me, after [my] first year of studying there, they were very impressed, so they put me in a class full of French kids-which is an advanced class. We were studying Latin, and I’d never studied Latin in my life! And the Latin teacher was very kind. She said, ‘You can do it. I will give you extra coaching.’ So she let me go to her house after hours and she was teaching me all these verbs and how you conjugate. But it was all Greek to me; it never got into my head. I could never-I was very good in French, and I really loved French, but Latin-it just never, never got to me. So after a few months I told her, ‘Look, I really just cannot do this Latin. You’d better change me to a different class, because this class has to take Latin.’ So she said, ‘All right. If you really, really cannot do it, then you just don’t do Latin’ [Tou and interviewer chuckle]. But my French teachers were very, very helpful, very nice, very kind to me. I’ll be forever grateful to them. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Many, many people have helped me along the way, apart from my family, and among these are my French teachers. (I don’t mean the teachers who teach me French, but the teachers from France who teach me all kinds of subjects at this lyc’e.) So when I went to-I don’t know how you work the high school years here, but in Australia we start with Year 7, 8, 9, 10, which is Middle School and then Year 11 and 12. Up here how do you? – [Interviewer explains system in US] (19:32) Anyway, whatever, the French system starts with 6-me, right? Sixth class. Then fifth, fourth, third, and it goes down in numbers as you advance. So the first year of high school is called sixth. Anyway, it was during the fifth class that I have to do this Latin thing. And then when I got to the fourth class, I was trying so hard to maintain my academic success or achievement or whatever-to stay at the top level, that I became sick, because I studied all the time. I had a book with me at all hours, and by that time I became caught up in French literature. I was reading all kinds of novels from France with all these famous French classic authors, starting from Balzac to Stendahl, Alexandre Dumas. Then I came to learn about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and I was really, really taken up by all these fascinating big novels and I was just reading them all the time, ever after lights out in the dormitory. I bought a torch [flashlight] and covered myself under the blanket and read my novels. I really came to like my reading and French-well, all literature, Western literature in French, translated into French. And my French teacher (I mean the teacher that was teaching French-the subject) was really impressed because I could quote all these classical authors. She said, ‘Now I want you to continue and go to France-study French literature. I was very keen to. But anyway, when I got to fourth class, I became very sick and I spent half the year in hospital with water in the lungs. So I missed half the year. But at the hospital I met this Lao woman. She came one day to the hospital, and she said, ‘Why does no one ever come to the hospital to visit you? I said, ‘Oh, my family live a long, long way away.’ And she said, ‘Oh, poor boy! You come live with me.’ And then she said, ‘You [will] become my son.’ So anyway, I became her adopted son, and she took me in. She had lots of other kids, but she had a big heart. I spent about three years living with that family, and they were very kind to me. And later on, when your dad married my sister, and my brothers and my mother, they all came to stay with this family, too, in Vientiane [all laugh]. Yeah, everybody came, and they were very nice to everybody in the family. Your dad sponsored them over to America [after the communist take-over of Laos in 1975]. The parents are dead now, but the daughters and sons live in Kansas, two of them. Anyway, that’s what happened. And when I recovered from my pleurisy, I went to talk to the headmaster and some of my teachers, and they said, ‘Oh, you’re so good, there’s no problem with us just passing you to the third year (which in French is called diplome). They said, ‘We’ll pass you, and we will get you up to that year, even though you missed half the year in the fourth class. And I said, ‘But I haven’t studied a lot of subjects.’ And they said, ‘We will give you extra coaching.’ So while I was very good in the French language subject and literature and science and other things, I was not very good in mathematics. Anyway, the Mathematics teacher gave me a lot of coaching, at his house, and let me stay there and gave me food as well. They were very nice. He was married to a Vietnamese woman. He was French. Anyway, he always gave me a lot of coaching, and I got through that final year of middle high school. And that’s when I went to Australia.

(25:43) How did that happen? It seems to me very curious that someone living in Vientiane, being taught by French teachers to love all things French, who’s lived with a Hmong family all over the place would suddenly [snaps his fingers] go to Australia.
Yeah, that was a real accident. As I said to you, all my French teachers-I was very keen about France. ‘Anything French is the best.’ It was best for me, you know? And through all these readings [I was thinking] ‘Oh, I’d really like to go to France.’ And also my teachers were very chauvinistic-in other words, they had the same attitude. And they all said, ‘You have to go to France. You will make it.’ So I said, ‘All right, that’s what I will do.’ So when I was in this third class, very busy with all the coaching and extra study and all of that, I had a very distant cousin who was studying in Australia under the Columbo Plan scholarship. The Columbo Plan [for Co-operative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia] is now history, but in those days it was a kind of foreign aid scheme set up by a few countries around the Pacific Rim, like New Zealand, Australia, India (they were a little bit away)-and they had a meeting in Columbo, in Sri Lanka, and that is how they settled on this scheme called the Columbo Plan to help the poorer countries in Southeast Asia with their economic development, but also the ultimate aim is to combat communism. So by that time Australia was giving Columbo Plan scholarships to students from Laos. And they all went too-because we all studied in French rather than in English-these students were brought to Australia to study in high school, in the three final years of high school to become well grounded in English – before graduating to the university and all that: college, vocational, whatever, depending on the level of achievement. But anyway, around that time, in 1964-no, in ’65, yes?I had this cousin studying in Australia and he sent me a postcard, also wrote to me about what a nice country Australia was. And I saw these beautiful postcards with beaches and long stretches of dry rocks, and he was telling me all about life down there, and he said I should go down there. I should forget about going to France. And I said, ‘Oh, I’m not too sure, because my aim has always been to go to France.’ So when I finished the diplome, I passed the diplome after the third year, the Australian embassy gave a scholarship test, and I said, ‘Well, why not try?’ And I went to sit for the test and I passed-I passed as the best. Oh! And then I wasn’t too sure, too keen anymore, so I went home. By that time your dad was married to my sister [pointing to Tou], and my mom and her children were living in Pha Khao with your dad and your mom. So I went there, I went to stay there and keep quiet there, and I was out to think things over. I wasn’t so sure at all about whether I wanted to go to Australia. But one day I heard this announcement on the radio that I should go to Vientiane and get my papers ready. They were all waiting for me! And I said, ‘Oh, well, it looks like I can’t escape’ [Tou chuckles]. So I went to the Australian embassy, filled out all the forms and did everything, and then I went-and at that time not many Lao students were very keen to go to Australia at all. It’s sort of just something way down there nobody knew much about, but because there were a lot of Americans in Laos at the time, in civilian clothes, and a lot of USAID people, everybody wanted to go to America, but most of all, everybody wanted to go to France. So that’s probably why I was doing very well on the test. Not many people were sitting for the test-only about 30 people. And they only wanted six people. So anyway, that’s how it happened, and I went to Australia where from very early on, I was looking for French people to talk to, ’cause I couldn’t speak good English. I mean, during my studies at the high school in Vientiane, we were studying English, but like a foreign language, three or four hours a week, and taught by French teachers with not a very good accent, right? So when we got to Australia we had to start all over again from scratch. So it was-I spent three years in high school down there, and had to go through all the exams again, but in English this time.

(32:47) Were you able to keep in contact with your family reasonably well while you were in Australia?
Yeah, quite reasonably well. Yeah, we were able to-not so much writing to my mother and the rest of the family who lived in Pha Khao, but with one of my brothers who was studying in Vientiane. Yeah, we were able to write quite regularly, and he then shared the news with the family. And also the Australian government was very generous. They let us come back home at the end of each year for two months, for the long vacation. So in ’65 – I went there on the 19th of September, 1965, and then in 1966, ’67, ’68, I was able to come back for holiday. And in 1968, on the plane to Long Cheng, I met Pop Buell [Edgar ‘Pop’ Buell, from Hamilton, Indiana, was a retired US farmer who worked in Laos through International Volunteer Services and later under USAID. He eventually worked out of Sam Thong, where he advocated education for all Hmong children and helped build and staff a hospital], and he was full of whiskey, but he was telling me so many nice things, I was really very grateful. He said, ‘Not many Hmong?'(he called us Miao at that time) -‘Not many Miao students go to study abroad. You are one of the very few, so you have to study really hard and try to make it back to help your people.’ So I thought, ‘Oh gee!’

(34:55) More pressure!
Yeah. What pressure and what honor! So anyway, that really sort of encouraged me a bit, because when I was down there in Australia I was really homesick the first two years-really homesick. Because everything was so different-cultural difference, language, food, but mostly no family, no familiar faces and environment. It was an experience. It helped me grow up and face life.

(35:37) Were the Australian people, or at least the students and faculty that you interacted with reasonably friendly and supportive, or?
Yeah. Well, I think that on the whole, most Australian students were -in the ’60s, [there were] not many Asian [people] living there. I mean, there were Chinese migrants, immigrants who started going there in the late 19th century, but not too many of them. You had the odd Chinese restaurants here and there, so the Asian face is not an unfamiliar face, though people still stare at you quite a bit. But what I would say is that I couldn’t fit in very well, because-and not only me, but some of my friends as well-because the whole system was completely different from what I was used to-completely the reversal. If you are best at sports you are the hero of your class, whatever sport, you know? But if you are very good at academic studies, who cares? [Tou and interviewer laugh] And I used to be very good at academic studies, and the first time I was ignored and I felt like I just wasn’t encouraged to pursue my studies, but more encouraged to do sports, to fight with my classmates in the sporting field doing rugby, football, tennis, and all that. Well, we are very small in bodies, so we are the worst at the sporting field! And I think that in Australia that made me very unhappy, because I couldn’t care less about these sports. I came here to study, not to do sports! We were put in a boarding school-private Anglican church school. I mean, the government put us in this expensive church school so that they don’t have to do a lot of work looking after us. And also at this school, for the first time we are to go to pray and worship and all that-which I’m not averse to, ’cause I read the Bible and went to Catholic church before in Vientiane a number of times. But to do it every night, every Sunday, when I really want to read my novel [Tou and interviewer laugh], sort of made me very, very unhappy being there. But in terms of actual racism, that sort of thing, there was not so much overt or intentional [racism]. Maybe something accidental. People would never call you anything, call you names, you know? And also, I think because it is like a-mostly the kids are from middle- to upper-class, rich families, maybe they were well-brought up or something, I don’t know, but I didn’t really experience any overt racism. But what I [was] really unhappy about, was those things I told you about [Tou chuckles].

(39:53) Sports!
Yeah. So in the end I decided to do sailing. But they were real hard -they have rowing, they have sailing. Rowing?I can’t row! I need big muscles, too. So they said, ‘All right, since you are no good at anything, you go sailing.’ [All laugh]. So we went. I thought also about canoeing, but [you] still need a lot of muscle. I nearly drowned a few times [All laugh]. ‘Cause in the bay, it’s not just a little river-we were rowing in the bay, and when the big ship came, [makes motion of boat rocking, maybe tipping over]. Yeah, you need a lot of work! Anyway, I decided to take up sailing and I really enjoyed it! I was really good at sailing, a little boat or bigger boat. So in my three years there I spent mostly sailing, and then they decided they wanted to have a soccer team, and for some reason they decided all the Asian kids should be on the soccer team [All laugh]. So yeah, I was put on the soccer team-it wasn’t so bad. It was not so competitive, like we didn’t have competition with other schools, like in rugby or cricket and other more-

(41:22) [Yours was] more intramural
Yeah. So that’s how I spent my first three years down there.

(41:30) So you finished school in Australia. Did you go back to Laos, did you stay in Australia? what happened next for you?
Well, when I finished high school, the intention was for us to prepare for university by studying high school first so that not only our English would be good enough for university study, but that we be well-grounded in the subjects that we needed to do later in university. So after I finished high school, I came back for vacation, and that’s when Long Cheng was-some Vietnamese soldiers came to Long Cheng, and I spent a few nights running around, with bullets flying over our heads. There is one-around that time, a few-just a handful of Vietnamese soldiers infiltrated Long Cheng, and tried to destroy the air strip or the airplanes there, whatever. But I think they were caught and they were killed.

(42:57) I was talking with Lee Pao [Xiong] about that. He remembers seeing the bodies of Vietnamese soldiers there when he was just a boy.
I didn’t actually see them, but I-because of that, all the soldiers and-well, everybody has got guns at that time, and they were very edgy, so every little sign or every little torch they see in the night, sort of [makes a low, sighing noise] everybody fired at that. So because of that, we just spent a few nights hiding in the creek, hiding behind bushes, spending our time in muddy rivers and so on, which was all a false alarm. And also, that last year [1968], when I went back home, I was working for the CIA for the first time.

(44:02) And what did they have you do?
Translation. So I was doing nothing big, but it was a very interesting experience for me. So you were translating from what to what? From Lao to English, largely because of his [Tou’s] father, I was staying with my brother-in-law’s, and he was stationed in Pha Khao, and the prisoner of war detention center was located there. So one day we met these CIA officers on the air strip. We were just checking on some airplanes, as they came landing. And so we started talking [with one of these two American officers] and I was telling him about me studying in Australia and he said, ‘Oh, your English is so good! You have to come and work for me. I need a good translator.’ So what happened was, when they got a prisoner of war from the battlefield, mostly Vietnamese, they brought him in to the detention center, which is the first point of interview-interrogation. They would then make the prisoner-all tied up-crouch on the ground and they sit on the desk looking down and interrogating the person in Lao or Vietnamese. And then this would get translated into Lao, because there’s no Vietnamese translator or interpreter there. [It would] get translated into Lao and then from Lao into English for the CIA officer. There were two of them there, as I said. And I know one-the one that was very friendly with me was called John Delavarane, and he used to give me his address, and I remember that it was in one of the eastern states near New Jersey. [Interviewer asks him to say the name again] He gave me his real name, but the other guy wasn’t very friendly, maybe because I wasn’t working for him. His code name was Zorro. This Zorro wasn’t very talkative, either. But John, he talked a lot, just talking-we went around a lot, because later we became good friends, and I took him to the village and we talked in Hmong, and he tried to learn all kinds of things. Of course, a lot of other CIA officers were working with the Hmong, but they mostly kept to themselves- because of the language barrier mostly. But I spent about three months in Pha Khao, and I spent three months translating. I would translate the report from-sometime the interrogation was done by some local military officers who wrote the report down in Lao, and I translated it into written English for John. I don’t know what he did with it, or if he sent it on. But then a few days later the prisoner would be sent away somewhere, disappear, then other new ones would come in. So it worked like that. And I don’t know where they took them, [if] they took them to the jungle, they took them just a few blocks away and did something to them, or took them to another prison far away. I don’t know. They never tell you. But it was a very interesting experience for me, but I didn’t see any torture or anything. So for about two years after we [he and John] came in contact, we kept writing to each other but John just stopped writing one day. I later heard that he was assigned to this rescue mission in Iran when they went to the desert and the big helicopters crashed. And I was told that he was one of those who was injured. So it was an interesting encounter.

(49:37) So once you finished working for the CIA, what did you do next?
When I finished high school, I just enrolled in the University [of New South Wales]. I went back to Australia after I worked with the CIA officer and in 1969 I started my university studies, and I chose social work because every time I came home, there were all these poor, starving refugees with nowhere to go, and no food. I thought I might be able to do something for them, but then I was wrong, because after I did two years of social work, it’s all about counseling. It’s all about case work, working on advising people on how to sort out their personal problems. And I thought, ‘Oh my God! How can I do this in Laos? There are thousands of starving people! I can’t just give advice -and nobody would employ me. And the government will just be wasting its money on me.’ So there’s no such thing like Western social work in Laos. So I started reading about social welfare and social work in third world countries, and I thought, ‘Oh it’s so different in approach! It’s all community development that has come under social work.’ So I thought, ‘Oh, but these studies at the university that I was studying have no community development as a subject for me.’ So okay, I tried to struggle on and finish my degree and got honors for it, but I wasn’t happy about what I studied, so I asked for an extension to do a Master’s [Degree] in community development. But it was very difficult. And it was, again, his [Tou’s] father-yeah, I owe a lot to your father. And we were really helping each other. His father then-well, I mean I applied formally through the official channels of the Columbo Plan scheme-the Australian government and the Lao Education Ministry, but my brother-in-law also helped by directly having meetings with high officials in Laos and Touby Lyfoung was also very instrumental in helping me. Together with your father they often went together, because Touby knew the Minister for Education. Touby was Minister for Social Welfare at that time. But social welfare at that time meant flood relief and disaster relief, that sort of thing. So I owe a lot to my uncle, Touby Lyfoung as well. They went to see the Minister for Education, and your father told me the minister wouldn’t look at them. And after a minute the minister said, ‘Why does he want to stay on? Everybody has to come home and serve their country when they finish the bachelor degree. No one is allowed to do postgraduate study.’ So they didn’t know what to say, and Touby said, ‘Oh, but this student is really good. He wants to study rural development because most of Laos is rural and has a lot of villages that need development. And we have no one studying rural development.’ So [the minister] said, ‘Oh, OK, you go and I’ll let you know.’ So many weeks later they told me that I could stay on and do my Master’s. So I focused my Master’s on community development among the displaced people in Laos, ’cause around the time it was 1972 and there wasn’t this Paris agreement, ceasefire yet. And actually USAID [he pronounces it ‘YOO-sayed’] was very, very helpful, providing me with-when I told them, ‘Okay, this is what I want to focus on for my thesis (and I did it by thesis, not by study).

(56:04) [Interviewer asks where he went to university in Australia]
University of New South Wales, in Sydney. So I was focusing on that particular topic, and because they wouldn’t allow me to come back to do field work in Laos, I had to do everything by correspondence and through literature. But USAID was very, very helpful. The director was very, very encouraging, supportive, and he asked me to have a set of questions for him, and I sent him all the questions I could think of, and he provided all the information, (not him, but his people) along with the relevant publications, and I had all the information I needed, and anything that was not in the annual reports or publications, they answered me directly by letter with statistics, everything-beautiful! They were very, very helpful.

(56:57) So when did you finish your thesis?
I finished that in 1974. And then-yeah, I started in ’73 and then finished in ’74. In ’72 I got my bachelor’s degree. So I was just getting ready to come home, you know? Because when I finished in ’74, I submitted [my] thesis, and then they said, ‘OK, you pass, but your graduation is not on until April 1975.’

(58:45) Oh my goodness-
So I said, ‘OK, I’ll wait around.’ And I was working in some factory, trying to make some money. And then even before I had the graduation and got my degree, [the communists took Laos] and my family’s in Thailand. And I said, ‘Oh, wow! What am I going to do now?’ So that’s how it happened.

(59:21) So you’re in Australia, your family’s in Thailand, and you have to ask yourself, ‘Where am I going to go, what am I going to do, and how is my family?’
That’s right. And nearly all my family had escaped from Laos. Most of my student friends had returned to Laos, or some were there [in Australia] but were undecided. Some said that they would return, no matter what. The Pathet Lao took over in April 1975, right? That’s when they physically took over the country and many Hmong fled to Thailand-although they didn’t declare their victory until the second of December. So before I knew anything, Grandma and all your uncles were in Thailand with your dad [addressing Tou]. And I said, ‘Oh my God, what can I, what should I do now?’ So there was no point for me to go back to Laos. I’ve got no one there. If they’re all in Thailand it would be a danger for me if I went to Laos. We didn’t know what the Pathet Lao would do. Everybody was so scared. And-well, all the Western countries were very sympathetic, too, at that moment. So then I applied to the Australian government to stay on as an asylum-seeker. It took them quite a while to make a decision. It took them about, maybe five, six months. So in the meantime I was just working away in the factory, supporting myself.

(1:01:27) Was your family able to get word to you about where they were and that they were all right?
Yeah, because before that, we had regular contact. As I said, by then, two of my brothers were studying in Dong Dok-in the teacher’s college in Vientiane. It’s called Dong Dok-you say that name and everybody [will] know Dong Dok Teacher’s College. So we were in regular contact. And then as they were going to Thailand, my younger brother, [to Tou], Uncle Cher Wa, he wrote to me and said, ‘We are now in Thailand. You’d better not come back to Laos.’ Because I was like a person with no country-no papers-I couldn’t come to Thailand to visit the family, so-but then, Professor William Geddes, who wrote that well-known book on the Hmong in Thailand called Migrants of the Mountains -he was -in those days he was one of the very few people who were interested in the Hmong and who had written anything on the Hmong. He was teaching at Sydney University, teaching anthropology there. I heard about him writing a book about the Hmong in Thailand. One day I contacted him (that was before I finished my Master’s thesis) and said, ‘I’m very interested in your book. Could I have a look?’ And he said, ‘It’s still in manuscript.’ I said, ‘Yes, even in manuscript. I would like to know more about my people, because I have been here for so long, and I want to know how other people see them.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ He was very happy to meet me, actually, because he never thought a Hmong person would be in Australia, because all the Hmong he ever saw were growing opium in the hills in Thailand. He was very surprised. So he said, ‘Why don’t you come over to my house and I’ll show you the manuscript?’ I went there, and the first thing I saw on his manuscript was-it said Migrants of the Mountains: A Study of the Miao Socioeconomy. And I said to him, ‘Look, we hate to be called Miao, and firstly you should try at least to call us Hmong.’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s too late now.’ It’s too late now because it’s already in camera format-camera-ready. So he said, ‘It’s too late now, but I’ll make a note, an extra note.’ And he-now you can take a look at his book, and he made an extra note: ‘These people, the people in this book that are described as Miao; they prefer to be called Hmong'[Tou laughs]. Anyway, I read the manuscript, and there was a lot in there that I disagreed with, because he said that the Hmong institution of polygamy arose directly from the opium economy. And I said, ‘Why [do] you say that? Even Hmong who don’t grow opium have many wives. I don’t know where it comes from, but many Hmong have [multiple] wives and they don’t grow opium.’ But now I go back to read his book and I agree with him. I agree with him. I just read it a few months ago, and I agree with him, because he’s talking not about opium, but he’s talking about economic success. So what he’s saying is that, in places-because in those days the Hmong only made money from growing opium, and no other commodity, because they just didn’t know how, didn’t have the means to do otherwise. But what he’s trying to say is that rich people can afford more than one wife, so the more rich they are, the more they tend to marry more than one wife. And this is true. But because his book is mostly about opium growing, I got the wrong understanding. But there were little things in there that I disagreed with him. So he said, ‘Why don’t you just do it yourself? [Interviewer guffaws] Why don’t I just find you a scholarship, and you do a Ph.D.? And you go to Thailand?’ well, I can’t go to Laos anymore. ‘You go to Thailand. I have many friends there. And you can write a book yourself. It would be so good, because you have the understanding and you have the language.’ And he didn’t speak a word of Hmong; he used Thai interpreters. So I said, ‘Yes, why not? If you can find me a scholarship when I finish my Master’s. And I would try to do it, but I don’t even know if they [the Australian government] will let me stay on.’ Luckily, you know, what I said earlier about the family escaping to Thailand, is a big help towards this plan. And I went to-so when the family got to Thailand, I told Professor Geddes, ‘Look, I can’t go home anymore. Now is the best time for you to find me a scholarship. And I will go to Thailand. But then I don’t have a passport. I don’t have a..’ So he was trying very hard to help me get my application for asylum-seeker approved, and then very quickly they approved me-my citizenship. And so I spent about six months at Sydney University trying to study anthropology. And I really tried-he gave me lots of books to read, and many things to catch up on, and I attended a lot of the post-graduate courses, so after six months-but within that time, he [Geddes] visited the family in the refugee camp, because he was coming to Thailand to do some field work in Northern Thailand. And I said, ‘Oh, can you visit my family for me? ‘Cause I can’t go.’ I didn’t have much money. I only gave him like a hundred dollars [Tou and he laugh] to take to the family in the refugee camp. And then my mother said, ‘Oh! My son has been in Australia all these years and all he could send was $100, and we’re starving!’ -in Namphong there [Interviewer sighs to indicate the guilt Dr. Lee must have felt]. Anyway, it was very easy in those days to apply for refugees to resettle in Australia-much the same like in America. There was no form at all. I just wrote to the Australian embassy just saying, ‘I have a family. My family is in Namphong refugee camp. Here are their names and dates of birth (most of which I made up. I can’t remember them) and I would like to apply for them to be accepted into Australia. But at first they didn’t want to accept any refugees from Laos or Cambodia, because they said that they didn’t commit any troops there. They only accepted Vietnamese refugees. So we had to make a lot of representation to the Australian Parliament-you know, the Australian government, and in the end, for some reason-I think that a lot of people were lobbying and they could see, OK, they had to do it [accept Lao refugees]. And I’m sure there was pressure from the US government as well. ‘Cause they tend to do what the US government asks them to do.

[Interviewer and Dr. Lee engage in some small talk, interviewer apologizes for taking so much time, turns recorder off]

****Second part of interview was completed 15 May, 2006. Transcript forthcoming



Fong Her

Interviewer/Transcriber: Peter Chou Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer
*Interview in English

Can you please state your name?
Fong Her (:06 sec)

What year were you born and where were you born?
I was born in 1969 [cannot say it in English] but in Laotian it’s called *Pho Kham Houa. (:27 sec)

Growing up in Laos, what was your family’s occupation?
We were farmers. (:36 sec)

Tell me your memories of Laos. What do you remember?
I came to Thailand when I was eight or seven years old. So when I was in Laos, I was a little kid and so I had no responsibility – mostly just playing times and hunting, fishing and a lot of stuff. We were in the mountains [of northern Laos], mostly we lived in the forest and it was just all kid’s memories – fun games and stuff, but my parents were very hard-working people. (1:32)

In Laos did you experience any danger, any accidents or anything that was life-threatening?
Yes..Because we lived in the jungle we used a lot of primitive tools and sometimes those primitive tools — you have accidents with them. One time, my mom chopped one of my legs, but it was because [we] kids played [near her] and she accidentally did that. See right here [laughing and pointing to his three-inch scar]? And then, because of living in the jungle, there were a lot of diseases, also. When I was a baby, about maybe three or four years old, I got sick and my family thought that I was going to die. A lot of diseases–a lot of rare diseases also, but eventually when I grew up — those just went away. (3:05)

Were there any wild animal attacks or any thing like that–like when you see movies of tigers and leopards–anything like that?
Personally, I had never experienced it, but in our town, [the town was called *Raug Yia,– Straight Hill/Mountain] there was a man who went hunting and he was attacked by a bear. He lived long enough to come back to town, but he was very messed up. (3:51)

After Laos, when you came to Thailand, can you tell me about your experience in Thailand? What was it like? Was it different from Laos in any way?
Yes, Thailand was mostly what you call a refugee camp, so we were in a refugee camp and a whole bunch of people living in one camp. That means there’s a lot of trash, a lot of diseases, not enough food, and you are not free to wander or hunt or farm, so it’s pretty different. A very hard life, but of course I was still a kid so I didn’t have much responsibility. (4:57)

Do you remember [how] the Thai people treated you?
When we got to Thailand, the Thai people did not like foreigners; they did not like refugees. So they were beating people up [Hmong refugees] around us. The morning that we reached Thailand, we were in a big group so a lot of the people around us got robbed and beaten up. Luckily my family was not beaten or robbed. But whatever that we had, whatever money that we had, they came by and searched everything. So they got everything. We were brought into a camp, we were fed that morning and we were shifted to the refugee camp were we stayed about a year and a half. (6:10)

What [do you remember about] growing up in the refugee camp in Thailand?
Mostly just playing — when we got there — we did go to school there but most of the memories playing as a kid out in the field [speaking in Hmong about a game involving rubber bands]. We’re in Thailand, we had no source of money so the shopping things like that, it does not exist. We were able to sell chicken bones and in Thailand that’s pretty rare. One other thing is that as a kid we looked for Pepsi bottle — we don’t get a lot for those but as a kid you get a few Thai money called *Ba. You get = .not even a *Ba, it’s like a fourth of a *Ba and that’s pretty good and you could buy candy with that. Pepsi bottles were very rare, chicken bones were even rarer, so we searched for that. And another thing was the refugee camp had a center. Because we kids were not used to drink milk they forced us to drink milk before they give us candy or crackers — but we want those crackers so we had to drink milk to get it. So every time that we want cracker we had to go to that center to drink milk. (8:43)

What year did you and your family came to Thailand?
1978 (8:53)

And you stayed there for a year and a half. When you first came to the United States, how old were you?
I was about nine years old. (9:04)

Tell me about your trip from Thailand to United States. Where did you go and where did you travel to?
We came out of that refugee camp and we stayed a week at Bangkok. Coming out of the refugee camp — it’s pretty hard for the adults but for our kids it was just another trip. We went to Bangkok, we stayed there for a year and that wasn’t a camp but it was a refugee but it’s like a refugee area. Also and it’s a lot worse than the camps because you go to Bangkok, you had a little place and you stay there and there’s no food also. So we stayed there a week or two and then we finally got unto the plane to America. We came and we landed in California. Most likely, San Francisco — oh no, it’s San Francisco. We got to San Francisco — of course we don’t speak any English. My brother, my older brother speaks a little bit so he was just listening to our names (calling out their names at the airport). It was like a bad dream, right now I remember it’s like a bad dream. We got to San Francisco, it was at night. They ship us to a farm; we stayed there about a week or two. I remember when we got to the farm, we got a room for our whole family. We had nine people in our family at that time. We had a room for our whole family. There were bunk beds, we had a room for our family, we didn’t know how to sleep on the bunk beds so took the sheets (and mattresses) from the bunk beds and laid it on the floor. So we slept on the floor. I remember, we didn’t know how to use the bathroom so we had to ask for that and then they gave us apples and we didn’t know how to eat them. It was like a bad dream. Then from there, we stayed a couple weeks there and then we were shipped to St. Paul, Minnesota. (12:05)

Telling me your experience growing up in both Laos and Thailand and then the transition to the United States, especially St. Paul. Was your first experience with the snow, cold weather and the environment were there’s a lot of different ethnic groups? How did you feel about all this new strange environment?
When we were in Laos, we were in the mountains. We were free to hunt, to do whatever. We were farmers so we’re not a typical American farmer but a mountain farmer. That meant that we had to cut down a lot of the forest just to plant (slash-n-burn method) our crops. Free to hunt, to fish and to whatever- we got to Thailand, it’s a refugee camp. It was pretty restricted, you can’t go outside the camp or you get shot. When we got to St. Paul, it was May the 9th, 1980. It was still cold that year. We don’t have any coats, they passed us coats for that spring. A church sponsored us — it’s a church it’s not a family — that meant they had more funds to receive us at that time. We had a house ready to move in when we got here. We had food in the refrigerator. We had a lot of food. We never experienced that and then also, we had people — brother-in-law, aunt and uncle they were already here — so when we got to St. Paul it was a lot easier for us kids and for the adults also because a lot of people that we knew were already here. It was a church that sponsored us, not a family that meant we had everything ready when we got here. (14:50)

Do you still keep in touch with the church sponsors?
Not for the past six or seven years, but before that we did. Right now, we got to this country 1980–so 2003–that’s 23 years. So maybe…we kept in touch the first 15 years but the last six, seven or eight years we haven’t been able to get in touch with them. (15:31)

Tell me your first experience in the St. Paul public school. How did it felt to go to school for the first time?
I wasn’t that dizzy but my younger brother was puking [he couldn’t pronounced it right and Fong laughed for 3 seconds after I corrected him]. That was something because we never experienced riding the bus like that. When we got to school, of course we do not know any English so at that time I knew the words, “O.K.’ and ‘yes.’  I remember one time, I was going to the teacher and wanted to go to the bathroom. I went to the teacher and stared at him for a long time and I just ran out to the bathroom and I guessed he understood that [chuckled to himself]. We were with a lot of Hmong kids, so even though I don’t speak any English we were still comfortable at school…not that we weren’t with American kids or what they call it — the mainstream class. (16:58)

What were the elementary school, middle school and high school that you attended? What did you guys learn at this time? Where exactly in St. Paul did you stay?
When we came to St. Paul, the sponsors had bought a house [correcting himself whether the house was bought or rented] at Snelling and Hewitt. It’s on Hewitt, just two blocks west of Snelling. So we lived there. The first elementary school we went to was Highland Park Elementary. From there, I finished with ESL [English as a Second Language] there. I think it was like third or fourth grade, [he was confused] — I spent half of fourth grade at Hancock elementary and then all of fifth grade at Hancock elementary. When I came to Hancock, I was with the mainstream class which is — I’m the only Hmong because at that time, they felt [because of testing] that we were ready enough to get in those classes. And then from there, sixth grade was at Park Way Elementary. Then my junior high was at Cleveland and at that time we moved to the East Side [St. Paul] already so – Cleveland Jr. High. Then from Cleveland Jr. High to Humboldt High School. We moved to the South Side already when we were at Humboldt. I graduated from Humboldt High School. (18:44)

Tell me how your experiences with high school and with your Hmong culture influenced you in college.
Humboldt — every school was a little different, I guess Humboldt had a lot of different ethnic background in there. There’s Hmong, there’s Mexician, there’s — many different cultures in there. We participated in a lot of after-school curriculums — I participated in a lot of after-school curriculums also. In that way, you got mixed up with different kids, different background kids and — in that way it prepared you for college, where you go to a place that you have basically no friends and you have to make new friends. That helped a lot. I went down to the University of Madison, Wisconsin. At that time, as far as I know, I was the only one from St. Paul [who was] Hmong and the people that I know down there so — I had to make new friends down there. (20:26)

What motivated you to go to college? What was the primary factor in it?
It was a choice that I made long before I got to my senior year. The stories of suffering and hard work in Laos from my parents that motivated me. When we were in Laos, my parents had ten children. Three of them were married already [back in Laos and Thailand], so then we had seven kids [in their family back in Laos] — very small kids. During the war, we were going into the jungles and following people. A lot of relatives didn’t like us because we had a lot of small kids in our family. So that meant that the stories that my parents told us — the relatives didn’t like us and that we were alone now and we had to educate ourselves so they can respect us. It’s not totally like this but you get something like this to motivate you to get as high as you can [educationally]. So that – that’s pretty [strong] motivation for me and my younger brothers. (22:15)

I’m going to ask you two questions. What is your career or your occupation right now? Looking back to see where you came from, from the mountains of Laos, do you considered yourself successful in what you done with your life so far?
Right now I’m self employed as a realtor, selling houses. My wife is doing closings for all of my transactions and then we have set up a travel agency with our real estate business also.  We didn’t do this until 2001. Before that, I went to school as an electrical engineer — I worked as an electrical engineer for, I think, about five or six years. From there, I transferred a little bit into real estate and now I am a full-time realtor. I have my own real estate company now. We have about nine agents in my company, plus the closing and the travel agency — it’s pretty OK. Considering back when I talked to my parents about the hard life in Laos, the farming, the hunting, everything? They never seem to be interested in those anymore. Considering the hard life in Laos to basically live by the rules in Thailand and then to this country — from the time we were little up to now — I think that we’re doing OK. Just measuring [comparing] with other families, I think that we’re doing pretty OK. (24:27)

Are there some things about Thailand or Laos that you want to [pass on to] your children so that they’ll grow up and appreciate that they are living in a free country?where they’re not oppressed? What is the biggest thing that you want to leave behind for your children to remember about Laos and Thailand and the Hmong Culture?
Right now I have two girls; one is eleven years old, one is going to be ten in September. I’m trying to teach them the — well not teach but tell them the experience that we had in Laos. Maybe not the really hard life, but what we were like over there, so — they know where we came from and know, maybe not the whole history [but they will] have a feel of where we were. Like I always told them, “Back there, we didn’t have gifts, we didn’t have shoes, we didn’t have pants, we didn’t have toys, we didn’t have a lot of things.” So they should appreciate if they have food on the table and that’s it. (26:32)

Do you believe that certain values of the Hmong culture should be kept for the younger generations?
I’m a Christian now and [he says in Hmong that he doesn’t keep with the old traditional ways]a lot of the Hmong culture originated from the Shamans and the spiritual world so I do not think that all of the things that relate to Hmong culture should be kept, but the values should be kept and practiced. A lot of the things that we practiced originated from — what they call ‘culture’ — originated from spirits and Shamanism and what do you call? [I answered: “Ancestral worship”]Yeah something like that. So, I don’t think a lot of, as they say, culture should be kept, but I believe that the values should be there, but we should not practice a lot of that. (28:12)

One last question: What do you have to say to Hmong who, maybe ten years from now, will be listening to your recording? Is there any wise saying that you want to leave with them?
We Hmong are hard working people and we share values that – I know that we adapt to the world we live in – in the environment that we live in – very quickly. That is not always a good thing. Adapting too fast to the environment you live in is not always a good thing. Sometimes adapting too fast will get you into trouble, and I see that happening. Trying to, well remember that we are hard working people and we should value that from our parents and our grandparents. Like how Americans say, “There’s no free lunch.” so whatever you see and you want, you have to work for. [Speaking in Hmong – Like they say-] “Whatever you see, that’s what you get.” So if you want to get something, you have to work hard for it. (30:22)

OK, thank you for your time.
No problem. (30:25)


Geu Vang

Interviewer: Tou Thao (her grandson)
Translator/Transcriber: Peter (Chou) Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer

What was your life like before the war? (:10 sec)
I was married during the start of the war. I lived in *Poa-Ing. I moved to another place for about 10 years before the war started. When the war began, we heard that Kong Le was coming our way. One day, while we were steaming some rice, we saw many soldiers marching into our village. We did not know what to do, so we fed them and they went on their way. The soldiers continued into the village of *Von-Via. It took them half a day to march out of our village. When we heard that the Vietnamese were winning, we decided to run. The Vietnamese were at *Pong-Dong and they were fighting everywhere. We moved to *San-Tong, then to *Moung-Pieng, then to Long Cheng. After Long Cheng we decided to move to *Pa-Kaig and lived there for 10 years. The Vietnamese came once again and we moved to another area. It was our first glimpse of the tough Vietnamese soldiers. The Vietnamese held on strongly to the territories that they won. Once the Vietnamese won the war we moved to Thailand and lived there for three years. We didn’t live in the refugee camp, but in a Thai village called *Asolow.

Did you like living in Thailand? (3:18)
Since we were refugees of war, it took us one month and 24 days for the Thais to accept and to feed us. There were lots of Hmong where we first stayed. When we first arrived, there were 6,000 Hmong at Asolow already. We stayed in *No-Kai for a year. Some of the Hmong moved to *Na-Pong and from Na-Pong to *Vinai. We decided to sneak into Vinai, and we stayed there for another year before coming to the United States.

Where were you when you first heard about coming to the US? (4:11)
When we were in Thailand.

Can you explain about Laos, when you started to run away from the Vietnamese, how did you feel?(4:45)
The day we fled to Thailand was when the Vietnamese overran Long Cheng. We heard their military vehicles coming, so we hired some taxis to take us to Vientiane [Capital of Laos].

At that time, what did you carry with you? (5:20)
I could not carry anything with me. I carried two sets of clothes and two pots of rice. We tried to find food wherever we stopped to rest. I left everything else back at our house. I was very sad that I left everything behind. There was little food, and just the money that we had with us.

At that time, were you scared about what was going to happen to you? (6:10)
I was too worried to be scared. We just wanted to follow General Vang Pao wherever he went, because all my sons were still serving as soldiers for him. There was no warning about the fall of Laos to the Communists. All we were told was that Vang Pao left. At first there were just Hmong who tried to convince us not to go to Thailand [Hmong who though it was better to stay behind and live under Communist rule]. The Vietnamese were still scattered around. The Hmong who wanted to stay stayed, and for us who wanted to go, we went. Sometimes, if we couldn’t get any taxi then we just walked. We just wanted to follow our leader [Vang Pao].

So you had no thought of staying in Laos at that time? (7:25)
I had no feelings or thoughts of staying behind. We knew that the Vietnamese were taking over our villages and we could not go back. We traveled for one month but we could not catch up with General Vang Pao. [He had flown into Thailand already.] The Vietnamese took over the village of *Hang-Her. We walked another nine days before the road was blocked. They put a rope over the road and threatened to kill any one of us who crossed over it. Our Vang clan crossed over the rope and they started to shoot at us. There were many who were killed and there were those who survived. I was still far behind the roadblock when I heard the shooting. Someone told me that it was too dangerous to go forward, so we decided to stay back. Our father was very sick at that time, so we tried to ask for some medicines from some of the Hmong leaders who were still in charge of their villages. We stayed in Laos for another month waiting for my father to get better. It took us all day to get a taxi to take us to Vientiane. My father almost died on the way there. When we reached Vientiane, we were welcomed by my grandmother who lived there. There were many Hmong refugees in Vientiane. I bribed the Laotian boatmen 100,000 kiep to take me across the Mekong into Thailand.

Did Vietnamese soldiers harass you? (10:20)
No, actually they were scared of us also. They guarded the roads but they did not seem to care about who was staying or leaving. Some of our ex-Hmong leaders who stayed behind did not want us to leave. They told us that the country was getting better and that we should stay with them. We did not believe them. Once we were in Thailand, we filed the proper papers for us to stay, and we stayed in Thailand for two years.

How did you know that you were coming over to America? (11:45)
We did not really know. We knew that General Vang Pao was coming over, so we decided to follow him. We were given the option of staying in Laos or coming over to America. We had nothing left in Laos. We left all our villages, farms and livestock. We wanted to follow our leader wherever he went. We were allowed to come over because the men in our family served as soldiers for General Vang Pao [and the CIA].

Are you sad that there were many who could not come to America? (13:43)
Yes I was, but there was nothing I could do. I was more concerned about my family’s safety. We told people in our refugee camps in Thailand before we left. When General Vang Pao came to America, we were hopeful that he might return. Once we realized that he was not, we wanted to come and follow him. Some of our relatives were in America already and they sponsored us to come over. There were other countries that were willing to take us in. There was a building set up for those who wanted to go to France [also Australia and other countries that were allies of the US during the Vietnam War].

How do you feel about living in America? (16:32)
Since I have many sons, they were able to provide for our family and we were not worried. We are glad that here in America, although we are poor, our sons are able to provide for us. One of our sons was here in America for two years and he had a job already. He saved up about 4-5,000 dollars to support us before we arrived. I was happy that I would not die in America but have a good life. That’s why I decided to come to America.

Were there some things you needed to change or adapt to once you came to America? (17:32)
Since I was very old already, I realized that I don’t need to work or to adopt much of the American culture to survive. I will just follow my sons and daughters wherever they go.

How different are the Hmong youth growing up here compared to the Hmong youth in Thailand and Laos? (18:07)
America is a very rich country and there is less poverty. The government provides for you so that you don’t have to suffer. The children growing up here are in good shape and we are not worried. We want our family members still in Thailand and Laos to come and experience this prosperous country with us. Even though we cannot work and make money we are very glad to be here. There is more than enough to go around, even when we older folks don’t work. We are glad that we followed our leader into this country.

How do you feel about General Vang Pao? Is he a good person? (20:09)
I believe that he is a good leader who took care of us. General Vang Pao took care of us even when we were leaderless. That’s why we followed him wherever he went.

Do you have any words to say to the future generation of Hmong? (21:12)
I am very old. I am already 72 years old [in 2002]. We followed General Vang Pao here from Laos. We want everybody to love everybody else. We must learn how to love and cooperate together. This is want I want. The older ones must show respect and must love the younger ones. This must pass on from one generation down to another. When we do this, others will know that we care about one another.

Anything else would you like to say? (23:10)
No matter what, we are still Hmong. Whenever you are on a trip and see another Hmong, you become really happy. It is not so with Americans. We must all learn how to love one another. There will be more generations of Hmong; we must learn to live together until the end of time. I am old and my words may be foolish but this is all I have to say. (End 25:10)


Jim Anderson

Interviewer/Transcriber/Editor: Paul Hillmer
9 June, 2005

James Anderson is Ramsey County Department of Human Services’ Planner for Immigrants, Refugees, and the Homeless.
He spent about ten years working in Thailand in various capacities, helping Hmong and Cambodian refugees under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee.

(00:02) Could you talk about some of the experiences that led up to your decision to join the IRC, maybe a bit about what the IRC is, and what led you in that direction?
Well, I have to admit that my – the circumstances leading up to my going over there were as happenstance as they could possibly be. I had a friend who was working in Thailand who was working for the program called the JVA, the Joint Voluntary Agency, which is the – the IRC had a contract with the State Department to represent the other resettlement agencies back in the States as one of the legs of the three-legged stool that administered their refugee resettlement program in Thailand, along with the State Department?

[recorder stopped]

– and I was standing in the middle of a blizzard in Fairbanks, Alaska when I got this letter saying, “How would you like to come to Thailand?” and [chuckles] I looked at it as deliverance!

(1:14) What were you doing in Fairbanks?
I was just traveling with a friend, seeing the sights, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I had just finished a Master’s program in social work, and was still trying to figure that out when this letter arrived and the opportunity just to get out of a snowstorm in Fairbanks seemed like a good idea. I was thought I was going for six months. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing. All I knew was I was going to be working with refugees in Thailand. I was like a lot of Americans at the time. When we signed the Peace Accords in Paris in 1973 it was like, “Halleluia! It’s over! We don’t have to think about that anymore. It’s passed.” And the last thing in the world that I wanted to do was to keep alive sort of thinking about Vietnam in particular and Southeast Asia in general, and I was glad to have avoided the draft, and that was it for me. So I really hadn’t given any thought to it. I went to Thailand thinking I was – I was on a six-month contract, and I figured I could do anything for six months. And upon arrival there I went right out to the Thai-Cambodian border – this was in early October of 1980 – and I was so shocked at what had transpired, learning about all that had transpired in this region since 1973.

(3:01) What kinds of things do you remember learning?
Well, it was an incredible experience on the Thai-Cambodian border at that point because there was still this crush of new arrivals, all in very, very bad shape, fresh from the Khmer Rouge genocide, and learning about that, not knowing – realizing how completely oblivious that I had been to this incredible catastrophe that had been going on throughout the region. And then subsequently learning more about the whole – I remember seeing a Sixty Minutes report back in ’79 on the Vietnamese boat arrivals, and how serious that was, and – but again, it was sort of, “Well, that’s another place, it’s not – it doesn’ t concern me.” I was like most Americans over all of that news, getting confronted with all of it face to face, and then subsequently learning about the Hmong and the experience that they had undergone, particularly after we had signed the Peace Accords in ’73. I was absolutely blown away. It was so cataclysmic, and of such great moment. You know, six months went by and the thought of leaving then was just impossible. And so I wound up staying, and wound up staying.

(4:46) Tell me, as much as you can remember, about your first contact with Hmong people and the issues surrounding them in Laos and the challenges of bringing them into Thailand.
The first, well, the first experience was really second-hand, because a lot of the folks that were in the refugee section at the US embassy in Bangkok were folks that had been very involved with the whole ‘secret war’ in Laos, folks who had been on the ground there – folks like Mac Thompson and Jerry Daniels. So hearing about it from them, first off, and then [I] had a chance to go up with one of the JVA teams to do some interviewing, originally in Ban Vinai, and later in *Chiang Kham, and going through the interviews, and one of the – the JVA part of that whole interview, or the resettlement process, was doing the initial file preparation for all of the refugee applicants for resettlement, and a part of that was getting a bio to basically make the case for refugee status, although for the Hmong it was pretty much of a slam dunk. I mean, if the Hmong wanted to go, they got to go, but unlike most of the Southeast Asian refugee groups there, the Hmong were probably the least enthused about resettlement to the United States. Most wanted to hang in there. Most still had the dream of recapturing an independent lifestyle in the hills of Laos and didn’t want to go anywhere, and they knew that the lifestyle would be so much different in the United States than anything that they felt prepared for, and —


(7:12) So in making application, they had a lot of misgivings about coming here?
A lot of them did. A lot of folks were willing to at least go through that first stage, they felt it was probably a good idea at least to have a file, but a lot of folks, after they got approved, and the buses would arrive in camp, they simply wouldn’t show up. And so — and these were interview approvals that started back in 1978, ’79. When we were interviewing them in ’81, ’82, ’83 they were coming back and we were, “Why didn’t you go the last time when you had the opportunity?” and they’d say, “Well, we were told by our parents or grandparents back in Laos that our cousin was coming out and we needed to stay and wait for them.” Or in one amazing story that was translated to us with an absolute straight face and obviously was firmly believed, the family said, “We were ready to go, we were convinced that we were going to go, and we packed up and we were actually walking from our house down to the central collection area where the buses were, and a snake crossed the path, and it stopped in the middle of the path. We tried to shoo it away, and it wouldn’t move. So we knew then that it wasn’t just a snake. It was the spirit of our grandparents telling us that we weren’t allowed to go yet, that we had a cousin who had not yet come out, and that it was our obligation to wait for him.” So I asked them, “Well, what happens this time if a snake crosses the path?” and they said, “Well then it’s just a snake, because our cousin is already here.” [Interviewer laughs] So there were lots of reasons, but essentially, for most, either the father or grandfather was a former soldier who still felt a military obligation to be available to carry on the fight, or that they really did have this hope that there would be a regime change in Laos and it would allow them to return and re-capture what they had lost. So a lot of people weren’t just willing to go. And one of the things that constantly amazed me was we’d have these very, very bright, young interpreters, often times married with children of their own, who weren’t applying for resettlement. And I’d ask, you know, “It’s amazing to me, because it seems like you would do extraordinarily well in the United States,” and they would say, “My father or grandfather says no, we’re not going.” And there wasn’t any sense of, “I have the right to question that or respond to that in any way.” It’s simply “that’s the way it is.” And these were grown people with families of their own. The rule of the family leader was absolute. So there were lots of folks who didn’t want to go, but in collecting their stories and taking down all of these bios, and finding out more about what their involvement had been, and- some of these folks had been actively fighting since they were 12 years old, and now were grandparents – young grandparents, mind you, but grandparents nonetheless. And the thought that they had spent almost their entire life, virtually their entire – what we would consider adolescent through adulthood life, either fighting or in flight, was just mind-boggling to me – and that very rarely did I ever encounter anybody that blamed the US. Most tended to insist that they were grateful for the assistance that the US provided to them, but really what they were doing was fighting for their own cause. And what I heard from US officials in the embassy- those in the know and those who had been on the ground and those who had really been through a lot of the stuff with some of these folks, were much more adamant about the fact that the US had made a lot of assurances and a lot of promises and that we basically turned our back on them. We abandoned them and left them to a very, very cruel fate. But I rarely heard that from the Hmong themselves. That’s very interesting. And I don’t know whether that was something that they didn’t want to raise with me, an American, sort of a quasi-government official, because it wouldn’t have been polite, or it wouldn’t have been advantageous for them. I’m not sure, but I didn’t really get the sense that there was this angry feeling of betrayal, but I felt that from a lot of the American folks who had been involved in the war effort in Laos.

(13:32) You mentioned that you were hearing these stories from people who had been in the field. What kinds of things were you hearing that helped shape your understanding of what was going on in these parts of Southeast Asia that, as you said, most Americans hadn’t thought twice about?
It was most dramatic just the second day off the plane when I started talking through an interpreter with some of the Cambodian refugees and learning about what life had been like under Pol Pot, what they had lost, and then in subsequent following up, learning about the experience of the Vietnamese refugees, and the whole boat experience, and then learning about what had happened following the evacuation from Long Cheng, and how desperate people had been because reports were flying all over the place, “The Vietnamese are coming! The Vietnamese are coming! We’ve got to get out of here,” not knowing where to go, not really – most folks that I talked to didn’t say, :Well, we’re going to go to Thailand and we’re going to sit there for a while, and wait ’til we can come home.” They were just fleeing their village. That’s really all the further they were taking this, and they were going to hide out, maybe in the jungle for a while and see what would happen, and sort of just the momentum or meeting up with other groups and they sort of inexorably started heading down toward the Mekong River. So just that whole collection of experiences which were, by nationality very unique and very separate, but in sum total painted this picture of just complete human devastation. It was just – it was absolutely overwhelming.

(15:43) What kind of impact does that have on a young man who’s figuring he’s just signing up for six months?
I think – there were a lot of folks over there that came over and did these interviews and just couldn’t really handle it. And I think that – I don’t know what it was about the make-up of folks who wound up staying a long time. But I think – gaining the perspective of trying to be empathetic without sort of absorbing the experience – I mean, if you took these stories home at night and slept on them at night, you wouldn’t sleep, and they’d eventually have to get out of there. I mean, it was nightmarish. Talking to a Cambodian refugee less than a year or about a year removed from the Khmer Rouge, when everything was extremely fresh, was a pretty awesome experience, I would have to say. I think a part of it was the fact that this was the one outlet that they had. This was the one opportunity that they were being given to, one, tell their story, and two, hopefully get out of there – you know, have that opportunity to get out of there. And knowing how important that was at that particular point in time sort of, I think gave a lot of meaning to it all.

(17:39) How much information did you and your colleagues have to actually collect? Can you give me a sense of what that process was like?
Well, it really varied. We spent a lot of time, particularly in the early ’80s, in serious opposition to INS policy. The way it worked was the JVA program did the initial interviews and prepared the case files, organized the information around family trees and all of that, tried to link up with – you know, “Does this family tree match the family tree of the supposed brother who left two years ago?” or whatever. So we gathered all of that initial information. The State Department sort of oversaw and did -you know, overall policy regarding the resettlement effort and the local negotiations with the Thai government, and then INS would come in and they would make the final determination as to who was going and who was not. And unlike for the Hmong, for a lot of the Cambodian refugees and Vietnamese refugees it was very difficult. It was very difficult getting approved. The INS came in with a ‘border defense’ mentality and it was their job not to provide easy access to the United States. And the US was still trying to sort out how we were interpreting the Immigration Act of 1980, and how that affected refugee processing and all of that, and INS had a very, very strict constructionist view of their role there, and basically it was to keep the stop sign up and firmly in place. So we found ourselves pretty dramatically opposed to what INS was doing. And the more opposed that we would be, the more detail we would try to coax out of the refugees to try to build that case for refugee status that was so blatantly obvious. So we’d have to get into a fair amount of detail the further we went along in that process until things changed pretty dramatically. INS officials and Justice officials came out to view the operations along about ’82, ’83, ’84, and during that process they’d come back and they’d be pretty appalled at what their own INS officers were doing there. And they’d issue a series of guidance memos that eventually sort of brought everybody back into a more ‘team’ approach. But through those first several years, we found ourselves going into more and more and more detail. We wanted to know – and this in itself had to have been a fairly harrowing experience for the refugees themselves, having to sort of maybe re-live in too much detail what had gone on and how much they had lost. But it was the only way we were getting folks approved.

(21:25) Did your job responsibilities change over time?
Well, yeah, it changed. I went over there and I spent probably the first year as an interviewer and then I became a team leader, still doing interviews but sort of overseeing that team of interviewers that we were there for, and then by ’84 I had become the program manager for the JVA program over there, and then –

(21:57) What did that involve?
It involved spending more time than I wanted to in Bangkok and then not being attached to any particular team out in the field but going around and seeing we were operational and at any given time in six or seven different camps, so going around and spending time with each of them.

(22:23) Sort of a regional supervisor?
Yeah. And then after that I became the – IRC had the JVA program there, but they also had a very large assistance program providing all kinds of programs in the camps: sanitation, public health, education programs, etc, etc., medical programs, and I became the Thailand country director for the assistance program in ’87. That’s what I did for the last four years there. And we had a large program in Ban Vinai and *Chiang Kham and then in *Ban Napho as well – where the Hmong, after they closed down Ban Vinai, actually after I left, they closed down. Ban Vinai was the last remaining strictly Hmong camp and they moved everybody to Napho where they still had a certain residual population of lowland Lao, so?

(23:33) So, for the uninitiated, what does a refugee need, how is a refugee treated, under what conditions does a refugee live?
Well, it varies a lot, and the Thais – I can speak most directly about the Thai experience, obviously. The Thais were very clever about milking it for all it was worth, frankly. I mean they –  I want to be really fair and paint this in its truest sense, because Thailand was besieged. They were overwhelmed with refugee arrivals, and their initial reaction was the same as any country to a wave, a large wave of what they considered to be undocumented illegal immigrants – and that is, “No, you can’t come in here.” But it was also in the context of a very dicey situation for Thailand, because here the Cambodian refugees were being chased to the border literally by the Vietnamese troops, so the dreaded Vietnamese army was literally at their doorstep and there was very little doubt that if the Vietnamese had wanted to do so they could march right in to Thailand – that there was very little the Thai military could do to stop them. And so it wasn’t an ordinary refugee situation for Thailand. It was definitely a national security situation and they were able to parlay the refugee crisis into a ton of international agreements for their own national security’s sake: agreements with the United States, agreements with China. China, who was backing the Khmer Rouge, was seeking Thai access to be able to supply the Khmer Rouge, and still the primary fighting force, as a guerilla force against the Vietnamese and using Thai access to the Khmer Rouge at the border to be able to supply them and keep them supplied – so Thailand very adroitly sort of maneuvered all of this. There were also a lot of reports — cause in the mid- to late ’70s Thailand had a fairly serious, significant communist insurgency of its own to deal with that was supported by China, and it was reported by Nayan Chanda from the Far East Economic News that part of the agreement was that China could use Thailand to keep the Khmer Rouge a strong fighting force in return for withdrawing assistance for the Thai communist insurgency, which literally vanished overnight. So Thailand managed things pretty well, but in order to do that, they had to agree to provide some asylum, which they continued to do reluctantly, and keeping conditions as semi-difficult as they possibly could. They were certainly adamant about the fact that they didn’t want any refugee competition economically in the local regions. That had its own bad, negative side effects because –

(27:47) What do you mean by ‘refugee economic competition’?
They didn’t want refugees being able to go out and set up businesses or even to compete for jobs out in the countryside. So basically they set up concentration camps and kept people penned in as best they could. And that had its own drawbacks, because the locals would see truck after truck of supplies and all of this food coming in and, “Hey! Nobody’s bringing me any food!” So there really wasn’t anything that the Thais could do to sort of be perfectly delightful for their own citizens over this whole arrangement, but they would work things out so that they got enough international aid and enough international assistance that they could keep things going. But in the meanwhile there was – it wasn’t a static population, it was a – I mean, there was a steady influx, and Thailand periodically would announce that, “All right, that’s it! We’re closing the border! Nobody else is getting in”, [etc.]. With the Cambodian situation on the border it was particularly intense, because the one main large Cambodian refugee camp was only about ten kilometers removed from the border where there were anywhere from 400-800,000 Cambodians who weren’t allowed in, but were sort of captive of the – of various political factions along the Thai-Cambodian border.

(29:40) I assume there was a significant amount of exploitation of these refugees once they crossed the river.
Oh yeah. Absolutely. And for the Hmong, the Thais always saw the–you know, “The US is willing to take them, why don’t they just go?” And so the Thais were constantly issuing announcements saying, “This is your last chance. We’re going to let the US Embassy come up here and they’re going to interview you for resettlement. If you don’t take it this time, this is your last chance. We’re not giving you another chance.”  And the Hmong, for their own reasons, would take that with a grain of salt, and then six months later they would get their next “last” warning. [Both chuckle]  And that went on every year, at least a couple of times a year they’d get a last warning, to the point where they absolutely stopped believing it entirely. And so when the Thais, in the early ’90s finally moved to actually start closing camps, they didn’t believe it then, either, until it was too late.

(30:52) But getting back to this idea of what the refugee camp experience was like?
Yeah. It was probably the most boring existence you can possibly imagine, because they weren’t allowed to do anything. There were folks, particularly young folks, would clamor to come and work for the agencies that were setting up programs in the camp and they’d learn skills and there were a lot of folks that would enroll in both child and adult education programs in the camps, but there wasn’t anything to do. It was just – it was enforced idleness. It was so unnatural. It was painful to hear kids talk about, “Yeah, I know where rice comes from. It comes from the back of the UN truck.” And that’s what they were growing up in. Kids growing up and spending fifteen years and never seeing dad or mom work – not a normal, healthy situation whatsoever. It was amazing to me that there weren’t more problems in the camp, because – you know, just sort of interfamilial conflicts, because, you know, there’s so much time on your hands. It was just -I was struck when we went to *Wat Tham Krabok, which was a very, very different situation entirely, because it was basically a free-standing village and everybody had to work. They weren’t being provided any services or anything,period – and everybody talked about – particularly up until a couple years ago when the Thai military moved to consolidate control over the camp, that it was far, far preferable. I mean it was a real life, and they liked it there, as opposed to the refugee camps, which almost universally they talked about hating. They’d have to troop down once or twice a week to get their rice supply off the back of the trucks and drag it home. That was one of the more exciting points of the week. And you’d see, you know, you’d see kids running around playing everywhere, but there was just this look of depression upon all of the adults. They’d just sit there and – there’s nothing to do, and I’m sure they were just bored out of their minds. And there wasn’t any way to relieve that, which is perhaps why the birth rate remained so high in the camp. [Chuckles] So not a pleasant experience at all. They had basic amenities. I mean, nobody was starving to death, everybody had housing, everybody had access to medical care – so everything was being provided, but it was just a totally empty experience.

(34:31) Like standing in line for five, ten, fifteen years.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And there was this feeling, even amongst folks who really didn’t want to go, there was this sense that it was available to them, so that if they ever decided to resettle to the United States that it was available. The United States sort of represented – not as satisfactory as the idea of going home to Laos, but it sort of represented in a lot of people’s minds, I think, this golden panacea, that everything will be OK. If we resettle to the United States, if we decide that we have to do that, then our problems will be over, because America is such a rich country. And so, I think that helped people deal with the sense of trauma and loss that they were going through in the refugee camps, that they could put it off because they saw – either way, if they had the opportunity to return to Laos, Plan A, that would be great. If they were forced into resettlement to the US, that would be OK too, and so they said, internally, I think, they were able to justify this putting off the shock of their own experience. And then having the opportunity of coming here and working in refugee programs here and seeing, I think, the mental health problems for refugees in the first couple of years here is extraordinary because all of a sudden they realize, one, just how overwhelmingly difficult it is to adjust to life here, and two, all that stuff that they had been able to sort of allay for so long in the camps came rushing back. I think that sort of double whammy was sort of overwhelming. But I think that overall, my experience coming out of working in the refugee camps was – it was an experience that I don’t think anybody over the age of three found in any way defensible.  It was a bad, horrible, foreign, eternal kind of existence.

[End Side A]

(0:00) Did you get to know any Hmong people or Hmong families to the point where you felt that you gained more insight into Hmong culture or the Hmong situation?
Yeah, there were several families in Ban Vinai that I got to know pretty well working there. They were families of the interpreters I worked with. And they really went out of their way to talk to me about life in Laos, and what it was like, to explain their culture and show me hospitality. And what stood out for me was how endlessly awkward I felt, because they would really delight in inviting me to their house for supper, and they would always put on a splendid feast – and I always knew that this was the equivalent of about a week’s worth of rations. But they insisted on doing it. And this was an experience that was pretty common for a lot of us, that the less you have, the more you were willing to give. And it always felt very uncomfortable. There didn’t seem to be any way to repay that. It seemed to be very one-sided – that I was learning a lot, that they were sharing a lot with me, and I just didn’t know what I had to share with them. But nevertheless, I really appreciated how they were willing to take me under their wing. They really-I don’t think there was anything in it for them. They didn’t want anything from me. They just were incredibly warm, generous- I had the same experience in Cambodian and Vietnamese camps as well. I think that it was a fantastic lesson for me in how much they valued just human interaction in a way that, I think in some cases, that our fast-paced world has lost. So what I learned about the Hmong culture I learned kind of like from about three or four specific families who were really very open and willing to share.

(3:18) How did your perspective change as your job descriptions changed and you sort of took on more responsibility in this area?
Well, overall I would say that it was hard not to become pretty cynical about the whole process. [I] realized that ostensibly the whole refugee program is a humanitarian response, but that it’s really primarily a political response, and that it’s very much parceled out based on political interests. I developed some friendships later on with folks who had been working in Central America in particular, and we realized that the experience there was very, very different from what we were experiencing there. And we really felt a sense of-by and large, we sensed a sense of common mission with a lot of the embassy folks in Bangkok, [who] were very interested in the whole refugee situation and realized that such was not the case for countries that we were less inclined to be of assistance to, particularly countries like Nicaragua, that we were much more likely to welcome refugees from Nicaragua than we were for refugees from El Salavador and Guatemala, whose regimes were every bit as hostile and brutal to their own citizens, but they just happened to be on our side, and therefore their people who were escaping couldn’t possibly be refugees. So as I became more aware of how these things varied across the board, it was also – and the thing that still just amazes me is that we were almost totally silent on the fact that there were, at any given time, several hundred thousand people who continued to be basically prisoners of the Khmer Rouge along the Thai-Cambodian border, and the US was completely unwilling to raise a voice of any kind about that situation, simply because the Khmer Rouge were absolutely needed in order to keep the pressure on the Vietnamese in Cambodia- to the extent that when somebody would flee from the Khmer Rouge-dominated camps along the border, the US would tacitly approve of them being rounded up and sent back. So the broader my perspective got, the more cynical it all appeared for me.

(6:48) Did you have any contact with people from the Chao Fa movement?
A little bit. They would come into Ban Vinai periodically – [they] tended not to, obviously, come down and mix it up the US government folks at all – I mean, we were sort of all seen, whether we worked for voluntary agencies or the government, we were all sort of seen as this collective – we were all American people, you know. And they knew that their presence in Ban Vinai and *Chiang Kham and in other camps was very controversial for the Thais – the Thais didn’t want to acknowledge that at all. So they tended to stay away from us, but, you know, we’d constantly get reports from others, “Yeah, they’re in here and they’re talking and trying to recruit and talk to folks about going back in. They’re getting supplies, they’re just having R & R,” whatever.

(7:56) Did you have a significant number of people who actually left the camps and returned to Laos?
Not a significant number, no. It wasn’t so significant that, at any time there was a noticeable drop in the number of folks in the camp. I mean, there would be people leaving, but we would have no way of identifying them, because none of the programs that were being offered were in any way mandatory, and so there wasn’t any attempt to sort of do a roll call.

(8:34) Now let’s make sure I have this right: the refugee crosses the river and makes it to the refugee camp how?
Generally there were guides who would pick folks up on the Laos side of the border and take them across the river and then bring them into the camp. And there were lots of reports that some of the guides were very trustworthy and some were very not trustworthy. They had no intention of delivering folks to the camps; they would just take them half-way across the river and dump the boats after they got paid and, you know, whatever – or they’d bring them across and turn them in to Thai authorities. So it was always real dicey for folks, as they were crossing the river, whether they were actually going to get into the camp or not.

(9:44) So then they get into the camp and, I assume, through some process, you or one of your colleagues are notified that you need to come in and process this bio?
Well, the first thing they do is they go to get registered with the UN. I mean, they’d have to do that to have any kind of legal status in the camp. And once they got in and got registered with the UN, then the UN would regularly send us copies of the registration so that we’d know who was there. This is when we were still -we’re talking about the resettlement program now. And then we’d put ’em on lists and call them in.

(10:28) What do you think kept you there for ten years? As you said, that’s certainly not what you expected to begin with.
Yeah. Well, one, I loved Thailand. I loved the tropics and – it was a beautiful place to be, and it had – the beaches were great. I would say that it was-I mean, it was the most meaningful work that I’d ever done. It was interesting, it was exciting, it – you know, I had a sense that there was real purpose to what we were doing–and knowing that that doesn’t always happen– [Chuckles] So I think all of those factors combined, and then, you know, I met my wife over there?

Oh really?
Yeah. And we got married over there and had two children over there, and I don’t know how long we would have stayed there. We loved it right up until the end, but the last four years we lived in Bangkok and I would probably spend at least 60% of my time in Bangkok, and Bangkok’s a tough place to live.  I mean, there’s an 18-hour traffic [jam]. There was no freeway system – now there’s a – it’s quite amazing to go back now, because things have really changed a lot. You can actually get around in the city now. But there was an 18-hour traffic jam, the air quality was horrible-it just sort of weighs you down after a while. And so that’s really why we left; we just got tired of Bangkok.

(12:27) Sorry, I need to back-track again a little bit. When you were serving these refugee camps, where were you physically stationed? Do you live right outside the camp?
Yeah, usually in the closest accessible town. The IRC would either rent-depending on the size of the team, we’d either rent hotel rooms or we’d rent houses and live there. And sometimes the team would be in place-well, obviously on the assistance side it would be a permanent sort of set-up. Most of the folks we hired on, expatriate folks, we’d hire on for year contracts, and Thais were there much longer-term. But with the resettlement program the teams would be in place anywhere from a two-week stretch to a six-month stretch, and sometimes longer. And  when we started processing in *Khao-I-Dang [a Khmer refugee camp in Thailand] we were there a long time. Ban Vinai was pretty much-probably eight months out of the year we had a team out there.

(13:47) How much training did you receive when you first got started?
When I first got started not a whole lot, not a whole lot-because they were still making it up as we went along. We were still trying to figure out what information was needed and how this was all going to shake out. We eventually started working on an orientation manual. People would actually go through a couple weeks of orientation when they first arrived, but that came later.

(14:21) So then when you were a program manager, where were you stationed and how would you go about supervising the people under you?
Well, actually stationed in Bangkok, but at that point I was still probably out country at least 80% of the time, going from camp to camp.  I had a motorcycle I used to drive around. It was great.

(14:47) Who is your wife? How did you meet?
My wife is Liz Walker, and she actually came to work at JVA. Her sister Susan was the first Thailand director for the American Refugee Committee when they were setting up their program. Her other sister Pat was in medical school and went over as part of ARC’s first medical team that went over there. [The whole family lived in Thailand and Laos throughout the wars].

(15:21) And I suppose we should mention who their father was.
And their father was Fred Walker, who was chief pilot for Air America in Vientiane for a number of years, right up until the end. And so Liz came to work for JVA while I was there and actually -very politically incorrect – I was her boss at the time. [Both laugh] And we hit it off.

(15:52)  Is there anything in particular that you think the average uninformed American should know about the Hmong, about the refugee camps, and why they were told, as you say, that if they wanted to come to America, they could come?
In 1954, one of the provisions of the Geneva Conference that divided Vietnam into North and South was that the countries of the region should be basically allowed to determine their own fate, and that foreign troops were not allowed in. But with the collapse of the French colonial period that sort of brought on this political vacuum crisis that spurred the creation of the Geneva Conference to sort all this out -I mean, here we were, we were five years removed from China going communist, we were fresh on the heels of the stalemate in Korea, we were terrified, basically, that the whole Southeast Asian region, which certainly would have included Thailand in our calculations at that point, was about to topple into communism. So we weren’t about to sort of leave the arena. We were also very wary of what it would mean if we were to directly violate the terms of the Geneva Conference by sending in troops. And Laos was really a major focus at the outset. And we wanted to -it was a major focus for basically both sides of the struggle. And we wanted to ensure that our interests there were protected. And the Hmong became our guys. They had already been working with the French, and we knew enough to know that these guys were really good. You know, they were really good at what they did. They were great soldiers, they were easily trained, they were willing, and we really looked to them to sort of spearhead this effort, to not only maintain a constant interdiction effort on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but also to try to preserve a pro-Western Laos as well. And so we were sort of cast in the role of overseers, payers, recruiters, trainers, suppliers, but they were the guys doing the fighting. And it took an incredible toll on their people, and that’s why – I talked to folks and they’d been fighting since they were twelve years old. It didn’t necessarily start out that way, but that’s quickly how it evolved. I mean, if they were going to keep up the numbers required to maintain the struggle, that’s what they had to do, and they were willing to do that. They thought they were riding a good horse in the US. They thought that if the US says they’re going to back us and they’re going to support us and they’re never going to abandon us, that’s a pretty good bet. So they believed in what they were fighting for, but they also believed in the US and the US, I don’t think, ever ignored an opportunity to remind them that we were with them all the way. I mean, the reports are that the Hmong lost or – were either missing or killed in action – ten per cent of their population. So, if we’d have lost the equivalent it would be twenty million instead of 55,000. So they suffered grievously. Going around *Wat Tham Krabok 25 years after the fact, [there were] still lots of folks with old war injuries -guys were missing limbs and -devastating, absolutely devastating. I virtually never talked to a family that didn’t lose somebody. And it was particularly acute –  I think they felt that they were fighting for something up until 1973. And then when we turned our backs and walked away and basically left them pretty defenseless, they really, really got hammered, and especially, I think, when their own leadership flew out of Long Cheng, it was like, “We’re on our own.” So to say that we owe the Hmong a great deal is a gross understatement. When I – you know, I talked to so many former servicemen men over there, former pilots who were rescued or knew other pilots who had been rescued, or people who had been brought out of Laos by the Hmong-incredible bravery going way behind enemy lines and risking their lives, their whole battalion’s lives to rescue downed American pilots. What they were willing to do for us was absolutely beyond belief. The fact that we didn’t win the war effort does not diminish in any way our responsibility for that whole group of people that we kept on the line for an awful long time. And, of course, I didn’t know any of this before going over there. It just sort of revealed itself in layers, year after year, as I was over there. But the thing that we didn’t know, the thing that-you know, all through the resettlement years what we didn’t how was just how amazingly resilient this group of people is-that their capacity to absorb American culture and master it and do well in it is beyond belief. When you spent time in a refugee camp with them and, for those who spent time with them in a more natural setting in Laos, the lifestyle and existence couldn’t be further removed from our own here, and how they’ve been able to master that change is absolutely a miracle.

(24:38) What did you do when you left Thailand?
Initially went to Chicago. My wife had gotten a job as part of the first Asylum Corps with the INS. They set up a special Asylum Office because the number of asylum requests had gotten way beyond what the normal INS offices could handle, so they set up a special Asylum Corps, and they specifically had recruited from the old resettlement program, not just in Thailand, but elsewhere. So my wife got a job there, and we spent about a year in Chicago and realized that’s not where we wanted to be – my wife is from here, and so when she got a job up here we moved up here, and it was quite miraculous that as we were moving up here Ramsey County was announcing their interest in hiring a refugee and immigrant planner.  So I was very fortunate.

(25:49)  So I imagine that you worked with a broad continuum of refugees.
Right. What was so great is that it really sort of helped complete the circle for me, because I had this overseas experience with the Southeast Asian refugees, but I only knew anecdotally what life was like on this side, and so being able to see more up close the struggles that people were going through, the successes and difficulties that people were having here, sort of helped put it all in perspective.

(26:35) I imagine you’ve worked with a significant number of Hmong refugees, immigrants. How would you describe that work and some of the issues that you and the people you’ve worked with have had to face?
Well, I think overwhelmingly the concern has always been-well, twofold, really. One is for that group of folks who were adults when they arrived-have really had a very difficult time here. I mean, it’s been very, very hard and I think increasingly so as time went on, because it became easier and easier to sort of settle into a Hmong enclave in St. Paul, and the sense of urgency about learning English and moving into our culture more, reduced for folks, because, you know, for those folks who were 25 years of age or older, who had never been to school, who knew not a single word of English when they arrived, it’s hard to imagine just how difficult it was for them. So the big concern for the Hmong families and the Hmong community agencies trying to work with the Hmong refugees has largely been around that adult population when they arrived, and now the rapidly aging population, many of whom still have never made that acculturation, who still feel as foreign here as they did the first day they got off the plane. And that’s terrifically sad. The other group of folks, really-I think that because, for a lot of the Hmong parents, their decision to come to the United States, whether reluctant or enthusiastic, was, for many if them, at least, was an admission that, essentially their life was no longer the focus, that everything now was being officially transferred to their children. And that put a lot of pressure on those kids, a lot of pressure to-you’ve got to do well. If your American classmate is spending an hour a night on homework, you have to spend three hours a night on homework. You have to observe Hmong rules in-heaven forbid-dating and, you know, socializing in general. You’re not to become too American, although you have to learn English right away and you have to learn all about this culture but you have to stay Hmong. A lot of pressure, tremendous amount of pressure that kids went under, and what is so amazing is how many kids responded so wonderfully and successfully to that kind of pressure. But for a lot of kids it was really more than they could handle, and so you saw kids dropping out, a lot of, sort of the first intergenerational conflict, as far as I know, in Hmong history [Chuckles]-that suddenly there’s this huge gap between parents and their kids. And the parents no longer start-you know, they don’t understand these kids, and these are the first kids going through adolescence. And just how difficult that was for both sides of that generational gap-and some kids wound up either directly and defiantly disobeying and sort of forcing the hand of their parents who said, “We have no choice but to kick you out,” or the kids themselves chose to leave. And so that also has been very tragic-I think tragic on all kinds of levels. These kids who are getting kicked out of their Hmong families because they’re too American, but not really being American enough to really fit in, and so sort of being stuck somewhere in the middle and being really lost and isolated. And no wonder there’s an allure of joining some compatriots in a gang, because it’s the only sense of family or belonging or understanding that you can find. So there’s been that, that’s been real difficult and real tragic for a lot of Hmong families. But I still think the overwhelming sense is that – just how miraculous it is that so many have done so well, and how justifiably proud they are that they’ve been able to do that, after what they’ve gone through, [to] come out the other side. So I would say both sides, you know, the elders and the youth are particularly vulnerable groups in this first, second and third generation of Hmong in the United States. As the older generation, as those adults pass on, and all of the Hmong will either have been born here or essentially raised here, I don’t think we’re going to see any different kinds of issues than we see with any other family in St. Paul. What makes this group still very unique is this bedrock of very knowledgeable folks about the old ways, and it’s sad to think of that passing, although I think there’s still sufficient interest amongst enough people that it won’t pass easily. But over the course of the next 20 years, the Hmong culture of St. Paul will have suffered some really grievous losses, I’m sure.

(34:10) I know we’re running short on time, but let’s talk about this trip you took back to Thailand with Mayor Kelly’s delegation and what that was like for you.
The first thing is what a great shock it was to everyone, I think here and there, that this was actually happening. Suddenly there was this announcement after years and years of-you know, there wasn’t any talk of it-there wasn’t any serious talk of it. There was some advocacy about-you know, “Gee, the US really needs to do something about this population,” but there really wasn’t anything seriously being discussed that we were aware of at all about resettlement. So all of a sudden it dropped on us like a bombshell. One of the things that became quickly apparent-it was obvious that we were going to get a significant portion of the folks from *Wat Tham Krabok here. It was equally obvious that there wasn’t anybody who could really tell us much about that population, who they were and what that camp looked like and what the experience of the folks had been there. Even relatives who had made trips over there to see their family members had a fairly narrow view of what life was like there. And we talked to a bunch of folks that had been over there and at least gotsome information, but really had a hard time getting a handle on it-certainly didn’t know anything about demographics.  Normally in a refugee situation [it’s the] easiest thing in the world. You can go on any web site for any of the non-governmental organizations working in a refugee camp or the UN or the International Committee for the Red Cross and find out all you want to know about the people who are living there, demographics-wise, at least. You can find out educational level, you can find out sort of what life is like there. We didn’t have any access to information. The US embassy really didn’t know much about this population at all. They hadn’t spent any time there at all. The Thai government really-they didn’t know a whole lot and weren’t particularly interested, other than the fact that they wanted to see them gone. So there wasn’t anybody to turn to; there were no organizations that were there providing services, so we really quickly came to the conclusion that, gee, it would certainly be helpful if we could have a group of folks go over there and actually talk to people and find out-the one thing that we knew was that these folks were undoubtedly going to be very vulnerable, because if they were victims of crime, who would they to turn to? The Thai police weren’t going to be very helpful,we knew that. So, I mean, what sort of existence did they have? There were numerous reports that *Wat Tham Krabok was being used as a sort of major drug-running center, that drugs were coming in there and that some of the Hmong refugees were being forced because of their vulnerability into being pack mules for drugs coming in from Burma. But we didn’t know anything, whether there was any truth to that or not, who knows? We didn’t know if people were getting access to schools, we didn’t know what kind of medical care was available, so fortunately the mayor agreed and jumped on the bandwagon and raised the money to get a delegation sent over there. I think it was a real smart move. The first thing we noticed when we went in there was how overwhelmingly young the whole camp was. There were kidseverywhere. And it turned out that in the population that was registered, 52% were under the age of 16; over 60% were under the age of 18, and that, by and large, as one would expect, they hadn’t been studying English, they had been studying Thai. It was a more literate group than we saw in the refugee camps, but it wasn’t English literacy, it was Thai literacy. They really saw that their future and their children’s future was probably in Thailand. Kids, by and large-some kids had access to school. In the local Thai public school in the neighboring village, there were 1600 kids in that public Thai school; all but 50 of them were Hmong. There were 50 local Thai kids in this school. All the instruction, of course, was in Thai. The teachers commented to us-the teachers from the local Thai school commented to us, they said, “You know, we don’t necessarily like to admit this, but the Hmong kids are far brighter than our own, [both chuckle] and they’re going to do very well in the United States because they are very, very sharp.” We’re hearing the same thing now from the St. Paul school folks, so? But it cost money to get the kids into the local Thai school. They had opened up a camp school as well, but it also cost some money for folks there, and except for a handful of families who were better off than most in the camp, very few families were able to send all their kids to school, so there were choices to be made, and usually it was the boys and maybe the girls for a year or two, but that was that. So the boys generally had more education than the girls, and a lot of kids still weren’t getting access to education at all. It was only when they announced resettlement plans that all of a sudden English classes started popping up in camp but the people who were teaching English really didn’t speak English, they were-you know “there’s an opportunity here!” There was like one English textbook available for folks. I mean, it was–the other thing was, it was real life. People kept telling us, “Yeah, until they put up this barbed wire.” I guess this was in 2003-2002 or 2003, the Thai military moved in when the monk died and put concertina wire all around the village and made it look more like a refugee camp and started controlling access in and out of the camp, and that was the lifeblood for folks, because there were a few businesses set up in the village (***) and they had a pretty flourishing market going on, but most people, in order to earn a wage had to go out of the camp to work, you know, out in the local fields, the rock quarry, construction projects, or whatever. And so having more difficulty being able to do that was pretty dire for folks, because, again, there was nothing being provided. They had to buy their cooking wood, their water, their food, their clothing, their building materials-everything. And if-you wonder why families had lots of kids, but if you had enough people going out to work, you could do OK. But they’d get up, they’d get picked up in the camp at 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning, and taken off to who knows where to work all day long, and return to camp around 5:00, and for that amount of time, they could make about $2.50. That’s roughly half or a little less than half of the going Thai labor rate. But again, if you had enough folks, you could live fairly well. You could afford luxuries like – luxury living was having a cement floor instead of a dirt floor, having actual cinder blocks instead of scrap wood or metal as your walls. Some people even had electricity, refrigerators. We saw cell phones, we saw-some people had laptop computers. These were things you’d never see in a refugee camp! [Chuckles] And a couple of folks had vehicles. Amazing! I’d never thought of it, you know? That was something that just struck me as just wild! So there was a real-whereas in the refugee camps it was sort of a very leveling experience, it sort of-everybody had nothing, you know? So everybody was poor, but all of the basic needs were covered. Here it was completely different. There were gradations in lifestyle, and some were relatively well off, some were-the slippery slope was that if you got sick or if you ran afoul of the Thai authorities and couldn’t get out of the camp to work, then things would start dovetailing downhill very fast. Because usually what would happen was, the first thing you’d have to stop buying was your cooking wood, and then you couldn’t boil your water, and you’d start getting chronically ill, and then less and less able, as you went along, to work. And it was only because of the incredible Hmong cooperative spirit that people like that were able to survive at all. Neighbors would take care of those who couldn’t – ’cause nobody else was going to. But we saw people who were desperately ill in the camp, with late stage cancer or whatever, and it was just a pretty miserable experience, to be there, being really, really sick, and being totally dependent on your neighbors who probably weren’t very wealthy themselves, and knowing it. But access to medicine and stuff–there was a Thai public health clinic that had gotten set up-a couple of years earlier there had been a chicken pox epidemic in a local Thai village and the Thais raised a cry of alarm, so the [government] sent in a public health clinic. But it wasn’t what we think of as a public health clinic. They opened up an office that had a couple rows of some medicine, and people could come in, [but] they’d have to pay more than they could afford. There wasn’t anybody actually going out in the camps to actually see if people were sick. There wasn’t any public health outreach of the kind that we think of. So, in spite of all of that, people greatly preferred *Wat Tham Krabok to any refugee camp that they’d ever lived in. And people were scared to death, because now that resettlement had raised its ugly head–

[Tape ran out]

(00:19) People were terrified of the whole resettlement issue, because they didn’t know what this was going to mean, they didn’t know who was going to be accepted and who was going to be declined.. They were frightened. They came up to us and [said], “My uncle has got a bad arm from the war. Is that going to keep him from being accepted to the US?” And they were really frightened. There was also a relatively small group of old soldiers who still said, “I’m not going.” But for the first time we were seeing wives and grown children who were saying, “OK, that’s fine, but I’m going.” Some of the old soldiers were-talked to a couple of our Hmong delegates about being physically very frightened, because there was a lot of bitterness in the camp that the decisions that they had made ten years ago, twelve, fifteen years ago had resulted in sort of the loss of those years. [They were] just biding their time and treading water and now they were going to the United States anyway when they could have been done with school, they could have been in good jobs, but now here they’re starting over again. “I’m 25 and it’s too late for me, and I’m resentful as hell about this,” and actually some of the old soldiers were saying they were feeling really intimidated by some of the younger folks in the camp-very new, novel kind of experience, but probably, I guess not totally to be unexpected. There was a noticeable lack-I didn’t get the sense of a great feeling of joy that, you know, we have this chance again, this last chance to go to the United States. I think people-the way people were reacting was just by being overwhelmingly nervous about all of this! [Anxious moan] “What if we don’t get to go now? What if we get left behind?” Also, there was-tragically-because the Thais announced in April of 2003 that they were going to do this registration for everybody in the camp without any link to resettlement, so a lot of people were very skeptical about what this meant. You know, “Now what are the Thais going to do to us?” And a lot of people either left the camp at that point or refused to come forward to register, and then when the announcement was made they were no longer eligible for resettlement. So there was lots of split families. And people were terrified about what this meant for so-and-so, this relative or that relative who wasn’t registered, and “Oh! What’s going to happen?” “They’re living with me, why can’t they go?” Of course, we’d have no answer for that. So the whole sense was one of tremendous anxiety, not a sense of joy about this opportunity. And that was troubling, to say the least. And in the back of all of this was the fact that we knew that people were going to find it very, very difficult here, that there was going to be a tremendous reliance on their relatives here in St. Paul, some of whom were not in a position to be able to help out much; that there was no housing subsidies or public housing available for these folks, and how in the world are they going to make do on market-rate rents? All of this has been extremely difficult for these folks. It’s ironic that when the first wave of refugees came, there was relatively generous support for folks. There was no Hmong or linguistic or infrastructure available in the community for assistance, but there was at least some material support to help people. At least there was public housing available. Now there’s this tremendous Hmong infrastructure in St. Paul-you know, you can’t go into any business or service anymore without seeing Hmong faces and hearing Hmong voices. So there’s that, but there’s very little in the way of practical support for folks. And that’s going to continue to be a big issue and a big concern for folks. There are Hmong families who either have or are expecting to receive in some cases five, seven, eight different relative groupings coming over. In some cases-I know one fellow who’s got 100 relatives coming. And he’s expected to be able to help them. Well, obviously parceled out, that’s going to be very little help. So that’s going to continue to be a big problem. I have a lot of resentment about the whole US government policy towards resettlement. If we want to sort of continue this myth that this is primarily a humanitarian response, and if the US has a ceiling of 50,000 refugees that it’s allowing into the country, this is not an overwhelming burden for the federal government. Fifty thousand refugees! And why the federal government can’t step up to the plate and ensure that the basic needs of folks, which has to include housing, are being met-it’s beyond belief to me! What happens inevitably-and we saw this as soon as Mayor Kelly made his announcement that this delegation was going to go over there, and there was certainly a lot of suspicion that we were going over on a recruiting trip-that we were going to be, you know, pleading with the Hmong, “Please come to St. Paul! We’re the best!” blah, blah, blah. Obviously that was not the attempt, but the whole notion was, “Who’s going to pay for this?” Well, the federal government is insuring, unfortunately, that an undue part of the burden does fall on local communities, and it just oughtn’t be that way. It raises hostility, it raises resentment, and it completely detracts from the humanitarian nature of the enterprise. It’s frustrating and it’s galling that we’re penny-anteing refugee resettlement like this. It just oughtn’t be this way, that we can just bring people in and just sort of cast them to the fates with nowhere near enough support to provide for basic infrastructure, food, clothing, housing, is just unconscionable to me,. It really gets my goat. It’s just totally unnecessary.

Kao Kalia Yang

Interviewer/Transcriber/Editor – Paul Hillmer
18 January, 2008 – Center for Hmong Studies, St. Paul , MN



Kao Kalia Yang was born in Ban Vinai refugee camp and came with her family to Minnesota in July 1987, when she was six years old. Attending school in St. Paul and graduating from Harding High School, Yang was accepted at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, and went on to earn an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia University. In 2008 Coffee House Press published her memoir, The Latehomecomer, which tells the story of her family in Laos , the refugee camps of Thailand , and their new life in Minnesota . Central to this story is Yang’s grandmother, who embodies the way of life her family left behind and the culture and identity to which they all hold. Along with her mother and her sister Der, Ms. Yang established Words Wanted, a business designed to help immigrants with writing, translating, and business services.


(0:03) We’ll start with the obvious stuff: your name, please.
My name is Kao Kalia Yang.

And you were born when?
December 17, 1980—although officially I’m December 15, 1980.

How close do you think that is to your actual birthday?
My mom says it’s definitely the 17th, and my dad says, ‘I forgot, and so it was two days off when it came time to do the papers!’ [Both laugh] So for the most part, the 17th works.


Where were you born?
I was born in Ban Vinai refugee camp.

(0:34) And what are your earliest memories of life in that camp?
My earliest memories of life in that camp…

Yes, and obviously there are many aspects to your life in the camp, but just anything—I always just like to start with those things that are just sort of shadowy in the past—
Shadowy in the past…

—that still sort of—
I remember pink grass.

Pink grass!
Pink grass during the dry season when the hills all dried up. They were these tall stalks, and they would turn pink, because they had these fuzzy little feather-like tops. They would wave in the wind. I remember that. I remember looking up—because we lived in a compound with really tall trees, so I remember those trees had these cherries—small. You could try to eat them, they were a little sweet, but they were really nothing. I remember the dogs, the hungry dogs were always running around, and I was scared of them. I remember the adults, everybody [Pauses] I remember only my grandma had keys—nobody else had keys in the compound. And I always thought, ‘What does she have to lock in this place? I remember flip-flops—lots of flip-flops, lots of dust, lots of—lots of sky. I remember sky and I remember heat, and I remember sweat. I remember my hairs sticking to the back of my neck. I had really short, fine brown hair. And I remember being held always. You know, my hand was always held. I don’t remember it being free in that place. But I don’t remember wanting it to be free, which is rare for children, ‘cause you want to be free and you want to grow up, but I remember being always taken care of in this place. I remember death, lots of dying, lots of crying, lots of drums beating and my heart—you know, the minute I would hear the drums beating, immediately the pacing of my heart would match. I don’t know how that works. It’s like the internal cell or something that I program into my system, but I remember that. I remember [Pauses] my mom’s miscarriages, I remember my dad looking handsome in this place. I remember [Pauses] I remember having young parents, which is strange. I don’t remember—I remember bathing. I love water, so all the memories of water—this little open canal that I thought was a river for the longest time, and then I found out that it was just outdoor sewage. [Both laugh] In my head, I swear it was a river, especially after the rains. People went looking for tadpoles in that river, but for me, I thought there could be dragons there, so maybe the tadpoles were deceptive, so… I remember these things like images, with sounds. Kind of nice.

(3:13) It seems to me, between watching your film and reading the manuscript for your book, that Ban Vinai is—I don’t think there’s any ‘seems to me’ about it, it’s true that Ban Vinai is a very special place in your memory and that it represents many different things for you: things about your family, about your way of life. How would you—and this could be a whole discussion, I’m sure—

How would you begin to help someone like me and other people who might read this later understand the importance of Ban Vinai in your memory and your sense of who you are?
When I think about it, homes—when we think about homes, especially in this country, I remember being here and reading books and being told that homes are bricks. The story of the Three Little Pigs—the brick home lasted the longest. And to know that my home was never meant to last, that it was a series of bamboo walls placed together to house some people for a time, and that when the seasons changed that these things would fall down and they would never rise again, it’s powerful stuff. And I think because right now there are so many refugees all over the world. And it doesn’t matter that I’m a refugee from Southeast Asia, when I say I’m a refugee, somebody else grew up in a tent in Africa says ‘I’m a refugee, too.’ And we share the fact that our homes were never meant to last, and there’s this need to remember. Because I think if you live in a place, and it becomes a part of who you are, and if you it longer existed, does it mean that who you were never was? And this is the thing that I am so scared that my mom and dad, my aunts and uncles, all these older people—and then the younger ones, too, the ones who would be born far after, what they wouldn’t get, because it’s such a fundamental truth. You know, especially for the Hmong, we don’t believe in the security of place, and yet it’s this thing that we want more than anything. So it’s a contradiction. It’s a part of my identity, and I think it’s a fact of life. It’s a sad fact of life, but it’s a fact of life that can make us better human beings.

[Marlin Heise enters the Center, recorder is turned off. New track begins]

(0:08) So let’s—I mean, there are so many different things we could discuss about Ban Vinai and about your experiences, but let’s start with your family.

You already said you remember having young parents.

What other memories do you have of your life with your family, and, of course, with your grandmother, who I came to know through your book?
You know her very well. You know her better than so many. [Interviewer chuckles] I think I was the second daughter in a family that would only have two daughters in the interim at Ban Vinai refugee camp. I was the baby. I remember—you know, in America there’s a term where they say, ‘There’s the snob from the projects.’ [Interviewer chuckles] In some sense I think it’s almost applicable. I look at these photos, and everybody’s dirty. My feet are really dirty, but usually I have on these dresses, really cheerful dresses. And I know that my mom spent her days selling sweet tapioca dessert so I could have these dresses. And I don’t remember ever saying I wanted one; I just remember—you may be looking, and then maybe you see me later the dresses in the room or in my hands. So it’s a very privileged existence, and I think even—it’s hard to believe that, ‘cause—and it’s hard for me to rationalize in some sense, because I knew there were children who were so poor, who were so much less privileged, but I was always rich in love, and in all of these people who wanted to take care of me, because they couldn’t take care of themselves, intellectually, emotionally, educationally, so they wanted to take care of me. And my grandma, who had never been to school, she tells me all these stories—and now I realize in the hopes of giving me an education that I could have—because I couldn’t touch my ears—the classic test of whether you’re ready for school or not. Exactly. So she was trying to give me this education, and my mom and dad were trying to raise this little girl when, I think, maybe in their hearts, they were always ready to raise a son. And so, in the midst of raising this little girl, they gave me all of the things that they would have given a son—my sister and I—which is to say confidence to go into the world and do something. It was only for a while, and then one day we would leave this place, and I would have to do things. And these things would go beyond my gender or my height or the size of my feet. All of these things are really evident. You know, I have seven uncles and two aunts, and the aunts were already—one was in France , and one was already in the US —in California . But all my seven uncles lived in this compound with me. And I have all of these aunts and all of these cousins, and for me it was a time when we were all really together, together in this place. And every day was like the next, so time—it moved really fast and it moved really slow. As a kid, I think you realize this, even as—you know, every day I see my father and my uncle sitting on the patio talking about the past. They were afraid to talk about the future. Only when there was news or there was pressure to think about America or resettlement did they talk about the future. There was a recognition there that life could go on, but it was all about the war, and all about these people who had did before me and I would never get to meet. And so I lived in a world, I think, where family was—people were around me alive, but family was also the ones who were dead, or the one uncle who was in Laos who wasn’t really like—who was more their cousin and brother by relation, but he lived and grew up with them. And he was the wisest one, and he was the most intelligent one, he was the kindest one. And he was the one that I would never get to meet. And so that’s the kind of family I grew up with, right? One that was around me, one that wasn’t. That was me.

(3:52) How do you think the stories that you heard as a child shaped your understanding of what happened to your family and the Hmong people in Laos ? What kinds of things were you hearing about?
I think the games, as much as the stories shaped. ‘Cause they were always playing—and I call it Viet Cong, but it’s really the North Vietnamese army. I call it Viet Cong because I was educated here about the Vietnam War, and we only fought the Viet Cong, we didn’t fight the North Vietnamese army so much. But we were always playing, and there was always a North Vietnamese person chasing a Hmong person, and there was always that. Or we talked about the river that was not too far away; a big, big river that I couldn’t imagine, because the only river I knew was the sewage canal. And so they talked about this huge river that was houses and houses wide, and all of the Hmong people that drowned in that river. And thy talked about this jungle, and all I had of the jungle was the trees in the compound. It’s so funny how my world was so limited, and yet all of these things and these places they were taking me to were so foreign, but I felt like I knew, ‘cause I said if that was a river and this is the river I know, OK, then imagine this river wider. Imagine the tadpoles bigger or if this is what one tree looks like, then imagine trees and trees and trees and trees. So in my head it was really elaborate, because I could know these places. My imagination made up for them, and I think this shaped so much of what I would become and who I am as a person. But it teaches me magic, the magic of imagination, going beyond walls, walls that people can’t see holding us in, because there was nothing holding us in in Vinai—I mean, there was no wall, no physical thing, but we were held in. And so parameters and limits and what a people could do and what a people have done and what a people would die doing. I think if I was—if it was inside of me, I feel like I’ve always known, but I know there must have been a moment of knowing, I just don’t remember. Because none of these things strike me as surprising. None of these things impressed me overmuch, or amazed me, which is kind of—‘cause sometimes I live in these stories, and I see them every day, and people say, ‘Oh my God, is that real? That’s amazing!’ And I say, ‘Is it?’ And I have to re-think, and I have to humble myself again, because what you have here is a really fractured, I think, kind of existence.

(6:30) Tell me more by what you mean by that: a fractured existence.
A fractured existence. So we have the little girl who comes to America thinking that she can—that in dust there are worlds, ‘cause they float and they’re glittery. Dust is glittery. And dust is beautiful. And here, dust causes allergies, and a rainbow is a dragon—no a rainbow is just moisture reflected in sunlight. Airplanes are iron birds—no, they’re just airplanes. So I understand; I know what I want to believe. I know the world, the parameters of the believing world around me, and I jump between those two chasms. And for me, it’s a fracture, but it’s only a fracture that reminds me that it’s there. It’s not an impossible chasm or a leap. So it’s only a fracture, because I’m not broken. In a thousand ways, I’m not broken. But I know where the lines are and where the scars are, because it’s got—maybe once upon a time it was broken, but now that I think it’s healed, there are these things that I look at and I see and I recognize where the chasms, where the leaping needed to be. And it’s not just in me, it’s in all the people around me, like my mom and my dad, who are more broken than I am by necessity, by time. They’re older. Maybe by the time I am their age I will be a little—I’m hoping to be less broken, but maybe I will be more so. Who knows?

(7:59) Well…Yeah, it’s hard to say. I mean, they certainly went through a lot of things that, with any luck, you will not have to, but…
There’s all kinds of broken.

Are you saying—I just want to make sure that I’m understanding this—that in a way you sort of ignored the fractures in your life and simply allowed your imagination to fill in the chasm that existed between them, and that this is where this imagination and this creativity came from, do you think?
No, not ignoring. It’s impossible to ignore the guy with the gun. [Both laugh]

Well, yes.
Its impossible to ignore the lines that you knew were there, because I think I’m a very careful person in this way; I’m very careful with the people I love. And so I remember trying to protect them as a kid. They were holding my hand, but there was a sense that I was also holding them on to something. Or I was held in a lap, but there was also a feeling, an acknowledgment that they were also holding on to me. And I think this kind of awareness began early on. It’s not ignoring, but it’s allowing me to believe so the people around me can believe. Or knowing the things, but believing that this isn’t it. Because people need to believe, especially people you love. In order to teach you love, they have to keep on believing. And I think I know this. It’s a lesson that some kids, I think, are born with, and it’s a lesson that some kids have to learn. But I think I was very lucky. I learned it young, so it came very naturally.

(9:32) One of the other things I remember from your book, and I think will take a parallel track with some of the other things you said, is that you said you remember a lot of miscarriages for your mother.

And that you also remember your father taking you to various places to meet other women, that there was a suggestion within the family that if your mother couldn’t provide your father with a son that maybe he needed to look elsewhere. What is that like as a young child, seeing these kinds of things—certainly within a culture that tolerates, or even in some cases encourages polygamy, but still, as a child, this has to be a very odd, even disturbing thing to witness.
It is, and only on me, because I was too young to understand the male-female relationship. I only understood it as a relationship, a question on love and loyalty. So I was really loyal to my mom, which means I was really jealous of every other woman he saw, and they were never really good enough to be my mom. And then I also understood his loneliness, in some sense—and spiritual loneliness, because he really believed that if he died without a son, that his spirit would go on walking the earth forever. And after all the years of walking through this jungle—and I knew he had done so, I didn’t want him to wander anymore. I think it was—I tested the power of imagination and faith, right. If I could have been—if I could wake up a son, the next day, I would have, in a jiffy, in a heartbeat. But I know that if that was possible, my sister would have awoken a long time ago as a son, and it would have never fallen on to me! [Interviewer chuckles] ‘Cause that’s the kind of personality she had and the kind of initiative she would have taken. But you know, you wake up the next morning and you don’t know what it means to be a girl, what it means to be a boy. If it—you know, when my dad’s combing my hair, he’s really gentle. My uncles didn’t comb the hair of their sons. So you know that you are still a girl. And when we walked around this place, I don’t think—I didn’t allow myself to believe, and to this day I don’t know if I believed that he was really looking, ‘cause he would have found. My father is not the type of man to go looking and not find. And I knew this about him. And I knew that my mom, if she thought for a minute that he would have found, if he was really looking, she wouldn’t have stayed around for the hunt, ‘cause she’s got this feisty heart. And I knew. I knew this much: if you were really looking, why did you take your little girl with you? Right? If you were really looking for a second wife, why didn’t you just go by yourself, or with the brothers who thought it was a good idea, and you could go advocate for your cause Hmong-style, right? But you take your little girl, and she goes, and she doesn’t want to stay there, and it’s always disrupted, and then you take her home again and you comb her hair the same style, and you hold her hand the whole time and you carry her around on your shoulders. Just not conducive! So I think that in some ways, they were playing for their survival. He was playing for his manhood, and to believe that there were still roads open. And my mom was praying for time. And in all of this praying there was me. And they both needed me in some sense. He needed me to go with him, but she also needed me to go with him, right? [Interviewer chuckles] And so I think they were intelligent people

(12:53) This is just a thing I’m asking you to guess, and maybe I shouldn’t even ask the question, but do you have any impression that maybe your father was trying to fulfill the expectations of his family, of, ‘OK, at least I’ll go look’…
Yes, definitely. In his culture, and also his spirit, because my father’s really superstitious. I think he [Pauses] he didn’t want to say, ‘I’m gonna’—because in some sense, to him, because he really believed, that he really believes if he doesn’t go, there is son, my mother will also wander the earth, looking. So for him, it was [Pauses] I would never say that he went looking for a second wife for her. She would kill me on the spot. But I think there was an awareness that it could happen, that it could be for both of them. And if I was there and I gave my OK, too, in whatever sense a child can give an OK, that it would be OK. So I think that’s fair and I think that’s true. Maybe if he were sitting right beside me, I could say so, and he would say, ‘Perhaps.’ ‘Cause my father likes that word. ‘Perhaps.’ And maybe that’s how he’s lived his whole life. ‘Perhaps my girls can become as great as the boys. Perhaps one day we can have a son. Perhaps one day we will be free. Perhaps one day all of this will mean something.’ He’s a dreamer.

(14:12) I’m wondering if even now—or maybe you even might have noticed it back then—you mentioned that your parents were very affectionate toward you, quite doting, that you got beautiful dresses. Do you think this was, in a way, a result of the miscarriages, that you and your sister were even more precious because of the children they were not allowed to keep?
I think that’s definitely true. I think—you can’t really say that your mom and dad are better parents than other parents, or less, ‘cause I know a parent’s love runs deep, ‘cause I see my aunts and my uncles, and they have more kids than my mom and dad, and they love their little girls, too. But they had dirtier legs than I did, because there was more of them. And they had more rips in their skirts sometimes, because there was more of them. So definitely, that was so true, I think. Because they had lost so many—they were losing so many—it was such an active, ongoing, dynamic process, traumatizing for all of us, because we were losing so many, with each child that they lost, I think they [Pauses] They realized that one, we were either really strong, that they could keep us, or two, that we were really weak, and they had to protect us. So there was a lot of that.

(15:25) Tell me about your sister.
My sister. Her name is Der [Dawb]. She is a little shorter than me, which probably, for the rest of our lives she will probably be the only person who is a little shorter than me, [Interviewer chuckles] in close proximity all the time. [Laughs] But I fondly believe that she is—my father says that you are born sometimes, and you are born with—that the first people who loved you will be the last ones to love you. I think she is my partner for life in this sense. I think one day we will fall in love and get married and what have you. But I will have known her for longer than I will have known any other person. And that’s just the reality of our birth. I adore her. I see her weaknesses more clearly than my own, and I see her strengths in the face of my own weaknesses. I think in this way we’re a really strong team. We really love each other. We get along better than most sisters do. But temperamentally, we’re entirely different. She’s an attorney now. She is much more of a fighter, and I guess a good example of how different we are, or how different we are as individuals, yesterday—my uncle’s really sick. He’s at St. John’s hospital. Yesterday we go and we’re saying goodbye and I go give my uncle a hug and I say, ‘Please get better. Please get well so you can come and live with us again. We’ll all now how to love each other so much more because this time it’s so precious. That’s all I can say.’ And then the tears start coming. But when it’s her turn, she says—she stops and she says, ‘You know, my grandma was the oldest person in our family and she died, and we all miss her a lot. But there has always been you. And now you’re the oldest person in our family, and we need you to shelter us.’ She accords responsibility, whereas I just give. And this kind of edge is all over our lives, and it’s in her profession. She’s always protecting people. I think if—she has a non-profit heart, if that makes sense, and she takes on these clients that other attorneys won’t, that they’re so challenged in so many ways—physically, intellectually, emotionally, sometimes, and she accords them freedom to choose what happens next. It’s not always the winning cases, but it’s how to settle the thing so they can continue living. And that’s the kind of work that she does. And I think I’m more in the business of inspiration. She gets the things done, and I like to inspire people to do things, if that makes sense. But she accords him [their uncle] real, physical responsibility and says, ‘You can’t die. You still have to stay here; you’re the umbrella, and we’re going to hide under the shade that you provide, ‘cause the world is too sunny.’ And so she hugs him and she pats him. He pats me, because he’s comforting me. And that’s the dynamic. And it’s been an interesting, dynamic, I think. We’ve been to—I’m 27 years old, so I’ve known her for 27 years, and I think she’s a very special person, and I’m not the only one to believe so. There’s a resilience in her spirit and her soul, and a fragility. I think emotionally she’s more fragile than I am, which is just my theory.

We’ll keep that between us.
Yes, I don’t think she agrees! [Both laugh] ‘Cause she wants to always be the rock for everything that’s shaking in the world.

And some people can be strong for everyone else, but not for themselves.
I know! So I f—exactly, you’re right.

(18:56) Would you say that your description of her and of other people in your book is an attempt to be absolutely 100% faithful to not just your memories, but really the historical people they were, or are you trying to insert at least a little bit of writer’s liberty in making these descriptions of the people who are in your family?
I would say that when I’m talking about the people in my family, like my sister, it’s really alive and it’s really true now, as much as it’s history. It’s really contemporary. This is how I see them. This is how I think—and this is going to be the tricky answer. I’m going to be [Pauses] it’s such an important question, because you can’t just write about the good of a people. That’s not true; it’s not history, it’s not life. You have to write about the chasms in their everyday [lives] and the complexity, embrace the complexity, what we were talking about earlier. But I think that the way that I see them is the way that I need to see them ad they need to see themselves to survive and do the best work they can do in the world. It’s about doing what is good for the world, I think, if that makes sense. It’s not writer’s liberty, because I can paint the sky. I can paint the sky if I want to, but no, I’m just floating with the clouds. ‘Cause we need to get somewhere. We need work to be done. I think the way I see her accords her more power to do the work that she needs to do, that I need her to do in the world, that the world needs her to do. I think my grandma, who I talk about so much, who I miss so much, especially around this time of year—but I write of her in the way that will allow her life to do the most work for herself and all of those to come after her. We need her in this way.

Well, and I think—
Does that make sense?

(20:47) Here again, please correct anything I say that you think isn’t accurate, but obviously there’s an element of nostalgia, a sort of longing for the way things used to be, but perhaps there’s also—well, if you want to call it—you’re sort of writing through the eyes of love. These are people you know, and whose faults, as you say, you could highlight perhaps more, and that might make it more ‘historical’ in some people’s minds, but these are the roles they played in your life; these are the ways that you remember them and that you want other people to remember them.
The nostalgia—that’s interesting, because I actually—I grew up looking to the future, not the past, which is interesting, and so I think in that way—I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m nostalgic for the love that was, because it feels so alive to me now. So to put it in a time frame, time space is inaccurate. But I think—I love my grandma. I adore her. She didn’t let us come to America , and I included that in the book. I love her and I adore her, and she adores me, but there was a day when I had to climb on the shelves on America to get things for her. All this is true. All this is [Pauses] I think the way you paint people, the way I paint people is to see them for what they are, and what they are to you. So the way I see her is the way she was to me: good and bad and all of it. Because whatever she did, good or bad, I think, I see clearly, and I register clearly, I respond to honestly. So there’s a lot of honesty there instead of just beautifying, because I know their faults, I know their challenges. But I also know that the way they love me is almost a perfect kind of love, in whatever it is. And so you’re right when you say I write from the lens of love. I think as a young writer, especially, it’s the easiest lens to write from, and sometimes the most challenging, because it forces you to [Pauses] ‘Cause love is an emotion that we haven’t even really come up with a good definition for yet. But it’s the thing that we hold on to when life is done. It’s the most powerful. And so this is where I think intelligence comes in a little bit. I have no intelligence; I don’t care about IQ. I think I have kind of emotional—a way through it, but I am not intelligent, and I would never use that word to describe myself. But I think this is—

I think others might, though.
I don’t know, Paul. [Interviewer laughs] It’s a shaky road! We’re going to have to wait on that one. But I think, ‘Why not use’—as a young writer you ask yourself, ‘Why not use the thing I have most powerful thing I own, which is the ability to love? I have nothing—I’ve not tried anything in my life, but I have all of these people who love me, which just means that I’m good at loving them back. Which means, if I’m a writer, I’m gong to use whatever resources I have at my fingers. All I ever had was love, and all I ever have is love, ‘cause at the the end of the day I don’t have a lot of money. I have a lot of credit card debt with this negative energy, so it’s not going to count. Why not use the thing that you have the most? Why not share that with the world, when the world needs it?

(23:52) Well, I think, too, that love allows you to share some of those faults, but also to interpret them in a compassionate and loving way, so that when you talk about your grandmother not wanting her sons to go to America, I think you can understand that as a reader—that she wants to keep the family together, that she wants to be the matron over this family, and that that doesn’t come off as crude or selfish, but as a desire to sort of embrace everyone and keep them close to her.
Love forces us to understand.

Well, and I think, too, when you mention that you heard stories about, for example, an uncle who was the wisest and the nicest and everything—well, was he, or is it because he’s dead and so your parents want you to remember him that way?
Uncle Xiong? Uncle Xiong—he died shortly after my grandma died, so when I was hearing all of these stories, he was still very much alive.

Oh, OK.
And even to this day people talk about his wisdom. My mom is the most critical thinker of them all—maybe not thinker. She doesn’t think, she feels things, which is interesting, I think. She says that he had faults. She says, and she’s always said that he had faults. His loyalty to his family was the fault. Regardless of whatever happened, he would always fight for the side of blood. He never had any brothers. All he had was my father and he gave up everything in his life for their ability to be. And this makes him, in their eyes, a martyr. My mom is really careful about how we see things. And my daddy says—you know, he said this to me, he taught me this lesson and that lesson. I wrote an essay about—we had to write an essay about things we believed in. It’s an international campaign—the global youth campaign. And it’s called ‘This I Believe.’

Oh, yes.
And I ended up writing about him [Uncle Xiong], because when he came to America , I was maybe—I was a teenager. And I was really tired, lazy one day—didn’t want to get up to go to school. And he’s really soft spoken. He comes and he says really quietly—and by then, he’d already been tortured, so mentally he was already half gone, but there were moments of lucidity. And he came and he said, ‘You know, the body works in the world; it gets tired. But the heart, the heart—you have to get up with your heart first.’ And if that wasn’t wisdom right before my eyes, if that wasn’t everything that my father and my uncles had been teaching me all along, then I didn’t know what was. ‘Cause I was there, and I couldn’t sleep anymore afterwards like that, you can’t sleep anymore! And so I got up, and I looked at him, and he smiled at me. And I think I saw him the way my father would have, many, many, many years ago. You know, when my father rolled that boulder into the neighbor’s fence, and all my uncles were really angry, and they said, ‘You have to go and fix the fence.’ And he starts crying, because he doesn’t have a father, and there’s no way he can fix this fence. And my uncle comes up to him and he says, ‘I’ll go fix the fence for you, ‘cause this is only how you learn how to be a man.’ Like my mom and dad, when they got married, nobody had money to pay the bride price, but he came and he said to my father, ‘If you want to [Pauses] ‘Everything is a gamble at this point. We don’t know if we’re going to live or if we’re going to die. But if for however long you want to live, you want to live with this woman by your side, then let us go.’ And this is the kind of spirit that they want me to see in him. And I was so shocked, because you grow up hearing a thousand stories about a man who is as tall as I am in the world only. And he speaks as softly. And you can’t imagine how so much could be packed into something so small as yourself, and then you see him before you, and he’s frazzled in the head, he’s shaking. But that morning, when he came and he said those words, I believed, and I think he was—so much distance, so much place, but you cannot be alive in somebody else’s mind, unless you give something of yourself entirely. And he gave so much of himself, and there was so little left. ‘Cause he was crazy—in Laos they said he was turning up roots [roves?] and he was making fires, and he was just far gone. But for the moment, it was [I don’t know] I don’t think they lied, that’s the thing. I think they believed him because he gave so much for them to believe. Maybe my mom saw, because she was my father’s wife, so every time if they were to disagree, I think that if he was in the vicinity, I think she could see where the alignment was, in terms of loyalty. And my aunts—and so they had this different view, and so I recognize that his [Pauses] When you’re so good at something , you’re bound to be bad at it, too. [Both laugh] Right?

I can see that.
You’ve seen that in history time and again, in all of the figures that you’ve studied.

Oh, indeed.
(28:53) So was your uncle a resistance fighter, or what was it that kept him in Laos and that led him to be tortured?
He was carrying his son on his back, and they were all running in the jungle, and they shot the boy in the head. The North Vietnamese army shot the boy in the head. And he’d only had three kids in his life. He loved children; he helped raise my father. He wouldn’t leave the boy. And there was no way the boy would have survived the run. So he stood in the place of his son, and his wife stood by his side. And they came and they found him, and they that he was Uncle Xai Soua’s brother—‘cause they were brothers in all the ways that mattered. And so they took him into a hut, and they—he woke up in a hut, and he says they inserted hot syringes in his arm, day in and day out, looking for where my uncle was, where my fathers were. And he didn’t speak. He refused to speak, because that was his loyalty was, also. That’s how he went crazy, right? It’s the same thing, the loyalty in his blood. And so he went crazy after that. He wasn’t a resistance fighter. Paul, he was my size, 4’ 11”, and he was skinnier than I was, so he was probably 90 pounds, and he was—he didn’t have the build of a fighter. But he had the intellect of general. He thought he led them on—you know, he led them through the jungles and through the years, all the difficult years of their life. He even told my grandma, ‘When you die, I will come after you, because you will need me by your side. We’re going to go a long way to finding my uncle and my father. And so when you die—because all of your life I tried to stand by your side. And when you die I’ll find my way to your side.’ So a month after she died, he died in Laos . When he heard news of her death, it was only a little while and he just died.

So he was a romantic, too. [Chuckles]
He was a romantic, yes. A hopeless romantic.

(30:51) Well, let’s talk about your grandmother, who’s so central not only to your book, but also to your life, and it seems to me, just a sense of your identity in many ways. What would you want people to know about her—some of which I’m sure you’ve included in the book, but maybe things that didn’t make their way in?
So my grandma was always scared of being forgotten. Imagine growing up with someone who was always scared of being forgotten—‘cause I met her when she was already old. She was already an old woman by the time I came along. But she was always busy. She was always doing something. She couldn’t—she wasn’t an idler. At the same time, she was really slow in everything she did. [Chuckles] And so she was constantly doing things. Though she sat by the window every day and she did all of these things, and she was always willing to tell stories, ‘cause she always wanted to be remembered. So it was such a conscious thing: she said, ‘Go get the camcorder so one day you will remember me and my words.’ And I would say, ‘Oh, you tell me; I’ll remember.’ It’s such a big promise, to go against technology. Maybe it was laziness, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. But I would sit there and she would tell me all of these stories. Or you’re a little kid and you get jealous, ‘cause my sister’s a lazy bones. She takes care of everything external to the house, but within the house she doesn’t touch a thing unless she has to. And that’s just the rules of operation, the rules of the game. And so when I was younger I would get jealous and say, ‘Grandma, why doesn’t she have to do this or that?’ And she would say, ‘Because you’re training yourself how to be a better person.’ And I would say, ‘No, I am not. I am training myself how to be a better dishwasher. How many dishwashers that you know are great people?’ And we would get into these kinds of debates. And I think for a woman of her generation and her age, who had been accorded so much respect (because my grandfather died when she was really still kind of young, and she had nine children to raise all on her own, and in a war where so many died all of her sons and daughters remained alive—and that is not for nothing)—she had something going on. And so there’s this—but I would get into all of these childish debates with her, and she would get into them with me. But she was always scared of being forgotten, and yet to me she was just this woman that I would challenge on all of the things that maybe didn’t matter so much. Like—she was so funny. She said, ‘Sometimes you have to wash’—or ‘If you drop a spoon, you have to wash it three times.’ Or like these things—if you wake up from a bad dream, then you have to spit in the toilet and wash it away—wash it away forever, ‘cause you don’t want it—all of these little things that I think are so important. You know, as much as the woman that she was, the mother that she may have been, she was a woman who had so much wisdom and lived life for so long. At 93—and now that I’m getting older I’m realizing how 93 isn’t so long at all. To forget all of that, the world would be a less richer place—you know, all of these things that nobody else would remember, but a granddaughter who is always so scared of forgetting. And so it’s this kind of love—I think, ‘Youa Lee—what do I want the world to know about her? I want the world to know that she grew up an orphan, but that by the time she died, she had more people to love her than so many other people would dream of—so many people who have never been along would dream of. I want them to know that to this day, five years after the fact of her dying, if I close my eyes, I can still feel the imprint of her skin on my lips. This is [Pauses] The way she walked—the lopsided way that she walked; it was always a balancing act. Or the money bag that she carried on her waste, with all her important documents, because she never had a safe enough place to put them. These things are as important as the history that se lived through, ‘cause she was born in 1918 or something… But she was born a long time ago, and she was born and she never went to school, and yet I think I learned more from her than I did from any book. In the dedication for my book I said it’s ‘for my grandmother who never learned how to write, for my baby brother who will be the things she never wrote.’ That is so true, and I think it’s for the rest of the world who will never get a chance to know this woman, and to read all of the [Pauses] It’s so humble—all of the humility that was her life, and that taught her so much about honor and integrity and fearlessness. But she feared death more than anything, more than anyone I’ve ever known. And yet [Chuckles] it’s ironic. I would say she was the most fearless woman, because beyond death there was nothing that she was scared of. But in death itself—and I understood. Her parents had died. My grandfather died. Everybody died, including she had children who died on her. And so [pauses] Interesting woman. Yeah.

(36:19) What do you think she represents to you, not just about her own personal essence or spirit, or whatever you might want to call it, but the sort of way of life that in many ways you left behind when you left Ban Vinai and came to the United States?
She represents industry. I will never be as industrious as she—without having a final product—a tangible, final product. She was the most industrious woman I think I will ever know. It’s like the ants, you know? If they work all the time, do we ever see any great thing? Not really. There are ant hills sometimes, but it’s (***) [Laughing] it’s an architectural wonder. But this is, I think, more than a time or a place, because she came from a place I couldn’t imagine. She grew up in a time—well, I can imagine, but I bet I’ve never known. And she shared my world with me, right here in St. Paul . And it’s all of this that is locked inside of her, and it could never be unraveled—not really. Not completely. So she represents the wonder of human beings. She wasn’t—we talked about embarrassment, right? She wasn’t afraid to be embarrassed. So she was always learning, because it was always—if people were to look at my grandma, sometimes without loving her and understanding her, it would be a little embarrassing. I remember being a kid, going to a mall store with her, and she’ll talk to the person behind the cash register, and she’ll say—she’ll say, ‘Let’s become family,’ you know? And that’s so embarrassing! You’re offering this stranger this thing that they may or may not want, but it’s the most precious thing you own. You’re putting your heart on the line, and if that’s not embarrassing, then what is, right? Or we’ll go shopping and she’ll be counting coins, a long string of coins, and there will be people waiting, and it’s embarrassing. But does she—is she embarrassed? Yeah, she laughs about it; she knows. But this kind of lack of fear… And you asked such an important question, and I can only honestly say for me there is no divide between what is worthwhile and important to me and what should be to the rest of the world. ‘Cause I think we can—there’s so many ways we can escape from who we are and who we are meant to be, if we focus on the things that should matter to the world. Because in the end, we’re a part of the world if it matters to us and we spend enough time cultivating it, then it should matter to the world, and that’s the only way the world improves is if we improve, because we’re a part of the world. We can’t go into the world and fix it if we’re not willing to go into the world as ourselves to begin with. So that’s how I would counter it.

(39:19) For someone who’s never lived in a refugee camp that sort of temporary, fleeting nature of living in these places, yet at the same time growing up and sort of feeling like it’s your home, what would you want to share with us that might help us better understand what it was like for you, for your family, for the Hmong people you grew up with?
You remember even if you don’t want to! [Laughs] And like my mom doesn’t want to remember it, but she remembers it. I didn’t think I was going to remember it forever, but I will. Only six years, and I was so young, but I’ll remember it forever, ‘cause the [Pauses] What can be seen as temporary go on for years and years and years all over the world, and in your mind it becomes like a song and you can never forget it. And that’s how experience and that’s how places are to me. The song and an image, and you can be 8,000 miles away. If I close my eyes, that place that is dead now can come alive again. It really can. And so I don’t; know what is so important. It challenges who we all are as countries, borders, states, nations. We think we belong to a place, and we get courage from that, and we get inspiration from a place like that. For example, watch ‘The 300.’ Did you see ‘The 300?’

King Leonidas and the whole plight of the [Spartans]. I mean, patriotism like that—and it was a powerful movie. Or we watch TV and we see soldiers falling down, and they say, ‘They’re dying for our country.’ Are they really? I mean, what is a country, right? ‘Cause I feel like—I’m always rooting for the Vikings, and they do bad every year. [Both laugh] I’m a big fan, and it’s because of a place.

(41:24) That’s something I never would have guessed. Kao Kalia Yang is a Minnesota Vikings fan.
A big one. Big one. And so I’m rooting for the Vikings, they lose all the time, but in that I’m rooting with them, I am siding with the people who do. And in the refugee camp that doesn’t happen. That’s the difference, and it’s different on a profound level. Nobody fights for the refugee camp! [Laughs] You know, there is no team, and there is no—the feeling, unless we build it inside of ourselves. So now years and years after the fact, after the place no longer exists, who fought for the Ban Vinai refugee team, and who’s leading that charge? I think it’s worth saying, ‘I am.’ And I’m not the only one. Although the team never existed then and there, because it can and it needs to, just ‘cause wherever we belong to, there is power to be gotten, and we need to be as powerful as we can if we want to do anything positive for the world, any positive change. We talk about how you come to a place and you take away from it the immigrant experience. We talk about the point where you can actually contribute back. We don’t talk about the contributions you make in the process of doing. Darfur —what did that remind us of? Afghanistan , Iraq , you know, all of these things. Sometimes if we lived a little closer to history—and you would agree with this, because you’re a historian!—then we live a little closer to ourselves.

(43:05) So what power do you believe that you and the people who lived in Ban Vinai take from that place?
We take—what do we take from that place? We take one, an understanding, and understanding of politics on a very personal level. We’re there because the international forces were all around us. Now Thailand didn’t necessarily want us, but they wanted the UN money. So you can be in a place, and you can live a life in a place that is fairly political in some sense, and understanding politics on a very personal level, so now when we talk about politics, it’s entirely—there is no question of, ‘Is it going to affect me?’ ‘Cause we get that. It affects you, and it doesn’t just affect you in the future, it affects what you eat today, and it affects the tomorrows that will happen. We take an understanding that bodies buried in a place cannot always stay there, especially with the grave desecrations now. You think that you live on the earth, and that you’re going to be hidden inside that earth, and it’s going to hold you safe—‘cause nothing in the world has. It’s not true! You can get dug up with or without your wanting to. Now I believe in ghosts, but really, did the ghosts rise up and revolt against this thing? Not really. Not in a way that has affected their destinies or their futures in that sense, right? So there’s that understanding that the earth cannot protect. The earth cannot protect. We have to protect each other—which is sad, but it’s powerful, too, and it’s a little profound.

(45:00) So when you look back to Ban Vinai, you obviously have at least some happy memories, even though a little wistful, or a little—but it’s not all bad, right?
No, it’s not all bad. I remember lots of good things.

Is this a result of the place, or is it more a result of the people who, despite the place they were in, could still function as families and as communities and as students and as people who had fun?
Is it a result of the place? Well, it’s such a good question, because I remember—you asked for good memories. I think about the food. The food that was rotten for a lot of people, I remember it as being good! [Both laugh] I enjoyed that food! You know, when I went back to Thailand , I was looking for the same kind of food and no, they didn’t have soggy rice and no, it wasn’t like that, but I remember it as such. Or like—is it a place for people, so I make a comparison in my book, a comparison between Ban Vinai refugee camp and the McDonough Housing projects. Facing a people that looked alike together for the most part, in this place. The space and that place that wasn’t bordered by a fence, but there were all of these things holding us in. McDonough Housing project in so many ways was like that. It’s an incubator for Hmong lives in America , and I would never take this away. And the poverty of the place was not comparable, but there were some distinct, very real things. I mean, people drove around the McDonough Housing project yelling, ‘Go back home.’ And I was a kid and I remember. But they scared my mom and dad into dragging us, to like walking really fast on the sidewalk, because they would zoom in their cars like they were going to hit us—as if your legs could outrun tires, right? So mom and dad were trying to rush us along into the snow and the trees—as if snow could protect you, too! It’s really funny, but that’s the kind of running they had been doing all of their lives. And that’s what happened in the camps, too. You get a soldier to shoot a gun, and then you think they’re going to kill you, so you’re trying to run from bullets, and they’ve been doing it for years and years and they should know that it doesn’t work, but they know that it can work if chance is with you, so they do it again and again—here in America, too. Can a place—is it the place that makes the people? But I remember sliding down the hills of McDonough Housing Project, enjoying—or the playground, enjoying that, playing around broken glass and beer bottles and alcohol, and cigarette smokes, and picking up cigarette stubs and using them to play with. Things like this I remember, and it’s a good memory. And this kind of thing happened in Ban Vinai refugee camp, too. The McDonough Housing Project isn’t—you’re not meant to live there all your life, right? [Laughs] Very much like the camps, but they’re made of bricks. They don’t break. And so is it the place or the people, or the reality of living? I think human beings get used to so much. It can be such an easy comparison. In college, you think, ‘Oh, that dorm is so close to all of the buildings. I want to live in that dorm.’ And you draw a number, and it leads you all the way across campus, and that year you make that trek. And in the midst of it you do it, and then after you’re like—when you’re in that dorm right by the buildings, you go, ‘How did I ever do that?’ That’s how I think about it. How did we ever do McDonough Housing Project? How did we ever do that moldy house? How did we ever do Ban Vinai refugee camp? How did they ever survive in the jungle? It’s all the same. It’s hard. And I would never want to compare the experience in the jungle to the experience here, but I think it’s a fact of life that for those living within that experience. Human beings are really good at doing what we have to to get by and survive it. And we don’t—even like when you’re looking back, you’re facing all kinds of new struggles, but you realize it. ‘It was harder then, wasn’t it? And I did it, so I can do it again.’ We give ourselves pep talks, and we go on.

(48:54) So you have a grandmother who wants Ban Vinai, in some ways, to be a permanent home. And you have her sons who—well, one uncle who leaves relatively soon and others who will follow. What’s that like as a child to sit in the middle of that? I know you reflect on that in your book: that your grandmother is trying desperately to almost make her sons promise that they won’t leave her in some way. But what do you remember about observing that happening over a period of years?
Youth is probably the greatest bandage [Laughs] against life. [Interviewer chuckles] ‘Cause you know that there is a wound, and it’s going to break. You know that. But you know whichever way it breaks, nobody’s going to blame you! [Chuckles] Right? There’s no pressure. No pressure. Nobody’s going to blame you. Whether my dad stays or leaves, grandma’s never going to say it’s because of Kalia. Whether the camps close or not, nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh, it’s because Kalia wasn’t there!’ And that kind of freedom from responsibility does so much! Like my father felt like if he left—or my uncle if he leaves and something—if the others follow and this place is horrible, then he would have led them into something big and bad. And my grandma, I think she wanted the camps to last, but she knew that if she stayed, and if the camps closed and if they were taken back to Laos, then her sons were killed before her eyes, that would have been so, so, so much, right? But form the eyes of a kid, you hear all the people talking about all the possibilities, what could happen here and there and then. Because when they’re talking, they’re so heated, but I’m sitting I their lap and it’s just warmth, in a world that was already too warm, anyway. It doesn’t feel—it feels like a party.

It does! [Laughs] It feels like a party, and so much is happening. You don’t know how to dance, you don’t know how to follow the music, but you hear it all, and you know that whichever way it goes, you’re going to go with it. And at the end of it, it’s your job to make it as best you can. Because already then there was the talk: ‘Our children could become educated, our children could become somebody, somebody we’ve never been. So there’s already this kind of pressure, like this kind of futuristic pressure, but within the bandage of youth. I was like, ‘Whichever way, you know?’ They felt it, they felt tremendous pressure, and it was emotional. So you see people you love—grandma—when grandma cried, I felt so sad; when my dad cried, I felt so sad. It’s torn. But it’s like a party and it’s like a roller coaster, and you don’t know which way it’s gonna go. But you know whatever happens, you won’t be blamed. But if you can do good, you will have delivered on a promise that you don’t remember making.

(51:47) Were you largely shielded from the sense that you were in this place that was controlled by the Thai government and that there were these other foreigners who may, at least on some level, have a control over your destiny, or was that something you were aware of on some level as a child?
Well God, right? There were a lot of missionaries!

[Laughs] Right, yes.
There were a lot of missionaries, so they were trying to recruit. They gave candies. Now I was six, I was really protected, I didn’t run very fast. You had to run kind of fast to get the candies. They never had enough candies for all of the children, but if you stood really quietly by your mom and the adults—you know, because actually, they give candy to the kid, but they want to talk to the adults. If you stood carefully by the adults, you got candy. [Interviewer laughs] It’s horrible how—

You learned the tricks of the trade.
By default, right, because I would see my cousin run, and—‘Oh God, they’re eating candy!’ And I would stand there—but eventually they would save a few in their pockets for you, ‘cause you’re with the adults. They would give it to you, and then you’d smile and you’d be so happy. Then they’d start talking to the other adults behind you, right?

(52:48) So were these Hmong missionaries? American?
American. We have a picture of like two American missionaries somewhere in our photo book. So they’re American missionaries, and they sometimes had Hmong interpreters who tried to interpret; I don’t know how good they were with the messages. But we were so—the funny thing was we never felt like we didn’t have a belief system in place, so we weren’t looking. And that’s the thing, even when you’re looking for something—we were looking for a home, so when they came, we were more interested in the homes, potentially, on the other side of the ocean, than the actual religions. It wasn’t so fruitful for my family. I don’t know how it worked for other families, ‘cause I know that a lot of them were recruited and they would ultimately find happiness within Christianity and Catholicism, and all these other faiths. But because we weren’t—like my uncle was so funny. We’d talk about religion and—or I’d talk about religion. I’m kind of very circular, as you’re picking up. So my uncle and aunt got into a fight. The only way I could leave the camp—leave her behind for a while, because he needed distance, was to become a Buddhist monk for a bit, [Laughs] so he did! And it wasn’t a problem, it was a creative way to go about it. So he said, he threatened her, ‘If you’re going to fight with me and you’re going to break my heart, I’m going to become a Buddhist monk. I’m going to go to the monastery, I’m going to become a Buddhist monk. So she said, ‘Go ahead.’ So he did. And then I would deliver food with her for him. He’s a monk, and it’s for a month. And it was this magical experience, you know, climbing to this monastery with her, and it was magical for me. And for him, I think it was a totally different way of looking at our world. ‘Cause all of a sudden he was outside of it. For her, these little trips made her miss him more, and it worked out, but that’s how it was. You found the things that you needed, and it didn’t really matter, because we were always only looking for a home. We weren’t lost, virtually. Education we wanted, but we didn’t know how to get. And so…

(54:57) Well, as I recall, as you attempted to get an education as a young girl, you couldn’t stay awake in school!
No! Sad! Sad truth! [Interviewer laughs]

I see you as a very animated, very imaginative individual, and it’s hard for me to see you as this young child who just [slaps his hands to simulate a head hitting a desk] conks out.
Not really! Not if you think about high school!

Well, yes.
A whole—lots of kids, a really hot building, a teacher saying, ‘This is an A and a B and a C,’ and you don’t know an A and a B and a C is, and it doesn’t mean a thing—because I think imagination only works when you’re dealing with things that mean something to you! [Chuckles] And that’s the thing that I think that the leap into education—because everybody said education is going to mean something to me. Nobody said education is going to be (***) letters on a board that make no sense! And so for me, for the longest time, I would rather dream my time away, and I think—I don’t know if I could help it, because it was really hot, too, but I think maybe I did help it, and I didn’t mind sleeping in class. A big admission—my mom and dad! [Laughs]

Well, we’ll return to that theme of education when we talk about your life here, but I thought that was interesting.

(56:01) What do you remember about what was happening in your family that led to your parents ultimately deciding, ‘OK, we’re going to America .’
‘OK, we’re going to America .’ It was 1987, I was six, my sister was eight. They had had six miscarriages in between me being six and whatever, right? So my mom and dad were—they said they had given up: no more trying. So for like the last year they weren’t trying to have children. And that, in some ways, was a giving up, and then if they weren’t having any more children, the pressure to re-marry was there. And so I think he knew and she knew that if they stayed there for longer—I mean, there wasn’t very much to do in the camp. Looking for a wife is a pastime, whatever it could mean. Like she was always selling these things by the road so she could buy me these dresses. But for him, I think they left for their marriage; I think they left for us, ‘cause we were girls, and [Pauses] how far could a future stretch in a place like that? My father had seen my cousins getting married in the camp. He knew that that then was a separation forever. He didn’t wan that fate to happen to us. So he took a chance and they left. But everybody knew by then—not everybody; that wouldn’t be accurate. Most people knew by then that the camps had to close—that Ban Vinai refugee camp had to close. The food was getting worse, the resources were getting—the Thai people were getting meaner. They were hurting more and more Hmong people. It wasn’t that they were getting used to us, but their temper was getting shorter.

(57:54) Well, and there was an actual policy which you may or may not know of , where they finally said, ‘Well, we’re going to cut down on resources, we’re going to make camp life more unpleasant,’ not only to make you think about leaving, but to try to keep others—
from coming.

–from Laos .
Years and years later, 2000-something, I would read about that policy, but there and then, all we knew was that life was getting worse. It was working—the policy was working. Life was getting harder. And really, I wasn’t even in school yet. I was six—not that that had much of an influence, I think, because my dad wasn’t worried about my intelligence. But we had to leave for them to stay together, and for us to actually—they were going crazy, too, let’s just—you know, I think they were all going crazy. Because I was beginning to question all the stories and the dreams around me. And I was the first generation to be born within the camps, and I was six, and all of a sudden I wanted to know why there was a red cross on the only car in town, why all these things were happening. The questions were becoming more complicated. And we couldn’t just live in the stories anymore.

[Interviewer checks recorder]

(59:15) What do you remember about the actual process of beginning application, or taking the bus out or flying or any of those things that ultimately led you to this country?
I remember that my dad and my uncles checked a wall, a cement wall, with printed out names almost every day to see if our names were on that wall. I remember the bus, the orange bus—Mercedes! The first Mercedes that I ever saw!

You remember that symbol?
Mm-hmm! And when I see that symbol again, I’m like, ‘Oh my God! I rolled out of that place in a Mercedes!’ which sounds kind of incredible. I guess they made tough buses. That Mercedes that I came to America on, the airplane. I remember the UN bag, the blue UN bag with a world on it that everybody held. I didn’t know it was a world, but I wondered what it was. I remember Phanat Nikhom, ‘cause you had to go to the transition camp before you can come to America . Now Phanat Nikhom was actually called Phanat Nikhom Processing Center . It’s a processing center. But I remember like a transition camp. So they take you to this place, all the doors had no real doors, so they were just door frames; so everything was kind of open in this way. Families slept in like long houses. The women laid out cloth to separate sleeping areas, so the ‘walls’ were glowing in the night, which is kind of beautiful. I remember electricity for the first time at night, every night. I remember the adults going to school and trying to learn about America . [Chuckles] There’s a photo of my father and all of his classmates tying strings around their waists preparing for the airplane ride. Fascinating stuff.

(1:01:01) Around their waist?
Around their waist.

Why around their waist? [Interviewer is thinking of string-tying around the wrists for Hmong ceremonies]
For the practice of seat belts.

Oh, OK!
Right? So they were practicing wearing seat belts and stuff. There was like a toilet, and it was only for demonstration purposes. So my mom talked about a toilet, and I could imagine it, but I saw that it was white, and I didn’t quite know the purpose. But it was in a (***)—an appliance, I thought of it, in America . So all of these ideas began coming in. But the most interesting thing that the adults talked about and that really stuck out in my head—I didn’t talk about it at all in my book—the teachers. For the first time it was Bangkok Thai teachers, not just the ones—you know, missionary workers in the camp. These people were thinking they were—I mean, they were there because they cared. And they were from the big city, so they were volunteering to work with this population. And they came with the real world behind them—a world that they were allowing the adults to see and to—they wear shorts, for example—white shorts. In a world where white gets dirty so quickly, and in a world where not many women wear shorts at all, these teachers are wearing shorts. And there were accessories, not like the accessories you’ve always known: earrings and necklaces and heavy turbans, but like bobby pins and—oh, something more elaborate, like a flower in the hair or something. And my mom, who a long time ago, before America , she really believed in looking very nice. And she really loved very pretty things—you know, it was a visit back, a throwback to the little girl that she could have been. Don’t think she missed who she could have been in Ban Vinai refugee camp, ‘cause it was the only way to be, but in Phanat Nikhom transition camp, she missed the life that she could have had for the first time—a world that was beyond the one she’d always known. And my father got challenged, because in Laos he always thought he wanted to have a farm. Now he knew the farm would now almost never be possible again. And so they were so busy with all of these realizations, I think. And there I was, in talk about America . There was the health clinic where we had to go [get] shots, lots of shots. Candy after the shots, but only if that was a smooth process! [Interviewer laughs] There was all of these new things and so America , an idea of America was born: America didn’t want illness, America didn’t want disease, America didn’t want sickness. You got candy for going through the painful stuff, if you went through it quietly, without protest. It was affirming all of these things that my mom and dad had learned when they became refugees. When you were leaving a place you had to prepare for a place with new rules, where obedience was the law—it was the only key to getting by. And so in schools where you were taught to sit in a row and obey, and all of this was so new for me, because in the camp there was freedom for me. But all of these new rules came crashing in. So the process to America was the process of learning about rules.

(1:04:13) I also remember—this is a quote that still sticks with me, and that I think is going to show up in my book (properly attributed, of course). But you said that your grandmother said that at Phanat Nikhom it was the first time that she learned to be treated like a child, and that she almost felt useless in a way.

What do you remember about that?
I remember—it was horrible for her, because in all our lives together, that was the most quiet time between us. She didn’t talk to me. She was lost somewhere in herself. And I think—‘cause they didn’t prepare old people for America . They didn’t go to the classes. They didn’t give them the rules. And so everybody was preparing for America , and she wasn’t, and she knew it. They all knew it, but they didn’t talk to themselves, too, because all of her life she was tied to these children, and these children were learning all these things about this new place where life was perhaps possible for them. But she didn’t even know if there would be earth in America . And people said there was concrete and grass, and my grandma loved the earth. And so every day we would sit there on the ground, and she was really quiet, and she was really lonely. And I remember—now I look back and now I wonder why none of the adults noticed that the old people were really lonely—for six months. While I know preparations were in place, no programs were in place for them! Because old people had to go to new countries, too, and that for them it would be the hardest.

(1:06:07) I suppose the assumption was that their children would take care of them,
I know.

and that was all they needed to think about.
And there was already so much to think about.

Well, in a way, maybe your parents didn’t have this experience, but it’s something to think about, anyway. In a way, your parents’ generation was getting a preview of how they would feel when youwent to school and you learned English, and you, in some ways became more powerful than they because of our quick acquisition of all these things in America.
That is a fact. Right. That’s the way history would work up. [Chuckles] Yeah. But there and then, very lonely. A very lonely and very difficult time. Mentally, I think, it was suffocating. She looked out at the hills a lot, and now at this time, there was actually a fence. And everything that we could have was passed through that fence. And the barbed wires between these people, and this idea of a commerce—it was all really strange, because [Pauses] I think I know how a bird feels, and maybe not many people do, and not many people can say they know how a bird feels. But for those six months I think I know how a baby bird feels. Because you couldn’t fly, but you could see the sky, there wasn’t just the sky, there was a—you know, you looked in a house and there was a glass, and you could see that a world existed beyond that glass, but there was no way you could break that cage. I mean, I saw—and I remember it like a dream. I saw guards beating up a guy. It was night time and I was scared of the dark, so my father and I were sleeping outside, and the guards were beating up a guy who sneaked out of the camp—to steal bananas or something like that. And they were beating him up, and my father turned me away. But I think when you can’t help people who are being hurt, because they didn’t want to stay in the same cage with you, it’s a wonder that birds don’t go crazy, because I would have gone crazy if we’d stayed there longer than six months! And I was six years old—resilient, right? Kids are resilient, they say. But if you don’t follow the rules, there are a lot of things that happen to you. And so for my grandma and them, they could no longer run fast enough, and they didn’t have the agility to step through the barbed wire fencing. She would have maybe, if she could have. By then, it was just looking at mountains—a lot of that—in the distance. You could see them. We weren’t far from Bangkok , and there were mountains in the distance. So we looked at those a lot.

(1:08:51) So…coming to America . Talk to me about that experience, at least through the memories that you have.
Coming to America . Oh! So we’re at the Hmong American New Year, just 2000—this year.

2007 [But for the 2008 New Year].
Uh-huh. And there was a big poster of my book, and I was sitting there handing out postcards and what have you, right? And this deaf man comes and he says—he was flipping through the galley of the book. He was looking at me, and he was trying to talk to me—all of these signals, and I couldn’t understand. And then my cousin was sitting beside me, and she goes, ‘I get it.’ And she said, ‘He’s telling you that he saw you on the trip to America . You were little, and you were sleeping the whole way, and your nose was bleeding. And your father held you on his lap like a baby the whole time.’ And it’s all true! [Interviewer laughs] He was saying—and then because he was so scared that I didn’t get it, right? And he says, ‘I know you, I know you, and I’ve known you since you were so small!’ And so tomorrow he comes back, my mom was sitting there. And he told the whole story again with the same gestures. And that’s how it happened. I came to America sleeping, and my nose started bleeding, and my father held me like a baby for most of the trip. But I remember now because he remembered me so well. And I don’t know how he remembered me, how he would know it was me, but he was like, ‘Your hair was so short it was like a [bob] and you were so small! And that’s a strong memory about the trip here.

(1:10:27) Well, if you think about [Pauses] Well, if he had any anxiety at all about what that was like, and I imagine he had plenty, that certainly would have been a memorable experience, and for some reason you must have stood out in his mind.
I know! A little girl with such a bleeding nose! [Interviewer laughs] Uh-huh.

Whatever it was.
But I remember also being in Hong Kong or Tokyo, and I always say ‘or’, because in the book it’s right, and my mom says it’s right, but in my head I could be in both places, so why not? We were—the Hmong, we were told to sit along that hallway, not onto chairs, but all along a hallway, and everybody was staring at us. We didn’t feel good; I was only a kid, but it didn’t feel good to like—‘cause in the camps when people come they know they’re going to see, for the most part. But in Tokyo or in the airport, everybody was all dressed up in heels, and it was clicky on the pavement. They were all staring at us like we came from a different time, or like we weren’t entirely the same as they were, or human in some sense. And they were so curious.

(1:11:37) Certainly not ‘modern’.
Certainly not modern, although we were dressed in our finery. And so I remember that. And everything was so bright, it was hard to sleep. So I remember that. I remember landing in California , I remember seeing my first kiss—American kiss. I remember the night we got here. I remember how I didn’t understand why the yards in America were fenced. It didn’t make sense to me. I remember the big fear was that people would steal us away from our parents, as if we were really valuable—because we wore—the thing is that weren’t really valuable, but to our parents we were the most valuable thing they had—and coming to America, so much of the reason for the coming. So they got really scared that people were going to take us. And so wegot scared that people were going to take us! [Chuckles] And people were mean, too, sometimes. And in 1987, people didn’t really understand yet. And like you know, right today, some people still don’t really understand. And so they told us to go home, and they weren’t really kind, and we got really scared.

(1:12:53) Well, I have to tell you, even to these college kids at Gustavus yesterday, there was one Hmong student in there, in a class of about 20 kids, and the rest of them had never heard about who the Hmong were or what happened in Laos. It was a completely new story to them. So even now, yes…
And so even now, you see, so when I was a kid I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t know how to explain it, really. I could tell them, ‘I come from a’—they didn’t even know Ban Vinai was a refugee camp, Paul. It was just a place I lived at, and if I got lost, that’s where I was supposed to say I came from. So I didn’t even know that I was a refugee, or I didn’t even know that Hmong was anything beyond what I saw every day.

(1:13:43) Do you remember if your parents or even you had heard rumors about what America was like other than concrete and grass?
Concrete and grass, the land on the yellow giants…

Ah! Yellow giants.
Yellow giants.

Schools, opportunity, education, a place where children could get educated. That’s all I remember. Oh, and then you formed your own—shots galore. Anybody could get a shot! [Chuckles] Yeah, I think—we came with less anticipation, or fewer expectations than what most people would have, I think, assumed or thought of. Because we hadn’t known how to anticipate Thailand , and by then, after all those years of living in the camp, we didn’t know to aniticipate America , or ho we were going to find ou way through.

(1:14:40) Do you remember having ay misgivings about getting to America ? I mean, certainly you had seen planes fly in the sky, and I’m guessing that you—
I don’t remember. I don’t remember ever having seen one.

And you said you saw a globe, and you didn’t know what it was.

So I’ll just quickly relate one story that an old CIA guy told me. He said, ‘I was sitting on the hillside with some Hmong, and there was the moon.’ And it was about the time that America was sending men to the moon. And they said, ‘Well, we can understand that, we can see the moon right there, so you just get a plane, and you make sure there’s enough fuel, and you juts keep flying until you hit the moon.’

But when you say you’re going to America—you tell us it’s on the other side of a globe—we can’t see it. How are you supposed to get there?’ So did you have any misgivings about taking this trip and going to this place—other than clearly the anxiety of it being very different from your home, which you had bee told—but just the means of transportation itself, did you have any concerns about that?
I did, because we were flying—well, my concern was smaller. I thought if we all went to the bathroom a lot, [the plane] would get heavier, and it would fall down and we would die. But because I—I take very badly to pressure, especially in airplane cabins, up to this day. I felt so much pressure hovering around me. All of my thoughts are foggy in a plane, anyway, but I was really worried that if we tried to go to the bathroom too much—cause I thought I was contributing to our eventual death [Interviewer laughs] But it was a small-level fear—you know, a small-level worry. But the trip to America , it seemed, thinking back, it could be as long as a week. It felt like a week. It feels like a week if I think—and I think it’s only because I’m so used to movement, and so it was just the sitting there. Maybe it’s just the perspective of a child, but it’s—I didn’t worry. I worried that we would die if we went to the bathroom a lot, but the idea that it was across the globe, it didn’t hit. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like Thailand and America are connected at all. So if it bothered me—for all I know, even today for the most part, other than the intellectual stuff and the things you learn, it could be a totally different planet, unconnected by water or land. We lived so strange, so I didn’t worry about that. I think my mom and dad were really impressed by how quick—I mean, ‘This is so impressive, and we’re going so fast, and this is going so high, and we’re going to get there—and all this distance.’ But to me it wasn’t remarkable—no basis for comparison.

(1:17:35) So what do you remember about your initial impressions of where you and your family lived and just how strange and bizarre or maybe even scary and offensive—or fun and exciting this place was?
I think when we came, I liked the fried chicken and the soda pop.

I remember the fried chicken and the soda pop, the homes, that you—we lived in a really enclosed world. For many years it was just mom and dad trying to protect us from everything. Everything was from TV and the ice cream man. And we had a black and white TV, so everything on TV was outdated. If we looked out the window, it wasn’t a match! [Interviewer chuckles] And there was only five channels, you know? And Andy—the Andy Griffith show. I mean, that was—we watched that a lot, and that didn’t look like the America we saw! [Both laugh] We saw on the streets, and I couldn’t imagine K-Mart on TV, for example. I have no memories of the commercials, except I think in the 1980s there were more food commercials than there are now, like candy commercials for children, ‘cause I remember seeing somebody eat something, and then wanting to eat that thing, but being in the store and not knowing what I saw on TV—like making that leap was really hard for me, ‘cause that was a connection to an America that I almost couldn’t make. It took me a while, sad to admit, to see yogurt and to say, ‘Oh, that’s yogurt’ in the store—or ice cream, even, which I loved. But we saw everything through TV, so much through TV. I learned so much of [Pauses] I don’t remember learning the language from the TV or—I remember the kissing culture from TV and then comparing that to the vision of—at the airport. I remember cars. They were like the way that I felt really that we were in America , ‘cause nowhere else before did we get cars to ride in. But in America there were cars and lights. I love lights. There were lots of lights in America , which is amazing. Basements—scary. Everybody—you know, the idea was that the dead were buried underground, that people—you know, and I inherited it from my grandmother’s fear of death. So I thought ‘people go underground to visit where they shouldn’t be.’ Or ‘they’re right through those walls. There’s something there.’ So this fear, almost irrational fear of the basement began. But I wasn’t the only one. All my cousins were, too, ‘cause it was the same intellectual leap that children make. Even the adults—my mom was scared when she went to the basement, and it wasn’t only just because of the dark, ‘cause she wasn’t scared of the dark. It was because it was under the ground. So those things were really American: the basements, cars, lights, and TV, and the idea of a kissing culture, ‘cause in the Hmong culture (I don’t know if you know this) we don’t kiss, we sniff.

Yes, and Thai, too. Like if you actually watch the dramas and stuff, you don’t kiss somebody, you sniff them. So it’s like to totally different sensory things, right?—going to somebody and sniffing them or kissing them. And to this day, kissing isn’t as intimate as sniffing, to me. And I didn’t know intellectually where the marker was, but when I hold a new baby, I sniff them before I kiss them. Kissing is just something I do because it’s American, I think, but sniffing is where you take them in. So it’s a very interesting thing, but—so the kiss is very American. So these were like very American things.

I don’t know.

(1:21:28) Did you have any observations, as young as you were, about what your parents were going through in this new place?
Yes! That very first night, they began worrying about America . It’s like an old conversation. So many kids my generation would become very sick of the talk: how do we survive in America ? How do we get by? How do we get our kids educated? How will we still love each other? They were always so scared of that. And it would go on, in my family, for years and years and years and years. And even today, when we have the real, formal gatherings, they always say, ‘Thirty years after we’ve come to America , we’re so happy that we can still call everybody together.’ And then there’s always this thing, ‘We’re concerned, because we don’t need each other as much anymore.’ And necessity is really the thing that you can’t get away from as human beings. The realization that we need each other as human beings doesn’t begin in America until you’re already getting old, you’re getting frail. That’s when you realize you need other people. We can’t afford to wait this long. And so the conversations reminded me of America more than living in America reminded me of America ! [Laughs]

That’s fair enough.
[Interviewer recalls going to his uncle’s 80th birthday party and saying how wonderful and remarkable it was that he and his siblings were still close to all of their cousins and still very much enjoyed being with each other.] It’s a wonderful thing.
Isn’t it? And it’s so rich. You don’t realize that until you’re in the midst of it in America , which is so weird.

(1:23:09) So how soon—well, sorry. First, when did you come? What time of year?
July 27, 1987.

OK, so you didn’t get the shock of showing up in January or something like that.
No, we were prepared for January, but we got here in July. My father had on a jacket, had on a sweater, mm-hmm. Yeah, we were prepared for January, but we got July. [Chuckles]

Well, it was a good thing you were ready, though. [Chuckles]
I know! It did!

It would come in handy later.
Yeah, it did. So true.

(1:23:38) How soon did your parents try to get you and your sister into school?
That fall. That fall we went to—we were taken and… Because then the influx was coming, so now all of the schools are prepared to receive Hmong children. So TOESL classes for all of the necessary ages.

So I’m just guessing, and maybe I’m completely wrong, that you have some fond memories of that July and August before school started and maybe you just had some time as a family to not just prepare for school, which may have been something you were not even anticipating, but had some time in summer, in Minnesota, to maybe make connections with family members who were already here, to maybe start making a little more sense of the place you were living, Is that just my imagination, or are there things that you remember about that summer?
My first instinct—when you said that—was to say ‘I remember nothing of that summer.’ Now I can work back, ‘cause memory is a landscape we can visit time and again, and remember little things. But there was nothing—like some high point . So I don’t… I remember the TV, looking through the window. I remember these little things, but I don’t—nothing, no happy memories, ‘cause it wasn’t a reunion for me, because I didn’t know a lot of the people in America . It was just strangers for the first time, and I was a shy kid. So for the adults it was talk of reunions left and right, tears and questions and conversations, but for me, it was all new people in a new land.

(1:25:17) Was there any contact that you had with non-Hmong people before school or were these just people that you saw driving or walking by from a distance until school?
My mom and dad went to like the welfare agency and they talked to those people, so I knew they were having interactions, but no, because I couldn’t—I didn’t go with them. Or did I? No, I don’t think I did. So I remember cars, like shopping, seeing those (***) and Barbies, and seeing the blonde hair and then looking at the people and looking for blondes, but there’s all kinds of hair colors and being confused, thinking that everybody else dyed their hair. [Both chuckle] So I remember, but in a very public context, them doing Americans—because even today we call Caucasians ‘Americans’. And so I remember Americans doing the things that they were doing, but I don’t remember them doing anything directly with me. Sometimes you try to say ‘hi’ as a kid. Very hard effort.

(1:21:26) So talk to me about school. This must have been a difficult but ultimately transforming experience for you.
The transformation would take a long time. [Laughs]

For me longer than most.

Like I said, ultimately. [Both laugh]

Ultimately. Years and years down the road. But school is [Pauses] It’s that promise I never gave. You know, everybody said ‘You’re going to become an educated person,’ and I don’t remember saying, ‘Yes, I will.’ [Interviewer chuckles] It’s not a choice. There was no choice in the matter. How many kids are given choices when they don’t want to go to school anyway? But my sister was really excited about going to school. It was what she had excelled in in Thailand . So she felt confident that she could replicate the process in America . And she did successfully, immediately. For me, it was so hard, because it was, again, more rules, more structure. And I was really shy, because I was raised by people who understood immediately what my needs were. I never had to communicate. So in school, all my needs were being unmet, because I couldn’t say, and I didn’t know how to say that I needed this or that. So I remember like needing to use the bathroom at 12, and having to wait all the way until I came home to use bathroom because I couldn’t—you know, it’s all of these really simple things that I think another kid could have just said, ‘I need to use the bathroom,’ even in Hmong, but because I never had any of my—people asked me, ‘Do you need to go to the bathroom?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes,’ and they’d take me, because it’s a hole in the ground and they don’t want me to fall down. So it’s all of these things. So I feel like all of my early needs were unmet in school. And letters and stuff didn’t make sense to me. There were people who were kind and people who weren’t kind. But for the longest time I got by with nodding and shaking my head. It’s amazing how much people let people slip by them. Because I could have—somebody could have asked me to say something a long time ago. But nobody did—not successfully, anyway. And because I love pleasing people, it wouldn’t have taken a lot to get me talking. Thinking back, I see this now. But no, for the first—up until seventh grade or so I got by with just nodding and shaking my head and writing whatever I wanted to write. And so—and I was a good kid. I mean, I wasn’t loud and I wasn’t—by then I was ready, aware that rules had to be followed, to an extent.

(1:29:00) But you said writing whatever you wanted to write. So where in that process did you—
Learn how to write?

I think—well, I have documents from like when I was in second grade, already writing stories. But for me it feels like third grade was when I really understood what writing was, or like I could pick up a book and understand that it was saying something to me, that there was a message or something embedded within those things. They weren’t just blank. So third grade was probably the point where language began to make sense. But I wrote stories before then, because I—and I remember, because we went to thrift shops a lot, and we got quarters to spend. We could buy toys, but those were—when you could go a while without toys; it’s easy to get tired of toys. They don’t hold a lot of appeal, because there are ways that you’re supposed to play with a certain toy, so it’s more limiting than actually sticks and stones. So toys didn’t have that much of a hold for me. Puzzles were OK, but they smelled. The puzzles from thrift stores smelled. And you could always—I don’t know, sometimes a piece was missing here or there, and that’s frustrating. But books are cheap—ten cents a book, five cents a book, so we bought plenty of book, ‘cause my sister was picking up English so much faster than I was, and so she would read these books, and she would turn them into Chinese movies, Chinese dramas for me. [Interviewer chuckles] Now how did this come—‘cause in Vinai, there were the movie houses. You could pay a baht and go watch this TV and hey played this drama from China , Hong Kong . It was a—what did they call it?

A Kung Fu movie?
The Kung Fu movies, with the flying swords and daggers. I never had much of an attention for those things, and I was too young, perhaps, to enjoy them fully. ‘Cause she told me saw Power Rangers way before America . [Coughs]

She saw what? Oh, Power Rangers. [Laughs]
And so—

Would you like some water or something? I know I’m having you sit here talking all this time…
Could I?

Thank you. [Interviewer pauses recorder]

(1:31:20) Where were we?


Your sister and making books into Chinese movies.
Yes! And everything was a Chinese movie in her head. So she would read Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack was a—it became a Chinese drama. So in my head it was never Jack and the Beanstalk, it was—it wasn’t even Jack, it was a Chinese drama, flying around. That beanstalk wasn’t a beanstalk, it was a mountain, and he was going to get this beautiful flower that would make his ailing mother live for a hundred years. And this is the kind fo introduction I had to books, so we bought a lot of books that she would read and then make into Chinese drama for me, and I never really learned, because I only got the Chinese drama component. [Interviewer laughs] We never—we didn’t have a VCR, and some of our cousins had VCRs, especially the ones that had been here for a while, so they could watch movies and stuff. We were still stuck with TV. Now TV was very white, very middle-of-the-road, black and white television. So the books gave us different images to work with, and different ways of making these dramas take on shape and form in a way that we almost recognized. So she was a VCR for many years. [Chuckles]

(1:32:34) So—I’m sure we’ll be talking about this several times, but you know, we historians like to go back and say, ‘OK, what were the first or what were some of the early influences on you making the decision to become a writer?’
Oh, OK.

Do you see this as an important component of inspiring you to go in a certain direction: a sister who turns American literature and Western fairy tales into accessible stories for you and sort of brings them to life?
I think she has a big, an important—she was an important influence in that regard. Because I think—well, my sister, she won the spelling bee for North End Elementary as a third grader. We had been in America for two years. I don’t know how that happened—or no, a year, a year.

Oh, my!
It was her second, and it happened. I know that she was reading the dictionary for fun, part-time. [Interviewer whistles] But because I wasn’t a remarkable student, so words came really easy to her. She loved words, like she loved ‘zebra’. Every day she would say ‘zebra’ because of the way it sounded on her tongue. And she told me that everything in America had an ‘S’ on it. [Both chuckle] So it was ‘zebras’ and—everything ‘S’: ‘yellows’ and ‘pinks’ and ‘apples’ and ‘cups’—you know, everything had an ‘S’. And so it was just kind of like this attention to language on her part that forced me into silence in some sense, because she lost her accent. She told me that the world had ‘S’es everywhere, so I was using ‘S’es everywhere, in my whispering self. [Interviewer chuckles] But she lost her accent immediately. It felt like she just slipped right into the language. And so for me, talking became even more of a challenge. She became more intelligent in America, almost overnight, whereas I had always been—people always said I had good intelligence before (When we talk about intelligence, it’s really just an easy, chatty mouth. [Interviewer laughs] It’s not intelligence, right?) So I was always the—

Well, it helps if you have something to say when you’re chatting.
Like I tell my dad, if you say as many things as I do, half of them are bound to be good. [Laughs] The other’s fat! It’s proportionate, right? But so she took to language immediately, and I did not. But on the page, I could write. It’s weird, because I like to speed through. So before I knew how to write ‘A, B, C’, I was already writing cursive with it, ‘cause I wanted to make it beautiful. So that’s an early memory of wanting to make language beautiful, make it look beautiful, make it sound beautiful—secret ‘S’es everywhere, right? [Interviewer chuckles] And I was writing these stories, and these stories were no longer—they were stories about—like I have the story of the watermelon seed, and you read that in the manuscript about how this watermelon seed would grow up, and she didn’t want to be eaten. They weren’t Hmong stories, but they weren’t American stories, because the kids in the classes were writing about fairy tales, and they were writing about going to Grandma’s or uncle this or that, and I didn’t know how to translate my Hmong world into something that they would understand, but I knew that they ate watermelon and I ate watermelon. So these connections were beginning to happen very early on. So if I wrote about a watermelon, the wind could all of a sudden take it away. It would be a magical wind in my mind, but in their head the wind could grow strong enough to do it, anyway. So my stories were for everyone, and that was where again—and then, you know, the meaning became—by fourth grade I was reading chapter books, and I was reading about the Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew and all of these really mainstream books, because the library was one of the places—so we didn’t know how to have fun. We couldn’t—everything cost money, and we didn’t have money, ‘cause we were on welfare and my mom was going to school and so was my dad. And once all the bills were paid we only had like $93 or something for everything else, so everything was so tight. So every year we had a Yang picnic, and that was—you know, we’d go to the park, everybody could sit—they were pretty big then. And we had World Wrestling Federation matches that we adored, and that we thought were real for the longest time. And it was so sad when people started questioning, ‘I don’t think it’s real anymore.’ We could hear that in the family conversation, so it was really tragic. But we had those for fun, and then we had the library for us. And now, in the McDonough Housing Project there was a bookmobile. That bookmobile was parked up near the Rec Center , and we lived on 1407 Timberlake Road , so we were a little down. So we would hold hands and we would go, and we wouldn’t have to talk to the librarian; we could just check out the books. So reading became big in our house, because we didn’t have a VCR. If we would have had a VCR, I would have been something else, maybe. ‘Cause we didn’t have a VCR and the TV wasn’t amusing—because I held a magnet to it, so the black and white was destroyed forever, because there was a patch of pink, but it was always in the wrong place. [Interviewer laughs] So the TV lost its hold, and so there were books. And so when you ask me where the seeds of writing began, I think [Pauses] I think it began in the silence, ‘cause you still had to communicate somehow. And you still had to make sense of the world some way. And I think I’ve always liked to share. I’m very good about sharing and talking to people, and just being very receptive to the fact that people would be [Pauses] that people would care about each other enough. Because when the teachers are talking in English, I could understand. So when they were sharing, all my classmates were sharing things, I could get it, but they never got me, because I never spoke. So I thought it was only fair to write these stories. [Chuckles] It was only fair to write these stories for the teachers, if nobody else. So maybe that was that—it was my sense of justice. I couldn’t be silent.

(1:38:40) Did you have much knowledge of say the Chao Fa script or the Hmong RPA or this sense that there might be a way, if not right away, to also write in your native tongue, or was that not really a concern because of all this energy that had to be put into learning English and being a student in America?
It wasn’t a concern for my parents. If it would have been a priority early on, I would have learned easily, ‘cause they both knew it. But it wasn’t for them. I would have to say it would be after high school, during college when I would say, ‘Teach me. I want to learn.’ It was my decision. And then by then they said, ‘It’s so important, you have to learn.’ But before then, it was just, ‘Learn English; learn how to speak it, learn how to [write it.]’ My mom and dad were really good. They were like, ‘Hmong is beautiful. It’s the language you were born to. You’re not going to forget it, ‘cause you’re going to use it every day. But I want you to learn English, so you can move fluently within it.’ Like my dad advocated reading the dictionary. Never happened on my end. [Laughs] Like the English was the thing they didn’t get, so they wanted us to get it as much as possible—which is, I know, in a context of the immigrant experience, it’s really the way it’s always worked. You want the children to learn the language. But in our home, because there were so many of us, and we used Hmong so much, Hmong was really to learn and to know and to hold on to. And to this day, I can honestly say, on the question of language, Hmong hits my heart harder. And yet it’s so much more difficult for me to find the Hmong words to express everything I feel to the depth that I feel it, ‘cause Hmong is a language of saying ‘I love you,’ and it’s such a—this way, for me, because I don’t have the poetry that my father and my elders do, to really get at the sentiment. It’s really kind of sad. But on the everyday level, because I can control the tone of my voice, and it’s so distinctly Hmong, people always tell me that I speak Hmong so well, and that I’m so fluent. But I feel and I know that inside of myself I don’t know enough Hmong to do everything I want to do within the language.

(1:40:59) Well, that’s probably in part because you learned English so well.
Maybe. But I haven’t learned English well, Paul. I still get confused.

Well, I think anyone does, because it’s such a diverse and inconsistent language, but trust me, you’ve learned it quite well.
Well, sometimes I hear an accent, and I don’t know if it’s in the Hmong American accent or…

I think you have a very tiny accent. It’s not a noticeable as some, but I think you should hang on to it. I think it’s charming and it’s certainly nothing you need to worry about.
Well, thank you. [Interviewer chuckles] See? It took me a long time to like it, ‘cause my sister has no accent. In fact, she can put on a British accent when she wants to. And so for me it’s always been—and for the Hmong people it’s always been a caliper of how well you’ve gone into the culture and the idea of America , right.

So for me there’s always this whole thing, but now—

That’s sort of a double-edged sword for Hmong parents, isn’t it? They want their children to be successful, but they certainly don’t, in the process, want to see their children lose any part of their Hmong identity.
Exactly. It’s like that promise that I never made all over again. I think they made these promises to themselves, and the children never made them. And they sell—so you grow up, and they try to sell you on this promise that you never made. And if you’re an obedient daughter, which I think I am, in the end, then you buy it. But there are some who don’t buy it, and they rebel. And that’s when we have the real sadness come through, ‘cause then we know who the promises belong to, anyway.

(1:42:38) Do you remember being in a school with lots of Hmong kids and seeing them—if not choose different paths, then certainly see their lives turn out differently for any of what could be a wide variety of reasons?
Junior high. Elementary was OK. And by sixth grade you had the sense that there was—‘cause I grew up in the age of Hmong gangs. There were the ‘cool’ kids who had been in America longer, so they had the Starter jackets and the shoes. And then there were the kids like me who wore thrift store clothing or Wal-Mart, K-Mart clothing, and who were just quiet and just feeling their way through. And there were some kids who came at the same time that I did, but they somehow had less [Pauses]—I think it’s a consciousness of self that keeps me really uptight, because I didn’t have any friends. I was really silent, and I was really reflective—who were more comfortable. It was easier for them to become comfortable very quickly. And those were the ones who were really fumbling, and I saw that. So how and why they were fumbling? ‘Cause the cool kids were already—they were in groups. Identity wasn’t—we didn’t talk to them much, but it seemed like they knew what they were doing. And the white kids accepted them, for the most part, as more normal than we were. And then the kids who were, in theory, supposed to be working at the same level that I was, but they had grown comfortable much more easily, they wanted to fit in, and there was a problem of trying to fit in: how to fit in, fights to fit in. So I saw that then, and then in junior high, there was the ‘ditching movement.’ Every kid wanted to ditch, or a lot of kids—the cool kids were ditching.

School. And they were going out, usually to parks to sit all day and talk about nothing or something. I’m not going to judge, because I never was privy to those conversations—or to talk about life. Maybe they were going through different issues. And then, because my parents had kids in America , so we would come home and baby-sit immediately. So my schedule was all tied up in the things I had to do. But there was pressure—not pressure, but invitation to ditch if I wanted to, ‘cause by then people knew that I was already—that I could understand English for the most part—and that potentially I could be a fun ditching partner, I guess. [Interviewer chuckles] So there were invitations. And I saw—and the horrible thing was this: I had best friends—I had a best friend who I adored who was a really, really good person—or who was a good person when I knew her. She said, ‘I have to get a boyfriend. Nobody loves me in my life. My mom and dad just work and they just—they expect me to take care of all of the younger kids. And so I’m going to get a boyfriend.’ And so she got herself a boyfriend who also felt the same way: that he needed some kind of support that his family wasn’t giving him. And then they started ditching together, and then they were walking down this path, and I could see that it was really slippery and treacherous. But you can’t tell your friend that they don’t need love. And you can’t tell your friend that just because they were holding hands at the park, that was a bad thing. But I saw that they were choosing a different path than the one I would take. So that’s when it began happening: junior high. And, you know, there were also kids who were really smart, and you knew, ‘OK, those were—they’re really smart, they’re really ambitious, and they’re getting the top grades.’ But by junior high I was already academically fluent enough to get into the harder classes (I went to a math and science magnet) to get into the honors classes and to sit there without talking, and to get the grades that I wanted to get. So I was—I don’t know. I was a little odd in that way, but because I was in the center, there were invitations to ditch that I never took up on, and then there were all of these efforts to fit in that I never did fall into. And by then I was already comfortable being by myself alone, anyway, so the group pressures weren’t there, which I think is what—looking back, I think it was what a lot of the kids slipped up on, and that’s when the slippage happens, because they want to fit in. And at home everybody still said they loved me. When they could, they always said they loved you—‘We love you. So although you don’t talk in school at all and teachers say this is a big problem, we still love you.’ And that’s a lot of support and a lot of love—because I had Der [her sister], too. And Der was—she was a comfortable loner without an accent who studies the dictionary part-time, and that’s fairly strange already.

[Interviewer checks recorder]

(1:47:40) So Der also had really no desire to fit in or wasn’t tempted down that path, either?
No, because she always found one or two like herself, because she always had one or two—see, we only had friends during the school years, because during the summer we didn’t need friends because we had cousins.

[Chuckles] We had cousins, and we had each other. Plus we lived in the McDonough Housing Projects, and you really didn’t want friends there, ‘cause they’re kind of embarrassing—as kids we thought so, like there was the free lunch at school, and that’s embarrassing, because there was definitely a sense—like the lunch ladies acted differently.

Yeah. I don’t know if it’s only a kid thing. I try to think back and I try to be very fair, but we couldn’t have been picking up on nothing. And so—

Well, and it may not have been a free lunch kid thing, it may have been a Hmong kid thing.
Oh yeah, but some Hmong kids are working, you see? Or it was that their parents are working already by then. So it was [Pauses] I don’t know. Maybe it was because we felt embarrassed because we felt we were taking handouts. And so we protected an unease that we were picking up on. But I think for the most part the people who worked at North End who were very used to Hmong kids, they were trying very hard to make Hmong kids comfortable. And that’s something that I really do want to communicate. All of the influences then were in school. All of the American influences were purely educational and library-affiliated. And they were all there because they wanted to be there. The librarians wanted to be there and the teachers wanted to be there, versus like the people on the streets who were still being mean to us. So [Pauses] I am lost. Where is the question?

(1:49:32) I was just asking if Der had any temptations to go down the ‘fitting in’ path, and you said no, ‘cause you had each other and
We had each other, so we weren’t tempted. I mean, sometimes I remember wanting to try out lipstick in eighth grade. But that was a brave move, ‘cause some girls wore lipstick and some didn’t, and I was very much… I’m very much a little girl still in my 27th year, so imagine me then—very much a little girl, shaking with a tube of this lipstick in my hands, right? And I just—I realized that fitting in was more than just a language or a cultural thing. It was like a personal thing. You had to be inclined to fit in to fit in. And I wasn’t particularly inclined to fit in, although I was really lonely. I grew to like being lonely, and I think she did, too. And so we were really lonely by ourselves, so with each other we were entirely not lonely, [Chuckles] and we were not alone in the world.

You were lonely together.
We were lonely together. There you go. We were lonely together. And so that was fine, so we never—it was never tempting. Gangs didn’t want me. I’m not the really swarthy physical, menacing type.

Or the ‘I’ll do anything for my guy’ kind of person, either, I would guess.
Yeah. The loyalty was to family already. If I had a gang, it was my family.

(1:50:59) Well, and it sounds like part of that as well was—well, joy of joys, your parents started having children.
They did! And that took up a lot of time, a lot of responsibility.

But responsibility, it sounds like, you were happy to have, because of what it meant to your parents—at least in part.
In part, yeah.

Certainly there were—
In part. Yeah. I mean, the other thing was I was the baby and I was losing my status, whatever. But I was happy. It was good to have siblings. ‘Cause my father said that our team was getting bigger. And I believed him, and I believe him still. And so we were having children, and the children needed a lot of time. And the wonderful thing about the children was, whatever angst we were having, they weren’t. This is it—this is all they knew. And everything was great, and everything was beautiful, because I always had—my role was always to—people show me things for the first time and I was dazzled. And so I could share that with other people. But the children, everything that I showed them was for the first time, it seemed, ‘cause my mom and dad were working so hard. We had these kids, and so water boiling was so amazing for my brother.

As long as he didn’t put his hand in it!
Yeah, exactly! Which was like—it’s kind of amazing to me, too, if it’s so amazing to him, right? So it was all of this experience and this kind of maturity that was happening, on a level. That really took me away from the kind of culture that would have influenced, I think, my future outcomes. But I felt good people made choices.

(1:52:37) You said that you didn’t necessarily have a desire to fit in, but that you were lonely.

Did you ever have feelings like, ‘If only I could be white’? or ‘If only I could look like this or behave like this or speak like this?’
I loved bring Hmong, and I have always loved being Hmong, which is interesting, because some people my age don’t, and they don’t speak Hmong because they had that kind of questioning. But because I feel like I come from such a great people and I’ve always had—whatever problems I had, I knew that it wasn’t because of the way that I looked or the way I had lived my life. The challenges came when in high school, for example, when all my friends could—or other people could join clubs, and things after school and do these things—go to birthday parties, for example, and by cousins for their friends at Christmas, and we didn’t have that kind of ability, so I wanted to be [Pauses] How do I phrase this? I wanted to do good things for other people that necessitated the resources I didn’t have. And so I wished that we wee richer; I wished we had more money. I wished my mom and dad had jobs that paid them a little more. These were the wishes that I had, and I wished that we had a little bit more money, then we could buy one or two hours after school to join the math club or something like that. These are the wishes. And I was so sad for my mom and dad, because I wished I could buy them nicer things. In the first American dream that so many children have is you want to buy your parents a house. And that was done in my dream. And so we had these really impatient hearts, and we wanted to outgrow ourselves to the future, so that we could do all of these things with these resources that we couldn’t have. And that for me was the biggest challenge, because it was a [Pauses] You know, so much of America takes money to be nice. And because we are a nice people, we wanted to be nice. And so when we got something nice for Christmas from a friend, we wanted to be able to give something back. But we couldn’t; not to that extent. And so it was this kind of challenge. But I think—I always get asked this question, and it’s always—I think about it a lot: What’s the biggest obstacle that you’ve come across to being who you are? (Job interviews and everything) There’s a thousand things I could cite, but I think the biggest obstacle is always within myself. I fight a lot within me. I fight against the impulses to live a life like so many other people, to have that kind of privilege. And then I also fight because I know that, like my dad says, ‘You’d be like everybody else if I raised you like everybody else, if you had everything that everybody else has. This fear of mediocrity, that we would just—that all of this trip, and all of this coming to America would mean nothing, because we would just be like everybody else—because not everybody gives something back to the world that they belong to. There’s a big responsibility to give back for Der and I, ‘cause my father and my mother say, ‘You don’t just want to be heavy on the earth. If you’re going to weigh on it, then you have to give it something.’ And from an early, early age [Pauses] You know, it began in America . We felt like we had to give something back. So we fought to give things back, but we couldn’t then. So he would have to sit us down and say, ‘Why are you so impatient? Everything happens in time. You have to build the pieces so you can get there and do that. So you’re fighting yourself so it’s a useless battle.’ But the fight has always been, because I wanted to go further than I could have at any given moment in time. It was never (***) loneliness ‘cause I think there’s a romance to being lonely. You realize it’s a luxury and a privilege when you stop becoming lonely. [Chuckles] And then you miss how you were then

(1:56:37) So you must have thought about people like Emily Dickinson and—
Dickinson .

why can’t I think of her name? Jane Austen.
Jane Austen. In—

Not when you were younger, but certainly as you began to study literature and maybe look at figures who—
In high school, yeah, ‘cause I was—my 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. Gallatin, changes the way I see myself and in written—in the language of America —ever, because she told me I was a good writer. She said that there was something that I could do when I was at my best, working very hard, that I was doing something fundamental, because I was giving a piece of myself to the way something already is in my response to literature and the world around me. And that changes, I think—I remember now, and I remember feeling like, ‘Then I’ll be OK.’ Because I wasn’t meant to become a writer, I was meant to be a doctor or a lawyer, like so many other Hmong people, so many other immigrant children, right? But I thought, ‘I couldread a piece of literature.’ And for the longest time—so I had the secret down. I knew that if you go to class and you do your work and you just sit there and listen, then your grades will be fine—‘cause I wasn’t exactly intellectually slow enough so that I wouldn’t pick up the things, and that was the secret to success. But in writing you had to do more than that. You couldn’t just go to class and sit there and take it and generate it. You actually had to go into yourself and find something there. And so that process, it ruined my original secret, but that allowed me into a different kind of way through the world.

(1:58:12) Your ‘original secret’? What do you mean by that?
Well, just that you had to do the work!

Right? But it was (***) work until you really had to create something. But I discovered in literature—and this is so funny. I don’t know, it’s almost so stereotypical, but I was really lost, and there was a period where I was—everything that I was reading was influencing the way I was writing. And I had no idea that I was going to be a writer, for all that it was, but I was practicing my signature a lot, too. And so American History IB [International Baccalaureate] I would practice my signature, and then in English I would be lost, in writing all of these things from Kissinger, for example. We were reading the—diplomacy from Kissinger, and I was practicing lines from Kissinger and trying to write like him. It was a mess. My teacher gave me [Walt Whitman]—Leaves of Grass. He only gave me one page, and I don’t know where it is. I’ve never gone back looking for it, where he says, ‘I’m so lost, and I want to be like everybody else who is great. ‘Cause all I know and all I want to be is something great.’ And so this thing is—for a moment it dawned on me that, ‘Gosh, I’m so insular; my world is so small. Somebody was already here, and he did it. And if it happened to him, it happened to other people. So a connection with human beings happened then and there, that wasn’t there before. ‘Cause I think when you’re a teenager, everything that happens to you happens to you, and the world is like that. And then you realize, ‘It happens to other people,’ and you don’t just want to be them, because they’re already there. But you have to be something else. And so that’s where I was in high school. But by high school because they detract education, it’s kind of controversial. I think about it, and I knew that because I took all of the IB and CP classes, there were privileges I got that other kids didn’t get: attention, books, field trips to the Ordway, for example, or a tour of the Guthrie Theater to see plays. We got extra credit for going to go and see these things. In the classes, there were the same kids almost in every class, and most of them were white kids. We had—I went to Harding High School , and we had black kids, too, but there weren’t many in the classes, and there were Hmong kids. And there was a fair representation—not fair—but there were some, but not a lot. So I knew that the tracking of education allowed me so many privileges and world views that I wouldn’t have gotten that changed me fundamentally forever, because I was in the history IB program, my teacher felt I should apply for the Minnesota Historical Society internship, which I actually did with my best friend, jst to check it out, and I ended up working at the James J. Hill House and seeing all the parties that they hosted there on the weekends. And that was a different world—all the flowers, all of the food, and then just learning the history of the place: this is America and this is what this man did. And then his fireplace, and if you hold the light at an angle you can see a lion’s face. It changes you. And so tracked education has made all of the difference, ‘cause I don’t know how I would have been—but see, I wasn’t special to begin with. I don’t know who selected me for this track, right? Because there were a lot of kids in the hallway, Hmong kids, black kids, white kids, who weren’t tracked, and they slipped through. And so if it could happen for everybody, it’s a great thing, but because it didn’t happen for everybody, I recognize that somewhere along the way somethi happened, and it changes everything else.

I hear you. And it’s a difficult thing, because there’s that fine line between students looking for opportunity and students not being given opportunity, and…
And opportunities finding students who didn’t know how to look, like me, you know? And so…

(2:02:24) So in the midst of all these things that are going on, and especially as you look now at this book that you’ve written, do you feel like there were almost times when you felt badly that just—not that you weren’t with your grandmother, but maybe that you didn’t think about her as often as you used to when you were with her all the time?
So when I was with her all the time, and then in the beginning, I missed her. And then I got used to the missing her. And then when she came for the summers, I got used to that time with her, and we always had—I always looked forward to it, and it was a really special time. But I never regretted, because every time that I was with her, it was time so well spent. And so I figured and I accepted that it was a part of our life. But like the whole education tracking thing, you realize that certain things are privileges, and so I always felt like—OK, I wanted to be kind of a small—I had a small understanding that I had to struggle and do some things. But in the IB and CP programs, I realized. ‘I’m privileged.’ And so I see the way that I’m living, my everyday—a lot of people are living harder struggles within the same institution. And the same became true of my grandma. I knew that I missed her, but some kids spend their whole lives missing their grandmothers. You know? And so I got to see her during the summer, and I tried to make those times special. And I think that’s when there was a social—how do I want to say it? It’s not a social consciousness, really, that’s almost too broad, but feeling like I had to do something back. So ever since I was a 12-year-old kid, I started tutoring women in Mt. Airy home—Vietnamese women—English as a second language. And I sucked and they sucked and we sucked together! [Both laugh] And that’s the truth of it, but they were so desperate for a tutor, and so they allowed this little kid in to tutor these seven Vietnamese women every Thursday night, and it was just horrendous, but it was a horrendously wealthy and rich experience for me and them. So beginning from that point on—because then I realized that I had certain privileges and that I had an obligation [Pause]—a wanting to; less an obligation than a wanting to—

A desire, yeah.
—to share. Yeah. So I began doing these little things on the side that I thought were good. So like in class, when I was in these CP and IB classes, I would volunteer to go to the ESL classes so I could teach these lessons that I had learned previously. And so teaching began early on as a way of sharing all that I was learning. [Chuckles] More than anything else, with people that needed it. So by the end of high school I knew that I was a lucky, lucky girl. It takes a long time. It took me a long time—I had suspicions that I was really lucky, but by high school, it was cemented in my head that of all of the people I knew, I was one of the luckiest—including Der. I’m luckier than her.

I know—which is a weird thing to say, but I’m luckier than her. People are nicer to me than her. She has to fight for everything. And sometimes I don’t have to fight for them. Sometimes you’re pre-selected in some sense by a selection process that may or may not have been fair. [Pauses] So there you go. [Chuckles] Up to 12th grade.

(2:06:19) I have to ask you about the haunted house, because it’s that part of the book that will make people think, ‘Mmm, what’s this all about, and where does this fit into the story?’ or even ‘Is she making this up?’ But obviously one of the benefits of your parents working so hard and studying so hard was that ultimately you did move out of McDonough Homes and one of the places that you went to was this house that you wrote about in your book.
Section Eight housing. Now the very important point, why I chose to include that story—it really did happen, but why I chose to include it was that so many other people living in Section Eight housing had stories of ghosts. They all—you know, all my cousins and my aunts and uncles all had experiences and encounters. Section Eight housing is a program, a government program for low-income families, subsidized housing. And these houses are sometimes left behind or they’re foreclosed or for whatever reason they end up in the hands of the government.

[Marlin Heise comes through and remarks, ‘My, but they talk a long time’.]

We do!
We are good.

We can’t help ourselves.
We’ve been talking [Chuckles]. So already there is—consciously there is a rich possibility for what could have happened in these houses to get them here and now in our hands. But all of these cousins have stories about little babies crying where there are none, and stuff like that. So I thought it was true to our experience to include the stories, because it wasn’t just us; it wasn’t just a singular experience out of the blue.

Do you say that in the book, by the way—that this is a story that you heard from lots of other families?

So in that way I felt like I had a duty to tell it the way it was, because it kind of makes me sound [Pauses] You fight so hard for credibility, and in a chapter like that, you can really lose it. But because I think it’s so true to our experience, I had to be honest in that part, but if I really want the book to matter to me, I have to put a piece of myself out there. So it’s one of those parts. But it’s weird. I think back, and I think about that first time I ran into that room to get the diaper, and I see a slashing movement, and I turn back. And a boy in a striped shirt jumps into the closet! And I felt fear that I feel, and I wasn’t anticipating it, so it’s a very strange, strange occurrence. And it’s an experience that would replicate itself. It happened to different members of my family in difference ways. But in this part, two years ago, we went to the soccer tournament, July 4th. And the house is 1259 St. Albans . It’s right near Como Elementary School at Como Lake . So we drove past the house for old time’s sake. And there’s five of us in the car. I was sitting in the front, we were looking out the car, and the little boy in the striped shirt pulled up half the curtain and he looked at us. [Interviewer laughs] And now I knew that I had seen, but I didn’t say anything, and a little further down you see the little boy. And my brother and one of my sisters said they saw, but because there were six of us, three of them didn’t see. Three of them said nothing lifted, that it was just the house with the curtains and that was it. But three of us saw. And so [Pauses] I don’t know how to explain it for all that it happened to us that way. It happened that way. It’s scary, ‘cause it links it up with death so immediately. But in terms of ‘threatening’, I don’t see it as such. I believe that such things are possible and that the human mind is so strong, it can create so many things. But to think that my mind is that strong, that it could influence two other minds to think the same thing at the same time is a little bit egotistical. [Both laugh] So there must be another explanation, another bigger idea of a world that I don’t really fully understand yet. And that’s fine with me. I know there’ a lot of things that I don’t know, and that’s why I have a lot longer to live, I hope.

(2:10:27) So when you graduated from high school, were you already thinking, ‘I’m going to study English, I’m going to study writing,’ or was this just something that you’d been encouraged in, that you knew, at least on some level, that you were good at and maybe would fit in your college plan somewhere along the way?
So before college something really important happened: 1986 Welfare reform.

Ah, yes.
My grandma came, and my uncles migrated, along with some of the other Hmong families, to Minnesota , ‘cause we were softer on the reforms. And that was when citizenship became a really big issue for my family. We didn’t want to be citizens per se. It would be fun to have a passport, because then the homemade videos from Laos were coming in, and there were a lot of tears. For the first time they saw the trees, you know? In the beginning it was so novel. So it would be fun to have a passport, and it was hard to get a passport if you didn’t have citizenship in the country. But 1986 forced a decision. We had to become citizens. Because we had to evaluate that by then so many kids had been born here. Is this more home to the Hmong than any other home we’ve ever known since Laos ? There’s no way back? So for my family, because we were less political than some [Pauses] ‘cause politics hadn’t done so well by us, so [Chuckles] in my family it’s worked out this way. But we decided that we would try for citizenship. But for me it was a horrible time, because I became sick, and I think it’s all connected and my aunts and uncles were trying and they were failing. ‘Cause those hundred questions, for somebody who doesn’t speak English, nearly impossible. So lots of low self-esteem and lots of considerations of ‘Are we fit to become American citizens? Are we good enough?’ For the first time we asked ourselves, ‘Are we good enough in the eyes of the country?’ And so 1986 was really important. And it changes me, because I realize then, because I have been so afraid of death and I still kind of am, but I realized that we all die eventually. Because the only way I wasn’t getting better by getting sick; I wasn’t getting better by feeling sick. I realized that if I wanted to be [Pauses] that I could die crossing the street, I could die tomorrow, but the best thing to die would be to die for something I believed in, to die with people thinking that, ‘Oh my god, Kalia had been a good person. She hadn’t done anything bad yet, and she just died,’ right? So there was my big life mission, Paul, I didn’t go to college thinking I would become something in j—my mom and dad wanted me to become a doctor, and I was OK with the idea, ‘cause it would allow me to help people. ‘Cause I have a good heart. I realized I had a good heart because I could handle the badness in the world and other people, ‘cause that would just make me cry. So I realized I had a good heart. I realized that—‘cause I went to this junior high that was a math and science magnet; I was good at that, I had strong foundations. In high school I didn’t slack, so I did well enough to keep that possibility open. But this 1986 and what that suggested to me was it gave me an understanding—if I wanted to die—I mean, we all would die, and it didn’t matter if I wanted to die or not, one day I would die. In the pursuit of that, before that space I would do something worthwhile with my life. So I went in college, and I remember writing—because we didn’t have a computer—going to my uncle’s house and sitting in my cousin’s—my cousin has a green mural bedroom. Everything is green, the walls are green. There is like fake leaves and there’s fake green birds, and there was like a fake mango tree, and everything is green. And I’m sitting in this green bedroom writing in the dark, the night before the applications are due, thinking that I was going to go to the University of Minnesota potentially, because I was a minority encouragement scholarship student, and they would fund me entirely, and also thinking that I could also do Macalester, because it was in the Cities, I heard that it was good. I never visited, but I heard that it was good—and then Carleton, because one day they came to talk at school, and that was the science—my Spanish test, an I didn’t feel quite prepared. So I went in to sit down with the spokesperson from Carleton, but they weren’t talking to me, because… So I ranked number two in my—or I tied for number one or something like freshman year—you know, really high on the ranks, and I did really well, and then I did really well, and then I got really sick and I fell all the way to 17 or something like that. So by the time I was nearing graduation, I was like at number 11 or 12, right on the border. Whatever the semester turned out to be, I could probably be on the top ten or not. So the lady from Carleton came. Her name is Julie, and I still remember her. She wasn’t interested in me, per se, and I wasn’t interested in her, too, because I didn’t really think I was interested in Carleton. And I went, and they talked about a swimming requirement, and I never—‘Swimming? No, I don’t do that; I’ve never done it!’ [Chuckles] I wish I knew how, but it wasn’t interesting to me, so… But then I visited because one of my friends’ sisters went to Carleton, and she said that it was a great school. And so I visited just to see what a great school looked like, which is funny, but I didn’t know! [Laughs] And so I remember being there and hearing the choir sing, and I’d never heard it before, and it was amazing. But they were singing and they were so angelic, and it was what I saw on TV at like east coast schools—you know, those early college movies where people go to college, and that’s what t was like, and then walking through the campus and imagining, ‘Can I see myself here?’ ‘Cause it was such a quiet—it was winter term, and it was such a quiet place, and everybody was walking alone. I figured, ‘This would be a good place for loners!’ [Interviewer laughs] And so that’s where the idea took root.

But I remember sitting in my cousin’s bedroom trying to write—‘cause Carleton has three essays—what I wanted to be, what I wanted to do with my life, and what I felt would prepare me to succeed there. And I couldn’t, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I remember writing—‘cause I remember it was a last-minute thing—promising that I would do something. It was a promise: I wanted to do something great. I wanted to be somebody good, that before I knew anything I knew I wanted to be a good person, because there were so few of those in the world. And that was it, and that’s the promise I made to Carleton, and that’s the promise I made to myself, that I would be a good person, and that it wouldn’t be a waste of experience. I know I’m not the smartest person, ‘cause I’m not interested in intelligence, but I knew that I could do well in academics if I had the opportunity. And I didn’t know what the public school system had prepared me for this academically rigorous thing that they’re talking about. My ACT scores were respectable, and I would go and I would try my best, and I wouldn’t embarrass them. I don’t know where—you know, you’re 18 and you say you won’t embarrass a school! [Both laugh] ‘Cause I was thinking, because my dad was saying, ‘If you go to this school, which is—we hear it’s a good school, and you fail out, then you would really embarrass the school, and embarrass yourself. But the school would be embarrassed for selecting you in and’—right? ‘And you have to think about these things, and’—‘cause he didn’t want me to go far away from home, which—he would rather I go to Macalester, if anything, ‘cause it would be right close by. So I remember making a promise that I wouldn’t embarrass anyone—all four years, I wouldn’t embarrass anyone, [Chuckles] which was kind of [Pauses] very ambitious. It was a big leap. ‘Cause my sister went to Hamline University , and it was a big leap already, and so I was really intimidated. And I went there with this promise that I would do some good, thinking that math and sciences, doctoring was an OK choice. So they took me into this like pre-college program for math and science students, and I went in there for a month, didn’t really like the sciences much. I remember writing a paper for biology, like the biology of cancer, saying that the prostate gland was like the size of a chestnut or something like that, and the teacher was laughing her head off, because it was so unscientific. [Interviewer laughs] But I don’t remember [Pauses] But I went in on the math and science track, and I didn’t declare a major until two years later. It’s such a big culture shock, which I think is important. There were—by the time I went there, there were seven or eight Hmong kids. In my year there were like four of us and one would drop out. And so there were three, and one would leave, and there were—no, there were five, so there would be three left—all girls. But there were more girls there than boys—Hmong, and the Hmong girls had an easier time than the Hmong boys. And I realized tat immediately. I didn’t really know, why, because it seemed like everything was pretty much the same, but they were having a harder time staying, and they were having a more challenging time while being there. And everything was kind of [Pauses] I felt like they had more pressure, because they talked about how Carleton was a good school, and to m it didn’t matter if it was a good school or not, because it was a good place to be a loner. But they talked about how it was a good school, and they felt that kind of pressure, and I didn’t. But I didn’t know how to use e-mail, and everybody knew e-mail. And I got my first e-mail as a gift for going there, and so everything was so new, and the public school system, Harding High School tried to prepare me as best it knew how, but not for the wealth and the breadth of experience that my class would have coming to those things, ‘cause we would talk about Egypt, and somebody had been to Egypt. We would talk about politics and somebody had personal experience with politicians. In Harding High School , I didn’t have that kind of credibility or authority. So I grew quiet again, ‘cause I couldn’t say—and then when we talked about race or [Pauses] We didn’t talk about the Hmong experience, and we talked about a race I didn’t know—it was black and white race. And so that was still so much the culture. And so to say, ‘We’re here, too,’ was kind of weird, and it was a very strange dynamic. Carleton wasn’t great for me on this level, but it was phenomenal for me in understanding what an authentic experience can do in shaping perspective and authority. ‘Cause these kids can talk with authority. When you talk about DC, they interned in DC. And because they were privileged they had all kinds of things that they could bring to the table, and I learned so much about what experience can do in backing up academic positions and stuff like that, ‘cause there was a line where theory ended and where life began. And my life had nothing to do with theories; I couldn’t see a link yet. But Carleton challenged that. You know, I was like a shy kid, all right? So if I was in your class, I’d be really shy, at the back of the class and hear you talking trying to give us the full picture of something. And then I wouldn’t ask questions. But by the end of the semester, if there was a really big thing, I garnered enough confidence to say, ‘Explain this to me one more time.’ I didn’t challenge it, but I could say, ‘Explain this to me one more time.’ And it was really slow processing that way, but I had more alone time than I ever had in my life, to think about everything in my life from a different—from a distance. Now when I came home, people said I was becoming more Americanized. My cousins and my family were saying, ‘You’re becoming more Americanized, because you eat according to different times and all these’—they were noticing all of these little changes. They were saying, ‘You are becoming less Hmong.’ And I didn’t get it, ‘cause I was just becoming more lonely, more of a loner. I wasn’t becoming more ‘Carleton’ in that way. I didn’t go around hiding the philosopher’s head, which is a big deal over there, or streaking, or any of that college drinking environment. I was just becoming more of a loner, but they were saying I was becoming more different from them, and that was hard. I remember being frustrated. I remember reading Rodriguez. My sister read Rodriguez to me before I went—the essay about how education became the distance between himself and his parents that he couldn’t leap; how one day he no longer had the ability to translate all of these things that he was learning into his home life, and how this great gift that his father had wanted for him would be the thing that would push him away from them. So I went to college in tears, and all throughout my four years that rang in my head. And every time we talked on the phone, I tried to explain Jane Austen, I tried to explain Emily Dickinson, I tried to explain all of these things. But I went on to college and I ended up being very true to myself, studying all of the things that were interesting to me, which turned out to be American Studies, Cross-Cultural Studies and Women and Gender Studies: al three inter-disciplinary things. The classes were so overlapped that I could get credits for all of them, which was intelligent, right? And I got in the math and science credits on the side, because that was my—that was going to be the promise, the delivery of the promise. But by my junior year, because of everything else that was going on, I became—I worked in a program called the Trio Student Support Services, which is a federal program.

(2:24:27) Trio?
[Yes] Which is a federal program which supports low-income, first-generation, and disabled students. And Carleton is the only college in its tier with that program. But I worked for them immediately, because they had a lending library, and I remember that summer when I went there, I knew that I didn’t have money to buy the books, that my mom and dad didn’t have the money to buy the books for me. So I was going to do work study, but even that wasn’t going to be enough. So I asked the lady there about their lending library, and she says—and then she requested—and this is where I say ‘I’m privileged, because somebody pre-selected my work study so I would be with them for four years. And in doing these things, they were looking for peer leaders, student leaders to bring up class issues at Carleton, because when you looked at it—race and all these other demographics—it didn’t hit as hard as class did. ‘Cause people didn’t talk about money, because there was an assumption that people had money. And so my work was to bring up these class issues—very hard for a very silent girl who never speaks, but who really feels for these things. And so after two, three years, I needed a break, and that’s when I went to Thailand, thinking that I would go find that little girl in the camp, some of the magic that was lost. I needed that trip. So I went for a semester. My journey into Hmongness almost happened, but it didn’t. I came back, because in Thailand , then, everybody said I was a Hmong. They would say, ‘What are you?’ and I would say I was Hmong, and they would day, ‘No, you’re Japanese or something. You just don’t understand English. ‘Cause Hmong doesn’t look like that’ or ‘A Hmong doesn’t come from America and look like that.’ So my idea of who I was—and then I went to see what Hmong people looked like, and in the universities they had Thai last names, and they didn’t want to be affiliated with Hmong people. And then in the villages, they spoke Thai more than they spoke Hmong. And the Hmong people there were looking at me as if I was American. And yet all the Thai people said I wasn’t [Pauses] And so this whole thing—a new kind of difference emerges. But I remember coming back feeling like I didn’t belong in Thailand , as well. And the camp no longer existed, and everybody at home said I was becoming more Americanized, but I wasn’t getting used to the people at Carleton. But coming back with a stronger voice, because of all of these things, I did more writing. And so that’s where I got my first good piece: “Daughter of a Pathological Liar.” [Interviewer chuckles] And that changed everything for me, ‘cause in my heart I knew. It made sense; I’d been keeping all these journals all along the way. I sucked—I’m suicidal with the grammatical structures that govern the English language, and although I teach composition sometimes, it’s still one of my big [Pauses] without knowing that thing, (***) says it’s like going to battle with only a sword and no shield. But with learning them, as I’m doing them in the process, it’s kind of strange, so I had this idea that I would become a writer, so I applied to writing schools. The University of Minnesota didn’t want me. I was too rough. They didn’t have the time and the resources to train me. But I wrote an essay—I wrote my essay about my father, how he sits in front of our TV and he cries, ‘cause he thinks one place is the place where his father is buried, and he thinks it’s another. Every day it’s a different place. But this video that somebody filmed of the place where he was born. And I think Columbia University , the School of the Arts, they didn’t know what Hmong was, but she had an idea that the world might need to know. And it was on this gamble that they took me in. And they offered me—because I didn’t have a writing portfolio, so I had to create one very fast. And so it was a non-fiction one, because all of my strongest pieces had been non-fiction. But I thought fiction would be more fun. So I applied to fiction and non-fiction, and fiction didn’t want me, but non-fiction said that they would offer me one of their biggest—they only had two writing fellowships for writers, and they would give me one of them on the promise of the work that I would do. And they would regulate my work there for two years, right? And then the thing would run out, and usually it takes people like five years to get the MFA, because they want that writing time for their thesis, ‘cause that’s the average germination time for a book, anyway. So I went there knowing that I only had two years to do my work, and knowing that I had to keep the fellowship and write a story that mattered, a story that would deliver on my promise to Carleton and my promise to myself, and this divergence from medical school, that I had to do as much work. [Interviewer chuckles] So that’s what I did. It’s a lot.

Indeed it is.
No, I mean I said a lot of things. [Laughs]

It wasn’t a lot to do, because—when you only have time, Paul, when you only have time, it’s amazing how much work gets done.

(2:29:54) I’m going to backtrack for just a second, because I had forgotten that you got so sick.

And I can’t remember if you actually say in the book or maybe you honestly don’t know what the cause of that sickness was.
The doctors diagnosed it after months and months of study as Lupus, but “baby” Lupus, because it wasn’t deteriorating as fast. Now Lupus is like the ghost disease. Nobody knows how you get it, it happens to pre-teen girls more than any others—or teen girls more than any other population. But it’s a [Pauses] it’s like a disease that you can’t cure. It’s an ongoing, lifelong disease. It’s the immune system attacking itself. So they placed me on Vioxx and Plaquinol, and Plaquinol took away my eyesight, so now I don’t see as well as I used to. And then the Vioxx, there’s a lot of issues; there were a lot of lawsuits after the Vioxx deal. But I took it, I stopped in Thailand when I went on that [trip]—I just stopped it one day ‘cause I got sick of it, and I jus never went back on it. I just came back and everybody sad that all of my blood counts were back to normal, and there was nothing wrong, that the baby Lupus may have been a misdiagnosis.

Hmm! OK.
But I was sick for a long time. And so that was the diagnosis.

(2:31:12) But your health in general is pretty good?
These days?


I know, isn’t it weird?

(2:31:21) So talk to me about these two years at Columbia . This was a lot of pressure—I mean, welcome pressure in many ways, because you were given a fellowship and you were given an opportunity that very few people get, but still pressure.

Pressure’s not always bad.
Pressure’s not always bad, but in addition to the fellowship—‘cause that was only half of my tuition—I needed to fund the other half.

[Interviewer gets up to close doors to an adjacent room where some people are talking.]

(2:31:55) So I was saying I still needed a way to fund the thing. I remember a guy getting a flyer one day about a (***) he knew for the Soros Fellowship for New Americans. One night I couldn’t sleep, because I didn’t know where the money was coming from. And at this point I didn’t know if I was getting into writing school, but regardless of where I was going, I needed money. So I stayed up all night and I found this thing that’s a fellowship. It gives money primarily to Harvard and Stanford students. So there you go; there was a heavy bias. Most of them were new Americans, and most of them were from South Asia, so most of them were Hindi or India , and they were from these prestigious schools. And then the other half were Europeans from very prestigious schools who were already geniuses in their own right with so many accomplishments under their belts. But I applied anyway thinking I had nothing to lose. Occasionally I feel like I have nothing to lose and I do all of these courageous things that I really had nothing to lose without trying, anyway. But my grandma died near the end of my graduation year. We always talked about how she would go to my graduation. And every time my father dropped me off at Carleton, she would say it was a trip, and she was looking at the country— America . This trip between St. Paul and Northfield was the country, and that she was visiting my garden, she said. She said in America we didn’t garden anymore, that Carleton was my garden and she was visiting my garden. And every time I came home from break she would be there at home waiting for me, ‘cause I did her laundry, and because I cut her toenails and fingernails, and because she missed me. And so she was getting sick. It was December 25th she fell down. January she was really sick. She would die on February 18th, but in that interim she was really sick, and I was at school doing my dissertation on—or my thesis, we call it our thesis, yeah—on contesting the English language requirement in the citizenship process. You can see where that came from—1986, right?

‘Cause the person wasn’t changing, the person was only growing up, and all these things were still inside and they needed room to come out, so that was my thing. And I was contesting that vigorously, and my grandma was really sick. And I applied for this fellowship that I thought I had no chance of getting. But it was promise to change the landscape of America forever, fundamentally. And I don’t see myself as a leader, but it necessitated a definition of leadership, a brand of leadership that people could use. And so I came up with this definition, and I’ve been shaky about it ever since, but I still hold on to it, that a leader is someone who went somewhere where others would voluntarily and willingly follow, and who left a path wide and generous enough for them to see their way through to wherever you are standing. And so that was my promise to them. And I went to those—they get like thousands of applications, they set up like 80 to go to these interviews. And I was selected to go into them. And I prepped to—I told my family, and then—I keep things fairly private, but I told my family, and so my uncle prepped me. He said—we go to his houses, Uncle Ong—the one who became a monk. He says to me, ‘You have to go, and you have to say’—‘cause Henry Kissinger was on the board of this fellowship—He says, ‘You have to say—you have to speak very loud.’ And I’m like, ‘Um…’ Have you notice how all the old Hmong guys speak really loud, especially with military-types, right? And I say, ‘Why?’ And he goes, ‘Because in the Hmong culture, if we don’t speak loud, we’ve never been heard before. And so you have to go and you have to speak very loudly. All of the men in our family, when they’re really angry’—and I’m like, ‘Oh, my god!’ And then my other uncle says, ‘Remember that life in America is like driving. Before you make a turn, you have to signal a long way so people can follow you.’ And these were the kinds of advice that they were giving me for this thing that I was saying I didn’t know! And it was really all over the place, and I really didn’t know how to use this advice! But it was really weird, because we were in this interviews, and they asked me, Warren asked me— Warren is the director of the fellowship, and he asked me—we’re at this table, nobody knew what a Hmong was. Nobody from Carleton had ever gone to this fellowship before, so nobody knew. Everybody was from the big Ivies. We were eating with utensils, and I didn’t know which one I should start with. And they were drinking wine and of course I had never been exposed before, and I was wearing my first suit and it didn’t fit, because I was too short, obviously. And it was the most uncomfortable situation, and he says, ‘Are you thankful to America for fighting in that war? Where would you be now if it had not been for the American influence in the war?’ [Pauses] And I was still shaking, and so I speak, and I tried to speak really loud like my uncle said, ‘cause I thought, ‘OK, now’s the time,’ right? But it came out like a squeak. And I remember it this way. I remember it this way: I even remember saying, ‘I would be in the hills of Laos with a baby on my back and a hoe in my hands going to my life, and feeling like this is the life I belong to.’ And so he looks at me for a long time, and he goes, ‘Aren’t you special at all? I mean, don’t think that in Laos by now, after all of these years, after 30 years, that you would be in school somewhere doing something?’ And I honestly didn’t think so, because I come from a family of farmers. It would have been honorable to farm. There wouldn’t have been 1986, and there wouldn’t have been the refugee camps. And it would have been all I’d known. And so I was really honest about that. So in the interviews they questioned me so much about Hmongness. ‘Are you going to write a Hmong book? You say you want to be a writer. Are you going to write a Hmong book or an American book? And I—and at a point I stopped caring, because this panel of, in some ways, new Americans, questioning me on my Hmongness, not on the American part, but the Hmong part.

Which they knew nothing about.
Which they knew nothing about. And so I didn’t care anymore. At a part halfway through the second round—because eight people get to ask you questions, and there’s two rounds. I didn’t care anymore, so I said, ‘It’s going to be my book. It’s going to be—because I’m Hmong but I live in America . T’s going to be the America you know and the Hmong person I am, and that’s the book it’s going to be. And then they asked me dumb questions about—like ‘Why are you a certified child care provider?’ and ‘Why do you work these jobs?’ And I’m like, ‘Because I don’t have any money. Because I’m poor.’ And so I came back thinking I wasn’t going to get these fellowships at all, and thinking that because my portfolio was going to be bad, it wasn’t going to work—still contesting the English language requirement rigorously, and my grandma was really ill. And I came back, and she died. She died one day, and nothing was completed. And I really was lost. I thought, ‘She isn’t even going to see my graduation—this garden that I tended that she wasn’t even going to—her feet weren’t even going to touch the ground, because by then she was already so old that she never really went walking on the campus. She was always in the car. And so it was really sad, and I was really missing her already, and really already scared that I would forget her , and that I wouldn’t have the means to remember her, because I still didn’t have the resources to do anything. And then on the day that she died and the day that we buried her, I came back home—and this almost seems so silly, ‘cause it was a Monday. You bury people on a Monday. And they dropped me off at school on Monday afternoon. Columbia University called, Professor Harris called, and she says, ‘We’re offering this fellowship. Do you want to take it?’ And I’m crying, ‘cause it doesn’t really matter. It’s only half of a thing anyway. And I say, ‘It doesn’t matter. At this point, I want to do this work, but it doesn’t matter, because I don’t have the other half.’ And sometimes—‘cause at the fellowship they were always asking, ‘If we don’t give you this fellowship, how are you going to do it?’ And then I had said, ‘Because I want to do it, I’ll find a way. And if you don’t give me this fellowship, it’s going to take me longer, and it will be harder, and maybe by the time I finish the thing will be less pretty, but I’m still going to do it—‘cause I don’t care.’ So then she asked me that, and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And then I hung up the phone, and the phone rang again—immediately. And I picked it up, and it was this fellowship saying, ‘We’re going to give you this money. We’re going to pay for half of your education costs, and we’re going to give you $20,000 to live on a year. Are you going to take it?’ And to me, the day that my grandmother began her life, her journey, I would ultimately begin mine, and I don’t think—I talk about luck, ‘cause I really believe in it, Paul. It wasn’t because—I’m not special. I would be the first one to say I am not special—honestly, in the heart of me, I know. Every—when I read my journals, my diaries from years back, I know I’m not special. I’m still crying about that zit. There was nothing special in me all along. But somewhere along the way forces, whether alive or dead, whether I know them or not, people have made all of the difference. And they—I’m very privileged and I’m very luck, ‘cause they choose me.

(2:41:39) But they choose you for a reason.
I don’t—sometimes I think we gamble. Life is a gamble and we gamble on these things, and we gamble on people.

I know what you’re saying, because I feel very much the same way when people say, ‘Oh, you’ve done this well.’ You want to sort of deflect that and say, ‘No, no, no, you don’t understand. It’s about something bigger and it’s about a larger group of people.’ So I understand completely—well, not completely, but I have a good idea of what you’re trying to say.
And it’s not the person, it’s the work, if that makes sense. All these people are looking for a certain kind of work to be done in the world. And they’re looking for somebody who wants to do it. And I think I’ve always the kind of work that I wanted to do. And I’ve always met enough people who believed in it to allow me to do it. And that’s what it comes down to. So I think in that way I’m really lucky, because some people live their whole life trying to do work that matters, or trying to find work that matters to them. And I’ve always known, because the work that I feel I have to do and need to do and want to do needed to be done way before I was born, if that makes sense.

I know what you—well, OK, again, I think I—
You know what I mean.

I think I know what you mean.
Yes, you do. You do the same thing I your own field.

(2:43:06) Talk to me—‘cause this is still something that I only partly grasp, and I’d like to understand better, but… Talk to me about your grandmother’s funeral, and as much as you can, speak to me as an outsider in the community about what that ceremony means to you, and about the parts of it that help send your grandmother on her journey.
That’s such a good question. You know, you are so generous about these questions, ‘cause I have to think about them, anyway. [Interviewer laughs] And you’re so giving in your practice. Thank you. I appreciate that very much.

It’s my pleasure.
You’re so good. But the funeral, my grandmother’s funeral, was our first time—the first time in our family that anybody died a natural death. So all of our lives we have been fighting—it seems all of our lives we’ve been fighting to die a natural death. [Both chuckle wistfully] And it sounds so funny, but when it came time to, we weren’t ready for her, and we realized there was no way we could be. So we tried to fight the medical system when they said there was nothing else they could do for my grandma, and that she was just slowly starving to death. We tried to fight, but we didn’t have the ammunition. And then they said, ‘Your grandma is dead.’ And we knew. And they took her away in a car, a black car. And then when I saw her again, a month later—‘cause in this country, in 2003, there were only three Hmong funeral homes, and the line was so long that year. In my family alone there were like five deaths, and so she had to wait for a month in the refrigerator. So when I saw her again, she didn’t look like the person I knew. I don’t know what happened, but something happened. All her wrinkles went away, and she became the color of clay. And all the bones and everything I knew was gone. Her mouth was sealed, so I couldn’t see the one tooth, and there was this woman—the only thing on her that looked like the woman I loved were her fingers. They were still straight, and they were still strong. And so it was the first time—so we all knew it was the first time we get to say goodbye the Hmong way. ‘Cause although there had been so many deaths in the jungle and in Thailand , we couldn’t really say goodbye the Hmong way. We had to say goodbye the refugee way, very fast. So it was our first time to say goodbye to our mother the Hmong way. What did this entail? It used to be that my grandfather got seven days because he was so respected. And in the old country my grandmother would have gotten many days as well, but here in America everybody works, so you only get Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday is the burial. And that was enough time—to say that that was enough time to say goodbye to someone you really love is really harsh, but the body lying there wasn’t the woman I knew. So that was enough time. But we had to say goodbye, and all the preparations, all the cows that had to be killed— slaughtered, like the gravestone. So in the Hmong tradition you can’t be buried—well, it’s bad luck to be buried in a casket if there’s metal. Now all of the funerals I’d been to before had metal caskets. But for my grandmother, there was somebody who had imported wood from Laos , this special tree that supposedly will hold out all kinds of insects and all kinds of bad things forever. And he was making a casket, and it was really pricey. But my grandmother had nine children—nine surviving children. So everybody pooled all of their money together. They got like $70,000 together, money that they didn’t have, and borrowed form someplace else. Each of them put money on the thing. And we bought her this casket. It was a sliding door—no metal. It was all glue and wooden [pegs]. It was really deep so that all of the people who had known her in her life could buy her something for her new life. And we would use that as padding, instead of the satin that you would see in the cushioning. And I’d never seen a dead body so close up before, but I sat at my grandma’s side on the ground, ‘cause we were telling her the way back to the place she was born. And they were walking with her through every piece of little land that she’d ever been on, and all of the homes, and saying goodbye and thanking the land and the spirits for holding her safe. And they didn’t call her by her maiden name, Youa Lee, they called her ‘Grandma Nao Lo’, which is my grandpa’s name. And it was ironic to me, ‘cause I was sitting there and I was so sad, and you couldn’t cry, because if your tears touched their body, then their hearts would linger, and they would have a hard walk. So I had like Kleenex stuffed over my eyes and I was crying, and in my head I was, ‘How are her parents going to know her? They didn’t know her before she married my grandfather!’ Technical questions, right? And I was thinking, ‘She only likes flip-flops’, so she wore flip-flops, and I imagining this journey that she was going on and I was thinking about all of these questions, kind of to find the emotions that I was going through. But it feels like a dream, because there were so many flowers and you [Pauses] We wanted to make it very big and very beautiful for her, not because she said she wanted it, although I thin she would have liked it—her unspoken wishes. But because I think it was our first time, and a piece of me was scared that it would be the last time that we could say goodbye as one unit, because she was the woman who was holding all of us together, year in, year out, going from one house to the next. So if she died, what is left? So I think—I feel like everybody knew, and everybody was thinking along these same lines. So it was the biggest joint effort that my family had ever done. Since the camp, we were all together and we were all doing the same thing for this woman that we all loved in our own ways, as strongly as we knew how. And I really feel like she would have been really happy, and because there are so many people together, first in the house, in my Uncle Ong’s house—because you have to warm the house up when the death has happened—and then at the funeral home. There were little children, and they—for the first time they get to see cousins they’ve never seen before, so it was like a party. The children were partying. Everybody, it was kind of [Pauses] We’re doing all this work, but all the work is just food and making things beautiful, and—because not everybody knew the traditions, you had to go into the community and ask them special. All the sons, like my father’s fear—had to go and ask these men who knew all the ceremonial rites that would take my grandma back to the land of the ancestors. And there were these chants—the last night of the funeral is the most powerful, the [most] poignantly beautiful, ‘cause it’s really poetic. And we’re sitting there on the ground, everybody, including all of my fathers and some of my uncles. And some of them have diabetes and health conditions, but everybody who is a child of grandma had to sit on the ground. So imagine a room of people sitting on the ground, and this man walking before a casket that night, saying goodbye. ‘This is what your mother would have said,’ or ‘This is what she said when I stopped her on the road to the land of the dead—for you.’ It’s about you living a good life and doing well and stuff, but it was really [Pauses] because it’s poetry, it didn’t immediately enter my mind, and I didn’t understand it until like halfway through. And then by the time I understood it, dawn was coming already. There was a table before that casket, and he had to break the legs of that table. ‘Cause no longer was she going to be eating from the table of the living. So dawn was coming, and I was so scared. We had to open the door, although it was March, and it was a really, really cold day, March 18th. It was frozen. Everything was frozen that day. And there was—I could see dawn coming in, and it feels so humbling because you can’t fight it; you can’t fight the goodbye that had to happen. So when the sun rose he kicked the table and the table fell apart, and all the adults—like they knew it, ‘cause they had—I don’t know how they knew it. Maybe they had seen it before. They ran up to say goodbye. And I was shocked, ‘cause I didn’t expect it. After being in that position for so long, they went to say goodbye, and there was all of this crying and chanting, and I hadn’t heard that since Vinai—all the chanting about why you’re leaving now, and there were even messages, like ‘If you are going to go and you meet my father, please tell him that I will be on my way.’ And so it was all of these weird things, and I just didn’t know how to say goodbye in that way, because right before she died, I feel like I had already said my goodbye already, too, because I told her when she was still alive, when I was forced to go back to Carleton to contest the English language requirement as rigorously as I knew how—but I said my goodbye. And everybody rushed and said goodbye to her, and that was it. Three days of so much food and so much drink, and I don’t remember how any of it tasted like. I knew it was a feast, and a feast and a feast and a feast that too many feasts—feasts staying all together. And the smell of flowers now reminds me of death. And I love flowers, but they do remind me of death. And I touched her on that last day before we hid her under the ground. You don’t say you buried someone, you say you hid them under the ground. And now I go back to visit that place under the tree, and I remember how cold it was that day, and how eager everybody was to find warmth. I don’t remember my life ever feeling so cold, and I don’t know if it was the emotional weight of it all, but I knew that the temperatures were incredibly low, too. You know, we go to that place and I say goodbye to her and I talk to her, but I only talk to her in my head. It’s so hard to just talk out loud [Pauses] ‘cause that body underneath the ground is a body of the woman I love and everything that I loved is no longer there. It’s a very unique situation, because I talk to her from my bedroom just fine, like right now, if I talk to her in my head, it’s just fine. I’ll ask her for all the things that I want, and all the things that I’m trying to be and do, and for the strength and courage to do it all. I don’t pray, but I talk to her in the way that people pray. And ‘cause—I talk to my grandpa through her, too, but I don’t really know him. So it’s a little stranger. And then I even talk to his first wife, but I don’t know her, so that’s even stranger, right? [Both chuckle] But if I talk to her now it’s more real to me than talking to her there, because it feels a little artificial, ‘cause I feel like where I carry her now is in my heart, versus the ground. And yet my father and my uncles all talk about the place where my [grand]father is buried, and they all talk about the land where our ancestors are buried, and they feel that land.

(2:54:26) Well, and there’s this belief, of course, that there’s a soul that remains over the body of the person who’s left, so that there is, if you will, someone to talk to there.
Yeah. Because they miss that land, too. If I leave America , I think I’ll miss it. And I’ll say, ‘That’s where my grandmother was buried.’ And something will happen there. Because I’m in America and I can go to Jackson Cemetery whenever I miss her a lot, I feel like I carry her in my heart and not the land. But if I were to leave the land, I would.

(2:55:00) This is one of those personal questions that you can just say, ‘I’m not talking about this,’ but what kinds of things do you talk to your grandmother about?
Well least night I talked to her, and I talked to her in three weeks, so one in my journal, where just say, ‘Grandma,’ and then I just write everything like she’s here and she knows, or two, I talk to her right before I go to sleep. I ask her to protect everybody in my family and to get us through the night, ‘cause I’m scared of the dark. She knows it and I know it. And then I ask her—like in my journal I ask her to help me to find enough money to pay the rent this month so I can finish something I want to do, which is to write some more, and work some more on this other thing. Very practical stuff. It’s like the car breaks down and I don’t have any money to fix it, I ask her, ‘Please help me!’ And it’s so sad, because these days I’m asking her to help me find the money. I’m going to do everything I can to help me find the money to make this month, meet next month, and to help my mom and dad, alleviate a little bit of their worries in this and that way. Sometimes I ask her to help me become a better person, because I’m still not good enough yet. But I tell her, because I know I’ve been promising her I’ll be a better person forever, but at least I still remember and I’m still trying! [Both laugh] And so it may take me a little longer, but I’ve never been very fast. So hopefully…

(2:56:19) I think part of the problem, too, is as you get older you understand the broader consequences of what it really means to be a good person, so then the target gets further and further away.
[Chuckles] That is so true! It is so true. And even the things I promise myself I don’t always keep. So you say, ‘OK, I’m never, ever going to yell at my brother again if he does something irritating,’ and I do, and I’m like… [Interviewer laughs] But I talk to her, and it’s not always so deep and it’s not always so generous, but I’m so honest with her, because I think [Pauses] That’s the beauty. We were always honest with each other. When we were angry with each other, we weren’t afraid to show it, despite the fact that she was my grandma and there was respect with the elderly and everything else. If she did something and I thought, ‘No I don’t think that’s right,’ I would say it. And so that remained—the foundations of our relationship. And I speak of her sometimes in the present tense, which is a little odd, but I think when you really, really miss somebody, and you keep on looking for them everywhere, then sometimes it just slips out that way. But I realize that I can’t find her anymore in the world, that I have to find her in the people around me And as I get older, I’m realizing that our time together is really very short, and that time to be with people is really just opportunity to show them love and to make an unforgettable memory, make the rich memories that are going to be treasured long ago and far away after I’ve gone, after they’ve gone. And that’s it. So I don’t know. It’s all about memory-making. What kind of memory do I want to make today? Well, obviously I’ll remember today, because I’ve never spoken so much!

Neither will I.
[Interviewer checks recorder again. New track begins]

You’re a professor. Your job is to profess.

[Laughs] Yeah, occupational hazard—talking too much.
Hey it’s good. Learned a lot.

(0:08) So you finish your two years at Columbia ,

And what have you accomplished in those two years?
At Columbia or after?

At Columbia during those two years.
At Columbia . I exposed [Pauses] I went to the Lincoln Center—there’s a lot of culture shock when you go from a place like St. Paul to a place where there is really just concrete. You know that America that we talked about long ago where there’s no earth? That’s New York City , Manhattan , right? But I—

Did you get to Central Park every now and then?
I lived so close to it, I did. And yet the park was not as great, because I’m used to St. Paul parks. We have great parks here, and so it’s all hyped up, and it’s in the movies, but when you’re actually there, it’s not as great as it would seem to be. But I did a lot of work in that I allowed enough of the culture to get into me to allow me to see a bigger world, but not enough to destroy my appreciation of what Minnesota and the rest of my life has to offer. I missed the smell of people working, I think because I was so alone in New York City , like casual human caring becomes really significant, and moments of warmth are really magnified. But in terms of the writing, I just wrote pieces that meant things to me, or—of course, there were assignments I needed to write, find themes in this life that we’ve lived. But the question always was from my friends, ‘Why do you go to writing school when you haven’t lived so much of life already? What story are you looking to tell? And I couldn’t tell them about the story I was looking to tell, because I didn’t know. I would discover it there. But there was already so much living that hadn’t been recorded, period. So that’s what I went to do. So now I have so much writing, more writing than will ever show up in that book—pages and pages of writing, and some of them are perhaps, I believe, as strong if not better. But they won’t show up ever.

(2:10) Not ever?
Well not—I can’t see a way yet. I’m still working on it. But I think—

Are these—I’m sorry.
No, no.

Are these potential short stories, are they just sort of random thoughts? What do you see them as for the most part?
They’re like life profiles, versus character profiles. ‘Cause I think I focus more on the life than the actual characters. But one is the other in some sense, right. If you do well enough at one, you get at the other. But they’re really life profiles, and they’re stories—solid, strong, independent stories that can be laced up or not. All of the book began that way, and so when I pulled it together, it was a lot of weaving of these things—lots of writing, lots of exposure. I think for as much as I could, I made New York City —the parts that I knew—I taught them what Hmong people were, and I shared pieces of our story with them, and I learned that they cared, which is really good. They didn’t need to know, but once they learned, they cared.

(3:17) Well, if people in a city like New York City can’t care, where there are goodness knows how many different people with different human origins in that place, I don’t know where else they would.
Very, very true. But in the non-fiction department, still taught mostly by men, mostly by Caucasian men, and the students—because writing is such—it’s a school of the arts and there’s not much funding, so most of the people who do it are really passionate about it or they’ve had exposure to some kind of ability or way of thinking about art or literature and film and theater and so most of it, it’s not as diverse as one would hope. It doesn’t reflect the city. ‘Cause people come from all over the world to do that thing that they do. But once they hear, they care. And I think my professors were really [Pauses] Professors have such an interesting and important job, Paul, ‘cause they do what no other job can do. They teach people to believe in the mind, and they say to them, ‘The mind can care,’ which is a powerful statement, ‘cause everywhere else in the world it’s the heart and it’s the mind, but in the university setting it’s the mind that cares. And so [Pauses] my teachers cared, and that mattered, and that shapes so much. And so that feeling—if I were different, if I lived in the 1940s, it would have been my Paris or my Rome , that place or that space where a writer had a time to explore not only themselves, but the life thrumming around them. But I live in 2000-whatever, and we can’t do that, especially [Pauses] so you have to buy it, and you have to buy that kind of space, and that’s what it was for me. It was purchased time. And I knew that the clock was ticking.

(5:12) Whether from your professors or just from the accumulation of your own personal experiences, whatever the source of this inspiration may have been, what do you think you gained as a writer and as someone who wanted to share this experience as effectively as you could, from those two years in New York?
Craft. I was grammatically suicidal, [Interviewer laughs] and I was—it was horrendous! You know, I speak English sometimes, and sometimes I don’t. And I think in English sometimes, and sometimes I don’t. And I write in English sometimes, and sometimes I don’t. But craft—I did not—the kind of learning that happened at Columbia would have taken so much longer on my own—independently. Because what I learned, more than anything, was people’s response to work, when it mattered and when it didn’t, within the workshop environment when everybody—and where else do you find ten pairs of eyes who are really going to care about—who are really going to tackle it? It’s rare, and it’s a very priceless opportunity. And to get reflections—you know, they’re like, ‘This doesn’t work, and this is why I think it doesn’t work. And to grow from that kind of environment, that kind of nurturing—nurturing, but definitely not coddling environment was really good. So as a writer, in terms of craft—because I could tell this story—a lot of Hmong people have told stories of experiences, but because they didn’t have the privilege—again, it’s that luck factor, that benefit of the—for example, Columbia or you could have gone anywhere else with that kind of attention to it. ‘Cause I can say independently that [Pauses] How am I going to put this? George Orwell, who I adore (he is one of the big literary influences on my life). He writes of the things that matter, very important stuff. And it’s the subject matter, more than the writing that gets you. But then you look at someone like Louise Erdrich, whose prose is very beautiful, and the stories are not always gripping, who in her own right [Pauses] or Nabokov, who in his own right deserves to be acclaimed because of what he does fundamentally and forever to the language. I think what I have accomplished is a subject matter that is so important to me, and I think deserving of attention in the world, and I’ve also achieved a kind of literary voice that can stand on its own for the beauty of the prose, which I think is the unique thing, because the story can be told, and has been told, but it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, because of the challenges on the second factor. So what Columbia did was pump in the second factor more than I could have done myself.

(7:58) So did you come straight back to Minnesota from New York ?
Mm-hmm. I did. I was offered an opportunity to teach at the Gallatin School at NYU, which would have been interesting, ‘cause I had taught at Columbia—workshops to faculty on [Pauses] ‘Cause sometimes I think that faculty worry that they’re so academic that they’re losing out on the creative side or the literary components. So they came and they were all doing workshops together, so I had gone teaching experience in that regard, and I was offered a teaching position at NYU. But I didn’t take it, because I felt like the story needed to end where it began. The idea of that circle, uniting and meeting again—and really, because I had wanted to share it with the Hmong community. ‘Cause as much as it is about my story and a memoir of a family, I think it’s so much a story of a people, and at a point it becomes selfish to say ‘It’s just my story’, ‘cause I know it isn’t. When people read it—like Seexeng [Lee], he tells me, ‘That’s my story. Wow, we’re like leading parallel lives.’ And then so I think [Pauses] I feel [Pauses] It’s not a same sense of being privileged and you feel like you have to give back and do back, and wanting to do so. But I don’t know how the overall community is going to respond to the work. So far so much support; the question is always, ‘How are you doing?’ When is it going to be done?’ And then I’m so privileged because I meet people like you, and you believe, and you support, and you give me that kind of energy and feedback to do it. I’m so lucky on so many levels.

(9:40) Well…A, thank you very much, but B, I don’t think it’s a matter of belief, the evidence is right on the page. I don’t have to believe in anything. It’s all right there. And my goodness, when Anne Fadiman takes the time to read the book and to give you the kind of praise tat’s now on the lovely little card that’s presaging your book, that’s got to tell you something. So I think it’s wonderful that you’ve maintained this sense of balance in your life, and this sense of perspective, and that you are still thankful to the people and to the opportunities that you have. That’s part of what makes you work, I think, because there are people who find their voice and find—
[Recorder’s batteries run out. Interviewer picks up new recorder, new track begins.]

(0:00) Yeah, I don’t want to lose any of this. Of course I’m paying attention! [Both laugh] But I just [Pauses] There is that balance you have to find in this area of your life as well. Humility is a wonderful thing. Gratitude is a wonderful thing. Perspective is a wonderful thing. But recognizing your talent is OK, too.
But I think support, like from [Pauses] because you know the history of the Hmong people more than most people, so [Pauses] so when you hear my story, it is so informed, from such an informed perspective, and when you read it, it’s from such an informed perspective, and I think that changes it a little bit. It’s different from somebody out of the blue reading and saying, ‘This is a great story.’ ‘Cause you know so much around that story, you know?

(0:50) But the great thing is you don’t have to know a lot about the Hmong to know this is a great story.

The universality of those themes is part of what makes it work—that we can grab somebody from—I don’t know, Lubbock, Texas, who’s never heard of a Hmong person and they can read this book and probably come out of it saying, ‘Now I want to know more about the Hmong people. So that’s a wonderful part of the story as well.
I think I believe—and I’m surrounded by people who believe that the world cares, and that the world [Pauses] you know, that they would recognize. And I think, to get at a place where you’re surrounded by people who believe that the world is a good place, and that people are good people, I used to think that it was rare but now I’m realizing that it’s really rare, because not everybody believes.

It’s hard to come by, that you meet people.

Well, I’m very glad to hear that you are surrounded by people who do, because that’s a wonderful thing.
They do.

And especially when you tell me that you’re struggling to pay the bills every month. There had better be some payback in other ways. [Chuckles] So I’m glad to hear that.
And there is. Every day I think, ‘I’m so excited to get up and see what’s going to happen today.’ I’m so happy to be alive, I think. It’s so weird; I think there are happy people, and then there are people who are like happy sometimes or part-time. But I think I’m happy like 75% of the time.

I know, which is high.

Which is high. But because isn’t just inside of you, it’s around you, which just means that 75% of everything I’m surrounded by is happy—other than the 25% bills. But it says a lot about how powerful bills are. They come in paper format and they control 25% of your happiness.

All right. That will be our next project.
(2:54) So where are you and your parents in this ongoing discussion of whether you’re becoming more or less Hmong these days?
These days? I think it’s more important that I’m becoming, than anything else. I’m a writer from the Hmong community who sees the world from four feet ten—point five. [Interviewer chuckles] And these are just the facts. I listen to Hmong songs and I listen to country music, and I [Pauses] at a point, I think you grow up and you become of an age where you can look at your mom and dad and say, ‘I see where I come from, and that’s from you both. So whether I’m Hmong or not is as much a question as whether you are or not.’ And I my case I don’t really need to say that, because they are realizing that they’ve changed. They’ve—it’s kind of a scary thing for their generation to realize. It’s easy to look at your child and say, ‘You’re becoming American.’ It’s hard to look at yourself and say, ‘I’m becoming an American.’ For my mom, she speaks English sometimes. You know, the words will slip out, and we look at her, and she goes, ‘I know.’ [Interviewer laughs] And then even my father is concerned, ‘cause—he goes, ‘If I go back to Laos ,’ (he really wants to go back to Laos , just to visit) ‘I’m really concerned.’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ And he goes, ‘I don’t know. Because there won’t be electricity’—‘cause he snores, so he uses that machine.

Oh, OK.
‘And I’ll snore. In Laos , they don’t snore. Snoring is American.’ And I’m like, ‘Seriously, you’ve become part of America ?’ ‘Cause in Laos they have fewer weight issues, so less snoring, right? He says, ‘They’ll think I’m so strange! In America it’s normal to snore.’ And even in these small ways, right? Problematic ways—they’re becoming [Pauses] They realize that their bodies have been here for a long time, and that the body ages and the body changes with the environment, and that the bodies that they have now are less Hmong than the Hmong bodies in Laos . And those bodies are less Hmong than they were many, many years ago. So the question in my family now whether I’m as Hmong or not enough Hmong is now a moot point, because everybody knows that my younger brothers and sisters will be less Hmong than I am! [Interviewer laughs] That’s what I tell them.

(5:37) Obviously it’s very important for you to tell this story. What do you hope people will gain from this story?
What do I hope people will gain from this story? I hope—there’s a lot of hopes. I’m really good at hoping, Paul.

Excellent. I’m really bad at it, so I’m very pleased to know you’re good at it. [Chuckles]
Oh, I can help you there. Hoping, Hoping 101. First, I want them to know. I want them to—what did they gain? They gain a brand new literary voice. That’s a part of it too, and so I hope that they will gain that. I hope they will definitely gain an understanding into the Hmong story. It’s so cool, because the Coffee House team [Pauses] It’s like the book is not my book anymore, it’s like all of our book, because they believe in the Hmong story, so I hope—and without having any contact with the Hmong previous to this book. And so I hope that the readers will believe in the Hmong story, because it’s a true story. It’s a story of the Hmong, it’s a story of so many other groups. It’s a story of Americans. And so to not believe is—but there are people who don’t believe in the Holocaust, you know? So there’s margin there, but I hope that they will believe in the Hmong story. And I hope that the lessons of the story that I’ve learned and the realizations that I’ve come to will mean something to each of them individually and personally. I believe, I hope that [Pauses] that it will be on the shelves and that Hmong children and non-Hmong children will pick it up and say, ‘This is a book. This is a story that tales place in America, as much as at anywhere else in the world, because there is a connection that I want people to make, and that America isn’t America alone—and it seems repetitive and redundant, but the most beautiful thing that I hope for the book is that it will open up so many doors for so many others besides me, and that it will be so useful for academics and students alike. ‘Cause I think invention—I’ve been thinking a lot about inventions lately. People invent things, and the things that stay on are the most useful things. I think I want this book to be useful. You know, people say that literature and art don’t—that whether it has a purpose beyond art itself is questionable. But I think it needs to in order to survive and to do great work. You’re an academic, so you know that every piece of writing has to do work; it has to be a tool to somebody else or something else, or a different way of looking at the world. I’m hoping that the same thing can be accomplished with the book, that it will be really useful.

(8:34) Well you just made the observation that your younger siblings are going to be less Hmong than you are, and that you’re less Hmong than your parents are. So let’s project out two or three generations from now. And we’ll return to this theme of hope. What do you hope will still be a part of the Hmong community in America after all of the people who lived in Laos and Thailand are gone, and all of those influences of Hmong culture, apart from the internet and movies and these other things are there to shape the Hmong America community? What do you hope will persist?
I hope that the standard of Hmongness will change with them, so that when—200 years from now, somebody will be sitting in my place and somebody will be sitting in your place, and talk, and that person in my place will feel as Hmong as I do now. Whatever language they speak, however they actually live the fundaments of their life, I hope that their sense of being Hmong will be as strong, as powerful, and as enriching as mine is for me right. That’s really my hope. I think it’s possible. I think we can talk about whether we can hang on to the language and the culture, but if our standards change, and our standards for ourselves evolve, then the real meaning for me is that they will use—whatever Hmong will be, they will feel it entirely, and they will stand beside it proudly.

[Someone else walks into the room, conversation ends, interview concludes]

Keith Vang


Keith Vang (right) poses with General Vang Pao at Concordia’s Center for Hmong Studies, 24 February, 2006.

Keith Vang was born in Long Cheng, Laos, but his family left in 1972 for Vientiane. After the fall of Long Cheng in 1975, Vang’s family fled to northern Laos, where they lived until they surrendered to the communists in 1978. His family fled to Thailand in 1979. Keith’s father was a shaman, and much of his story tells of his father’s role as a shaman and the struggles his family faced when they came to the United States, converted to Christianity, and faced the growing demand by the local Hmong immigrant community for his father to return to practicing shamanism. At the time of the interview Vang was working in the Information Technology Department at Concordia University.


(0:00) What is your name?
I’m Keith Vang. My Hmong name is pronounced Ge.

(00:14) What are your parents’ names?
My father’s name is the exact pronunciation is Za Thao. And my mother’s name is Txong Lor. She’s still living with us here in Minnesota.

(00:28) Do you know where they lived before they moved to Long Cheng?
Yeah. My father grew up in a tiny little village in Laos called *Tha Sa. It’s a very tiny little town. [He was the oldest of four siblings–three brothers and one sister. His youngest brother is now living in Albemarle, NC. His sister is still in Laos.] My mother grew up in *Nong Het, which is in Vietnam. And that was [during] the French and Vietnam War. [Her parents died during that conflict. She was raised by her uncle and his family. She still has relatives in *Nong Het.]

(1:03) So you were born in Long Cheng. What are your earliest memories?
My earliest memories are, I would say in *Long Cheng I remember how the village was in a valley, sort of like that [forms a valley with his hands]. And then the next thing I remember was we were in Vientiane, which is a different city–the capital of Laos.

(1:29) And you mentioned that you had an uncle who was a T-28 pilot.

What was his name?
His name was Vaj Tsuj.

And so he put your family in a plane and evacuated them from Long Cheng?

(1:47) What do you remember about your life in Vientiane?
Life was good there. We lived in a little home next to a huge, nice lake. As kids growing up there you have all the things that you want. You’ve got fruits, you’ve got friends, and we had–we enjoyed the city life. We were able to see the carnivals and that was something that–most kids never had that opportunity.

(2:21) What was the carnival like?
You know, we didn’t have all the nice rides like Valley Fair, but it was the typical merry-go-round, it was nice and always packed. I remember people coming to our village–or I should say house–selling stuff to us.

(2:43) So you have said that your father was a shaman.

Talk to me like I know nothing about shamanism and Hmong spirituality. What would you say your father’s role was, and what are some of the ideas or vocabulary words that we need to know to understand about shamanism and animism?
My father became a shaman at a very young age. I would say–back in the days they didn’t really track age, but he had recalled being just a child. I would say–I would probably guess maybe less than ten or around ten. And his role as a shaman is a spiritual leader, especially in his clan, someone that has the–someone that can actually see beyond the reality but into the spiritual world. And there’s–especially the Hmong people, they–hospitals are not that accessible to them, so a shaman would play a big part in their village whenever there’s a person that is sick, he would be the spiritual healer. So that was his role, and also marriage counseling. In any sort of dispute he was considered a person to go to. Someone that could–I would say more wise about life because he has some–I would say the role he played is–he wore many hats. They are not the richest, but they are considered very humble.

(4:43) What kind of access does the shaman have to the spirit world? How does a shaman gainaccess to the spirit world?
A shaman gains access to the spiritual world through their shaman spirit. And when a person becomes a shaman they have to submit to the shaman spirit once that takes place. And they can channel the spiritual world by having special chants. Every shaman has a little different chant that they do. And these are sort of like speaking in tongues. So they always require someone to interpret.

(5:32) Would you say that there are different kinds of spirits or different groups of spirits that shamans would try to communicate with?
Well, to communicate with the spirit the shaman does see it as–there are evil spirits and then there are good spirits. And they feel the shaman spirit is a good spirit that allows them to enter into the spiritual world to find the lost soul or souls in that sense. And from there they encounter the other spirit that may torment this soul. And they either intervene in that process by chanting, by calling on their shaman spirit to intervene and bring back the souls to the persons, or by making a negotiation with the spirits that are tormenting these souls. And that does require the sacrificial–sort of animal. But it really depends on what the spirit and the shaman have agreed to. You are submissive to what they want.

(6:52) So a shaman’s role is to interpret what a spirit wants from the person who’s being afflicted or who has some kind of problem and providing an interpretation of what the person has to do.
There are actually two different roles in that. There are those that are sick or harmed because there are certain needs that need to be fulfilled. Especially something like that are–that require some sacrificial sorts of things. And then yes, there are sometimes more of an oppression of evil spirits upon the person’s soul. So there are two different types of torments.

(7:40) If I remember correctly, you once said that Hmong animism teaches that a person has more than one soul. Is that correct?
According to their beliefs, they do. And I wanted to explain that a little bit. They believe that a person–I guess the different terminology, if you’re going to explain it like a soul or a spirit–but they do believe that, and they do believe that the soul has the–can actually have an out-of-body experience or the soul may be able to actually leave the body and go somewhere else and get lost or feel–the soul may be hurt because of the person wanting to die or something like that and that causes the soul to grieve over that.

(8:39) You mentioned that your father shared many stories with you about spiritual battles that he endured. Would he come home after a ceremony and tell you about it, or are you referring to something else?
My father was a very open person and liked to tell stories. He liked to educate people. And he had talked about this to me at a very early age when he and my uncle probably were on some sort of journey and came across this valley that had a river that went through it and they stopped there and [pauses] let me backtrack a bit.

Prior to coming to that valley he had performed some shaman ritual for this sick person and drove out the demon that had possessed this person. And so when they came across this valley, that demon appeared and wanted to confront him. And it appeared in the form of a fox. And this demon and he started a battle. They fought more of a physical fight. My uncle, on the other hand, could not see the demon, so he [my father] had called for help, the uncle could not see, and could not help him. Then my father had summoned the shaman spirit, and, as I said to you some time ago, they can summon the shaman spirit any time they want to. And he did that, and he sort of like spit some form of water into my uncle’s eyes so that he could see–sort of like a holy water, like, ‘Here! See it now!’ And after that my uncle started seeing this creature and they battled. And the creature obviously left them, and that night came into a dream to let him know that this was not the last that he would see of this creature. And he became sick afterward, had some diarrhea, problems like that, but he was OK.

(11:10) So it’s possible that the shaman spirit has a sort of rival evil spirit that will torment the shaman?
They are sort of like if you–I would say that they [shamans] are like a warrior for the good and they will go against these evil spirits. And the shaman spirit allows this person to travel into that spiritual world and does the battle there.

(11:40) I’ve read about different rituals. For instance, before battle or after meeting and making an agreement with an important French or American soldier, Touby Lyfoung or General Vang Pao would engage in a ceremony of protection where strings were tied around the wrists of the participants. Can you shed any light on this ceremony?
Normally there are two types of a shaman ritual. One is sort of like if you-I will put it in a computer sense. Let’s say you only want to read it. You don’t do any writing or changes or anything. You’re just observing to make sure that everything’s OK. That’s a ritual where they just perform or look into the person’s soul and make sure everything’s OK, and if it’s OK they’ll say it’s OK. The other ritual where you see the tying of string is more of–actually writing to something, like in a computer you’re making some changes, fixing something, break’s fixed, so the shaman goes into the spiritual world, does the shaman fixing. If he finds anything that may need fixing he would fix it, make negotiation, things like that. The strings are a symbolic form of blessing and when someone ties a string around someone’s hand they are making a blessing. Usually they say all sorts of nice things about the person–you know, safety, longevity, everything else.

(13:20) A shaman, I assume, also has a special place at funerals, or perhaps at the New Year festival?
The funeral isn’t a role of the shaman. The shaman takes care of more of a ritual before someone passes away. But the shaman–because the shaman is in tune with the spiritual world, the shaman usually knows more about the spiritual side and the shaman may have some skills that allow them to participate in the funeral. But not all shamans learn that skill. Not all shamans may want to participate in things like that. My father had a special skill with a very–I would say he was a professional flute, bamboo flute player. And because he was also a shaman he learned a lot about rituals in terms of–there are rituals for the living, rituals for the dead, things like that. And so he had served in both places, but not all shamans are like that. When someone passes away, there is that special person who does the flute, who does the guiding through the passage, the journey home.

[More about this later in the interview]

(14:52) What about the New Year?
[In the] New Year a shaman plays the role of making sacrificial–usually the chicken–they take the chicken out and they say, ‘This is the chicken,’ and the blessing there, and then everybody will go ’round and round in circles and for the old year and for the new year they go in the opposite direction, things like that. A shaman plays in that, but pretty much anyone that knows about spiritual, knows about ritual–this is more of a ritual. It doesn’t require that you have to have a shaman spirit. It’s a learned thing.

(15:32) Now you fled to Vientiane and lived there for a time until the Americans pulled out–

Was your father just as busy being a shaman in Vientiane as he had been in Long Cheng?
Shamans, I guess being a shaman is almost like you’re a doctor for life. So when there is a need someone will come to you and say, ‘I have a need,’ and we made a–what they do is they sort of like make a lottery choice: ‘Who can help us out?’ And when they do that and it landed on you, obviously they will come and do anything possible to have you come and do the performance as a shaman. The shaman can choose to refuse or not, but normally they give in because they feel it’s their calling. So they go and help

(16:39) So the Americans left and you said you had to leave Long Cheng then.
When the Americans left in 1975 we actually flew to Vientiane in 1972. Like I said, I was just born, and a little after that we flew there. We stayed there until 1975. We came back to the north, the northern part of Laos. [Keith had said before the tape recorder started that his uncle had been shot down and killed before his family fled to the north in 1975.]

(17:04) Do you remember where you were?
Yes, we were in this town called *Ba Hia, which is near more of a larger town called *Muong Oun, which is more popular [populous]? I would say if you were to fly by plane or just travel by car from *Muong Oun to Long Cheng, it’s probably not that far–maybe eight hours or something like that. But people walked.

(17:40) What was your life like in the north? You had a reasonably settled life in Vientiane and then the Americans left. You had an uncle who was a pilot and a father who lived in Long Cheng. On some level you must have been targets.
Yes. The lifestyle in the north is very much based on agriculture. During the time when the war was going on, the Hmong people had been exposed to farming opium, and that was a form of–they used it as medication, used it for–anything else. So it was more of a farm life. We lived on the farm, people weren’t educated. Lifestyle was more of–I’d wake up in the morning and I’ve gotta go do my farming. Because if I don’t do that, at the end of the year I’m not going to have anything to eat. So we had that type of lifestyle–always waking up and going to the farm. That’s how I saw my parents. They were very busy, and would work ’til sunset. They worked very hard just to feed their family. Basically it was a means–it was not for profit, it was just to feed the family.

(18:57) So was this a seven-day-a-week, sunrise-to-sunset kind of job?
Yes. Sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. Hmong people didn’t really have a day of rest unless they had to stay home due to some ritual that was performed on them. And the shaman would say to them, ‘You cannot go anywhere for this many days,’ and to them that would be considered, ‘can’t go anywhere.’

(19:23) And what was your role at that age?
I was the youngest. My brothers were soldiers. My oldest brother was a commander in the army and he was trying to escape and cross to Thailand. My older brothers were–I would say they were probably just lieutenants. And my second-oldest brother came back and took care of us, because my parents were–you know, my father wasn’t that old, but as a son he had to come back and take care of us. My other brothers were trying to escape and go across to Thailand. My role as a kid was just to be a good kid.

(20:13) Did you work in the fields with your parents?
I tried to help, but I’d get in the way. But my job was–yeah, I’d go with my parents all the time ’cause there was no one to baby sit me. I’d go with them.

(20:26) Were there times during this period when you had to hide or to flee or to try to escape from those who were looking for your father?
Yes. I would say–roughly around 1977. Because in 1975 the communists penetrated into Laos–I shouldn’t say penetrated, because there were some that were already in Laos, but they actually took over, and they said, ‘You know what? There’s not going to be anything wrong. It’s the Americans that we don’t like. You guys are OK. You continue your daily living and nothing’s going to happen to you.’ Around 1977 they started passing out some flyers using some small planes, and dropping flyers out and that’s when you started noticing that life was going to change. And they started the fight, they started the war against the Hmong people during 1977 and we had to escape our village. We couldn’t live there because of the bombs and these cannons–they called them the cannons– 75, 65 [millimeter shells?], these long-shot cannons were shooting at our village. We had to escape to the mountains and hide there for days. And then we couldn’t come back, and then there was more of a running away from these cannons. Soldiers were coming after us. And at the end we came back and we surrendered. Surrender means to, first of all, admit defeat. I don’t see why there was a war in the first place. (***) But to admit defeat, to surrender any form of weapons you have–guns or anything you have. And then you can’t really–you don’t really have the freedom to go anywhere. You can’t go or do what you wish, especially hunting. And the Hmong people are known to hunt for food. You can’t go to places to farm. It’s much harder. So we did that. I would say during 1978 we just came back and surrendered.

(22:52) So this is almost like house arrest? You have to stay in your village?
Yeah, there are soldiers in the village now. And if you want–let’s say for an example, you got a bunch of guys with you and you feel like, ‘Let’s go hunting somewhere,’ you can’t just go, because any form of–you can’t just carry guns. Maybe if the village is lucky enough they will allow you to have one gun–those old antique guns, you know. Nothing special about it. You have to get permission to go. Not that you have permission to hunt, but permission to go, so that if anything should happen, you are liable for it. And I experienced a lot of tragedy in my life, and in my clan. I lost many house members because the communists framed them and shot them for no reason.

(23:46) Tell me more about that.
I had an uncle that was roughly about 18; he was a very bright person. He led the village. Earlier you asked me about shamans and their roles. It was almost like the smart ones usually took the lead, and my uncle was a very bright person at a very young age. [He] got married in less than a year [before he died], and they had given him the title of–sort of the leader of the clan. So therefore they wanted to hunt for food. And they had asked the communist soldiers for permission, and they had said it was OK for them to go hunt. So roughly about 15 to 20 guys and children–myself, I was included, I was about five or something like that. I wanted to tag along, but I was small, so I didn’t get a chance to go. But my uncles, along with my nephews, they went. And there was this mountain they needed to climb to go to the top of the mountain. What happened was that these communist soldiers had phoned a different party, a different communist party in a different town, and what they did was they went over the mountain and encircled them, so when my uncle and them got to the top of the mountain they surrounded them and tied them together and shot them. And for the whole–they killed everybody, including little children, and it was a terrible thing to see at that very young age. You know, when I talk about it, it’s so vivid, so vivid in my mind. I myself almost got involved, because I had this cousin of mine, and he was a–he liked to go hunting also. We were kids. So we woke up in the morning and we were a little late. We didn’t get a chance to go with them. But I remember seeing one of the last persons to go up in the mountain. And he had talked to us and he said, ‘You know, kids, if you really want to hunt, this isn’t the place to hunt. You’ve got to with us to the mountain. That’s where the big game is at.’ And the reason why we went to the field was because we wanted to tag along. But I had missed–we had missed the uncles, because they had gone early. So this guy came along and he said that, and we started trotting with him for a couple of steps. And there was this thing about going that I started pondering about, and I said to my cousin, ‘Let’s not go. We haven’t told our parents about it, and let’s just’– It wasn’t right. And we stepped back, so we came home. We tried coming home and before we even got to our home, we heard the gunshots. We didn’t know what was going on, but we heard gunshots. And then later on that evening no one came home. And they waited. And they started calling out, asking people if they’d seen these people. No one came home. And we heard a very strange voice of my uncle–the uncle that was about 18 or 19–calling from the mountain, telling us that they had been shot, and they’re all dead, and to come and help. To the surprise of these communist soldiers, they couldn’t believe that they were hearing this voice. You could actually hear it right around the corner of homes, things like that. It was like it was on a loudspeaker. It was beyond scientific explanation. And they were surprised that someone was calling out, because they knew they had shot all these folks. So what happened was that they finally gave in and allowed my other cousins to go up into that mountain and retrieve them, and when they got there, everybody was tied up in a circle. The little ones were in the center, and everybody got shot, and no one had escaped, including my uncle. He had died at a very early age. Like I said, he got married less than a year [before], died, and when they did the ritual burial, he was crying. He was dead, but crying. It was a sad thing to see.

(28:26) You saw this?
I saw this–everything.

What was your uncle’s name?
Oh boy [pause]. Ge Bo. Ge Bo. Ge stands for a rock, or like rocky. Bo is ‘protection.’ ‘Protection from the rocky’ is how you would translate it.

(28:50) So ultimately your family must have decided it wasn’t safe to stay–
They wanted to leave because my older brother had already arrived in Thailand. My second brother stayed back just to be with us, and then I had this other brother that went with him also. So we knew that we couldn’t stay in Laos anymore because they were torturing the Hmong people. We heard many stories about other villages being slaughtered.

(29:26) How did these stories come to you?
Well Hmong people live in a very–they live near each other, and when you hear something from one village, information travels easily to the next village. And the slaughter of people in our village was traveled to a different town. And then when we moved from that village to a different town later on, we heard that same group of soldiers did the same thing to this other village nearby, too.

(29:59) So which village were you living in originally, and which one did you move to?
We lived in–let’s see [pauses to think] a little town called *Ba Hia and then we moved and we started running away, and we came back, and we decided that there was nowhere to go, so we surrendered and went back to *Ba Hia. And then when that all happened, they were going to ship us to a town called *Muong Tia, which is past *Muong Oun–I would say maybe a couple hours past, but if you were sent to this place, it was much harder to escape to Thailand, because they were surrounded. So I had an uncle that was head of the clan, head of the village in this town called *Muong Oun, and he had talked to the soldiers about letting us stay there, so we stayed there, and in less than a year we went to a little countryside and we farmed there. And the only reason we went there was so that we could have a little freedom and so that we’d have a chance to come to Thailand.

(31:15) So when did this happen, and where did you end up in Thailand?
In 1979 we landed in Thailand. But it took that many years for us to plan things out. And we were fortunate that my brothers, who were in Thailand, said to the folks that were going back to Laos to help people to come to Thailand to come and get us. And that information got to us and we decided that it was time for us to leave, and we walked for over a month. And we got to the Mekong River, and we didn’t know to swim–but my brother did (the one who stayed with us). So he was the one that pulled all of us. He had, I would say, probably three kids or four kids, along with my sister-in-law, my parents, and I. He was the one that swim–

(32:19) He just–
Yeah, he dragged everybody–
–put you under his arm and–

No, I had this tiny little raft jacket; it was almost like a plastic balloon. And I had that and I kind of like put that put on top of–underneath my stomach and–so what they did was they tied ropes to each other and he was the one who was swimming against the current, dragging all of us across. Many people did that, and some of the Thai, when they heard that people–they saw that people were swimming across, some came to help, others came to rob, others came to kill. So we finally made it across the river, stayed there until dawn, and we came out and went into the village and we were pretty much robbed. They stole everything we had. And the head of the village came out and apologized for what his villagers did, and asked if we had any money. [Laughs ironically.] And it was, like, ‘Yeah, right! You stole everything!’ But we were fortunate to have two silver bars, and he then ordered these two trucks, little pick-up trucks. He sent us to this–more of a modern village or modern town, near the coast–this is still near the coast of the river. And we stayed there, and the first time I saw the missionaries [they] came in their truck and they dropped off food–noodles, wai-wai noodles that were typical noodles that–

What kind of noodles?
Wai-wai. W-A-I, W-A-I noodles. The first time I ate noodles there, we didn’t have any water; there was nothing to cook. We ate it raw. The first time I saw missionaries, they didn’t say anything. They just dropped off the food. None of the Thai people did anything for us, other than the first [who] robbed us and took us there later on. The official said that they were going to ship us to Vinai. That was during–Ban Vinai. Have you heard of that?

But before we got there we were shipped to this concentration, uh–sort of a concentration camp–

(34:46) A refugee camp?
Refugee camp. It was so awful! There was no bathrooms, nothing. It was terrible. So we got there, and I was sick and I spent two weeks in the hospital. Had a blood transfusion done on me. So I was kind of fortunate that the Lord blessed us like that. I was suffering. My parents didn’t stay with me in the hospital. We were treated–hot, clean water and food there. And then we went straight to Ban Vinai.

(35:16) Do you remember the names of the village and the first refugee camp in Thailand?
When we got Shanghaied and got shipped that was just across [the Mekong River] we don’t know what that village is called, but when we were sent to that camp, that refugee camp, they called that (***). I don’t know what that stands for, but it was a terrible place, and everyone that came there, they would tell the same story. It is not the place you want to go.

(35:44) So from 1979 to 1981 you were in Ban Vinai?
Yes. In 1979 we came there. We celebrated our first–we celebrated that New Year there. In 1980 we came to–we were released to come to the United States. But the government was so corrupted that if you got some money and you paid the government they would allow someone else to come before you. So we missed that first trip, ’cause someone went in our place instead. So in 1981, around March, we landed in Lansing, Michigan.

(36:28) Let’s go back for just a second. What do you remember about the Ban Vinai experience? What was it like for you?
I went to school there for the first time. I wanted to learn. My brother, who was educated in a school in Laos, had talked about how we were going to get these opportunities to learn, when we go to Thailand or America. So I really wanted to go to school, and I had my chance to go to school there and study first grade. I went to second grade and then I came to America. So I had school, we had hot water–I guess I shouldn’t say hot water. No hot water! You know, you were in a camp. You can’t go outside without permission, but you had the freedom to walk around the camp. And you had your own little village there, so it was a lot nicer. Other than that, you don’t have the freedom to go elsewhere.

(37:25) Were there other family members or village members–other people that you knew at Ban Vinai, or was it just your family?
Yes, I had two uncles. When we actually came from our village in Laos to Ban Vinai, we–you know, the whole village, I would say the whole clan–at least my clan–came. We left my uncle with my grandma, who was too old to come, so we left him to take care of her. It was more of a duty as a son. So my uncle was left behind. So when we got to Thailand we had two other uncles who had–who my father originally had stayed with when we were in Vientiane. And these were considered–during the war they were commanders-in-chief of the army. And we came there in–we came there to stay in their apartments. We had this little shack next to this huge complex. Everybody pretty much was jammed into this apartment complex.

(38:50) What do you remember–and I realize you were still very young–but you came from Laos and Thailand into this completely foreign environment.

And obviously the clothing, the weather, the technology, the different kind of urban setting, all of these things must have been very puzzling. Do you remember having to struggle with this transition?
I would say my first experience in actually seeing a Caucasian in Ban Vinai was one of the missionaries folks there occasionally came and visited my uncle. I saw that. And then we had to learn English, because we–I knew that we were going to come to America, so my father paid for me to go study English for about two months. So I learned basic greetings like, ‘Hello,’ and ‘How are you?’ and then I first saw–I guess when we actually–when we were about to board the plane to come to America, we had to go through some sort of education, training. And they trained us like, ‘Here in America it’s going to be like this and like this.’ And it was very strange to see these figures of elderly women that, as a child I thought ‘they have these weird, long noses.’ We arrived in San Francisco and we had people greeting us in English, and we tried to greet them back in English, as much as we knew, you know it was like, ‘Hello. How are you?’ And then they said a few more words, and you said, ‘I don’t know!’

(41:01) Do you remember anything else about what they taught you at this orientation you received?
More of the how to take a shower, how to go to the bathroom, ‘hello.’ Pretty much it was nothing special. It was just very, very basic. Be sure to lock your door–you know, just very basic stuff. You’re going to be traveling in cars, put shoes on [chuckles], because it was the normal thing not to have shoes in Laos. We were very poor. To have shoes you were very fortunate.

(41:43) So you arrived first in San Francisco and ended up in Lansing, Michigan.
Well, we–the plane landed in San Francisco. We stayed there for maybe a couple days. And from there we landed in Lansing, Michigan. And then our sponsor came–I think I mentioned that our sponsor was Ascension Lutheran Church. And they came and greeted us, and my brother also came and we settled in this one bedroom apartment.

(42:18) How many family members did you have in this one bedroom apartment?
I guess I was the youngest, so it was just me and my mom and my dad.

So you brothers did not come with you?
They had their own family and they actually came–they came, too, but they were lucky enough to come to Lansing in 1980, which we didn’t, because somebody went ahead of us.

But you knew where your brothers were–
Yeah, so we came to Lansing. So my oldest brother that I talked about earlier that had already escaped to Thailand, my oldest brother had already come to Lansing, and then he sponsored–or the church also sponsored my other brother who had taken care of us, and he arrived in Lansing in 1980, and then we came in 1981.

(43:10) So here you are. Your father is a shaman, and you’ve been sponsored by a Lutheran church. That had to make for an interesting contrast. There had to be some questions about how this Hmong animist family would fit into this new environment.
When we got here in Lansing, Michigan, my brother, my oldest brother, as I mentioned, was also a shaman, but he had gone to church. I believe [he was] baptized also. And then when we came, we wanted to fit in. I remember my father talked about how–‘fit in,’ and wanted to leave the old ways. My father–being a shaman wasn’t something that he had always enjoyed. It was a lot of responsibility, and he was growing old and he was tired of that kind of lifestyle. And so he had said to us that he didn’t want to become a shaman anymore, and wanted to leave that world and one of the reasons that he had always feared doing that was because he felt the shaman spirit would not leave him. But now he felt that he had a higher power, and many Christians had mentioned about how they, too had similar experiences, and now they had accepted Christ, and their lives had changed. Father had heard those kinds of stories, and we accepted Jesus Christ. He–but due to the language barrier, more of a cultural shock, he didn’t really know what to expect. And even though we had bible lessons in our home and I would be the one translating–that’s how scary that was [laughs].

[End tape side one]

(00:02) So I would assume that in the beginning you’re interpreting Christianity through your own culture, so there’s kind of a mixing of animism and Christianity, at least to some degree. Do you remember anything like this?
Yeah. I started first grade when I got to Lansing, and I started learning the catechism and going to first grade, all the way to eighth grade, and, I guess, working at church as the acolyte. And to me, I feel that some–there was a greater power or greater being watching over me. Let me kind of briefly explain that. When we were in Laos, at a very young age, when we moved from Vientiane to *Ba Hia–my father also has another story. He was married to this other lady who had passed away and left my father with these three sons and a daughter. So when he married my mother, my mother’s other husband was accidentally shot by one of the villagers, so she had a son, so when my father got married to my mother, I was the only one [the only child they had together]. And when I was very young, I remember going to visit the [family] of the previous wife. I saw these images–scary, ghostly images in the ceiling. I was frightened, because every time we’d go there I’d feel some sort of evil was watching me. And I was probably around three going on four, and I was very scared. So my father would, with him being a shaman, look into the spiritual world and said that it was his previous wife who came and just wanted to see me. That’s pretty freaky! So my father had this very strange relationship with his previous wife. She had died, but yet spiritually he felt she was still tormenting him. And so he had many times battled or refused to go with her. And every time my mother and my father would talk about her something bad would happen. And I remember we went to the farm to do some farming, and they had talked about her–the previous wife–and all of a sudden these rocks came flying from the top of the mountain–came flying like people were throwing rocks at us. It was that strange–and one landed on my head! So my father went up there and started calling names and said, ‘Who’s responsible?’ and there was no one there. So he came home and he did his shaman thing, and to him he found out that it was her again. So I had that type of experience. And then during the war, when we were running, I fell into this rushing river that was so strong! It was raining, my cousin and I were trying to cross this river, but the rain had just stopped, so the river was just gushing with everything–all these twigs and everything else. And it was the first time I tried to cross the river like that and I was afraid. So my cousin started crossing and we walked on this log, this huge tree that had fallen down. And for some reason I looked down and–there was a mirage–and I looked down and I saw that’whoa!’ the tree was moving! And in my mind, I had to hold on to the tree, and the moment I started doing that, I was washed away. And for about, I would probably say for less than five minutes I was washed away. I drowned, and I felt this peacefulness come over me. And I saw my mother at home. I was at home now. I had this peacefulness that came over me and I saw my mother. As they say, my life was passing before my eyes. And all of a sudden I felt this enormous hand grab me, and when that happened, I grabbed the hand, and when I did that, I landed on this huge rock, the only–the greatest rock, the biggest rock in the river. And I was able to pull myself up and stood on top of this rock, and my cousin, who had witnessed this whole thing, could not believe what he saw. And that experience taught me a lesson that there were some greater beings watching over me. That was my first experience. The other time was during the time I talked earlier about–you know, my cousins being shot by the communist soldiers. I, too, could have been part of that group, but like I said, I felt that some being was watching over me, and had told me not to go. And I was saved again. And when we came to Thailand I was very sick, and I had that blood transfusion done on me, and we were very fortunate to spend the days in the hospital. We could have been in that camp, and I don’t know how we would have survived. My parents were old, and it was just terrible. (***) There’s nothing. Literally, people just go to the bathroom where they sit. It was just not a place where we wanted to be or should see. So when we came to America I was introduced to the Gospel and I had accepted openly. And to me it was more of a coming home. This is where I should have been. This is why I’m here. At that time I actually had that sense.

(7:08) You mentioned that you were essentially translating the bible for your parents when you were doing bible study at home.

Was there no one from the church who worked with you? Were you simply left to do your own thing in your own way?
My pastor came and taught us bible lessons, and so my pastor and I were pretty close, because, you know, I was his own means of communication to my brothers, to my father and mother

(7:39) So it wasn’t just you and your parents, it was your brothers also who came to this.
Yes, because we all went to the same church. And I knew the Bible better than they did, so I was translating what my pastor said. We did that for a while until we found this lay minister, a Hmong lay minister, to come there and do that part for us.

(8:15) You mentioned that about six years after your family was converted that they decided that Christianity wasn’t for them.
I guess to make the story a little shorter–

Don’t make it short on my account. We like long stories.
OK. My father had always been a shaman, so many people knew that he was a shaman. They did not know that he was converted to being a Christian, which he had found his new faith or new religion to be rewarding, because he was willing to leave all that behind and he had found peace in his life for once. As I mentioned earlier, he had tried–he wanted to leave that behind, to escape that torment that his previous wife–which he felt was still after him. But eventually when more Hmong people came to Lansing, and they knew that he was a shaman back in the days, they came and begged and begged him. I remember going to the Lutheran church, we each were given a cross, and we had worn our cross every day, and my father had a much bigger cross that he wore, and he had told the fellow that came–he had told him that he no longer performed the shaman ritual anymore, because he is a Christian now. Well, that fellow doesn’t know anything about being a Christian, yet my father is also a newly converted Christian, and as the guy begged and begged, and–my father was always a kind person, he decided, ‘Well, maybe one time will be OK. But maybe just this once.’ And he went to perform the shaman ritual and he came back and he told us that he didn’t feel the same anymore, that he felt the shaman spirit wasn’t with him anymore. It was more of a fake. He couldn’t really see how he saw, but he realized he had the cross with him. And he didn’t–more people came and asked him to perform. And more and more people came. And as he got into that again, every time he went he took the cross off. And then he felt, ‘OK, maybe this is becoming something that I can’t just hide behind the church anymore. I need to do something. Because, according to the shamans, if you perform shamanism, you have to have an altar for the spirits to communicate. You have to have an altar to–not in terms of worship, but an altar looks like a home. And so we had an altar built in our apartment, and when we had bible study they would cover the altar. Later on my pastor–I don’t know if he knew about shamanism, or at least Hmong shamanism, but my father had asked the pastor if it was OK for him to perform shamanism. Well, I guess the translation of what he was doing, when my pastor heard it, he had questioned, ‘Are you doing something to harm someone or is it something good?’ My father had replied that it was a good thing. And the pastor, without realizing what my father was doing, said, ‘It’s OK. If it’s good, it’s OK.’ So later on when the lay minister came and ministered to us, that got across my pastor, and then that’s when they said, ‘I didn’t know this. If I knew about this, I would have told him not to do this.’ And then they took my parents to church and they talked to them about taking down the altar and really just being Christians, sticking to the word of God. And during this time there were a lot of Hmong people in Lansing already. A lot of people had a lot of expectations of my father and he decided with the pastor and also the lay minister by his side that–I felt he was pressured into taking down the altar. So I got home one day and saw the pastor and the lay minister, along with my father, and asked them what they were doing, and the pastor told me, ‘Your father has decided that he wants to take down the altar.’ And I–obviously my father was there, too, and I thought my father was happy. I was glad he wanted to do that, because like I said at the beginning, he wanted to escape that. I was happy for him, and I took part in it. So I helped him take down the altar. And then later on my sister-in-law came and said, ‘What are you guys doing? Do you guys know that if you do this the shaman spirit is going to attack my father?’ And that–reality just hit him or something. And he was scared to death. And he experienced many–and he was traumatized, we should say. He experienced a lot of sickness, and then the–we didn’t have the support from the church. They didn’t come to pray for him. Also he was upset at the pastor, so the pastor had–you know, cut the communication between him[self] and my parents. And it was me–I would still go to church, but it was just me. That’s that story.

(14:29) So you never really had a lot of support in the congregation for your father.
Because of the language barrier we did not get that kind of support.

(14:39) Now I would imagine it has to be somewhat difficult. I would assume that the majority of Hmong people in Lansing were not Christian.

So what is it like to be essentially a religious minority within an ethnic or racial group in Lansing?
It was difficult, but it was something that the Hmong people were willing to accept. They knew that a lot of Hmong really were looking for some sort of higher power. And back in Laos a higher power was someone like a shaman who could perform a ritual. And now you can go to church and you can accept God into your life and you can–you know, you were free from that sort of bondage. You were free from the bondage that you had to do all sorts of things to please the spirit. And one day we were taught that, many were willing to accept that [Christianity], while others were–hesitated to accept that, because others felt the Hmong ritual was a tradition and it wasn’t more a religion, but it was a tradition. They’re so intertwined together that sometimes, for Hmong persons who say, ‘What’s religion, what’s culture?’ it’s hard for them to diagnose [distinguish?] the two.

(16:11) So while this religious piece is going on in your family, in your church, in your community, you’re obviously also going to school, making friends, feeling more familiar with and more comfortable in American culture. Do you remember that process or any steps along the way that made you think, ‘OK, I’m getting it. It’s becoming easier or more comfortable’?
My father, even though he had turned back and decided to do the practice of shamanism again, he had always encouraged me to continue to go to church. He felt that was a good thing for me. He would not perform the shaman ritual on me, because he felt I was protected by a higher power. He had that understanding until later on, when we moved away from the church, and it was more of that lifestyle where we were like in Laos, where he was in charge of pretty much the ritual–everything that was–we didn’t go to church for a while, when we moved like that. So, you know, as a child growing up in that sense, I never really struggled with my Christian identity or anything. I had the free will to go worship. My mother took me, even though my mother also took care of my father. And I saw that a lot of other parents were not as open, and I think that my father was open [because] he understood the spiritual world. Yet he knew that I would be different. But he was willing to accept that.

(18:10) So there wasn’t the same sort of stigma attached to being a Christian in the Hmong community that there might be in the Christian community for someone who becomes Muslim or something like that.
No. It wasn’t like that. It was more of a higher power. The Hmong people understand the spiritual world as a ‘man versus the omnipotent beings.’ These are omnipotent beings, which means some beings–there’s a level of power, and as a shaman you are one that can go into that spiritual world, but yet you don’t have the power to overcome all the spirits. Some spirits you may, with your shaman spirit, you’re always going in there and making negotiations.

(19:12) What was school like for you?
It was hard. I went in my first day of school, I saw the principal standing outside, greeting the kids. I walked in, the principal greeted me, and–I think she must have said ‘hello,’ or ‘good morning’ or whatever, and I said ‘yes’ to her, and she looked at me, puzzled. She asked a few more questions that I didn’t know how to answer, so I said, ‘no,’ so it was more of a ‘yes, no.’ And then she took me to my first grade teacher, and I studied there, and we had–the first grade was divided into first grade and second grade, and we had segregated (I don’t know if that’s the right word, but–) on the left side would be first grade, on the right side would be the second grade, so, yeah, sort of segregated like that, and I really wanted to be the second grader [PH laughs], because I felt, when I was in Thailand, I was going to second grade, so I really wanted to be the second grader, and also my cousin met this other new kid on the block who was also a cousin, and he was a second grader. And because he was a second grader and sat on the other side, I wanted to be a part of that group. So I studies really hard, learned my ABCs as fast as I could, and wanted to be a second-grader. And in less than a year I started picking up, thanks to those wonderful cartoons they had, I started picking up English. And fast as–then I became a second grader, and after second grade I stopped going to the ESL classes. And the teachers were very helpful. They knew that I was still trying so hard to learn, and sometimes they would test me by asking me a question–for me to grab something, so that I can actually understand what they were saying. Something as simple as, ‘Can you go get me that chalk over there?’ And you go over there and you’re looking, ‘What is a chalk? ‘ I want some chalk, but I can’t find it! [And the teacher would say] ‘There! Right over there!’ (***)

(21:25) Do you think your classmates accepted you? Were there problems?
You know, I think–I don’t know. I wasn’t really aware of the racial tensions like nowadays. But growing up in that environment as kids, I think kids live in their own different world. I had a lot of friends who were Caucasian and a lot of friends who were African American, and I had other friends who were Hmong and Vietnamese. They’d come over and spend time with me and I’d go over and spend time with them. We didn’t really see any racial tension until we started going our own ways, and that was in junior high. That was when I started seeing that I was different, and they started seeing that we were different, that they were different. We stopped hanging out with each other, and things like that. But other than that, you know, obviously kids are going to call each other names, and times change.

(23:04) So how do you see yourself as a Hmong Christian man living in the United States? What is your role or your identity in this time and in this society?
I see myself as a second generation Hmong, but also a Christian Hmong person, and I think there is a great calling I feel that the Lord has called me to. And as a Christian we have our responsibility to fulfill, to bring our family to know God, and to understand, to be a light and a salt to the world. And because I would say that I am maybe one per cent of my family, and 99% are the others who are still non-Christian or are curious about becoming a Christian. I don’t separate myself from them, as Christ said, you know his commandment was to love your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind, but [also] to love your neighbor as you love yourself. I would go and help them out as much as I can, and I do have the free time to do so. I don’t perform what they do, but I will go and help them, and share with them. And there are times when I have been given the opportunity to witness or pray for my nieces or nephews, or my other cousins. And I see that more Hmong people are coming to where this traditional ritual can’t go on any longer, because it’s too difficult for one thing. The other thing is people don’t live their lifestyle based on [plants? The agricultural cycle?] anymore, like in the ancient, the old days. These days it’s like, wherever–the economy takes you wherever you want to go–wherever you find a job, you go there. And a lot of the non-Christians are becoming aware of that, so especially younger generation, they don’t know anything about the ritual practice, and because there’s that huge gap between the elders and the younger generation, they don’t have that tie with each other. So the younger generation are either left open to be dragged into practicing the old ways, because when something happens they consult with their parents, and their parents say, ‘You know what? We don’t know anything about this, but we have an uncle that knows about this’, and then they consult with that person, and that person then does the ritual. Or else they’re pretty much left in their world and they either are–they’re free thinkers, you know? And that’s pretty sad that it’s harder to reach out to these folks than to someone who still is still spiritually in tune. Right now they’re either–they believe in evolution more than believing that there are spiritual beings that (***). And I think that gives us–as a Christian that gives me a great joy to say that when I meet someone, I can be as open as I want to be, ’cause that person is willing to listen. I’m not forcing my way or being very preachy to anyone, but I want the opportunity to let them know that there is hope, that there is another way.

[End of Track 2]

(00:01) It sounds like you are very comfortable bringing together the Christian tradition and your own traditions. You don’t see Christianity as a Western or an American religion.
Yeah. I don’t see it like that, where the older folks and maybe the ones who are brought up differently see it as a Western religion. But if they really want to find out, the more they learn about it, they will realize it’s not. And I see it, like I say to people, I see it as a relationship. It’s like Jesus asked his disciples: ‘Who do you say think that I am?’ or ‘What do people think that I am?’ It’s almost like, ‘What am I to you? Do you think I’m some kind of crazy person, or your Lord and Savior?’ So I see that as a relationship, and yet someone else, especially in the Hmong community, may see it as a ritual practice. And when they see it like that, they’ll say, ‘We have our own traditional ritual practice’ or ‘You’re practicing a different ritual.’ But I see it [as something] beyond ritual practice.

(1:19) You may not want to talk about this, so feel free to tell me that. Your father passed away not too many years ago–is that correct?
Yes. My father passed away in 1993. He had–he was a heavy smoker. He also drank a lot when he was in Thailand. He started drinking a lot when he was in Thailand, and then he came to Michigan and drank a lot there, too. When we were here in Minnesota he stopped drinking and smoking, but in 1993 he had lung cancer–or was it gall bladder cancer? I can’t remember.

(2:11) Was a traditional Hmong ritual performed for your father, or what ceremony took place after his death?
They did a traditional ceremony for my father. It was sad to say that–and I want to say this: that as a son, as a youngest son who holds on to the Gospel, I tried very hard to minister to my father, but he was upset with the church, and wouldn’t listen, or wouldn’t listen or wasn’t willing to come back to the church again. And when he was very sick, I had a talk with him about the spiritual world, and I had told him. I said, ‘Dad, you know, when you were young and healthy, you had the shaman spirit with you, and you were able to drive out demons and heal people. And I’ve seen you do that. Where are your shaman spirits? Why are you lying here?’ He said, ‘They have left me.’ And it was pretty sad thing to see. I thought to myself, ‘When you needed them the most, when they know you’re going to pass away, they have left you.’ So I saw it. I’m a biochemistry major, and I saw it as a symbiotic thing–sort of like that. You know, they needed you when you were healthy, and used you, and when you were no longer needed, they left. And he said (***) but I felt that in my heart. And I had to ask him if it was OK that I prayed for him, and he was very open to that. And yet, on the other hand we’ve got my mother, we’ve got other relatives that are trying to find ways to help him by asking other shamans to perform rituals. But I had talked to my father, and I said, ‘Dad, if you don’t mind, I would like to pray for you,’ and I prayed for him, and he was–I thought he had found peace when we had that communication. And I prayed for him, and I also asked–’cause during this time, we didn’t go to church, yet I held on to the Word strong in my heart, and I was–I didn’t know who to call to come and pray for my father, but at the time I was dating this one girl who was a Christian, and I had asked her to see if she could ask her pastor and their elders to come and pray for my father. And they did, and they prayed for him, and I said to him that, ‘You know, the doctor told me to tell you that you’re not going to make it.’ It was very hard as a son. I was about 22 when I had this talk with my father. And then we parted. And from that moment on I feel that–I wish that I had that opportunity like I have today to witness to my father–to really teach him the Word of God, to really explain to him what it’s like to be a Christian. I feel like he didn’t know what it was like to be a Christian. So he didn’t know, and during a time of testing he succumbed to temptation, reverted to what he knew best. It was a spiritual struggle for him. And nowadays my mother is still living with us, and she was hurt by the church like that, and she feels like she doesn’t want to go to church anymore, and so we struggle pretty much every day about finding ways to reach out to her, just to let her know that we love her. But yet she understands that we will not practice the traditional ways, but she loves us and she wants to stay with us and help us out. So I kind of live in both worlds. You can say I love the sinners and hate the sin. I don’t practice what they practice. And when I say this, I’m not condemning anyone; I’m not condemning those that still practice that, but I want them to know that God loves them. (***)

[The time allotted for the interview had ended, though Keith agreed to sit down later to elaborate on a few things. Then he started talking about ‘the long journey home,’ the Hmong funeral ritual, so I turned the tape recorder on again]

I’d like to explain that part about when a person passes away. There are rituals that a person–that the dead will need to go through. Normally this would be done in three to four days. And relatives–it doesn’t matter where you are; if you can come, you want to come to see this person, to see your loved one, to say your last goodbyes. And this requires a lot of people to help out, because they kill a lot of cows, and they believe that the more cows you kill that shows the respect–that you love this person–and also they feel that these animals are going to be a part of this new journey home. It’s gonna be–it’s gonna go with this person to the spiritual world. And yet they give him all sorts of burnt offerings–they call it the money for hades world–money that needs to travel with this person so that in the next life, in the spiritual life, the person will not be a poor person. And this ritual requires a person that knows how to play a flute, a very special flute song that helps travel the soul to hades world, or, in the other sense, to the homeland, to the motherland where the person lived, to the ancestors that have gone before this person. And this special flute is played–you really can’t learn this flute anywhere else, because the Hmong people feel that this special flute song cannot be taught anywhere else–only at a funeral, because this is an omen–that if you should play this special flute somewhere else, it would bring a bad omen to the household or to the person. And so the flute players who learn this special flute only come and learn at the funeral, and then this flute, this flute song is played. And as the body gets pulled out and laid there, the flute player would play the song. And the translation of the song is to say that they are taking this person, starting from the present place, and going backwards to the place of birth. And the song–with the flute song they say a lot of jargon to try to trick the underworld spirit so that–the person who plays the song–his spirit doesn’t get trapped in the spiritual world. And they would say a lot of jargon like, ‘I came today, but I left yesterday’–things like that. And when they’re done playing the song, and if you are one of the brave ones, you watch closely and you will see a color change in the dead person from a tan to black or blue. And that’s, to someone who has witnessed something like that, you feel the spirit has left the body or that that person is really gone–or you really see there is a corpse. Because I have witnessed this twice (one time was my uncle. As I mentioned earlier he had gotten shot and was crying [during] his burial ritual. But after playing the flute he had stopped crying, and his body color changed. [With] my father [it was] the same thing.)

(12:27) So you went to the ceremony.
Yes. As a son, we are required to go. In the ceremony they require that the relatives or the family of the dead pay close attention to the body, and also pay respect by bowing down or ka tao, and someone will give the blessing, and they feel that the blessing then will come to their loved one who has passed away. And then when this is done they start doing the drum thing and other flute playing and people can come and mourn. And this mourning will pretty much be open. The traditional ceremony will pretty much last 24 hours. It isn’t like here in America where you turn and things will be closed. In Laos it was almost like three days straight out. And it’s a torture [laughs] to the living! By the time you’re done with that you’re exhausted or sick. So for those that do not understand the Hmong ritual, when they see that they think that it’s almost Satanic.

[Our time had REALLY come to an end by this point, so we made arrangements to finish the interview later. Keith had a few last words. Comments that reiterated what he said above have largely been omitted:]

I’d like to discuss a little bit [more] about the ritual of passing away, or ‘The Long Journey Home.’ With that in mind, many–it is a ritual that the Hmong people, as a cultural or ethnic group, look at as a very important aspect in life. That’s why the culture is based on the clan system. In the traditional old days, everybody was around the same town, so it was easier to do things. But even in today’s economy, you are spread out everywhere else in the world. But if you can be there, the family wants you to be there. So during this time it will be a time of family gathering. And when that happens, it’s–the funeral actually takes place Friday normally these days because they use Fridays because people work. So it will be Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Traditionally it’s three days. It really doesn’t matter what day [you start], it’s a three journey. And everybody from all over the world will come, if you can. When this happens, the dead person first gets dressed up in their traditional clothing, because they believe that the person will be returning to the ancestors’ homeland, or wherever the person was born, considered traveling to their homeland.

Does this have anything to do with where their placenta was buried?
Well, it’s really not about the placenta, but it’s about where the ancestors actually originated, maybe the town where the person was born or originated in. And with that process, then, when they dress up the person, that’s when the mourning starts. People start to mourn, cry, and then they start having the ritual afterward with the drum beat or the flute man playing the flute and all sorts of other rituals. People would do like a kowtow–

What is that?
Kind of like they kneel down with the essence. You know, there’s a process where–there will be some sort of blessing. They take a person–someone highly who has prestige in the clan or… And the person will come and the person will give all these blessings, and the family members would be the ones kneeling down. And the blessings can be good or bad [Laughs]

Yeah. So you have to know that, okay, if it’s a good blessing, you want to say ‘I want it! I want it!’ And you kneel down and do it a certain way. If we had a video tape it [would be easier] to explain how they motion it. They take the essence of their hand and it would be more of a–you know, kneeling down, bowing down and then trying–they take their hand, they do hand movement, like if they want it, what they would do is like [while making hand motions] they want it all to them.

So they put their open hands together, fingertip to fingertip [and bring them in as if bringing smoke toward themselves]
But if it’s something they don’t want, it’s almost like they’re pushing it away [reverse of previous gesture, as if keeping smoke away]. It’s strange. So if you have never done it, and you’re a new person and you see everybody’s going down, you’re probably doing the same thing, pulling to you, pulling to you, ’cause that’s what you think it is. So for the Hmong people, it’s either good or bad. But you have to listen.

Let me make sure I’m understanding this correctly. So an important person from a clan comes before the body of the dead person and provides either blessings or–would you say a curse? When you say ‘bad,’ what do you mean?
Well, the person would say all sorts of blessings, more of a–it’s hard to say, but it’s more of a, sort of like a sermon, and in that sermon there are things where the person would talk about the good things, and then things that the person would mention about that may not be pertaining to good that you may not–that you may want or you may not want. If it’s something you don’t want or you feel it’s not something good for you, you don’t–you know–

And so who’s making the hand gestures? The members of the [dead person’s] family?
Yes. Correct.

And are they making them on behalf of the person who has died, or for themselves?
They see it as the person–the person who is making the statement is sort of the like the middle guy, translating what the dead person is–kind of like giving the blessing through.

So he’s passing on the deceased’s last will and testament–spiritually–on to the family, and the family is saying either ‘I want that’ or ‘I don’t want that.’

You got it. Yes. It’s sort of like that. You know, he’s giving a blessing. It’s not like he comes in and starts blessing the family based on his own knowledge, but more of it from the dead person’s. Now they’re on the transition of passing through the–to hades world, and they’re giving that last sort of blessing back to the family.

Now when you say ‘hades world’ to a Christian, I would assume many of them would think ‘hell,’ but to the Hmong I’m sure it means something else–

Well, the world of the dead. To the Hmong people there’s really no hell or heaven. It’s the world of the dead. In the translation, in the English text, most of the time they refer to that as hades.

Like the ancient Greeks.
Right. So all of that would be taking place within the funeral. But before that, the flute man plays flute. [Here Keith reviews the same story he told above about how the flute songs can only be learned at funerals, how the flute player guides the dead person’s soul but also resorts to trickery to keep his own soul from going into hades, etc.] This special person who plays the flute can be a relative, but normally they like to ask someone that’s not a relative, because it’s a time of saying goodbye and it’s a time of walking with this person for their last journey. So if you are a relative, things can get a little complicated because there could be some emotional effect, that you may feel very lonely, or you may feel that it’s hard to say goodbye. So they want someone who has that type of strength. And when this flute song gets played by the flute man [Keith then re-tells the story of how the color of the person’s body changes as the flute song is played and as the spirit leaves the body]. When all that is done, then they will play more flutes and more drums, and the family continues to mourn and cry and things like that. And then there are people who are taking care of all of these other rituals and the funeral continues on for three days. And that’s where the blessing starts to happen. People bring offerings or whatever they have for–to help out the family. And then they have special greetings or special thanksgiving ways of honoring those who give gifts. And it’s kind of weird, because it’s a saying–it’s a learned saying. So the person who gives, whether money, or whatever, they would say, Yeah, you don’t have to give thanks to me,’ and they have a very special way of saying that. While the other person–or there may be more than one person, because normally these are a group of–that are related to the deceased’s family, would be saying, ‘Thank you for the gifts and everything else,’ and they talk about how they will continue to remember their blessings and their kindness in life, that they can’t meet up to the life standards and all these blessings that the person has given them today, and it is going to be sort of like a waste. So ‘thank you’ and things like that. It’s a saying. So both of them are saying it at the same time. So you hear a bunch of mumbo-jumbo.

So the family is saying ‘thank you’ for what they have received and the other family is saying–
‘You don’t have to thank me, because there’s a debt. You have a lost loved one,’ and things like that. And the other thing about the long journey home is–this is a term when traditionally–the Hmong people have a different plan. And in the old traditional way there are funerals where it is conducted outside the home, and nowadays everything’s in the funeral home. But based on the clan system, some would do it outside of the home, some would leave the deceased sort of like on a stand outside the home throughout the whole funeral. Others would do it in their house. In my clan the funeral would be taking place in the house. Other clans, they would take the deceased and dress the deceased up in a–sort of like a basket, and let the deceased sit on top of the basket, dress the deceased up based on clan rituals and religious sects, things like that. Nowadays everything’s done [makes a noise like something is rushing by fast] so all of that’s kind of gone away. But if you go to Laos or somewhere else that’s in a Third World country and there’s no funeral home, it is still being practiced.

Do you have anyone in your close family who you think has had a harder time making the adjustment to life here than other members of your family?
Well, in terms of–do mean like ritual practice?

Just in general. Maybe they’re more unhappy than other members of the family because they don’t live in Laos or they don’t like this culture or they’re unhappy with the way their kids have grown up in the culture–
Yeah. My older brother–he’s also a shaman and he–I guess when he and I were growing up in Laos and coming here trying to raise a family and still leading the clan in terms of the religious ritual, he would be the one the clan usually calls on. And he feels like all these kids, they don’t know any of the rituals that he does, so it’s almost like there’s no bond in that area. The other thing is that it’s much harder to do a ritual in America. You can’t just go out there and bring a live animal into your home and do rituals like in a Third World country. So they’ve adjusted to that, but it’s still harder to practice that kind of ritual. But I would say, in terms of my brother that his biggest concerns are his kids–you know, having a good life, and there is so much freedom, so the kids end up doing something else other than focusing on what to do to achieve a better life in America. And that’s the biggest concern. Rather than having the kids to follow in his footsteps in terms of traditional Hmong ritual. To him, it’s probably something he would prefer, but it’s not the top priority.

[Recorder was turned off, but Keith had one more comment]

The Hmong people have a belief in animism, so they give objects the quality of being alive or having a spirit, so they’re very superstitious. I remember growing up–you can’t point fingers at the moon, and if you do, you would need to say some sort of phrase so that you don’t get your ears cut. Or crossing a mountain or a river, so you don’t displease the spirit, because you may encounter some spirit who may be upset because you’re kind of like trespassing–so, things like that. They feel that if they go places they need to do some sort of ritual, and there will be a time where they’re scared because, let’s say during the war, there were a lot of people were being killed and they need some sort of a blessing for their family. They would make a blessing and they would call upon the spirits of the–they consider the spirits who may have more power over the realm where they are at, and if those spirits have kept their family united and there is no harm that came upon their family, then they would make the offering as promised. They’re very spiritual. Other people, like I said to you before, they know there is a Creator, yet they don’t know or have a relationship to the Creator. To them it is–the Creator created things, and there are other spirits that–if we have offended certain spirits, we need to ‘pay dues.’ They still consider the Creator to be someone very powerful. They call on the Creator to bless or protect their family, but there is really no relationship, no personal relationship…

Khu Thao

Interviewer: Kelly Vang
Translator/Transcriber: Peter (Chou) Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer

Tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is Khu Thao. I am 87 years old and was born on October 8, 1914. I was born in Leng Theng, Laos. My father’s name is Khoua Vang Thao and my mother’s name is May Yang. I have six brothers and two sisters. After I was born my parents and I moved to Phou Lo. When I was old enough to garden, Uncle Tong Ya Thao and Grandpa Wang Lue Thao found us and lived with us for five years. Then we moved with my uncle and grandpa to Nam Ka Ma, which was their village. When the corn and the garden was harvested, we moved to Nam Khoua.

I was married twice. My first husband died and then I got remarried to Cher Kue Vang from Long Cheng, Laos. When we got married, my husband and I went and hid in the forest from the communists until 1977 and then moved to live in Na Xou. In Na Xou we went and lived with my husband’s brother’s son, Boua Fue Vang. While living with Boua Fue we moved to a village called Na Pai In Vang Vieng, Laos. In 1978 we moved to Ban Douon, which was on the way to Thailand.

When I was married to my first husband, I bore only one daughter named Phoua Xiong, who I am living with right now. I don’t remember when I married him because we didn’t keep track of dates and I don’t remember how old I was. When my daughter was old enough and reached puberty, my husband died, leaving just the two of us by ourselves. After my husband died and my daughter was old enough, she took off and got married, leaving me by myself, all alone. I also don’t remember how old I was when I married Cher Kou Vang. When I married him I only remember that I was already old. That’s why I don’t have any more children.

When you were younger, what did you like to do for fun?
When I was younger I didn’t go to school or anything. I only helped my parents garden. There were no schools in the village and no one to teach. If we wanted to go to school we had to go down to the cities. All my life I have moved around everywhere and everywhere I went I only helped my parents garden. There wasn’t really any time to play.

When did you move to Thailand?
I moved to Thailand in about 1985. During that year we left Ban Douon to Vinni. We lived in Vinni for about two months and then moved on to Xieng Kham. We lived there for about four months and then moved to Phana, where we lived for six more months. We then finally came to the United States in 1986.

When you didn’t garden, what did you do for fun?
When I was younger, in my teens, my sisters and I went and picked paaj tshau [leaves from trees] to come make baby dolls for us to play with. As we got older and knew how to do chores, I went with my parents to garden, farm, make rice patties, and grow cornfields. When the rice was ready to harvest, I would go and reap it with my parents. After we reaped it, we would hit it with a big stick or hit the plants on the ground, covered with a huge cloth, until all the seeds fell out.

There was no time to rest. The only time to rest was during our new year. But our new year was only for a few days. It wasn’t easy, like living here in the United States. After the New Year, we went back to gardening. In January or February, it was the time where we would go and cut down the forest or field and prepare the field for another year of rice patties and cornfields. After we cut down the forest, we would let it dry for about one month. Then we would go back and burn it. If all of it did not burn away, we would have to go and pick up the remains and put it in a pile and burn it. We had to do that so the field would be nice and flat and clear to plant, and when weeds started to grow, it would be easier to pull them out and destroy them.

First we would plant the corn seeds, then the rice patty. After we were done planting the rice patty, the cornfields were already full of weeds for us to pick. After we were done weeding the corn, the rice needed weeding, too. Throughout the whole year we would have to weed the fields twice before the corn and rice fields started to grow. The corn was the first to be ready, and then the rice. After we had put the corn away, then we would go back and harvest the rice. After we harvested the rice, if we had the time, we would hit it for the seeds to come down and then we would have new years. If we didn’t have time then we would just bring it in and stack it up in the storage room until after the new year. Then we would go back and hit the rice. After we were done hitting it and all the seeds came out we would put it away in the storage room.  This was our everyday lives. This was the cycle of our lives. Gardening, farming and harvesting was our daily cycle.

Back in those days there were no cars, unlike now. No matter how far or near, we would have to walk and all we used were our backs and shoulders to carry things. But then there was a lot of freedom during that lifetime. There were no debts to pay, no taxes to pay, no one to boss you around, and no one to tell me what to do. The only thing that was scary back then in the days were the tigers. When I learned how to garden I was probably around six or seven years old. When gardening we would have to burn in the sun, get wet in the rain, get bit by little bugs and mosquitoes. We would start our day every morning at about five in the morning until seven at night. This is if we lived far from the garden and would sleep over there. If we were going from our house, we would start at about seven in the morning and come back home at five at night. Farming is not an easy job; there is no time to rest. The only time is when we would rest was after we finished a row of rice or corn or when we took a break to eat lunch for about 30 or 40 minutes.

The clothes we wore were very ragged and the women didn’t get to wear pants like the men. They only wore Hmong skirts or Laotian skirts. The women’s heads were wrapped with a cloth at all times, so nothing would get in our heads. The men wore hats. There were no shoes to wear. On the way back home we would have to chop some firewood and pick some pig’s food (like banana trees or other plants) for them to eat and other animal’s food to bring home. There has never been a time when we came home without bringing anything back with us. We had to bring all these things back so we would have firewood to make fire and food to feed the animals. We would farm to eat for the next year. That means if we farm this year, all the food would be for next year to eat. Some years the rice wasn’t very good and we couldn’t grow enough for us to eat the whole year. When that happened we would have to grind up the corn and eat that or potato trees or other things that we could eat.

Making clothes was also a very hard job. We made clothes out of hemp. All our clothes were hemp. We would have to plant the hemp plants at the same time as the corn. When the corn was ready to harvest the hemp was also ready. When the hemp was ready and old, we would reap it. We would cut off the leaves and the roots, then dry the stems in the sun until they were nice and dry. Then we peeled the skin off and made it into strings and cloth to sew into clothing. Mostly the women did this. We would make the string by peeling the skin off the stem and then tying them all together in a long strip and hanging it up. After that we would take it and crush it in a rice chopper. We then took it and rolled it up and wrapped it up into a ball. Then we would take it and spin it at the spinning machine and cook it in a huge pan and add ashes with it to make it white. When the hemp was white we took it and washed it in a stream. After we washed it, it was not quite white yet, so we would have to take it and cook it again until it was white. If it was white and good we would take it and dry it. Once it was dry we would roll it up on the cross again and spin it into yarn like rolls. Then we took it to another machine (sort of like a sewing machine) and put all the strings together and made it into cloth. When we made a lot of cloth, then we’d take it and make our clothes, especially the Hmong outfits.

What were weddings like back in Laos?
Weddings back then were like the ones we still do. There are two kinds of weddings. One is when the husband comes and asks for the wife at her home. The other one is when the wife just takes off with the husband and they come back and tell the woman’s family that they have taken her. The man’s parents would have to find two elders that go to the woman’s house and tell her parents that they have taken her to marry their son. After three days, the man’s parents have to give cigarettes and money to bring over and let them know for a fact that their daughter has been taken away to be married to their son. After three days, the man’s parents have to find one person who is the mej koob–the main speaker for the family, one person who carries the basket of food, and a best man that bows with the groom. They also have to find a bridesmaid for the woman. She has to be with the bride at all times to make sure that no one would trick her or tempt her to go do other things. On the bride’s side of the family they need a mej koob, a main speaker for their side, a person who does all the cooking, and their person who takes charge of the wedding. Other than that the woman’s side of the family has a few people who look into the bride’s future and see if she will have a good life with her husband. If they were to see problems, there are to fix them and tell the bride and groom what to do. The weddings back then were for three days and three nights before it was done, but ever since we emigrated from China, it’s only been for one day and two nights. Now we only have it for one day. Then when the wedding is over the groom can take the bride home with him. Before they do take her home and before the ceremony begins, the husband has to pay a price for the bride. They pay for the bride’s parents for all the hard work that they have done raising their daughter. If there has been any shame that the groom has put on the bride’s parents, they would have to give some money to the parents for that also. But all these prices depend on the bride’s parents.

What was courtship like?
Throughout our whole generation and culture, we never dated in front of our parents because we were embarrassed. The only time the male would come and talk to the female was when she was already sleeping. Back then the guy would just come and sit outside of the girl’s bedroom. He would whisper and shine a flashlight in her room and talk to her through the walls. If the girl likes the guy, then the girl would wait for her parents to sleep and then would go and take the guy in and take him to her bedroom. You would never see boyfriends and girlfriends hold hands or be together in public until the day they get married.

What do you remember about the war?
During the war we were very poor and scared. We moved place to place and never had time to watch our corn and rice fields grow. Right when it started to grow we would have to move or run away to a different place already. I was very sad. During the war we moved and ran away from the communists. We would sometimes go and hide in the forests and live there for a while until it was safe to move again. All the hills we climbed and all the bad times we had are very vivid to me. I will always remember those times and I wish we had left our country. My second husband also died during the war years in 1984. At that time all our families and relatives had fled to the United States already, leaving me behind with my daughter. I lived with my daughter and her family when everyone came to the United States. I was very sad when my husband passed away because there were no relatives left to conduct his funeral and we were very poor.

Tell me about coming to the U.S. What was that like?
We finally came to the United States in 1986. It was very hard for me coming to the United States because I didn’t want to leave my homeland. I was going to miss my country and it made me very sad, but I decided that it would be better for me to come to the United States than to live in a communist country. I didn’t know what the United States was going to be like. I was scared.  When we got here we landed in Iowa. We didn’t know anyone in Iowa. We landed there because that was where our sponsor was living. It was an American family that sponsored us, but I don’t quite remember their names. When we got here we didn’t know how to use anything. Our sponsors showed everything. They showed us how to use the toilet, take a shower, use the television, and all the other things we didn’t have in our country. Everything was new to us and we didn’t know how to work it.

When we got here and our relatives heard that we were finally here, they came and got us from Iowa and took us to Minnesota. We were in Iowa for about a year before they came and got us. Koua Xang Vang and Youa Chang Vang were the ones who came and picked us up from Iowa. I was so happy to see them. I thought that I had lost contact with them all. They were my second husband’s children. When we got to Minnesota, we lived with Khoua Xang and his family for a while until we found our own place. I was very happy to see relatives again.

How do you feel about your life today?
I miss my country very much, every day, and want to go back and see it, but no one would let me go. They all keep saying that I am too old now and it wouldn’t be safe for me to go by myself, but no one would go with me, either. Last year I finally got my passport and was all set to go back, but then the relatives wouldn’t let me go. I was sad and angry, but there was nothing I could do about it. I’m still hoping to go back and just see Laos again. I just want to go back and see my land. I dream about my homeland almost every day. I miss it!

Long Yang

Interviewer: Peter Vang
Translator/Transcriber: Mai Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer


In 1974 (left) with friends, including Jerry Daniels (right)
Photo courtesy of Long Yang


Before we start here, can you please tell us your name, your mother and father’s names, and what village you lived in? What village did you grow up in?
My name is Long Yang. My father is Tong Xeng and my mother is Sau. I was born in the village of *Tham Thao, then we moved to two other villages before we ended up living in the forest because of the war. We stayed there for a little while and then came to live in *Khang Khay, lived for 15 days in Khang Khay, and then came to live in *Padong. We lived a month in Padong, but then the Vietnamese started shooting at Padong. Then we spread out to live in *Phou Khoun. When we reached Phou Khoun, I then was only a young teenaged boy, and I went to–they called them the Green Beret. They were soldiers.

Special Forces?
Special Forces. They came and I went to work for them. I gave them water and washed their clothes. I became the first Hmong who got to speak and learn English.

Before the war, in the village where your mother and father gave birth to you, what work did your parents do?
When we lived in *Tha Thom, my dad was a *naihmba.

Naihmba translated in English is what?
Naihmba translated in English is–a ..

The village chief?
No, the naihmba is the one who watches a certain village–like a township or a neighborhood, but they called it a village.

OK, so tell us, when you first met Americans, the Green Berets, what kind of people did you think they were, and did you think they were different from you?
Oh, when we first saw them, they kind of looked French. And we thought they were French but then they said they were Americans and not French.

Did they teach English to you or did you just learn from them by talking to them and carrying water for them? Or did you also learn writing from them?
I learned words only; they didn’t teach reading or writing. They only taught words to me. At that time we were little kids and they’d say, ‘Go Go,’ then you thought, ‘go.’ They told me to work for them from about year 1961 to 1962; then some of those Green Berets came back.

When you worked for the Green Berets, how old were you?
Since it was year 1961, I guess I was 19 years old.

Let us know, when you were done working for the Green Berets, what did you do?
When the Green Berets came, there was *Burr Smith, the bald head, and Tony [Poe, nee Anthony Poshepny], who is now still in Thailand [actually, he died on 27 June, 2003]. They were in the CIA and so I went to wash clothes for them. And I was with the Thai’s special forces, which they called PARU.

Yes, PARU.

The two American men–what were their names?
One was called Burr

Yes, that was only his code name; he died in San Diego in ’84 or ’83, and I went to live with him. The Thai came to tend the Green Berets, then I went to work for the Thai washing clothes. They took me to wash clothes for those three.

In your opinion, between the Thai and the Americans, which ones were nicer, in paying money and helping you?
At that time I only received a little amount of money. For one month they gave me three hundred Laotian monetary units. One US dollar equals about 80 Laotian monetary units.

Then three hundred money–could it buy you much to eat?
Over there, three hundred does have some worth.

After you were done washing clothes for the Thais and the Americans, what other jobs did you take?
After that they moved to Long Cheng and came to build an airport in Long Cheng . They brought me to come live in Long Cheng and I worked for a while. Then, in year [19]63, the fifth month, they opened up a place to teach telegraphy. Then the captain said that I should go and learn telegraphy. I was among the first group that learned the telegraph in Long Cheng.

Tell us, was it hard typing the Morse Codes? And how many months did it take for you to finish?
Usually it takes only three months, but with us, they had to teach us seven months before we finished, because in Laos, they taught hard and at the time you were taught other things. During the time we had to learn parachuting and shooting guns, too. It was February of [19]64 when we finished.

Tell us, in those seven months, what did you learn first? And when you were done did they award you the rank of lieutenant at that time, or when?
When we first started we learned the rules of soldier. They called this physical training. Then, two weeks after we started learning the codes. Then after that every day we practiced by listening and writing for three months; then we learned to type.

Did your head hurt at that time?
Oh, it was very hard, because everything you learn goes right to the brain. You’re not allowed to hold paper so they make you remember all of the codes.

Were there some boys who came to learn but failed?
Of the ones who came to learn, there were none who couldn’t make it. You have to make it, because they make it so you have to learn it. The ones who can’t get it well, when we come out, are placed in back so the ones who can do well are sent with the soldiers ahead. After we were done, they gave me the rank of Sergeant, and then I went to live in the forest.

At that time, for a Sergeant, how much did they pay you?
After that, they paid 3000 for one month.

So when you washed clothes you received 300, but when you were done you received 3,000.
Three thousand, and the soldiers, all the Special Forces, were paid at the same time they started paying the ones who learned Morse Code, and they also started giving ranks to everyone. Before the year [19]64, everyone in the Special Forces had no rank, but after [19]64 ranks were given out. Many people I knew were given the rank of Second Lieutenant.

When you went to work in the forest as a radio operator, did you have to fight? Or were you only the operator in the back and letting them fight in front? What did you do?
In year [19]64, when we [first] went, we stayed in the back. The fighters went a good ways ahead and we stayed with the commander, the one who watched one battalion. Since there weren’t a lot of us, they only gave one radio operator to each battalion.

One battalion has how many soldiers?
One battalion has 300 soldiers in it.

Can you give us an example of when there was a battle and your commander told you to type codes to call for weapons or planes to come help? Do you have an example of when the soldiers were surrounded and it was you who helped save them?
When they fought, we typed codes back letting them know that we were fighting. When we said ‘We are fighting,’ they gave us a chart and we looked at the codes in the chart. It has a row going from the left to right and a column coming down. The row had the cities, they did ABC and 123, and you looked at where the letters fit and you told them that at that particular time we, the group of soldiers in the mountain number this, were being attacked. When we started, there were no airplanes to help, only fighters on the ground, but then, afterwards, there were airplanes. When there are airplanes available then the radio operators only radioed in to let them know, and they used what they called *FAGC* (Force Air to Ground Control) for air control. When called, the airplane came immediately. When it got close they communicated among themselves, asking where you were fighting. Sometimes they sent a flare. This flare made a red light falling down, and when it fell you told them whether or not it was accurate, and then if it was, they dropped their bombs and shot their guns.

Were you afraid that the Vietnamese would hear your Morse Code since they had their own Vietnamese radio operators? What do you do to block them from hearing your messages?
In radio Morse Code, there are codes in which you have to change the alphabet into the numbers.

So you had encrypted it?
Yes, for example the *A* is written as ’01’, or ’02, 03′. That way it is unknown. One line has about four letters in it, but you have to hide your papers.

So, in one day, how many times did you change the codes so the Vietnamese couldn’t intercept it?
When we were done figuring the letters, we had to get a book, and there were only two books. One was held by the operator in the forest, and the other was held by the one back here. We had to use this book in order to radio the letters back, and when it reached back here, they had to use their book to see what the radio meant, and then they could translate it to words.

For one who is very good at codes, how many minutes do you assume he takes to finish one report? And the amateurs take how long?
A radio operator should translate the report in five minutes, because if it is more than that, it won’t be good. It has to be five minutes. After finishing the codes, we sent it back and when they received it, they had to translate it in five minutes. When they wee done, they called to the leaders that there was a fight here or ‘they are hungry and they need food.’ Then they sent airplanes to drop food or drop bullets and guns.

Do you have a good example of when you, as a radio operator, helped the soldiers?
Oh, it’s been a long time. I’ve helped a lot because as a radio operator, you are respected and needed as much as the commander. If they order something and you type it down, within about 30 minutes help comes.

Do you have a memory that made you very proud because you helped Hmong soldiers as well as your commander?
In the forest, you don’t feel happy. You live one day to the next, wondering what day they will attack and kill you, and wait for the day when you can go back home. When you are most happy is when they send someone to replace you and say, ‘At this time, you go back home.’ That is when you are happiest, but in the forest, no one is happy.

How long did you stay in the forest? How many months and days before you could come back and rest?
Some go and like it, so they stay for many years, but in the regulations, one radio operator can stay for three or four months, then they have to rotate.

When you get to come back [home], what do you buy with the money you are paid?
Your money?

The money you receive.
When you are with the soldiers, you eat with them. Whatever they eat you eat, but when you come back, you have to get your own food to eat. You use the money to buy vegetables and rice or personal things. But in the forest you have no place to spend it, so wherever the soldiers go, you eat what they eat.

Were you ever injured in battle? Have you used a gun to fight?
One time, when I went to stay with some Hmong, and came back, the Thai captain wanted me to go be a radio operator for the Thai, so I went with the Thai. This was the first heavy attack I was a part of. It was year [19]64–or I can’t remember well, year [19]65, maybe. We went to *Bouam Loung and we were setting up 75mm guns for them. We just started for about three weeks and finished setting and trying the guns when the Viet Cong set up their big guns and shot us.

Their guns were what kind? 122s?
Their guns were 122s. There were four of us, two Thai captains who came with me, another Thai and me. One team of PARU traveled four to a group.

So you were one of the PARU?
One of the PARU.

Was the village Hmong or Thai?
We went to stay with *thu Pao*, with *nya po thu Pao*, to teach his soldiers how to shoot big guns.

The 75mms are the ones where you open the back and stick in the bullets?
Yes, the 75 mm, you shoot just like the 105, you open the back then stick the bullet in, but the bullet is smaller. They then shot at us; the first fell far [from us], but not the second. I ran to an uncovered pit and was afraid because it was right under the big gun. Because the following bullets might hit close, I ran to a covered pit and they shot at us for about one hour. In that village, the smoke so thick that it filled the whole village. It was dark and cloudy. When we came out, we found that the two Thai were badly wounded. We carried them to the pit I hid in, and we watched them the whole night until morning. One died and one they carried halfway back before he died. I didn’t get hurt but it is Heaven that helps you to not get hurt. (125 min )

As a soldier, did you ever bring something with you, like a lucky charm, so that you wouldn’t get hurt? Did you have soldiers who brought charms, because they were afraid of death, so that it would help protect them?
Most of them carried those, but I didn’t. I believe that if it is your day to go, then you go, if it isn’t your day, then nothing will happen to you.

Give us an example of what other soldiers carried with them to protect themselves.
Some carried idols. Buddhists, they made small idols and wore them on their necks. Some went and bought the *bore’s teeth*. They bought those and wore them on their chests. Some went and found stones and asked the monks to bless the stones, then they carried those stones. It depended on what each liked.

The Thai and the Americans, did you see if they carried anything with them?
The Americans didn’t, but the Thais wore a lot! They had gold necklaces and idols tied all the way from the top to the bottom.

Is there anything else you want to tell us about being a radio operator?
After being a radio operator, I went to be a spy–intelligence. One group only consisted of three people: one intelligence officer and two others.

The intelligence officer is the one who watches the other two?
No, there is one intelligence officer and you, you are only one of the other two. We went to watch the cave which was the hiding place for two men a long time ago.

The Red Lao?
Yes, the Red Lao. They sent us to land at *Sam Thong and we walked all the way to the cave. We went for two days and two nights, and when we got there, bad fortune, they attacked the village *Nha Khang . The Vietnamese came and surrounded us so that we couldn’t stay.

The Vietnamese knew that you were there? They knew that there were some people who came to hide there?
The people scattered out and they came to find where people were.

The cave that you stayed in–were there still Red Lao in it, or had they left a long time before?
That cave was intentionally made for the Laotian governor. When we went, in the day time airplanes shot and the cave had no people in and there was nothing turned on. But at night when airplanes stopped shooting and returned home, we saw a lot of cars enter and exit from there to carry war supplies.

Then the cave must have been very big if it could fit cars in it.
Yes, it’s very big. Right now that place is opened as a tourist site for people to go see.

At that time, did you ever call airplanes to come and attack the cave at night?
We only observed, we only reported how many cars came in and how many cars left, and whether they came out carrying supplies or soldiers. I stayed there for one month and fifteen days, then that site exploded. The Vietnamese started searching so then I flew back to Long Cheng. When I reached Long Cheng, they sent me to tape Vietnamese words because since the Vietnamese were going to attack Nha Khang, they were speaking Vietnamese, so then I taped it and they it took to translate to see what the Vietnamese said. Because at that time they used only the walkie-talkies. I went to tape words for one week then after that I came out to learn to fix the walkie-talkies in Thailand for ten months in the year of [19]66-67. We then went back to Laos; then I went to be a teacher of Morse Code. I taught until year [19]69; then the Vietnamese attacked Long Cheng, so we didn’t have Morse Code teaching anymore. From then on the Vietnamese attacked Long Cheng a lot. When they first attacked Long Cheng, at that time I was made First Lieutenant. The Second Lieutenants were the ones to watch the people, the security guards, in case there were people coming. Those officers were on watch for two hours each, and the ones who stayed far [back] to see if people were coming, each one stayed [on watch] one hour. Then the next day, when they were about to attack Long Cheng heavily, the Vietnamese shot the first round into the mountains. During the second round my friend woke me up saying, ‘wake up, wake up, it’s your time, 5 o’clock’; I was to watch from 5 o’clock to 7 o’clock. Right when I woke up, they shot and the second time it hit the bag I was carrying on my back, because I used it as a pillow. They used the guns they shoot from their shoulders, the RPGs. We were in a building with a basement, so I fell right into the basement. It wasn’t long before two airplanes dropped cluster bombs on us.

The CBU?
The CBU on us. Then many people got hurt.

They shot at and hit you?
They dropped it right on top of us.

The Vietnamese were already right there?
Yes, the Americans were located in CIA’s headquarters. They ordered then to shoot, and then they used the guns that shoot fire. He shot, it flamed, to direct them to shoot over there but the pilot understood wrongly, so as soon as the gun fired, they dropped the cluster bombs and hit us. Very powerful. It was morning and I must have had good fortune because I came to the room and was about to leave when I noticed there was a cluster bomb right there.

It hadn’t exploded?
It hadn’t exploded yet. My friend said, ‘Long Yang, there’s a CBU right there!’ Then I dropped right into the ditch, and it exploded right at that moment. Those, they delay. Then if you go close and your body heat activates it, it explodes. At that time so many of our people got hurt. There were about 200 people injured.

Soldiers only?
Civilians too, because at that time there were many civilians in Long Cheng. Then, from that time on, Long Cheng was in battle and it lasted until we ran out of the country. Year [19]71, they attacked Long Cheng a lot. I then went to stay with Soua Yaj. ( 179 min)

Who is Soua Yaj?
Soua Yaj now lives in France.

Was he a commander?
He was a commander. At that time Soua Yaj was what they called a staff commander. Then I came to live there and one day I was fixing radios and the Vietnamese shot rockets. These rockets were the ones they shot from planes. I was sitting there, and this house had screens all around it. It was hot, so I sat like this [legs stretched out]. Bam! It hit right in front of me, blowing me back into the basement. They came to check and asked, ‘are you hit anywhere?’ I didn’t get hit anywhere. They came closer and saw that there were many holes and said, ‘you should be dead, why are you still alive?’ They checked me to see if I had lucky charms, but I said ‘I don’t have any; it’s not yet my day to die.’ In Laos, there were three bombs that should have killed me. In *Bouam Loung, they came and lied to my dad, saying they saw my body being carried away and the holes in my flesh were this big. So when I got to Thailand, my dad was crying. I asked, ‘why are you crying?’ He said, ‘Oh son, they said you were hurt very badly. They took you to Thailand and you were OK.’ So he was happy. The second time was when they dropped those cluster bombs. My bag was all burned, so I put it at my bed; then after everyone left my older brother came to see the bag burning and he cried. Then I came and he was crying, petting the bag, I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ He said, ‘Your bag was all burned, I worried about you, too.’ The third time was when the Vietnamese attacked Long Cheng a lot, and my wife was in *Phou Khoun. There was a soldier who died who had the same name as me. They told her it was her husband that died and brought the body to the airport. Her body was numb, but she opened the body bag and saw that it wasn’t me, so she was happy. After that, Big Boss came and ordered me to take three people…

Big Boss–you mean General Vang Pao?
General Vang Pao–to go fix radios in Vang Vieng. I then went to fix radios over there for two weeks. There weren’t many radios, so he asked me to bring three more people; we had six in all. After one month, he came, he told the children that we had some team they called ‘top secret’ in Thailand. In the morning when it was still dark, they woke up at 5 o’clock and flew an airplane to Long Cheng, to record words. Then at night, 9 o’clock, the plane had to come back and land. Then the children didn’t work, so year ’71, he sent me to stay in Thailand to watch the children till year 74. If you watch the children, then you have to fly, once a week for experience, to see how it is. After that we came to set up the teams that recorded words underground. I woke up early in the morning, my job was to wake up early, for the first plane to fly to Long Cheng. I had to carry recordings of intercepted messages. Then the plane that flew from Long Cheng back to Thailand had to wait for me to carry those back to Long Cheng, for them to translate.

What kind of plane did you ride on?
Whatever kind of plane was going to Long Cheng. Most of the time, the usual one is the *ongthu*. Not only that, there’s one that comes to carry the words [transcriptions], and sometimes it comes late so I ride the *bolum* back with them.

Since Long Cheng was surrounded, when you were flying back and forth, do they shoot at you?
Oh, they shot a lot. We couldn’t land. [He blew his nose]. Sorry, runny nose. We fly, land one, they shoot, (pong pong) then we fly away fast. Landing was hard.

When Long Cheng scattered, what did you do to get to Thailand?
Close to year [19]74, I got out of the army. I opened a gas station to sell gas and became the first person to sell gas.

Gas for cars?
I sold gas for cars.

In Long Cheng?
Yes. Then Jerry sent Yaj Lue and Yaj Chee to come tell me to go see him. When I got there, they were talking. General [Vang Pao] and the rest were talking about how we were going to run. They said that I should come too. The names submitted to America were 92 families. Then they added us 6 families, the ones who worked for the Americans were 90 families. They said they’d get planes to bring us. Then I told Jerry that I didn’t want to come, I had many relatives. He said, ‘You are in more danger than those here, because you are the one who carried the recordings to Long Cheng and back. You are wanted.’

So the Vietnamese knew you?
Yes, they knew me because I am a top secret [operative]. Then I asked, ‘If I go, how many can I take?’ They said, ‘Your immediate family.’ I said, ‘Then my mom, [at that time my father had died] my younger brothers, my sisters, my older brothers, and all my people.’ He said, ‘No, that’s not right. For us Americans, immediate family means only you, your wife and your kids. ‘ Then I came and talked with my mother and grandmother. They said since I had four days, I should come. We went to wait for planes and the people fought for planes. (225 min)

What did you mean four days?
Four days. Americans call it blackmail, because I am a person who’s wanted a lot, so if you stay, you will die; if you go then your life is longer. If you stay you get four days, in Laos they say four days is punishment of death. Four is punishment, day is death. But then they don’t like to say you have a punishment of death, so they say four days. I couldn’t wait for planes so I put five relatives into the plane and I was left. Jerry and the General were about to fly away, but I came back and I told Jerry I couldn’t go yet. He told me to take the car that I stole to drive, and in a little while I should drive that car and come to America. He said, ‘I will give an American [contact’s name] to you. When you get there, you contact the American and he’ll get a plane to send you over the ocean.’ I said, ‘Let it be.’ Then the General and Jerry climbed into a helicopter and flew to Thailand. Another helicopter landed, then Nhia, Vang Fong, and Vang Neng left on them. Right now they live in France. I then drove the car. When I reached *Na Su, I had an uncle over there whose last name was Moua. He said ‘You’re driving that to go?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘You can’t go in that; leave the car and take a taxi instead.’ It was almost dark then.

That car was an army car?
That car was an American car, so they wrote ‘IT’ on it, meaning international something. Only American soldiers rode a car like that with a yellow sign. I said, ‘Oh, are there taxis available?’ He went to find one. When we got a taxi, I asked the driver ‘from here to Vientiane is how much?’ He wanted 20,000, but even for 20,000 I was willing to go. Then I put all of my stuff in there, but he didn’t want to come, so he went to find a truck. We went during the night from *Na Sue and reached a mountain. There they checked so we put my stuff all the way at very end. When the Vietnamese came to check, they only saw everybody wearing Laos the same, because the Laotians were put at the back of the truck. We headed to Vientiane then I reached a building and asked for my friend and they said he went to Thailand and would be back in about three days. I had some Thai friends who came to work for the General in Long Cheng. I said, ‘Ah, I’ll go meet Mister Thai there to see what he’ll say.’ I headed to his place but they told me the owner wasn’t there, only a supervisor. Then he said to me, ‘Mister Fat, where are you going?’ At that time I was round too, but not as much as now. I said, ‘I’m running, I’m going to Thailand.’ He said, ‘Where’s your family?’ I said, ‘Sleeping over there.’ I came to check on a hotel for them then I tried to find a path we could take to run. Then I reached the General’s house and he and Nhia Yeng said to me, ‘Oh, you can’t come here. Someone called and said that in a little while they will come search General’s house.’ He took me back on his motorcycle and called a taxi that he knew personally to take me. I crossed to the edge of *Nam Phong. One officer wouldn’t let me pass. I looked and saw that there was nothing to do. Well, he allowed me to pass, but I carried some silver and he wanted my money. I said, ‘Oh, this is hard! What should I do?’ He said, ‘You can go. You can go but leave these here. In a while when you come back, you can come take them.’ I said, ‘No, I’m taking these with me.’ He said, ‘You wait a little, when the *colondia* comes, then you can ask him to see if he’ll let you, then you can go.’ I asked, ‘What time?’ He said, ‘Five o’clock he’ll reach here.’ Then he climbed up to the house. The one who was talking to me was only the captain. I then took out 20,000 money *kiep and bought a very big bottle of beer, took it and set it on table for him. ‘This bottle of beer is for you,’ I said. Then I took out 20,000 of money and gave it to him, so he let me cross. We crossed and reached Thailand. Then some Thais caught me too, and wanted 300 baht, too.

At that time were your wife and children with you too?
They were all with me.

And you got a plane to send your mom and dad?
No, they couldn’t come. They were still in Laos. Only I came. We traveled to many places, ending up meeting up and traveling with General Vang Pao to *Nam Phong. At night time I went with the General to *Nam Pong to make [the list of] names then Jerry came and told us, ‘You folks really would be going to America, but there’s still 125,000 Vietnamese right now in Arkansas, in Kansas City, and in Texas and we have to settle that first.’ Then they started to interview us. After that we waited until the General came, then we went to buy the land in Vinai. The Americans bought it for us, but now, the Thais say they never sold it but only rented it to us.

Do you know how many thousands the Americans bought it for?
I don’t know, but they said they bought the land over there for us. Then they took us to live there; then my name showed up among the ones who could come to America, on the 12th month in the year [19]75. But at that time, we were moving, so they put me on delay until we were done. Then in the third month I started to come to America.

When you reached America, where did you land?
We were the fastest group coming from Thailand to America. We started out at Vinai on day seven, then on day nine we had to fly. Before we flew something happened. I brought my little sister with me and was doing our papers while she went to visit grandma and grandpa. On their way over, the car fell into a ditch and she got hurt. I then asked for papers to go check on them, but when we got back they said, ‘Your family can’t go to America. ‘ I asked, ‘For what reason?’ They said, ‘Because of your little sister.’ I went back to the hospital, then I asked the Thai doctor and he said that they wouldn’t let us go because two tendons in her foot were torn. Then I said, ‘Two tendons only? America has plenty of good medicine. Send my papers, and let us go. When we reach America we will fix it there.’ There were two American doctors there, too. He pointed to me and said, ‘Go meet with the two Americans. ‘ If I couldn’t speak English we probably wouldn’t have been able to come. I asked them, ‘What is wrong?’ One of the doctors took out the x-rays. My little sister went to take pictures and I guess the glass wasn’t good. There was a little black spot and they said, ‘This, we assume is where the tear is. ‘ Then I said, ‘Maybe there’s none. Take the picture again.’ I forced them, so he took x-rays again and everything looked clear. I got my little sister back. The family already took the bus to the airport, so we took a taxi. We came to Indiana in America, but we first landed in New York, and stayed there for six hours, then we came to Indiana. We lived in Indiana for nine years.

When you landed in America, and saw the technologies, what did you think?
Oh, when we came, we reached New York and it was snowing. We couldn’t see anything because it was snowing most of the way from New York to Indiana. The snow was up to our knees. ( 295 min)

What did you think at that time?
I didn’t know what to think.

You rode on buses in New York?
We rode on a plane. We came on a small plane from there. The next morning we woke up and the land was all white. I missed my younger brothers, older brothers, mother, and father a lot.

At that time, who did you stay with in Indiana? A sponsor?
A sponsor. A church called St. James Lutheran Church picked up my family. We lived there and started building our lives. Then Jerry came and Jerry said that the Hmong over there that will get to come are only you guys. You should write to Kennedy so that they’ll allow the rest of the Hmong over there to come. We were the ones they brought to show how Hmong looked like and if we were lazy or not. But when we came, everyone worked very hard and Americans saw that the Hmong are a hard-working people like the CIA said. Then we stayed in this country and I’ve helped the Hmong until this day. Working and helping Hmong, too.

Before you came to work at HAMAA [Hmong American Mutual Assistance Association], where else did you work?
When we came to America I worked very hard. I worked 12 hours and I went to school, too. I went to a technical school. I was the first Hmong to earn an AA degree in America. In the year [19]78, I already got my AA. Then I went to work and I went to find work. My AA degree was in electrical technology, but at that time there were no black-haired [Hmong] working for Americans. I went to work for a company that copies colors for the metal they take to make cars. I wanted to still go to school, and they said, ‘This is a union; if you want to go to school then you have to work the third shift.’ I worked third shift and worked 11 pm to 7 am. Then when there were only two semesters left, they changed my hours to 11 o’clock to 11 o’clock–very hard. After that, I said, since there are only two semesters left I should quit and finish. I stayed in school until May of [19]78 and after finishing I went back to find work. People don’t believe that you can work; I went to find some but they don’t believe you can work. There was a place that needed workers but when I went, they said, ‘Usually, we pay a lot but we don’t know you. We’ll pay $4.25 only, do you still want to work?’ When I worked at metals it was already $5.50, but I thought, ‘even though it’s not a lot, I’ll still work.’ I worked hard and well. I took their old supplies that no one had touched for a while and did them all.

How long did you stay?
I stayed until [19]79. My boss quit and he took me to create some new product. The new product was miniature filters for satellites.

Miniature filter?
Yes, miniature filters are very small. When I mastered those he made me a Classified One engineer.

This was still in Indiana?
I worked that until 1985. They had one place doing the same as us, but they wanted better so they hired me out there to work all the way in Washington DC. Then I went to work for four years, they sold it, then I went to work in Pennsylvania. I went there, then they moved a place which came from Massachusetts but had no lead engineer, so they hired me to be the chief engineer. I worked there from [19]88 until [19]93, then they took it and sold it. I had a one year contract, so after the one year, after they’d learned, I came and started my own place called L Technology. Just when it was starting to be successful, I started having health problems. The doctor wouldn’t let met do it anymore, and said if I did that it would be too stressful. I had to either I give up my job or give up my life. So I chose to give up my job and sold my place to Leng Chee Lao. Then after that I helped Kou Vang for about eight months and his place started growing, so I left and went back home to Pennsylvania. When my kids were done with school I came here. Pong Sang, a man I’ve known for a while, said, ‘A man like you can not just sleep, you have to come help us.’ So I went and helped them. So right now I do ‘counseling’ for the elders and the people who want to get into business. They come to me for advice. I also do community outreach and right now I’m a teacher for the refugees who just came over.

Do you have anything to say to young Hmong men and women who will be listening to your words about 10 years from now?
I want the young Hmong men and women to work hard in their schooling. Help the Hmong and learn the Hmong language. Learn our traditions and keep them as long as possible. Ask your relatives about the Hmong ways and don’t be like some I’ve seen who don’t know anything anymore. I want you all to be interested in us elders so that the Hmong will still have a life in the future. Because we live in America, all the Hmong from other countries rely on us, so we have to work hard and go back and help our people in other countries, for example the ones in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. We have to have one voice, like the Jews, so the world will respect us. When the Jews first came to this country, they were poor, but they thought, ‘When we don’t have any money, we won’t be able to do anything, so the families who are wealthy must help the rest of the Jews.’ Israel is a small country but it does control a lot of the money in this world, so they can do what they want. For example, if the Americans have anything against the Jews, they’ll say, ‘Remember, you do that to us now, so when you need money, don’t come and ask us because we won’t help you.’ The day we Hmong can learn their system, we will be able to do anything we need to do, but if we only remain as we are now and be American servants, then later on in the years our people will be no more. I want the young men and women to continue forward. Another thing is that I want you to research on the Hmong who’ve come to America. See if they’re still alive or if not, then where their relatives are so that everyone’s past will be known, and we can see how they’ve grown in this country according with their children going to school. I want this so that we Hmong will have a history recorded so that one day there will be a place for their names. If you don’t research all this then the only person you will know is General Vang Pao. General Vang Pao is our leader but you should know that there are many who have worked under him but worked just as hard, not resting day or night, for the Hmong.

Thank you for taking time to talk to us, and for sharing your wisdom with us.

Mai Lee

Interviewer, Translator and Transcriber: Mai Neng Vang (granddaughter)
Editor: Paul Hilllmer

Tell us your name and birthday.
The name and birthday is… The name is Mai Lee; clan name is Lee. My mother and my father are of the Lee clan. My birthday is one thousand twenty [she means 1920], day, the second month [February], 25th day.

Tell us, what was it like when you were in Laos?
When in Laos, [I] made food to eat, to eat; [I] farmed–slash and burn farmed–to eat. [It was] not like living here.

When you said slash and burn here and there, who did the slash-and-burn farming and/or who took care of the house–cleaned the house?
Ah, when going to do [things], back in our homeland, there was not one single person who took care of the house. After going to farm, [we] would come back to take care of the house. [We were] busy, busy with the job of farming to eat, then when going, [we] all went. When we came back, then we cleaned [the house].

Who made the food or cleaned the house or did slash-and-burn farming or chopped down trees. Who did this?
Yes, like that. You cook to eat then you go and go to the farm and farm until done at night and then you get home and then you will cook to eat.

The men and the women did what? Or did they do the same?
The men went to clear the fields and chopped trees. And the women, for instance when you lived in your homeland, women went to farm by picking weeds, picking wheat, picking wheat, picking poppies.

In one typical day, can you tell us what you did?
One day, one day, [I] went to farm. After one whole day of farming I came home, I came to cook [a] meal to eat. When cooking a meal, I pounded rice, ground rice and did everything in the house. [I] was doing this.

Then do kids do the same too?
Right, kids do the same, too.

For kids, what are their jobs/chores?
Kids’ jobs are: come sweep the floor, chop pig greens for pigs to eat, come feed the chicken. These are kids’ jobs.

Tell about what clothes you wore when you lived in Laos. What did you do when you were going to go out for fun? Tell me what you did.
When we were in our homeland, we were going to have fun; for instance, Hmong’s fun is the New Year. Hmong’s New Year is the first and second day. We dressed up and participated in ball tossing. The elders said to go chicken fight, but we went ball tossing, went to make jokes and laugh for the elders to see.

What does ‘to make jokes and laugh’ mean?
To make jokes and laugh means to go talk.

Then, when you all wore clothes, back when you lived in the old homeland, what kind or what clothes did you wear?
When we were in our homeland, we wore Hmong clothes. If we didn’t wear White Hmong skirts, then we wore black clothes with red and green waist sashes.

When you went to the New Year did you wear clothes like this, too or was it different?
Yes we wore [clothes] like this, but when in the house, we wore old ones. When going to the New Year for leisure, we only wore new clothes.

Are there things you did with friends that were not just the New Year? Please tell us about those things, too.
When we were in our home, going to help one another together, there was not any time to go and have fun. We all did it ourselves. Everyone did it themselves. Everyone did it themselves, it was busy, busy, that you did your things and I did my things. Just like when the farm had a lot of weeds or there was a lot of land to farm. Then, for instance, you might go help me one day and then I go help you one day. Switching and aiding each other to farm, there was no time for anything else.

Oh, then let me ask you about listening to singing, or playing bamboo pipes or other things. What did you do back in your homeland?
When we were in our homeland, we–we were very dumb so we did not know how to sing songs. Singing in Hmong, was only ‘Kwv Txiaj’ (Sung Messages). Hmong’s definition of ‘singing’ means sung messages. Then the ones that know how to sing, sing it, the ones that don’t know how to sing, that’s it, they stop there and go play and laugh and joke with one another. There is nothing.

When did you sing these ‘sung messages’ with your friends, when do you sing it?
That time is during the New Year.

During New Year, it’s sung most, right?
Yes, only during New Year’s. Only during New Year’s is when ‘sung messages’ are sung. But other than that, going to the farm, you don’t sing it.

And, these ‘sung messages,’ why sing them?
Sing [laughs]–I sing to you and then you sing to me, then we sing so we have motivation to make fun and laugh for everyone.

Then I’m going to ask you about when you date, or during the New Years where you go sing these ‘sung messages. ‘ Can you tell us how this process is–in Hmong–Hmong during the olden days?
Hmong tradition?

Yes, Hmong tradition.
Hmong tradition. When living ‘barbarically,’ girlfriend and boyfriend, when talking/dating, go talk at the New Year or during the night do they talk for fun. There is nothing to it.

Well, during the night when talking, what do they talk like? Tell us [laughs] more about it.
[Laughs] Girlfriends and boyfriends talking, during the days when we lived ‘barbarically,’ uh, when talking it is embarrassing as well. But like right now, there is talking lip to lip [means face-to-face]. Back then, us old people, it was not talking lip to lip. When the bachelors came, they were shy and embarrassed of the [daughters] moms and dads. When coming at night, then there were talking through the holes in the house, when talking through the holes in the house, they talk about if I will like you or you will like me. Then if talk goes well, then marriage comes. That’s it.

Asking you about Hmong tradition–for instance what do you believe in and do you participate in shamanistic ceremonies? Tell us about those as well.
We don’t embrace the new tradition, we embrace the old tradition. We practice shaman ceremonies, if there are chickens or pigs to kill to eat. But there are shaman ceremonies, calling the soul ceremonies, there is nothing, just doing these is all.

Tell us about some things that the shaman does and tell a bit about this.
The things the Shaman does, he does it and if he sees, then about calling him to come do a ceremony for the household–only if he sees, then we will call him to fix the household. When he fixes, he fixes the whole household and we get a pig to represent everyone, after the healing ceremony, there’s happiness, and you live peacefully, with no medical problems.

Is this the only thing he does, or are there many things that a Shaman does?
Um, he does it. He’s the only one that does it. When he does it, then that’s the end.

Then, about calling the soul ceremonies–talk about this.
Calling the soul ceremonies–for instance, the New Year. For Hmong, during the New Year, the Hmong take chickens and eggs to use for calling the soul ceremonies, or calling your spirit and soul for everyone’s household’s spirits and souls to come together, and come stay together so there is peaceful living and the spirits don’t separate, so there is peaceful living then.

OK, then let me ask you about what people say are called belief in ‘ghosts/spirits.’ It’s referred to as believing in ‘ghost/spirits’?

Can you tell about Hmong beliefs so Americans can know?
Belief. Belief is–belief that your mother, your father [in terms of ancestral beings], that if you have an illness, you have to call your mom and you dad to come eat and drink, then your mom and you dad will bless you. You burn incense and paper offerings for your parents; then they will come help you.

Then, when will you have to do all this?
When you are ill and the healing ceremony predicts so, then you will do it. That’s it.

Are these soul calling ceremonies and these shamanic ceremonies required during the marriage ceremony?
When getting married, there are no shamanic ceremonies. When getting married, there is killing chickens and killing pigs for soul-calling ceremonies, then there is eating and drinking.

Then please talk about the marriage ceremony. How is it done?
Marriage. Marriage is when the son/man goes and marries one’s daughter/girl; and when this happens, three days later we go do the marriage ceremony. We go kill chickens and pigs to eat, go ask the girl’s mom and dad from a distance, then go pay them and we can take their [daughter] to come live with us.

Which household does this?
Which ever household, it’s all the same.

The same? Then the woman’s and man’s household does what?
They are in the house and cook for when they [the couple] arrives home.

Then, for instance, the, the man’s household pays or the wife’s household pays?
Oh, the man pays. If the son, for instance, goes and marries the daughter, he must pay the family.

Talk about the different things the households do. If you are a girl marrying a husband, for instance, what does this family do? Or if you are a son in the Hmong household, then what does your household do?
When you are the son, then when you go get married, your mom and your dad prepare the meal of eating and drinking, then they make the food, prepare the money, and then they go pay the girl’s price and bring her to come live with you.

Yes, then if you’re the daughter, then what do you do?
If I am the daughter, then they [referring to husband’s relatives] come pay my mom and my day and then they take me away.

Yes, do the daughter’s mother and father have to do something

Do they have to pay?
No, [they] do not pay money. The daughter’s mother and father do not have to pay money, but–they have to make the meals for the daughter; they give pants, shirts and money, if there is silver or gold, then they give silver and gold as dowry for the daughter when she goes.

Oh, then can you talk about your own marriage and what it was like, and tell us about it.
When I was getting married, my mom and my dad made the meal for my husband and my husband’s household to eats. They came and paid money for my mother and my father. Then after paying I went to live with them.

Oh, then tell about how you met your husband.
When meeting my husband, we saw each other, we liked each other, we talked and then we married.

You said earlier that when you liked one another, you went to the ball toss and talked at night. Did you do any of these things?
Yes, we did. [Laughs] Ball tossing, we did do ball tossing, and as girlfriend and boyfriend we did talk at night only.

Okay, please talk about farming and raising animals and other things when you were in Laos.
Going to the farm. After eating breakfast, we farmed, when the time of farming came, after eating breakfast, lunch was packed then we went to farm. We farmed until night, then came home, then when we came home there was caring for the chickens and pigs. After this, dinner was made and eaten and we slept and then the next day when the morning came, we awoke, and we prepared to do the same thing and then went.

When you went to farm, how was this done?
When farming, metal hoes were used to farm.

When you farmed, how far was it from your house?
It was far. When going to farm, it took about one to two hours to get to the field.

You just walked there?
Yes, we walked.

When you got to the farm, did you just prepare the soil? What did you plant?
When we got there, we prepared the soil only–during the time of planting, then we planted; during the time of preparing the soil, then we had to prepare soil first to plant.

Then, what did you plant?
We planted corn, planted wheat, planted sweet peas, planted green peas, branches, just this.

Did you just plant to eat or did you plant to sell also?
We planted only to eat.

The majority was to eat?
Our land was mountainous, so it was just enough to plant to eat, not enough to sell.

Then, you, your household, your mother and father, when farming, did your household have its own land, or did you farm with a lot of people?
We farmed our own land; we did it ourselves. For instance, you farm, so your whole household farms their own land. Every year, we farmed the same land; we didn’t farm for others, only for ourselves.

How about watering your greens in the farm–how do you do this?
Living in our homeland, we didn’t water the farm. We just waited for the rain to water our farm. When it rains, raining on the plants, they grow and grow bigger. It harvests, and then we just wait to eat. We didn’t water it like we do here.

Back then, when you lived there, if there was no water or if there was no rain, were there times when your garden did not grow, if so what did you do?
If it did not grow, then that’s it. If there was no rain, then we just waited for the rain, because there was no water. The farm was all the way over the hill; streams could not reach it, and then we just waited for the rain. If it rains, we get to eat. If it doesn’t rain, that year we go hungry. If there is money, we go buy food to eat.

Then, if you didn’t have money to go buy anything, then what did you do? Do you go to your relatives and your husband’s relatives to eat, and to help them farm so they would share their food with you, too?
Yes, it’s like that. If there isn’t anything to eat, then we must go help them [our relatives] and they will give some food to us. We mix this food with greens. Back then when we did not have food, we took a little bit of rice to mix with greens to eat until the time when the corn was harvested.

Then, asking about something you mentioned earlier–about caring/raising for animals, please talk a bit about this.
About raising animals, the ones that are raised to produce further offspring are left, and the pig, the one that is raised to eat, the one that is fed to be very fat to eat, we put it separately from the others and just feed it only, so it will eat well so it can grow fat and we will eat it.

Then how about those animals that you raised for offspring purposes, what purpose do you raise that for?
We just raised them to look at.

Just to look at?
We raised them to look at and to leave it there just to watch.

What do you raise? Earlier you said pigs and also what?
We raised pigs, raised chickens, raised sheep; if there were cows we raised them, we raised ox.

Do you raise other things, like dogs?
Yes, dogs we raised. Back then we raised dogs for the purpose of watching our house.

You said raising dogs to watch you home–how so?
Back then when living ‘barbarically,’ during the night we were scared. When we were scared, dogs slept at the outer house walls and barked so you would know…

In Hmong tradition, you said dogs watch you home. How can dogs come watch your home?
Their eyes, their eyes see. Their eyes see ghosts; when they bark then you know there must be something here or there, perhaps tigers, so when dogs bark then you know.

When you talk about ghosts, back then in the homeland, what were the Hmong or your or your household’s thoughts on believing in ghosts?
[Laughs] Ghosts, you did not see them, but when dogs barked Hmong people said that it’s probably ghosts.’

Can you talk about how this belief is like in believing in ghosts? How do you feel about it?
We don’t believe [trust] in ghosts. When talking about ghosts, we are scared.

Why are you scared?
It’s dark, the house is in bad shape, dogs are barking. Then we are uneasy and then we are scared.

Back then, you always told tales about there being ghosts there. Why do you think you had come to believe that there are ghosts there?
When dogs bark like that and you do a shamanistic ceremony to see, and sometimes when dogs bark and the shamanistic ceremony is done, this says that you have the ghosts of mothers and fathers that they have come see you then. That is why. Sometimes it gets better, then dogs no longer bark; then this is where the belief is.

You said ghosts of mother and fathers, can you explain to those that don’t know what it is?
When you have a mother and father that have passed away, for instance they have a cow [spirit] so this spirit comes back and when they come and you raise dogs, these dogs see them. Then these dogs bark.

OK, then I will go on to ask about when you lived in Laos. How was it and was it sunny, was it cold, during what time and when you lived there, how was it?
When living there, our homeland was very cold like now as well, but there was not any snow. So when we lived there, there was sunshine, there was rain. When it did not rain, it was very foggy in our land; when we went to farm it was filled with fog. But we just went to farm anyway, just so we could eat. Sunshine was only for a small period of time. It rained mostly. So we just farmed as we could. If we wanted the weather to be like now, it was not.

You said that during this time, it rained, so what were your houses like? Were there times when you had to take care of your home because of the rain or some other problem?
Our houses. Then our houses were only ‘qeeb.’ These ‘qeeb’ houses, when we made them, with a big wide base that you swept clean, so when it rained it only rained outside. The inside of the house was already swept so it was clean.

You said ‘qeeb’ houses. What is this?
Qeeb or ‘Grass’ houses are ‘qeeb’ — similar to grass. These are used to cover the house and when you tightly cover the house like this, you live in two or three years. But if you use the grass to thinly cover, then in one or two years, you have to change it [house coverings]. Or if, you can, then you go chop up trees to use to cover the house, then you can live longer there.

If it is very windy, then what did you do?
When it is windy–back then when it was windy, this was not a problem. The coverings of grass and wood are heavy. If you were in a windy area, you really couldn’t say what would happen. But when you were in a not-so-windy area, there was really no problem.

Ok, then do you want to talk about your life with children, or with your mother and father? Do you want to talk about how this was?
When I lived with my mother and father–when you live with you mother and your father, you are not poor. You have the strong figures of your mother and father that hold you up. You are not heartsick or lonely. Upon starting you own life, you are poor and you don’t have a lot, and your mother and father are no longer your mother and father. You have become your own mother and father, so you are so poor that you don’t have peace. You go farm, and you step on slimy dirt, you stay in the house, there is slimy dirt.

Then I’m going to ask you about when the Vietnamese were fighting and the Vietnam War. I want to ask you when you were in Laos, when was the first time you heard about this fighting?
When I heard about the fighting, it was already during Vang Pao’s time where they were fighting seriously. Guns were loudly going off here and there. When watching them fight, we lived far away, we did not live near. We lived far away, but people were shooting loudly from all over, afar.

During that time, where did you live?
We lived in Laos then, but we lived also near Vietnamese territory.

Then during that time, you heard they were fighting, so then you knew the Vietnamese were fighting?
People were discussing that ‘the Vietnamese are coming.’ Then the Vietnamese did come, and you did see them, but you did not see them fighting.

When they were fighting, did you go help, what did you do or did your husband help with the fighting? How so?
When my husband was there–when the Vietnamese came on our homeland and came to kill all, I was in the house taking care of the children. My husband was to carry rice to the Vietnamese all the way to the battle fields.

Then, this soldier work, do you know what it was?
Soldier work meant going to battle. Going into battle means not having food to eat. Then you went to get other people’s rice, the people carried rice all the way into battle fields for the Vietnamese to eat.

When you said your husband was away in the battlefields, you said you were at home doing housework; did you worry about your husband?
Yes, very worried. I was very scared that when he went, fate would not allow him to come back.

Did you live with a lot of Hmong where their husbands went into the battling fields as well?
We lived in that area where there weren’t people actually in the battle fields, but they went to carry rice, to carry this rice for people in the army to eat. In each village, two people each went once to carry rice. They went and it was 7-10 days when they would return. We were very scared of the Vietnamese.

During this time, when the Vietnamese came, what did you do?
When the Vietnamese came, we just ran.

When you ran, were there times when people came and did bad things to you? Were there people in your village who died or got hurt by the Vietnamese?
No there were no incidents, but when the Vietnamese came, since the territory of the Vietnamese was near, when Vietnamese came around once, and then our soldiers came once and then this is where the complications began. They were asking if we were harvesting rice. When they asked this, we said ‘no we did not harvest rice’; the soldiers that came through just went through. We just told them this.

Harvesting rice like what?
Harvesting rice, as when they came we made them rice to eat.

Oh you mean the Hmong?
Yes. When the Vietnamese came and wanted to eat, we had to find for them to eat as well. When General Vang Pao came, when they wanted to eat, we had to find for them to eat as well.

So you said then that the Vietnamese came to search to see if you were harvesting rice for the Hmong to eat, right?
Yes, harvesting rice–like they are not happy when the Vietnamese are gone, so more soldiers come to ask if we harvested rice for them.

They’re just asking, right?
Yes, they ask, they are just wondering.

Then did people or Vietnamese come to your village to search for other things?
Vietnamese didn’t come, they only came every so often when they passed by.

Were there other different people that came? How about the Americans?
Americans did not come to our village. When we lived in our land where we did, Americans did not reach our land.

Oh, then when talking about Americans, do you think it was important that you and the Hmong helped the Americans?
Because Hmong did help Americans, that’s why Americans did come help the Hmong, so because of fighting, Hmong did follow the Americans.

Why do you personally think you wanted to help the Americans?
They came to help us. They came to free us, so we had to help them.

How did they help free you?
They came to help us. For instance, because of the fighting, we came to live in Long Cheng, and then they sent us food to eat. They sent us greens and rice to eat so these people [Americans] told us to do work for them, and then we had to do it.

Then, what made you, the Hmong, your household only or you personally want to help them?
Oh, the man of the house. The man of the house helped. The men only. Women, they cannot give anything to help.

Then what do you think was the reason why Hmong initially helped the Americans?
Americans helped by providing food, like I said, so if they said to help them then we must help them.

Can you talk about the Hmong people and their problems with other people that led Americans initially to help the Hmong? What do you think?
There was not. There wasn’t any; the Vietnamese came and passed through and then Americans came to live and then Americans went back down and then Vietnamese came and made it hard, so we ran and Americans were able to help.

You said the Vietnamese made it hard for you. How so?
They did not make it hard, but then they came to search here and there and then we got scared and ran.

What do you think that you got from helping the Americans?
Got nothing, as long as we got food to eat. They helped give us food to eat then we got to eat that.

When you think about living in Laos. When the Vietnamese told you to follow their traditions/beliefs, what did you say?
When they said that, we said we were just people that farmed; we did not know. They were wanderers of the land, when we made things and when they wanted rice; we willingly gave it to them. But we were naive and did not know anything and did not know how to help them. We just said this.

How do you think your life has changed due to the fighting between the Vietnamese, Americans and Hmong?
Back then, my life, I thought my life would change because it was not held strongly together and it would fall apart.

Can you talk more about how your life changed?

My life changing–how it changed was when the country fell apart, you could not produce for yourself, and ultimately you could not live. Where you ran to, you just want to run to be free.

Were there things in your life that changed a lot during the time in Laos vs. during the fighting time?
Then, there were no changes, I was too scared, so it could not be changed.

Were there things about your life in Laos after you fled that were different from your time during the fighting? How was life different?
There was nothing different. If it was different it was the difference that you were very scared and you ran, you ran out, then you ran to hide in the forest and woods, then you changed your feelings so that you would run and hide and not come out to stay in the village. Probably staying in the village, you cannot produce meals. Then we ran some more. That’s it.

Then, can you talk about how your households, your children or your husband have changed?
The children, I don’t know. My husband and I changed, as I have talked about earlier. Changes, originally the changes that most importantly come are that your husband leads and you follow.

OK then, talk about you–your household running out of your house. Where did you go and how did you get there?
We, when we ran, we ran out of the village, then we ran to Long Cheng. We were living at Long Cheng and when it was destroyed, we ran and lived here and there. Then we ran out of Thailand eventually. Then we came here.

When you ran, how did you arrive at Long Cheng?
Running to Long Cheng is because the Viet Cong came and shot at us in the village, and then we got scared so we ran and followed the Chow Fa to this land. We ran towards Long Cheng and soldiers–American soldiers came to pick us up and we came to Long Cheng.

So the Americans came to pick you up so you could come to Long Cheng?

So when you all ran, did you run in the jungle only…or–?
Yes, it was only running in the jungle

Tell about how running in the jungle was like?
When running in the jungle, we were hungry and thirsty. Children were very hungry and very thirsty to the point of death, but we didn’t come to the point where there was water so we had to starve until we reached water. The people were close to death along the paths. Yes, like this.

Talk about your children, what did you do with them?
My children. At that time my children were still small. So I carried them on my back. Even small, I carried. Carried, I carried children. There were things I carried on my back, then children went over these things and were carried along my shoulders. Children covered the things on your back and you carried them out. When you’re hungry then you just eat whatever you can.

How old were your children then?
At that time, there was a 5-year-old, there was a 6- and 7- year-old and then there was a 3-year-old….

Going back and asking about when you ran in the jungles and when the Vietnamese came to shoot at you guys–when you ran, were there people who died or those that you knew that passed away?
When we were running there wasn’t anyone. Only when we reached the road when the Viet Cong shot from there, only a son died, a son of the Thao clan that was with our sons. But other than that, everyone made it; there was nothing.

Did you have to cross rivers?
Yes, we had to cross a few rivers. We had to cross a few to come to the area to rest where airplanes would take us to Long Cheng.

When you all crossed the river, how did you cross?
When crossing, we paddled. We were scared so the soldiers were in the lead and children were on our shoulders and then we crossed the river. During that time we were running, the water was shallow, so it was not deep. We ran across the river, so when crossing, everyone crossed themselves. Everyone had children over their shoulders and we just came.

You said you followed the Americans when crossing the river?
Yes, we followed the American soldiers.

The soldiers helped you so when you crossed the rivers, they were with you?
Yes, together they were with us.

Those soldiers, some went ahead and some followed us. They took us, those that were running from the Viet Cong and put us in the middle so we would be able to escape freely.

Did they shoot at the Vietnamese when the Vietnamese came?
Yes, they shot at them.

They shot at them?
Yes, they shot at the Vietnamese and it was scary, because the son got shot in our group and died.

When you met the Americans, what kind of people did you think they were?
Then, I did not know. When you saw them, you were scared of them so you didn’t know; as long as they helped you escape…

So you all just kind of stuck with them?
Yes, we just kind of stuck with them and followed them, right.

Were there relatives, people from your household, that did not come with you or stayed over there?
All of ours came. Our people, all those from our village all came. It’s empty. All came, like when you take a blanket or floor mat that is spread and uncover it. There are no people left there at all.

Then your household all came?
Yes, they all came.

Crossed the rivers and came to Long Cheng right?

Were there members of your household that could not come with you or passed away during the time you lived on your homeland?
Yes there were some, but they were not ours. It was Hmong people, so I did not know them then. You only know your people.

Then, asking about your arrival to Long Cheng. What did your family do?
Upon arrival to Long Cheng, when we came, they handed out rice. We ate, we received their rice to eat and greens to eat, then we came to live there.

What do you mean by ‘their’ [food]?

Americans? Then–
Americans handed out rice, we got food to eat and became ‘alive.’ Then we just lived.

So, when you and your household lived in Long Cheng, how long did you stay?
We stayed about 10 years.

Ten years in Long Cheng?
Ten years, yes about 10 year

When you were running, what year was that? When you guys ran and followed Americans to Long Cheng?
That year, it seemed–I don’t know because I am dumb, but people said it was 1964.

1964? So you guys stayed there until 1974?
Yes, we stayed there about 1974 then we ran out from there.

When you lived in Long Cheng, how was your life here different from when you lived in your homeland?
When we lived in Long Cheng, we lived peacefully. Only when we lived there and could not adjust that there was sickness. But we lived peacefully, were able to eat, were able to be clothed; then we were not poor when we lived in our territory.

You did about the same things there as you did when you were in Laos?
Yes, we did that, but they fed us and we weren’t as poor, so we did work, but not as hard as before. We did not work as before because we weren’t as poor as before.

You lived in Long Cheng, you said you lived in Long Cheng for 10 years, then you ran again. Why did you run?
The Viet Cong came again, the Viet Cong came and then we ran again, then we ran and lived here and there; then we escaped to Thailand.

You said you ran to many different places. Do you remember where you ran to?
We ran, we ran to *Pwv Piab, down to *PusLaj, then we ran and hid here and there, and then escaped into Thailand.

Then when you were running, were the Americans with you or did you run by yourselves?
During that time, it was only us. During that time, the Americans escaped so we were very poor. We were poor so we ate and asked for bitter branches, ate banana branches, ate things and ate weeds and stuff from trees. We were very poor and could not handle this, so we escaped from there.

You said Americans ran/escaped. Talk about how they ran?
Americans returned back. Then Americans and General Vang Pao left, then Americans all ran and left back. There was just us poor Hmong people who could not run, so we stayed and ran here and there and after running for awhile, we ran to eat weeds and stuff from trees; we ate potatoes, and all this stuff. We could not handle this, so we decided to run from the jungle into Thailand.

Asking you again, about escaping into Thailand–how did your household run to get into Thailand?
When my household ran, we ran in the jungles. In the jungles, we ran from here to there. We tried to find the road to follow, and we searched and found and escaped from there.

You escaped from there, so how did you arrive in Thailand?
When we came, we crossed the river. We hired Thai’s use of boats, and they used boats so we escaped across by this.

When you and your household crossed the river, you all crossed by boat?
Yes, we rode on boats. Since coming across bamboos, we didn’t make it. Floating on bamboos and cutting bamboos to use so we could paddle in the water did not work since the Vietnamese shot at us at the edge of the water, we could not cross. We returned back and they hired them–hired the Laotian people to take us and to send us over to Thailand. Then we were able to escape.

When you hired them, how many of you were there?
There were a lot. There were about 30-40 individuals.

You guys ran together as a group then?
Yes, we ran as a group. The Lao people slowly took one group at a time to the edge. We only ran during the night time.

During the night only?

You said that when your household ran, you said Lao people came and shot at you.
Yes, the Lao people [Pathet Lao] shot. The Lao people shot dead the grandma from St. Paul’s husband and son at the edge of the water; we didn’t see this while running. We ran back, and stayed for a while. They, those who escaped and crossed the river, sent people back to come get us. That is why we were able to escape.

During that time, was there anyone in your household that passed away?
Yes, there were some that passed away. In my household, the grandma from St. Paul’s husband and the son were part of my household. The only ones that passed away were those two. Then there was none.

During that time you arrived in Thailand, what did you do?
When we arrived, we came to live. They sent us greens and rice for us to eat

[End Side 1]

I want to ask about the time when you successfully crossed the river into Thailand. What did you do? What was your life and your household’s lives like?

Our life was that of lives destroyed by war. We lived in bunches here and there doing this and that. We waited for them to bring us food. When living in Thailand, there were no means of working; we just sat around. When they brought food we would go retrieve it to eat only.

When you lived there, were you worried about certain things?
Yes, very worried. I was worried about how my life would turn out. Running back, we wouldn’t be able to do, living in Laos we couldn’t do, and escaping to come here, we couldn’t do. It was very difficult.

When you and your household lived in Thailand, did you reunite with some of the people that you had not seen?
No, we did not meet at all. When we came, those that were together we met, but those who did not come, we did not see again because we could not go [to see them].

You said that when you were in Thailand, you had nothing to do and just sat around, what other things did you do?
Thai people enclosed us and they did not allow us to do anything, so we came to just sit around, probably we just came to eat.

You just sat around and ate? Were there other things you did?
No, we did not do anything. There was no land to farm. There was nothing to do. Thai people closed the area and did not allow us to go out, so we couldn’t do anything.

When you were in your house, what did you do?
When in the house, we were dumb so we just stayed inside, we didn’t do anything. We picked some greens to sell at our doors and stuff. We just got a few greens to eat, that was really it.

The women and the men, since you did not farm, what did the men do and what did the women do?
The men just sat around, the women just sat around. Just sitting around. For instance, Thai people made us go do work and we went to do work when they wanted us to do. We went to do work with the Thai. In one week we worked one or two days, then you came home and sat around. We just sat around and could not get out anywhere.

How about sewing, did you guys do–?
Sewing, we did not know how to sew so we didn’t sew. It was only your mom that came later that sewed, we did not sew.

You did not sew at all?
No we didn’t sew because we didn’t know how to.
We came and only stayed for a short period of time. We only stayed [in Thailand] for about one year, and then came to the United States. We didn’t do anything.

You didn’t know how to sew then?
We didn’t. I did not know how to sew.

When you lived in Thailand, do you all go out for leisure or have The New Year?
Yes, we went out. (you went out, too) We went to see Hmong people toss ball, Hmong have fun, yes we went.

The Thai people let you do this?
The Thai already enclosed us in the base. Since the Thai people enclosed us, inside we lived and inside we played.

When you and your household lived here, were the Thai people mean or nice–what did you think?
You go outside and they are mean, no doubt. When you go outside, they beat you. But since we were scared, we did not go out. So we stayed inside, eating whatever we had; we did not go look elsewhere.

You said that the Thai were mean to those who went out. Were there incidents where people went out and the Thai did something to them?
Oh, the Thai were very mean. Those who went out were beaten. The Thai captured the women who went out.

The women that are captured, what do they do with them?
They were captured [Laughs]–the women were captured to be like dogs.

When you were inside, did you have arguments with the Thai people, or were they pretty nice inside?
No, there were never arguments. The Thai people were very mean; when you saw them, you were already scared of them. Why would you go argue with them?

Were there some that were pretty nice?
I don’t know. We had just come recently to live there, so you didn’t know. Those Thai people, you didn’t know them.

So you didn’t talk or your household didn’t talk with–
You didn’t know the Thai language, so why talk to them?

We were dumb and did not know how to talk.

Asking about when you lived in Thailand. Did you just stay in one area and then leave or…?
Yes, we were only in one area

Just one area, so you didn’t move around to live with other different Hmong people?
No we didn’t. We lived in the same area.

So you lived in the same place for one year, right?
Yes, we lived in the same area for one year. Then the Thai kept enclosing us and we got scared; then we applied to come here [the US].

Asking you about that, when your family applied to come, how did you do it? How were you able to apply or how did you know about applying to come?
Americans came in allowing us to apply; then some people told others, ‘Let’s go apply to go to America, because it is too hard living here.’ We could not live there, so we applied to go to America. Then we heard other people talking. We just decided to apply and see if we would be allowed to go. Then we were allowed to go.

Did you want to go?
The thought of wanting to go, I did not want to go. But at the same time, living in Laos or Thailand where we were so poor, we did not mind and thought we might as well just go.

Your household thought this as well?
My household, they really wanted to come.

They wanted to come and you didn’t?
Yes, for me truthfully there was your Mom that was still in Laos, so I did not want to come. My household wanted to come badly.

Why did they want to come? You–
They said they were too poor. In Laos, they crawled all over the fields to get food to eat; thus they were too poor so they no longer wanted to stay and ultimately wanted to come.

Let’s talk about the day that they told you you could come to America and for you to pack. Do you remember?
Yes, I remember. They told us, ‘It is the day; you all are going. Pack all your things. You leave on the 8th. Then we all fully packed and on the 8th, when the car came, we went and came here.

What year was that?

1980, the 8th day and which month?
The eighth month as well.

Eighth month?
The eighth month, eighth day and in 1980 as well.

When you were about to leave, did they tell you to bring certain things or what did you have to do before you could come?
We didn’t have to do anything. When we were about to leave, we were uneasy so we just bought two chickens to use for soul calling ceremonies for everyone and then just left.

Were there people you had to leave?
Yes, definitely. There were people left that we were going to leave, but when leaving and when the day arrived for us to depart, we left them and just came to the US.

What kind of things did you bring here?
There was really nothing to bring. We just brought ourselves and our bodies. There were not even clothes to wear.

Do you remember coming from Thailand to America? Did you have any worries about anything?
Yes, I was very worried. I was worried that when we arrived we would not know how to live. And when arriving, the town was so big and we didn’t even know anyone, so how could we live?

Do you remember the day you rode the airplane? Please talk about this.
When riding the airplane, I don’t remember. When riding the airplane, I only knew that when we left it was the eighth, the eighth is when we left Thailand; then I don’t know when we arrived here–the eighth, maybe 9th or was it still then eighth? Because in Thailand, it is one day ahead of here. We did arrive here, though.

That first time, was it your first time to ride in an airplane?
Yes, it was the first time.

So when you came, what did you think?
When I came I thought that that meant leaving everyone. On the way here, the waters were so big! What were we going to do to go back? [Laughs]

When you rode the airplane, what did you think when you were on the plane? What did you think of the airplane since it was your first time?
When I was inside, I just was in it; I didn’t know what the airplane would do. [Laughs]

Asking about the arrival in America, where initially did you arrive first?
We arrived and lived in California. We stayed here for about eight months; then we came to Madison and have been here since. We haven”t moved elsewhere.

You said you lived in California and then came to Wisconsin?

Why did you come there [California]–you just came there or did you have sponsors?
We had sponsors in California and then they said since we had relatives here [in Wisconsin], they told us to come here, so we came.

You lived–or when you lived in California, where did you live or what town did you live in?
We lived in Santana. In California, we lived in Santana.

Your sponsors lived here?

Do you still talk to your sponsors?
Well, our sponsor was just one of our sons.

Oh, then your relatives were in Wisconsin, so then you came here.
Yes, our relatives [from my husband’s side] were in Madison, so that”s why we came here.

I want to ask you about when you arrived in Wisconsin. Talk about how your life was different. Were there some things in Wisconsin that you had to change? For example–how was it different from when you lived in Laos? For instance, the food is different, the language is different and work is different. Please talk about this.
In California, when talking about the best place to live, California was the best place to live, but there were no relatives there, so we came here. Living here is good. It’s better than Laos. You don’t have to work; they help you. It’s only [unpleasant] in the winter time, but when it’s not the winter time then you can go out for leisure and go places freely. And your own people are with you, so you don’t have to worry about anything.

When you said living in California, how long did you live there again?
We lived there only eight months.

Oh, eight months. Then, can you talk about being Hmong and coming here and, for instance, how eating food is different here compared to in Laos? Can you talk about these things?
About eating, back in your homeland, when you eat and make food, the smell of food is sweet; but living here, when eating and making food, the smells are like smells of bark and you wonder how you’re going to adjust to eating these things. When you eat it, it’s good, but the smell is like bark, so you can’t really [believe you can] eat it.

Since you have just arrived, are there foods that you did not like, since in America the food is different than back in Laos?
In America, the food is good. It’s just like I said, it has that smell. When living here longer and longer, you no longer smell that smell. Then you just get used to it.

Talk about how they speak English here and how you speak Hmong. Is that difficult for you? Talk about this.
[Laughs] Not knowing English is like being a pig. When they talk to you, you don’t know; then you have to have someone to translate for you.

Do you think this is difficult for your household?
Oh, yes, very hard. It was so hard, that I thought, ‘how could my children ever know?’ I thought like this.

When you have to go to the store or fill out forms, what do you have to do since you do not know English?
I don’t know, so I ask people to help go translate or fill out forms. I ask them to translate and fill out; I do not know.

How about working? What do you think, since back in your homeland, you guys just farmed, and upon your arrival here, they don’t farm much. You said you lived in California and then came to Wisconsin. How was that for you?
When I came, I didn’t have to work. When I came and lived for a while, after living here and there, I received money from the government and did not have to work.

When you came to live here, how old were you?
When I came then, I was 55 years old. But when I came then, when you were 60 you could receive government benefits–not like now. When children turned 18, there was a short time after when I received benefits. Then I just decided to take the benefits. During that time they only gave food stamps and some cash to be used for rent. So I had these benefits until I reached 60 years.

Then, you never thought about working or–
If I could drive and if I were smart, I would definitely have gone to work. Back then, my body was able to do work, but I didn’t know how to drive. I didn’t know how to drive, so I couldn’t go to work. When going, it was not near but far, so it was impossible.

How about going to school? When you first arrived did you think you wanted to go learn English, or–?
At that time I wanted to learn English. But when I was taught so many times, I still did not know it. You come home and go the next day and you don’t even remember. [Laughs]

So you did go to school for a while?
Yes, I went, I did go to school.

Just going to school where they taught English?
Yes, just English. They also taught ABCs. Even at my old age, they still started from the ABCs.

So the children, your children, went to school as well?
Yes, they went to school as well.

During that time, did you think you wanted them to go or that you were worried that going to school would not be a good thing?
Yes, during that time I was ignorant and did not know; I wanted them to go so they would know.

About coming to America where they used things that were not used in Laos, how did you feel? For instance, here they use computers or they use things that people in Laos have not used.
Here they do use these things. In Laos there are none. In Laos, the hand writes. If you are knowledgeable, then your hand writes. You take what you get.

During that time, you had to learn to use phones and things in American culture that you had not used before?
Yes, upon arrival to America I started learning how to use phones. People taught and I learned; then I would know how to use the phone and call people.

Asking you about the exact day upon arrival in America at the airport, and your initial step from the airplane when looking at the land of America, what did you think?
When coming out, I thought that I have come to America and it is very good.

When you arrived, were you scared? Was there anything that you were scared of?
Then, no there wasn’t. Upon arrival here, where there is a good land, I didn’t think about there being anything to be scared of.

When you went to live in a house, were there things that were different or that you didn’t know about upon first living in your house?
During that time, when we went to live, we did not know. Where we lived, we lived in public housing so the people that fixed the houses were also Hmong, so they would tell us about things we did not know.

Then you just lived in houses that were fixed up by Hmong people–
Yes, we lived in the houses and got to live in public housing that Hmong people maintained.

OK, what is the most difficult/hardest thing about living in America?
The hardest thing is that you don’t know the language.

How has not knowing the language changed for you?
It has not changed. Not knowing the language–I still cannot speak it, so it has not changed.

What is the best thing for you about coming to America?
The best thing is that upon coming here, there are no things to worry about.

Why do you think there are no things to worry about?
With your arrival here, people give you some money to use; you just come live so there is nothing to worry about.

How do you think your new life has changed you and your household?
It has changed it a lot. Now for instance, you don’t know a lot now, but your household –your children are smart and know a lot more now. Then you are no longer poor.

Are there times that you want to go back to live in Laos?
Oh, with the country here, I do not want to go back. With the country here, I do not want to go back, so I will just stay here. Perhaps until there is no more fighting on the land, if I can go then I will go; if I cannot go, then I will not go. That’s it.

You’d rather stay here than go back there?
Yes. Now I have become a citizen so they say I can stay, so I will stay.

As a person lucky enough to come to America, how do you think your life is different from those who are still in Laos?
Coming to this country is very different. Coming to this country, we are well off. To eat, we don’t have to worry. They give us a bit of money so if one cannot eat, the money can be used to buy something. But in Laos, now I don’t know how life would turn out when you cannot do anything or go anywhere. Plus as you age and cannot do anything. There are worries.

Do you have any words to give to the Hmong children now and those who were born in America that did not come from Laos? Do you want to say something to them? What do you want to say? If you can say something, what would you say?
Uh, I don’t know what to say so I will not say.

For instance, if you want to say some words to the kids now to remember about the Hmong?
To say ‘We are Hmong. Remember that we are Hmong. Remember and do not become Christians, and follow the Hmong traditions. Remember to obey and be well-mannered. Remember to be well-mannered like others, which is good.’ That’s all I will say to the younger Hmong.

Do you want to talk about some things that we have not talked about? Or some things about your life that we did not talk about, did you want to talk about this?
Oh, there is nothing more to say. I do not know how to talk about this.

OK, then that’s it.
That’s it then

Nhia Lor Vang

27 February, 2002

Interviewer: Peter Chou Vang
Translator/Transcriber: Peter Chou Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer


What is your name?
My name is Nhia Lor Vang. (0:10)

When and where were you born?
I was born on January 1st, 1954 in a place called Qua Chee [Goat Droppings. This place was populated by many goats, which is how they came up with the name]. (0:29)

How old are you?
I’m 48 years old. (0.37)

What are your parents’ names?
My father was called Chon Yong Vang and my mother was Ia Her Vang. (0:50)

What was you occupation before the war?
I was a farmer. (1:30)

When were you enlisted in the army? How old were you? What was your job in the army?
I worked for the CIA starting in May 1966. I started when I was 12 years old. During this time there was a civil war in Laos [between the communist, neutral, and pro-American forces]. The CIA sent some Thai army personnel to teach us basic combat skills for two or three months; just enough so we can use how to use our weapons. Then we were sent to the war zone. (3:03)

Can you tell us which battles you were involved in — which ones you lost and which ones you won?
[Although Mr. Vang did not tell these details in this order, Peter chose to re-arrange his narrative in chronological order.] They first sent us to Pon Kou [a northern frontier in Laos] in 1966-67. It was a very intense battle up there. We would set up forward observation bases. These bases contained about 25-30 men. Bases with larger numbers of men usually drew mortar and howitzer fire, whereas the Vietnamese considered smaller groups less valuable. Before nightfall we usually took three crates of grenades (consisting of 32 in each) and made it into one big crate of 96 grenades. Each was issues a big crate and this is how we fought the Vietnamese. We weren’t allowed to use our guns, because it would give our position away by the flash of the muzzle. We also put dried tree branches along with dried leaves all around the perimeter of our bases. Whenever enemies tried to sneak up on us they would make noise when they stepped on these dried branches and leaves. When we heard this we would toss a grenade in the direction of the noise. If we saw the enemy shooting at us (we could see where they were by the flashes of their gun muzzles), we would toss a grenade in that area. These two methods were very effective. One example was a base where all the defenders would flee except for one person. By throwing grenades all night long and without firing his gun the enemies thought that there were more soldiers in the base than one man. In the morning he could see all the dead bodies of the enemies all around the perimeter. The Vietnamese would usually fire red and green flares before advancing on our bases. This was a sign for their troops, but it was also a good warning sign for us to prepare. Most battles usually lasted from midnight to five or six in the morning. If they withdrew, then it meant we won the battle. During the course of the battle, as I mentioned before, we couldn’t use our guns to fire back. If we did, they’d know our position and know a B-40 [an anti-tank/anti-bunker bazooka-like weapon] to take us out. Those who did fire back at the Vietnamese with their guns were usually taken out within a matter of seconds [Later Mr. Vang gave me a good example of what happened when one soldier tried to fire back with his gun. This particular soldier was manning a machine gun between two boulders. He saw the flash of the Vietnamese’s muzzles; he shot 20 rounds into that area. Before he could fire any more, he was suddenly hit by a B-40 round. It shattered the two boulders and his machine gun was shattered in half. Luckily, the two boulders took the brunt of the two rounds so he was just slightly injured.] Most experienced soldiers used grenades instead. This is one of the reasons it was hard for them to overrun us. (8:10)

When the Vietnamese tried to overrun your bases, did you call for air support?
The US usually sent in airplanes called “Spooky” [C-4 and C-130 gun ships] to parachute in flares so we could see where the enemies were. The Vietnamese usually hid themselves when the flares were dropped. The planes contained weapons such as M-60 machine guns. They asked us to use a 60mm mortar smoke round to shoot into the area where the enemies were; then they would know what they could take out with their guns. They would also send in some propeller airplanes called “Skyraiders” which were flown solely by US pilots. US pilots also flew the “Spookies.” When they were running out of ammunition and flares, there were more airplanes to take their place. (10:04)

During which seasons did you usually win? During the monsoon [rainy] season or the dry season?
During the monsoon season, the rising water cut off all the Vietnamese routes, so they were immobile. During this time they were usually on the defensive and they could be easily defeated [with the help of US air power]. However, during the dry seasons they could move about and hide their trails. They usually tended to be on the offensive and usually win [they outnumbered the Hmong]. During the monsoon seasons, we usually took patrols out about five or six kilometers around our bases to make sure there were no signs of the enemy. If there were any signs left behind by the enemy, it was easily noticeable. In the dry season it was more complicated, because they could hide their tracks on the hard services. Because of this, they could usually surprise us more in the dry season than the rainy season. (11:33)

Were there any US planes that were shot down over your area? Did you try to rescue them?
Yes, there were. The US planes that came during the night hardly received fire because the Vietnamese lacked radar. The planes usually turned off all their lights so it was really hard for the Vietnamese to spot them. The planes that got shot down were usually the day fighter/bombers. There were no planes that went down near us, but one time a Hmong pilot who flew a T-28 propeller fighter plane was hit and he was captured. However, because of the intense bombing by other planes, he escaped. The US pilots were taught that if they were going down, they should try to parachute near or over a Hmong base. In this way it was a lot easier for the Hmong to rescue them. [During one incident, a US F-4 Phantom II jet was shot down. Over 100 Hmong soldiers went on the search and rescue mission. They found the two US pilots but they also ran into the Vietnamese search team that was out looking for the pilots. The Hmong soldiers sacrificed more than 50 of their soldiers just to rescue two US pilots. (14:09)

How many years did you fight before the country was taken over by the communists?
I fought from 1966 to 1975. Then the communists took the country. Some decided to escape to Laos but some of us decided to stay and fight anyway. We used guerilla tactics to hit and run tactics on the communists until March of 1979. Then I decided to escape to Thailand. (15:09)

When you were still in the military, how much were you paid?
In 1966, as a common soldier I was paid 300-350 kiep per month. (15:41)

How much is 300 kiep worth in US dollars?I don’t know for sure at this time. But after 1972 we were paid 3,500 kiep. Shortly after that it was 6,500 kiep. I don’t really know how much it is in US dollars during that time. (16:42)

How did you escape to Thailand?
We were at Phu Bia after the communists took over. The Vietnamese told us that since the war was over there would be peace throughout Laos. They wanted everybody to stay and everybody would get equal rights. Most of the civilian Hmong believed them, but then the Vietnamese started to arrest all Hmong males who were 15 years old and above. They seemed to be arresting men indiscriminately. They claimed that everyone they arrested was a soldier for the US. The Vietnamese planned to execute them all. During that time I was still part of the resistance. We came down from the mountains one day and talked with some of the Vietnamese. We claimed that we were civilian farmers but we hid all of our weapons in the mountains. During the talk in the village they asked us if we knew General Vang Pao, the CIA and the Americans. We lied to them by saying no to all their questions. We said that we were farmers from the surrounding region. The Vietnamese told us they had a saying that goes like this: “There was a man who owned some water buffalo. When the man’s master went away, he decided to take over. However, some of the bulls were very aggressive. They had to trap and kill them. Once the bulls were killed then he [the Vietnamese] could subjugate the ‘cows’ and the ‘calves.’ ” We knew what they were saying. They wanted to kill those who were involved with the Americans and then raise a new generation of Hmong who would be loyal to them. We then decided to fight, even with no governmental support or any financial backing. We fought from village to village protecting our families. I 1978, it took one month for us to move from one village to another until we escaped to Thailand (20:01)

How long did you stay in Thailand until you came to the United States?
I was in Thailand from June of 1978. However, I still went over the border to help with the resistance until May of 1987. I had decided to get a visa to come over here [the US]. In the process of getting a visa you had to prove that you were working for the US in Laos. It was very easy for us because they would show us weapons and such and tell us to name them. We were all expert with them, so we could easily tell which one was this and which one was that. (21:24)

When you came over to the US, did you feel like staying or going back? Was it hard to adjust?
If you have some relatives who know how to live in this country, then it’s not that hard. There is lots of freedom, unlike under the communists. The communists had a saying: “What we say we will not do, what we do we will not say.” It was because their policies were hard and unbearable that we moved to this country. The only reason that it is hard to live in the United States is the lack of education . Other than that, this is a good place to live. (22:20)

I forgot to ask you earlier — did you suffer any wounds during your many years of fighting?
From 1966 to1975 I was wounded three times. On one occasion the enemies set a booby trap with a grenade. Someone tripped over the wire, but I was the one who got hit. The grenade shrapnel hit me in the leg. My second time we were ambushed on a trail. I was injured with shrapnel from a B-40 bazooka, which hit me in the back. On my third time, I was hit by another grenade booby trap. So I was injured by two booby traps and one time by ambush. Other than those incidents I was fine. (23:27)

Do you have anything else you wanted to say to Hmong students who will listen to this recording in the future?
To those who will be listening to my story about our struggle with the communists, we must love one another. We need to help one another through education and so on. We shouldn’t strike one another down. Education is a valuable thing to help our people. If they persecute one fellow Hmong, you need to feel their pain as well. To the Hmong who will succeed in life, you must love and never forget about your brothers and sisters who are less fortunate than you. The less fortunate who have little or no education will use their physical strength to support those who are the intellectuals. Those who have the education will usually lead and those who do not will not will be there to help you in time of trouble. When someone is an intellectual, s/he shouldn’t use that for their benefit alone, but for the benefit all their people. If you do it only for yourself, then you are nothing; you need the support of your people. This is my advice for Hmong students. Those who are educated but humble, kind, and respectful to your people, these are people who will be good role models. However, if you abuse others just because your education  level is higher than theirs, you will not be useful to yourself or to others. We aren’t white; we don’t have high nostrils. If we don’t help ourselves, no one will. You who are educated will probably know more know more about this than I. That is all I have to say. Thank you. (27:13)

Thank you.

Nor Her

Interviewer: Peter (Chou) Vang
Translator/Transcriber: Peter (Chou) Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer

Can you tell us your name and the names of your parents?
My name is Noj Her. My father was Tswv Tou Vaj and my mother was called Mai Lee. (00:21)

When and where were you born?
I was born in 1936 in the province of Xieng Khong near Long Cheng [the Secret CIA/Hmong base]. (00:31)

What was the name of the village where you were born?
It was called *Pha Khou. (00.37)

When you were growing up, what were your chores?
In Laos, when we were growing up we went to watch the cattle and water buffalos out in the fields. We also helped our parents with the farm. (00:55)

What did you do with your harvest once it was collected?
During those days we didn’t sell what we harvested. We gathered everything and stored it away, waiting for the new harvest to come in. We stored enough for us and the animals to eat. (1:27)

How many people were in your family (in Laos)? Can you tell me all your siblings’ names?
There were 11 of us altogether. There were six of us sons and we had five sisters. The eldest was called *Tsaj Sher, *Chong Yaj, *Tsuag Koua, *Vaj Moua, *then myself and then *Naj Lee. Among my sisters, the oldest was *Suwv, *Tsua, *Mee, *Mau and then *Toue. (2:05)

Did your family lose any to sickness or disease?
No, in our family there was no death due to those things. (2:17)

When did you start to fight in the war against the Vietnamese? Can you tell me your reasons for fighting?
The war against the Vietnamese started when we were little, when the province of *Xieng Khoung was taken [by the Vietnamese] in 1962. *Pho Dong and Pho Qua [two important towns in northern Laos] were taken, and that’s why we joined in the fight against the Vietnamese. If we didn’t protect them, theVietnamese troops were going to take all our property and lands. That was the reason we joined our government in fighting the Vietnamese. (2:54)

How old were you then? Were you still at your old village or had you moved to another place?
I was about 17 or 18 years old. We were still in our old village. (3:09)

Can you tell me who supplied you with the weapons and equipment used to fight the Vietnamese? Was it the Americans or the Laotian government who supplied the equipment?
During that time, General Vang Pao withdrew from *Xieng Khoun to *Pai Dong after being defeated by the Vietnamese. The Americans [CIA] and Gen Vang Pao made an agreement and the Americans started to parachute in weapons for the General. He then distributed the weapons to us. (3:31)

Can you tell me how you were trained as a solider and where you were trained?
There were many areas where we trained, but I’ll just tell you about one particular training area. We usually ran, practiced shooting targets, threw grenades, assembled and disassembled weapons, and other military exercises. (4:09)

When you went out to fight, did they put you with soldiers you knew, or were you with soldiers you hadn’t met before?
We trained in *companies [does Conpai really mean company & how many is that?] and we went as a company to battle. (4:25)

How big is a *Conpai?
One Conpai is 500 soldiers. (4:32)

In what year did you go into battle to fight the Vietnamese?
I don’t quite remember the exact date, but shortly after we were trained we went out into battle. It’s been so long, I don’t remember. We trained in Long Cheng and *Sam Tum. We went to fight at *Pai Dong. After that, we went and were stationed at *Lai Khia and *Sum Mia. (5:12)

Did you also fight the Red Laotians [Pathet Lao] along with the Vietnamese troops?
We don’t really know if they were Pathet Laos or Vietnamese. They were firing at us and we were firing at them. If they saw us, they would fire at us and if we saw them, we’d fire at them. (5:35)

In your opinion, during your first battle, were you scared?
I don’t remember being scared. All of a sudden, guns were blazing everywhere, so I didn’t have time to be scared. (5:49)

Did it occur to you that the enemies might possess better weapons and far more troops than your side? Were you too young to think about these factors?
At the beginning, their weapons were not all that good. The largest weapons in their arsenal were the RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), 60mm mortars and 81 mm mortars. However, as the war prolonged, they started to use 130mm howitzers and rockets against us. Their weapons were first last [??] toward the later half of the war. They even had air support to attack us. (6:31)

What type of planes?
They were *bi-planes. (6:35)

How did the Americans help you? Did they pay you, hand out weapons and supply close air support?
They gave us enough money to buy everyday items. They gave us enough weapons and ammunition for us to fight. (6:59)

One month’s pay? How many sacks of rice or chicken could you buy with that?
At that time, the price for livestock was still cheap. I didn’t do the buying because we [the soldiers] chipped in together to get livestock. They also give us cash for food so that we were able to save our monthly pay. (7:26)

What did you do with your monthly pay? Did you send it back to your parents or what did you do with them?
When I was in *Sum Miam and Pha Thi, I saved about a year or two of all my pay, and gave it to my parents. (7:42)

How did you save it? Did you just put it in your rucksack?
During that time there were some landmines called M-18s. We would save the M-18’s casings and would put our pay in them. We would also put them in our pockets until we came home. (8:01)

Was the aircraft used to support the Hmong soldiers Americans, Thai, or Laotian?
At the beginning, it seemed like the aircraft were mostly Thai. As the war progressed, the majority of the planes were American. The Americans brought in their fighter/bomber jets and massive B-52s to bomb the enemies. The Thais were mostly in T-28s [The T-28 was a modified American Air Force trainer that served with the Royal Thai, Laos and General Vang Pao’s army.] When the country was on the verge of defeat, Laotian, Thai and American planes were in the fight. (8:37)

What were the main tasks that you performed as a soldier?
When we were on the march, every night, we always fortified our positions, such as by digging foxholes. We always had to be on guard just in case the Vietnamese decided to attack us at night. If we were not attacked then we had to probe and scout for the enemy and force them to fight. Once when we engaged them we called in for close air support to eliminate the enemy. [Search and Destroy tactic] We fought like this so we could regain our territories that were lost to the Vietnamese. (9:29)

When you were in the field, usually how big was your unit?
We sometime went out in a company [500 soldiers]. If we were just to probe and scout, then only about 100 soldiers were needed, but in battle we went in a company. In battle, usually the company was divided into 100 men unit and each unit would occupy and fortify a hill for the night. (10:04)

When you went out to fight as a company, was it still scary? What if you went out to fight with fewer than 500? Were you scared? [The majority of the time the Hmong were heavily outnumbered by the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao troops.)
We were not scared. We didn’t have time to be scare because they were shooting at us and we had to shoot back. (10:14)

Have you ever been on a search and rescue mission to find downed US or Allied pilots?
We went once to rescue downed Thai and Hmong pilots. (10:30)

How did you rescue them?
Their attack plane, a T-28 [Trojan] was shot down. [The T-28 was originally an American military trainer airplane that proved to be a hardy ground attack plane in the Laos theater.] (10:35)

Did you have to fight to rescue the downed pilots?
During that time, there were other planes to keep the enemy at bay and the downed pilots were close to our area. There was no problem rescuing the pilots. (10:48)

Can you tell me how long you were a soldier and what was the largest battle you were involved in?
The largest battle that I was involved with was when we were on the offensive in *San Khouan to *Bam Bam. Once our offensive wound down, the enemy countered our offensive and we were on the defense. Another major battle was when I was stationed in *Na Khang. It was a major battle and we retreated from that area. Our fortified places were filled with so much black smoke — just as if someone was burning the whole forest [He was comparing the forts to the slash and burn technique that Hmong farmers would use to burn down the forest in preparation for farming.] We never re-took Na Khang back after that. At *Pha Thi, it was very fierce fighting. We were fortified on the top of a hill and we lost many men. They used artillery and they also surrounded the whole hill. (11:39)

How long were you a soldier for General Vang Pao?
I served from 1965 until 1975. (11:47)

After the war against the Vietnamese, why were you arrested?
I wasn’t captured. After we were defeated at *Na Khang, I somehow escaped and hid for five or six days. [I’m questioning some more about the defeat at *Na Khang.] *Na Khang was a large fortified place. It was one of the headquarters and it even had its own air strip. In *Na Khang there were about 500 soldier stationed there. [He was a little confused about the total number of troops stationed there.] (12:42)

What happened after the defeat?
We all tried to look for ways out of there. The Vietnamese blocked all the roads. We fought a retreating battle from there and many were killed or missing, though there were some who survived. There were also some Thais [Thai mercenaries who were paid by the CIA to fight in Laos. These “Volunteers” were to replace the heavy losses sustained by the Hmong male population after 10 years of fighting.] with us, but I think they were all captured. I don’t know what happened to them. (13:02)

What happened to you when you tried to escape?
They shot anyone who ran. At first, there was a group of us but soon I was by myself. After three days and three nights, I reached *Mun Noui, Pho Koog Phog Blu. (13:17)

What happened after that?
When I got there, they [the CIA] sent a plane to pick us up to Long Cheng. (13:24)

I remember you told me that the Vietnamese took you and some others to prison.
I’ll tell you the story. During the war, I wasn’t taken by the Vietnamese. When we fought as a *battalion in *San Kong and *Pong Dong, I was captured after the war was over and General Vang Pao had left. [The interviewer was commenting along.] It was 1978-9. General Vang Pao had already left in 1975. We decided to stay instead of leaving and we continued to fight until 1977 or ’78. Those who continued to fight were caught and taken to prison at *Paj Nok. (14:18)

Did the Vietnamese punish the people they captured?
The Vietnamese would use wooden stocks to lock our feet and our wrists together. At night, we were not allowed to relieve ourselves in the woods; they would give us hollow bamboo tubes that we could relieve ourselves in. (14:58)

Did they only arrest the men or also the women and children?
Only the men were sent here; the women and children where sent to *Nong Het. (15:09)

What other ways did they punish you and the men who were caught?
I was in that prison for three years. One time, during one of the Vietnamese celebrations, they started to fire their weapons into our prison cell. I was hit in the knee but it was not bad. (15:41)

How many Hmong were with you when you were captured?
I don’t remember. There was three or four Laotians with us in the prison cell. The majority were Hmong. (16:02)

How many Hmong do you think were there?
It depends on what month. Some months, there would be 30-40 new Hmong prisoners and other months there would be 10 or so Hmong prisoners. Our prison camp was considered a maximum security prison and most prisoners were locked up all day. Some prisoners were eventually allowed to go to other camps where they could enjoy more activities. At our prison camp, we were locked up all the time and were given the bare minimum to eat to stay alive. (16:44)

For how long were you a prisoner in that camp?
It was from 1977 to 1980. (16:58)

Do you know how many Hmong were killed or died in that prison camp?
My older brother, one other Hmong and a Laotian died in the prison camp. My brother was Vang Moua. (17:14)

Did they allow you some freedom in that prison camp?
No, they did not. I was locked up all the time until my court hearing. I was ordered to work in a labor force for one month and a half before I was allowed to return home. (17:31)

In that prison camp, were there also Hmong civilians alongside the soldiers who were prisoners?
Most of the prisoners were then civilian because the war had been over for a while. [Many of the Hmong soldiers who fought in Laos where irregular militia members who only fought seasonally.] However, these civilians were at one time soldiers during the war. The Laotian prisoners were also ex-soldiers. We were all captured during a time of peace when the country was settling down. (17:59)

Can you tell me how they decided who was an ex-soldier and who was not?
[A bit of confusion because he did not understand the question.] There were some Hmong and some Laotians who were informers for the Vietnamese. They knew those who served as soldiers during the war. (18:29)

What was the worst part of being held prisoner in that prison?
The first one was the lack of food to eat. The second one was being locked up all the time. The only time you got to walk out of the prison cell was to dump your waste from the bamboo tubes into the river. When that was done, you were chained up again. Those were the worst parts of that prison camp. (19:08)

How did you endure the three years there?
I couldn’t; I was too weak to think or run away so you just stayed where you were. (19:18)

Were you already married and had children when you were captured?
I was married with children already. My wife and children were sent to *Nong Het already. (19:29)

Were you worried about the condition your wife and children were in?
Yes, I was really worried but I couldn’t do anything. You can’t really do anything about their condition when you’re about to die and you don’t know when you are going to die. Yes, I was very worried, but I could not do anything about it. (19:52)

As of today, do you believe that the Vietnamese and Pathet Laos still imprison Hmong people in Laos?
I don’t know if there are any Hmong ex-soldiers left for them to imprison. They still put in prison those who go against their rules and regulations. (20:18)

What about those Hmong *Chao Fas who are still fighting in Laos today? Do you consider them soldiers still fighting for General Vang Pao or just bandits?
The *Chao Fas are still fighting for freedom, but because they cannot contact people over here for help [referring to General Vang Pao and the Hmong in the US] they continue to fight [alone]. If the Vietnamese capture these *Chao Fas then they will be put to death. There’s no question about it. (21:08)

Let’s talk about what happened to you after coming back from prison. When you were allowed to leave and met up with your family, what did you do next?
They imprisoned me, but didn’t take me to court. My brother, *Na Kong Vang Moua [a Colonel ?] was [questions between interviewer and interviewee regarding his brother] was killed. He was in charge of the civilian villages. He was in charge of getting the proper food and supplies from USAID to the villagers. (22:30)

What happened when you returned to your village?
When they released me, I was so weak I could hardly walk. Somehow I made my way to *Pom Savah. There I was made to clean the governmental buildings there. I was even too weak to do this. The stronger prisoners were given hoes and rakes to clean the yards and I was given the task of gathering leaves and grasses to be thrown away. We performed these tasks for five days. It became unbearably hot and I could hardly take the heat. (23:02)

Were you with your family at this time?
No, I was not. This happened when I was taken out of the prison camp. During this time, I was still waiting for them to decide on my fate. There were no soldiers to guard us constantly, but we were all waiting for our orders. When we arrived at that place the Vietnamese told us that if we listened and obeyed them then we were free to go, but if we tried to escape they’d put us back into the same prison camp that we came out of. The first night there, they found a place for us to sleep. For five days, we searched and foraged for our own food there, trying to survive. They sent 10 of us from there to help with the rice harvest in *San Kuan. After harvesting rice there we were given documents and allowed to go find our wives and children. (23:53)

How did you find your way home? Did they give you any money for a taxi or any other means to help you come home?
They didn’t give us anything. (24:05)

Given your weakened condition, how did you manage?
I made my way very slowly. (24:09)

When you came back home, what made you decide to come to Thailand?
I came back and stayed for one year. I was able to plant and harvest rice for that year. The following year, our relatives said that it was too hard to make a living in a time such as this, so we decided to make some documents from the government to move to *Vincheng and then to *Na Nyog and then to *Pho Nuer. Once we were close enough to the Thai boarder we escaped to Thailand. [During this time the Hmong were not allowed to travel without documents from the communist government. Noj Her and his relatives deceived the government by asking to be relocated closer and closer to the Thai border and then making a run for it.] (24:43)

What year did you reach Thailand?
We arrived in Thailand in 1985. (24:47)

When you reached Thailand, what happened to all your parents and siblings?
When I reached Thailand, some of my older brothers were already coming to the US, while a few were still in Thailand. (25:01)

Was Thailand hard for you and your family? Can you elaborate on it?
Yes, it was really hard for us. We came at a time when the Thais closed the boarder and didn’t allow any more Hmong to come over. We came into the camp but couldn’t register, so we could not get any food or medical attention. We had to buy or beg for some from our relatives. It was pretty hard; you had to find your own way of getting food on the table. After a year in the refugee camp, it was just too much for us, so we moved out to *San Khan and in five or six months were able to register to come over to the US. (25:37)

How many years did you and your family stay in Thailand?
One year at *Vinine, three to four months at *San Khan and three or four more months at *Pa Nai Ne Kong before we came over. (25:51)

When you first reached the US, where did you land?
We first landed in Seattle, then to San Francisco and finally to Fresno. (26:02)

How long did you stay in Fresno before moving to Minneapolis/St. Paul?
We landed in Fresno in March of 1983. We stayed there until 1985 [He said 1975 during the interview but it was supposed to be 1985]. (26:14)

Compare the US to Laos. What is your feeling about being here and not over there?
The younger generation is educated, so I don’t know if it’s hard for them. For us in the older generation, there are some good and bad things about living here. In the US, it’s hard to go about and we need the younger generations to help us. There is no way for us to be self-sufficient like back in Laos. Those are some of the bad things about living here. (26:42)

If Laos became peaceful again, would you like to go back and live the way your parents and grandparents lived?
Yes, if Laos is peaceful and there is equality, then I would like to go back. I want to go back and have a farm. It’s healthier that way. (27:07)

Do you have any words for the younger Hmong generation that will hear your words? What do you want to say to them about your generation?
I would like to tell all, whether they’re my children or not, that since we came to live here [in the US] it’s different from living in Laos. If you don’t get an education, then job opportunities will be fewer for you. Pursue an education so you can get a job that will be able to support you. In Laos, it didn’t matter if you were educated or not. If you had the strength and will, you could farm and be successful. You didn’t have to worry about food or livestock because you were using your strength for getting everything that was necessary. Here in the US, there is no farmland for those who want to work on it. You must be educated to get a good job. (28:22)

So the core of your message is for the younger Hmong generations to continue to pursue an education so they will be secure in the future?
The important fact is that I want the younger Hmong generations to continue to get their education and to not worry so much about getting married. (28:46)

Do you have anything else to say?
No, this will be all. (28:49)


Pa Sher Yang

Interviewer: Peter Vang
Translator/Transcriber: Mai Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer

Please tell us your name, what village you were born in, and your mother’s and father’s names.
My name is Pa Sher Yang, my mother and father are Txiaj Pao Yang. I was born in the village *Nam Mien in Nong Het, Laos.

When you were a child, do you remember what kind of jobs you had in your village? And how did you help your parents?
When I was small, we had already run from the war once before. In 1954, we came to *Seng. At that time I didn’t know much because I was still small. The Vietnamese blocked us, so we ran, and then we moved all the family to come live here. In that place I started schooling and the village was called the Valley of Turtles, close to *Bang Nang. Then we stayed in *Chong Cang Thang until 1960 when Kong Le separated. We then stopped schooling, so we ran back home. They were going to attack General Vang Pao at Padong.

Before the war, how did you go to school, and according to America, what grade did you stop at because of the war?
At that time, I was only a young teenage boy. According to America I was only in sixth grade. I wasn’t an adult yet. I came home, then the war started and so we ran. The government came to open restaurants, so I went back to school until eighth grade, but my parents were poor and lived far away. There was no one to help me.

When you were in school in Laos, what did you study? And since your parents lived far away, how did you receive food to eat?
During the school session, you had to make one hard pot of rice to eat for a couple of days. There was nothing to go with it, because, for example, they gave you 1,000 [kiep?] while they themselves were poor. That 1,000 is to last one year; your clothes, books, eating, and drinking are all in that 1,000. You may also get help from your older brothers, younger brothers, and other people you know. You stay in school, even though you only get a little food to eat. You make your own food and clothes; you have to find yourself. The hardest thing at that time was when we studied French, and the teachers were French. They only said, “Go buy a book like this in this library. Each of you should bring one so I can teach you.” Others had parents who lived close, so they had money so they could go buy books. When you first attended, you saved money and were able to go buy it, but in the middle of the year, your money was gone, then you couldn’t buy it, so you didn’t know what they were studying. That’s something that was very hard. That’s how life was in school back then. When we were in school, it wasn’t too bad, but it was harder than how your generation learns now, because every year, it didn’t matter what you studied, at the end of every year you took a final exam. You had to remember everything before you were able to pass to another class, so if you couldn’t remember everything then you had to start again. For us, they taught everything to us, and when the year was over you got only one time to test. Then they put everything together and if you passed everything, only then would you pass. If you weren’t truly good, then you couldn’t pass. School was very hard at that time, but we were able to pass, so it wasn’t too bad. They could make it and so could you, but the poorest thing was that you didn’t have money to buy books to help you study. There was nothing to ride in Vientiane, we only walked.

After you studied, once the war started, what did you do?
Afterwards, I had an older brother, everyone knew his name was Colonel Shoua Yang. He came to K-11 and was near Vietnam.

K means what?
K means sector. He came and saw me. Although I was only in eighth grade, he noticed that I went back and forth to school very poorly so since he needed people to work for him, he said that I should go help him. If there was good fortune, even though I had only finished grade eight, I could be a governor. At that time you don’t have much. There was nothing to help you so you decided to come back and live with parents.

At that time, how old were you? And was he your true older brother or just someone with the last name Yang?
An older brother relative. At that time I was close to 17-18 years, just finishing the years of my youth. I believe I came to live with them in year 1963. The Vietnamese came to attack Laos which, in the past, were the nationalists only. At that time the Vietnamese sent their real soldiers to attack us, because they truly wanted to overtake Laos. There were too many of them, and we couldn’t protect *Khay Kuno so we separated, and ran from there. At that time I was lost for one month and 15 days, but had good fortune, so I was able to find my way back home. During the time I was lost I was very poor, and there was no food to eat, no water to drink. Sometimes you walk and walk for a day, and there’s no water, only rain in some old bull footprints, so you bend to drink it. I talk about hunger, the word hunger everyone knows, but the truth is that not a lot of people know true hunger. I will talk of hunger to you young ones so you can write it down. A person who is hungry, when they eat bananas and can’t swallow, that is true hunger, but when he still can eat and swallow, he’s not hungry yet. Hunger is like this. If a person still has food in their body, you can eat and swallow because you still have some food in your body, but if you stay for many days and the food in your body disappears, you can’t swallow. You can hardly swallow the liquid, but one thing that you can swallow to help your body are *sour leaves*. In your lives in the future, in case you meet hunger, remember this. Anything that tastes sour, you can swallow. Keep eating it, even if it’s tough, eat a lot until you are full, but if something is sweet then you can’t swallow it. The people I’ve asked, they don’t know hunger, they’ve only skipped a couple of meals. Then they’re hungry normally but they haven’t reached real hunger. True hunger, I believe that over all those leader soldiers, only I know.

Before the Vietnamese attacked and you scattered, the American government had given you weapons. What kind of weapons did they give you? How much training did you receive before you were attacked?
When *Pho Nong* scattered, I wasn’t a soldier yet. I was only staying with my older brother, being educated. He asked me to help him write papers. I wasn’t a soldier and I didn’t have name [rank?] to be a soldier and only had a gun, but there was no training at all. After we scattered, and I was lost for one month and 15 days, we settled down in Long Cheng. I then trained to be an intelligence officer in Vientiane for four months. I came back to work in 1964-65.

Please give us an example of how you trained in intelligence.
Intelligence, when they taught us they didn’t just teach us a little like in Laos, but they taught us a great deal as if it was America. They wouldn’t let you have a bus ticket, but you had to find a way to get messages. It didn’t matter what you did, as long as they [the enemy] couldn’t catch you or have knowledge of you. But you had to have skill and brains to find the messages. I can’t explain this exactly, but in your young lives, if you know you want to study in intelligence, then it is very dangerous. As you are training, they watch over you very well, not allowing you to contact any real problems. But when you’ve graduated and they’ve released you, then it becomes your responsibility. You have to use your own knowledge to be successful and not die. The number of people who had gone [out in the field] and been captured were many.

When you had finished your four years of training, what jobs were you given?
After training, they sent me to Long Cheng to interview people who were sort of like spies. I worked there for two years, then came back into Long Cheng in 1968. I then went to Okinawa twice to work.

When you studied in Laos, did you have Thai or Lao teachers? And when you studied in Okinawa did you have American, or what kind of teachers?
In Okinawa it was mainly American or European. There was a European teacher but the rest was American. They spoke only English, and since we didn’t know the language, we found an interpreter.

The Americans who came to teach you in intelligence, were they CIA or Special Forces?
The ones who came to teach intelligence were Special Forces, not CIA. They taught that job as if we were in South Vietnam. They didn’t know anything about Laos at all.

After your training and your first two years of work, what did you do?
After training for one month and returning, they asked me to go do ‘OB’. It stands for Operation Batter, or something like that. You have to report daily about the locations and numbers of Vietnamese. You had to determine where they came from and what division they were in, how long they had been there, and who their leaders were. If you knew their names, it would be even better.

After obtaining the information, who did you report it to? Was it reported to Hmong, Laotians, or Americans too?
Americans did work with us, but it was all reported back to Laos, because we lived in Laos. There were some [missions] that we handled very well, but still some where we didn’t do well. Something very disgusting during that time in war was in the stomach, there were maggots [he means this literally]. The people you trusted most were the ones who reported information back to the Vietnamese. Only now do we know of all this, but before everyone rose from the forest to become leaders so there was no way of catching that sort of thing. After we’ve scattered away, we found out that the most trusted person reported our information to Vietnamese, and that was the reason they were able to take over Long Cheng.

Who did you did the Vietnamese soldiers to once you had captured and questioned them, after there was no use for them?
At that time we only worked here and there for the Royal [Laotian] Army, so after we had questioned them and there was nothing else to do [with them], we sent them to the Royal army and they would hold on to those prisoners and trade [them] for important people. But the Vietnamese, even if you showed them you had their people, they would deny that the person was one of theirs. They would say that there were many Vietnamese working for us, and so we just took Vietnamese who were working for us and claimed that they were theirs.

From your experiences fighting against the Vietnamese and the Red [Pathet] Lao, would you say they were tough fighters? Were they smart, or did they only fight because they were forced to fight?
The Vietnamese and Red Lao, I don’t know well, but according to what I know from finding messages, the Vietnamese had a leader. Right now, he may already be dead or very old. He is someone that Americans admire. He’s more important than the one who won the war in France. He is someone considered to love his land. Americans have this, and the larger countries have this. They have a chart in which they measure how wide your forehead is, how your eyes look, how long your chin is, and what your arms and legs look like. They measure you and if you’re not their people, they know. The most important thing is that you were born in this country, then they’ll know that you are a person who loves the land. When you go into training, although there are many, when you finish they already give you captain. Six months after that they raise you automatically to a general while you are still at the age of 25-28. If you see generals who are very young, that is why. The ones who are old have slowly achieved their positions. That general had great character; he helped the land of Vietnam a lot. He’s a general who, when he sends out his soldiers, he would stand by the exit, pat each soldier’s head and say, “you go and be victorious.” Then every Vietnamese soldier-they weren’t better than us in any way, but they were encouraged through the words, “go and be victorious.” So one conpai will attack only one of their men, because they were really tough. They didn’t know much, they were very young, but all they knew were the words “go and be victorious.” So they felt as if they had to accomplish that order. But in the battles at that time, many, many Vietnamese died-no lie. Even though there weren’t many deaths from combat fighting and guns, we killed lots of Vietnamese with airplanes. You couldn’t count the bodies, but in many divisions every single soldier died, sometimes leaving only a couple to return back. If Americans didn’t lose the battle, if Kissinger didn’t go negotiate with the Red Lao, then maybe the war would have only lasted for one or two more years, and we would have won, because they didn’t have any more people. They had good fortune, though. When I say good fortune I mean that they lived on the land, that even though all their people died, they still seemed strong. So in the future, you have to carefully watch where you live.

How many years were you a soldier before you moved to Thailand? And when you fled, how was your journey to Thailand?
[I was a soldier] from 1964 to1975, so all together, about 11 years I was a soldier. In those years I was attacked by Vietnamese many times.

Were you wounded?
I didn’t get hurt. I must have had very good fortune, because if you are a righteous person, no matter how much they shoot at you, you’ll be able to outrun it. So you have to be a righteous person so god won’t let you die, because you still have work to do. But if you are a bad person then you’ll get shot. But during that time, when we crossed to Thailand, I didn’t come with them by plane because we believed we were still young and wouldn’t know how to find food when we got here. So we stayed, and allowed the governors to all come first. The rules became stricter and the time shortened. It must have been good fortune that I was able to lie and pass over. I went from place to place and used different transportations. At that time Thais weren’t too bad because we just started coming over in 1975.

At that time were you already married?
At that time, I was married. I already had three children.

Then you and your wife and three kids came?
I came by myself; my two older children had already come over with their grandparents. My wife and youngest boy then came after me, because we couldn’t all come together.

Who did they come with?
They came by themselves in a rented car. It was very risky, but they had good fortune because there was no one who caused problems. You younger ones have heard of how the Lao and the Thai have hurt people along the way, but I believe in righteousness, that if you haven’t done anything wrong to anyone then the people who create wrongs won’t cross your path. But if you do wrongs to people then that wrong will wait by the road for you. Wherever you go, you will not escape.

So when you reached Thailand, you, your wife and children, where did you stay? Did you stay in Vinai?
We must have had good fortune; all the family members were transported by Thai to *Namphong. After that they stopped transporting people. They allowed the ones at the end to stay in *suqhui*. We stayed in *Namphong for about four or five months-it’s been a long time.  I don’t remember well. Then we came to live in Vinai. In *Namphong we were very poor because we stayed inside a wired fence. They wouldn’t let us leave, so it was hard to find food and there was nothing to eat, not even a bag of noodles. Even if you had money, you couldn’t buy any. The Thai soldiers were cruel, but when we reached Vinai, they gave us fewer boundaries, and we were the first there, so they allowed us to go find food as we desired, as long as it was a short distance and we went by foot and came back, and not by car. I stayed in Vinai for three years before I could come to this country.

In Vinai, did you work or help Hmong in any way?
In Vinai, you had to help because although we lived like that, we were afraid of the Thai and so at night time we rounded up the young boys to keep watch. ( 170 min)

Did they have weapons or carry anything?
They had nothing, but made signal noises, because I was already trained, so I taught signal noises to everyone. It’s not yelling or calling but it’s an odd noise, but every night we changed to a different noise. By doing that we were able to help each other, because sometimes the Thai came, but when the noise was made everyone rose together so Thai couldn’t do anything bad to us.

Why would the Thai come? What were their reasons? Did they want money? What kind of damage might they have caused?
As I see it, since we ran from a war, first they wanted to get girlfriends; that was the main reason. The second reason was wanting to rape young women, and the third was to steal money. But although we didn’t have weapons we were well prepared. We didn’t have any problems, but after I left, there was problems. But since I wasn’t there, I don’t know about it.

When you were in Vinai, did you have any relatives who sent you money?
We had no one, but after being there for one or two years, my two younger brothers were still bachelors. At that time they transported young men with no parents, so we signed them up so they were able to come to this country. I’ll always remember how the fact that the family wasn’t separated gave you peace. Being separated makes you heartbroken because this land, no one had been here [yet], all we knew was that it went past the horizon. We didn’t know if there were people or demons on the other side. But if you stayed, you had no idea how to find food or how your life would end. So when separated we never thought to see each other again, because the person who left would never come back and you would never be able to visit them. In truth, you missed them more, your heart hurt and burned more than if the person died, because when they’re dead, you see that their body is decaying, but when they leave and are still alive, you miss them more.

What year did you come to America and when you arrived, where did you land? In the first year, what did you think of America?
The first year we landed in Chicago. That year was 1978, in September. But Chicago was a big city with many people. When you wake up in the morning you see people waiting for buses and trains to take them to work. It didn’t matter if you were a woman or man, after seeing all that we thought, “I can’t live in this country,” because our minds were small and we wouldn’t know how to find food. I had a relative in Minnesota. He landed here and his wife is a sister of my wife. He was also a Yang. He told us that over here is still less advanced, there are many [opportunities for] vocational training, and that we should come visit to see if we like it. There were many schools with vocational training and even the small colleges had it. We stayed in Chicago for about eight or nine months, then we moved up here. My life in this country was hard, but then I went through vocational training for 18 months. I finished on a Friday and only rested on Saturday and Sunday. Before that the first company I worked at was called Noctronics. I heard that they were hiring; they made chips that you put in stereos where the film touches and it speaks. And they made the tops of the Apollo [rockets] that are shot to the moon. Those were all created from Noctronics. Many of my friends applied, but they didn’t accept them. I then decided to try, and when I took in my application they asked me when I could start. I told them I wasn’t finished with school yet, and he asked for the day I’d be done. I didn’t remember the date, but I was done on a Friday and so he told me start work on [the following] Monday. Then I only rested for two days, and in all my life I haven’t rested in this country.

So when did you decide you wanted to open a store? And for what reason?
In your life you have to move.  I worked for Noctronics for seven or eight years, and at first I saw that I received money all right. When I started I was paid $6.25 per hour. But as I worked on longer I was raised to 13, 14 dollars, and I thought that since I was paid more I would have more money saved, but no. Then we thought that if my wife worked we would have more money saved, but we didn’t. In one year we can’t even save 20 dollars. There’s too much stress and you’re someone everyone knows. At that time Vinai was still there, in France there is poverty. They are also able to communicate with Laos, and so everyone is asking for money. Since you give money everywhere you don’t have money left every year. Then I thought, by working at a company you only have enough to eat; maybe you will never have money in your life. Because of this, you have to find something else to do. Then I thought that maybe we had to go into business. But business is easy to talk about. When you actually do it, it is hard. Everything you do is based on fortune. When you are born, the day of your birth is the most important date. You have to go back and look, since you youths know your birth date, you should go back and look at it to see what you can be successful in. Some people will be successful in business, some people have to work in order to be successful. We each have our own roles, we have our own jobs. Don’t think that when you see someone else accomplishing something, you can go do it too. You can’t do it because you can’t do what they can. But if you see someone try something and fail, don’t lose heart that you will fail either. Sometimes, like cars, all you have to do is screw it a little and it will work. So in business, we elders don’t know our birth dates; our parents can only tell us that we were born during the time of harvest or little details like that, so you don’t know the true date. But since you youths know your birth date, before you choose a career you have to look at your birth date to see what you can do to be successful. ( 235 min)

Thank you for your words of wisdom. Is there anything else you want to say to the youths who in 10 or more years will listen to your words? What do you want to say to them?
For the young ones in the future, I want to say, as human beings we Hmong know how to love at times and not at times. Only the elders aren’t educated and so they want what sounds right for them, but both you young men and young women are educated. You’ve seen that the sky is high and wide. You have to change your attitudes, have an open heart. When you speak, speak slowly. Don’t be false about what you say, but be real with a pure heart to the heavens to show your family and friends that you are an honest person. It’s easier for you young men and women to work, for me, before I can receive money, my back aches and whether I sleep or wake my body is heavy. But you have to try in order to accomplish anything. The elders like us are getting older, the name and life of the Hmong is in your hands. You have to encourage each other with a big heart. Don’t bring each other down. From now on, you shouldn’t discriminate against each other by last names anymore. The only reason we’ve focused on this before was to not marry into one’s own last name, but you shouldn’t look down on others because of their last name, either. Whatever last name they have, we are all the same. This generation says that Hmong means Free Man, but I don’t translate it that way. Our ancestors have given us a great name, the name Hmong means that we are of one family. Why do I say this? Because maybe you’re a Yang and I’m a Vang, but as we discuss back in our family tree we will find that we are related. So whatever last name, we are of one family. So if you all can see that we are just one family, the Hmong will be known. When the Americans reach China and meet Hmong they say, “oh, you have relatives in America too.” When they reach France and meet Hmong they say, “oh, you have relatives in China too.” That is a great thing. We are Freedom and Free Men, we are Family. And I want you all to know that.

Thank you for giving your time to share with us your words of wisdom.
If there is more that you need, because I haven’t spoken thoroughly on combat in Vietnam, so anytime you need to know more, come talk to me.

PaMang Her

Interviewer: Peter (Chou) Vang
Translator/Transcriber: by Leona Lor
Editor: Paul Hillmer


Tell us your name and when you lived in Laos. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
My name is PaMang Her. I lived in Laos in the village we called *PaKad PaLang and I was born in the village PaLang in the city *Quinxinqun. I was born in the year 1950 during the time the Hmong people started to become believers in Christ. (0:37)

Tell us, in your village what kind of jobs did your mom and dad have and while you were growing up, what did you do in your village?
Both my parents just farmed for a living. They didn’t do anything else. When I was older, there were already believers and they came to tell us the good news and there was already a church, and I went to learn (or school) in the church already. After that, I went to school in the city and during that time the world fell apart [the Vietnam war broke out]. We moved and I went to school in *VianChang and when I graduated I went to work with the *Meeka [either Americans or white people] (1:19)

Tell us why the Hmong became believers and tell us according to what you understand why Hmong became believers in Christ and how did God provide a way for the Hmong and how the Hmong heard about Christ. Can you tell us the origin, when it first started, to the present. Tell us so we can listen to your thinking and your understanding and why we are still here and still believe in Christ.
In Laos, long ago Laos didn’t know that there was a God and they didn’t believe in him. Before the land of Laos started to believe in God, there was a French priest who went to China, then rode in a boat and came down the river *Mekong into Laos to *Luangprabang; then he saw that world [meaning Laos] and he had missionaries send the good news to Laos. At first they only went to the Laotians. Laos–before the Christian Missionary Alliance came, there were already the Swiss Brothers who came and lived in the South and they gave the good news to the side of *BacXy, Savan Nacak. Then there was a Laotian family who were believers, who was Pastor Salee Quantapayab. Their family believed in God and at that time Pastor Salee was still a youth. Then, before 1949, the Christian Missionary Alliance came to *Luangprabang in the King’s city where his palace, which is the *Palacesavong was the King’s city, the Laotian King’s city. They befriended the King and they taught the King how to speak English. Then they learned how to speak Laotian from the King and became friends with the King. When they did that, they had time to go tell the *Poob Twg [a tribal group] in *Luangprabang but because there wasn’t anyone who believed, they went looking down South and they knew that the Swiss Brothers came to *Savan Nacak in southern Laos. Then they went and took Pastor Salee to work with them. Pastor Salee then helped the missionaries teach the good word to the *Poob Twg and then they became believers and when the *Poob Twg became believers, they built the very first Bible College in *Luangprabang. In 1949, the missionaries decided that they were going to go teach the Hmong to become believers and right by *Luangprabang there were some Hmong there. Then the Catholic Priest–and I forgot his name, I think it was Priest Txhia Phong, but I don’t know, I forgot, but that priest still lives in ‘Gria,’ which is in the south France and is American land. He is a French priest but he learned how to speak Hmong. Then the Missionary Alliance had the Pastor Budney [couldn’t really understand] and Dr. Smalley and both of them were the Protestants. Dr. Smalley was a linguistic and they took two Hmong people with them and then they started to look for Hmong words to write. That group was American and French and when they started to write in Hmong they decided to use the American alphabet and that is why Hmong words do not use or have the marks that Vietnamese uses. The ones who wrote it came together and sit together and they designed and Dr. Smalley was a linguistic and he designed the Hmong language here. He didn’t know how to speak Hmong, but he listened to the tone or the pitch of the word and he designed it, and that’s how he designed the words and how they came about in the Hmong dialect, the white language. Then in 1949 they finished the Hmong language and the plan was to use this to teach the Hmong so they would know how to believe in God. After 1949, the Hmong couldn’t go to the city and most of the time Hmong lived in the mountains. When the Hmong went into the city, they would catch virus and cold and they would go back home and they would be really scared so they didn’t want to go into the city. Laotians would mostly go to the mountain. In 1950 they sent the missionary to the province of the Hmong and his name was Pastor Elenor. He went to the province and took a *Poob Twg pastor called *NaKing who taught [the Hmong]. During that time there were no cars or planes to go in, so they rode elephants or just walked. Then they went to the province and they lived there. At that time, they used the track [tracts?] and passed it out to the people and rented a house from a Shaman-Man whose name was *Npua Yam. He was the mayor, and Hmong only had one head, who was the mayor. He had a house which was the house haunted by ghosts. The missionary went and rented that house and Npua Yam told them that they could not live there, but the missionaries told him that their God was with them and they were not scared. When they lived in that house, they prayed so the ghosts all went away and the ghosts could not scare them. That was when *Npua Yam wanted to know the missionary more and see how God was more powerful than the ghosts and how he could get that power to get the ghosts out. After that he had a cousin who was sick and he did find a shaman to try to help his cousin, but it didn’t work. He took the missionary to pray for her. After that, he went to his cousins’ house and they told him not to become a believer because he might just die, but Npua Yam told them that if he becomes a believer and dies, then the cousins shouldn’t become a believer and if he doesn’t die then they all should become believers. The missionaries prayed for him and a miracle happened and he didn’t die. Hmong laws stated that if you went and just threw away the rules and laws then you would get bitten by a monster and you would die. That is why the missionaries came and got rid of all those laws and untied them and burned the laws. Everyone waited to see if Npua Yam was going to die. But he didn’t die and God blessed him and he became prosperous and he went to tell his village. He told his Thao cousins and they all became believers. Many young boys went into the city to school to learn and many young boys never went to school. According to what I heard (I don’t know but I heard if from the elders that) Pastor Xeem Pov Thao didn’t know how to write or read. They came to learn about the life of Christ and tested and he failed. He couldn’t go to school anymore because he had failed and he started crying. A teacher came to see what he was crying about and was moved by this, so the teacher gave him the test orally and he passed and from then on they taught him how to read and write. Then he learned Laotian and God’s word altogether. After he learned, he was a great pastor. We pastors who learned and know how to carry ourselves cannot compare to him. He just passed away not too long ago. There is also Pastor YuXu. There is Pastor Vam Yee Her and many of them who still are here. There is still Pastor YuXu Thao, who is still living but if you want to know this well, you should talk to Pastor YuXu Thao in Illinois and he will be able to explain it well. Also, we have the pastors who wrote the resource, like Dr. Pa Zeb Thao, who is Pastor YuXu Thao’s son, who wrote a Hmong history book on how the Hmong became followers of Christ. He also interviewed his father in the book. The Hmong District of CMA has a copy. There is also Pastor Nom Lum Kong, who wrote a book about Hmong believers. And if you want to know this better you should talk to these people I mentioned. (14:12)

Tell us about your life and why you became a believer, and how God worked in your parents’ lives and in your life.
According to the Hmong, the Thaos believed first, and the Mouas, Hers and Thaos all lived by each other, but in different villages. And the Thaos would spread the news when there was someone in need or sick. During that year, many people became believers. Before my parents were believers, my father was a Shaman-Man, and my father was Zong Chue Her. They used to call him Shi-yee Zong Chue and he was a prophet. Before he was a prophet he wasn’t a believer, but one day he said that one day everyone will believe in God and all the monsters will go away and the believing in God will come, Christ is going to come. Then the relatives decided that Mr. Zong was crazy and they moved him from *PaKad to *Tumthoa. There we lived with relatives as well and for a while the missionaries came and my father told them that he was talking about this all along. ‘They have come. These are the ones that God wanted me to speak about.’ When my father said that they took him because he knew how to do shamanistic rituals and my father took all his old ways and laws and burned all of them and everyone still said he was crazy and if they didn’t do anything to fix him, he was going to die. My father was a dear friend and relative to them, so they were all very worried. But then my father didn’t die and told them that God had told him to become a believer and he didn’t die, so we all should become believers. And now most of them are in Colorado, Kansas City, and in St. Paul, especially in Maplewood Alliance and Hmong Christian Alliance and there is where most of our relatives are.

Now I’ll be talking about God’s righteousness and we Hmong during that time–only the Green Hmong [a Hmong group that speaks a different dialect and that’s what they call themselves] believed in God and only a few White Hmong believed. The first White Hmong believer was *Tho-xeng [head of his village]. Chai Pao Vang and his son, who is named Pastor Vang Sou, just died not long ago but he believed and during that time he was like royalty in the Hmong because *Cua-Moung means mayor but *Tho-xeng means like head of a district. During that time *Payan Tou Bee Lefong told him to move to *Dondan whis was very close to *Payan Tou Bee, so they could work together, so he did and during that time French people didn’t come in yet, so Vietnamese people were still around and living there. During that time in the house they were living in, *Tho-xeng Chai Pao’s family members were possessed and were sick and no matter what [they did] nothing happened. Even *Panhia Tou Bee couldn’t heal them. So he went everywhere to find someone or something to heal the pain, but nothing helped so he asked *Panhia what else there was to do, so he told him there was a way. There was a white [meaning Americans or French] couple who could get rid of the ghosts or sprits and [he said to] go fetch them. *Tho-xeng Chai Pao went and met the missionary couple and they came. They talked and they spoke about the good news and about a God who created everything, even this earth. So he ran home to tell his father what he had heard and that they could get rid of all the evil spirits. The spirit that was in the house could not do any wrong because if something went wrong the spirit would choke the father’s neck and all he could do was point to the uncle and say that the spirits wanted to eat chicken and pig so we had to kill it and prepare it for them. So if they didn’t prepare it then the spirit would just keep choking. So the son told the father not to say anything and for them to go far away and they would talk then. And then *Tho-xeng Chai took his father and they talked and Chai Pao told his father that there was a way to get rid of these spirits and the his father asked if they could really do it. *Tho-xeng Chai said to his father that they could really do it and that they had done it to many families already. His father said, ‘Okay, well let’s get rid of them then.’ They didn’t tell the family at all, they just killed chickens and pigs and called the missionary couple to come, and before the couple got there, people started asking why they were preparing a feast. *Tho-xeng Chai Pao and his father just told people that it was just in case the spirits came back. When the couple came, they decided to become believers and ate and after that the spirits couldn’t do any harm to them anymore. The missionary couple told *Tho-xeng Chai Pao, ‘Now that you’re a believer you need to pray before you eat. Before you sleep you need to read His [God’s] Words. You have to sing and praise Him.’ And *Tho-xeng Chai Pao did that to this very day. And right when he started to be a believer, he resigned his * ‘Tho-xeng’ position and became an ordinary believer. He was one of the first ones who first believed in God. He was good Christian. To this day he prays well. Now his sons are at Good News Baptist at Fridley, but he and his wife live in Atlanta, Georgia. If you want to hear this story more, you should talk to him or his son Vang Lo in Illinois. He knows this story very well, and if you meet him he can tell you a more precise version of this story.

Why did the Green Hmong first become believers before the White Hmong? Was there a specific reason?
The Green Hmong were the people the spirits were around more and were harsher on them than the White Hmong. The spirits were really harsh and mean to the Thaos. This is why they were so scared. For example, like us Hers, if we went gardening and we carried food in our back-basket and we saw fruits around and picked them and put them in our baskets, when we got to the garden and later tried to find our lunch, there would be snakes there. So there were many things that the Hmong people tended not to do. The Hers had many of these things to prevents any horrible situations. If you didn’t do this well, the spirits would make you sick and die. The Hers had what they called a curse and they were what people were so afraid of–for example, sin. If you have many children and you are addicted to opium and you cannot provide [for them], or if you are rich but have no children or if you have children and money, then you’ll die soon. The Hers were really scared so when they heard that if you became a believer that you’d be OK, they started to believe and God helped them and they escaped the curse. The Green Hmong became believers because the very first one was Green Hmong. *Tho-xeng Chai Pao was the very first White Hmong to believe, so after that there were some white Hmong who believed, but there were very few of them. In 1960, Laos had a civil war and that was *Napon, [which means general] Kong Le betrayed to kill *Latapang and took communists and Vietnamese to help him. At the time General Vang Pao was a major or commander who had four stars and he was the one in charge of our defenses. Then the Americans killed South Vietnam [Perhaps a reference to killing of Ngo Dinh Diem?] and they used General Vang Pao to help and they went against Ho Chi Minh. Then the Americans promoted Vang Pao from a Major into a General and then he called all the Hmong to be soldiers and many believers volunteered to be in the war. The believers prayed and were good examples for the non-believers in the war during all the pain and sickness happening in the war, and that’s how they spread the gospel in the war. It happened quickly from 1960-1970 and that was the time when the White Hmong heard the gospel.

Tell us why you decided to become a pastor. Was it because of your parents or was it your own decision?
I think that they didn’t imagine me being a pastor, but I knew they wanted and wished for me to be, because they really prayed for me and my father said to me that as I grew older I became a leader in our clan, but he didn’t say in Christ. When I finish school in 1971 in *Ban Soun I worked for the Americans as a translator or interpreter. At the time there weren’t many people who could speak English. In 1968 I in *Loo Cheem. I was listening to Pastor Nhia Lo and I accepted Christ there. There was no fresh water and usually it [baptism] was done with the fishes, so I asked if I could be baptized in a church in the city, and I was able to. I never knew Jesus Christ until that very day, even though my parents were already believers. At the time there were missionaries there, such as Pastor Sawyer, Madame Sawyer, Madame Ruth, and many more, and I studied really hard from them. At the time I learned at the foster care [center], although I wasn’t a foster child. The pastors lived close to us and that foster center was from World Vision’s center and the kids there were orphans and they had support from Americans. I was not a foster child, although my father had died, but they gave us a special rent. It was free rent but we had to buy our own food. I went to school there, and there was a Bible College nearby and in my heart [I knew] the pastors lived poorly and had low education, like two or three years only. I went to high school and I pondered if I was a pastor, there would be no better way to go on. But I was close with God and wanted to tell [share] his words. I was a witness to my classmates. I taught an English class for free and I taught the New Testament. At the time all the students became believers.

You said you dad had died. What happened?
In 1967, my father died of old age. I am the youngest child and I was very young when he died. I was about 16 and went on into high school. I was very poor with no support, and my mother had no monthly income, so I made a decision to learn English. I had three brothers, and a year after my father died, the oldest son died as well. In 1960, my other brother was the first person who died in the whole country during the break of the war. No one had died in war yet, and at that time my father didn’t let any of his sons go into war. But after my father died, my brother died of malaria. And I only have one brother left and at the time he was only 20 years old and was the one who led my family. But God helped us and He used me because I suffered a lot in school. He helped me with school and I became very fluent in English and [He] blessed me with a job working with Americans in Laos in *Ban Soun. In *Ban Soun there was a big church, nothing compared to here, but it was considered very big there. No one came because there was not a pastor; only refugees came to worship. There was a hospital nearby and I knew that many of the nurses were believers, so I went to find some and told them that I wanted to hold a meeting for Christians. I first invited the nurses to come and worship the Lord. I also went to invite anyone in the city who was interested to come, and I preached the gospel in 1971 for the whole year, and we started to grow. We then got Pastor Phong Xiong to be our pastor. I got married and then Pastor Phong left and Pastor Nhia Long became our pastor. We then moved the church into a better place. At the time I had a friend who was an American and was a Christian supervisor and told him that we were poor and had no wood or trees and asked him to help. His name was Bob Wally (he now lives in Missouri, and I don’t know if he’s dead or alive, but he’s a very good Christian). He was my supervisor and I told him that I wanted to come to America and attend a Bible school, but it didn’t work out. Bob helped us and we cut some trees and the Americans gave us cement and trees. In 1975 we moved into the new church. I was the youth leader from 1971 to 1973; then I got married and became a deacon for the church. In 1975 we moved because of the war. We moved and when we got to Thailand. I was a rich young man because I worked for the Americans so monthly income was plentiful. I had a business teaching English and fishing. I had many students, so income came in. I always put in 10% for God, so he blessed me. I saw that every pastor still had their title, but I lost everything while moving. In Laos, if you had 100 dollars you were very rich. I cashed in my retirement and got 250 dollars, so I wanted to come to the US. I asked the pastor how and where they got work, because they still had their title. All the majors, colonels, and many more lost their titles and had no recognition, but the pastors did. (I feel that one day in heaven we will still have out pastor titles.) At night I went to pray and prayed that if I could go into the US, I would become a pastor, and I did get to come. I was one of the very first. My sponsor was a Presbyterian pastor, Reverend Russell Burns in Kentucky, and I saw him baptizing babies, sprinkling them with water, and he smoked cigars. So I had many questions. I knew that there were many denominations learning in Laos, but I was not going to change my faith. I sat down with him and told him that I disagreed with him and I knew that he loved me very much. I could not accept how he baptized the babies by sprinkling water. I just can’t do that. I won’t. I believe that Jesus had already made an impact on you and you are already old enough to make that decision yourself, knowing that you are a sinner. I don’t believe that baptism is salvation and is just symbolic. So he told me that I was a Baptist and sent me to a Baptist church. He and I are still very good friends after that, but now I cannot find him. I heard his wife just died, but I don’t know, maybe he’s gone too, but I cannot find him. So that’s how I became a Baptist member. In 1978, many Hmong arrived in Kentucky, and Pastor Chang Xiong, who was the first man to translate the Bible into White Hmong in Laos–and there was also Pastor Vang Sou who was *Tho-xeng Chai Pao’s son and was the senior pastor in *Vian-Caing. He was the first Hmong student to get a Master’s degree in New Zealand. Pastor Vang Sou was the brother-in-law of Pastor Chang. Pastor Chang and I got together and formed a church in Christian Missionary and Alliance church, because Pastor Chang’s sponsor was a Christian Missionary and Alliance Pastor and sponsored him to come into the US. So we were the first Hmong Christian Missionary and Alliance Church in 1977, ’78, or ’79–one of those years. I came here to the US in 1976, and we were able to get all the Hmong refugees to become believers in Kentucky. At that time we told them to be believers because there was no other way they could worship their spirits anymore. But in 1979, in the summer, Pastor Chang announced that he went to the first conference in Long Beach, California because Pastor Vang Chong Lee lived there, and they were calling all the pastors, Hmong Pastors, to that conference. At the conference Pastor Vang Chong Lee was voted to be the head director, but he refused because he preached for radio shows and had no time, so they elected Pastor Chang. At the time the Christian Missionary and Alliance asked that there were many denominations, such as the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and so many more, and many pastors said that the Hmong could stay with them, but that their degrees were very low still and that they would have to let the CMA pastors teach them. They didn’t think that the Hmong population would grow, because there were very few at the time. So they put Hmong into the ‘Specialized Ministry Field. ‘ They told the Hmong pastors that they were willing to pay the director $1000, so he could survive, but for the rest of the pastors, they would not pay them. So both sides agreed with this negotiation. They chose the headquarters to be in Denver, Colorado, because it was in the center of the US. Pastor Chang then moved into the position in Denver and asked me to major in Bible, and at the time I was a business major, so I changed majors and at the time they told me they were going to help me financially.

There was a church in St. Paul (CMA), but in Minneapolis there was no church, so I decided to form one in Minneapolis. Permission was granted when asked, so I formed a church on Grand and 31st Street in Minneapolis, which was already a CMA church, but a White church, so I asked to use their facilities for a Hmong session. The church grew bigger over the years; however, I did not have the qualifications to become a pastor, so a colleague of mine was made the pastor. In 1980, in Denver for the first time for a conference, they wanted me to be a treasurer, but since I lived in Minnesota I couldn’t, because it’s too far, so they elected someone else. In 1984 our church broke out into two congregations. We were CMA still, but we were independent and not depending on the district. I decided there to be a Baptist. I was preaching and teaching to the Laotian people, and I knew that God wanted me to preach the Good Word to them. One day, my Laotian friend was in the hospital and I met his pastor, and the pastor told me he needed help. I thought I was going to just help him one week, but the pastor informed me that he wanted me there permanently. So that mission grew and we didn’t have any more room. I told the pastor that we needed a bigger room because so many Laotian people attended. The pastor decided to allow us to use their facilities, but in the afternoon session. I finally told them that it was time for them to find a pastor to lead them. The Laotians wanted me to teach and lead them, but I was CMA and I didn’t want to become a Baptist. The pastor told me that denominations do not matter, only if they come to God, that is the only thing that matters. So I decided to pray for a month for a sign from God. One day a Laotian person took me to see his mom because she was a very pagan person. She did not want to convert and believe in God, but evil spirits cursed her with blindness and she suffered with many kinds of sickness. I prayed for God to save her soul. God did, but she was permanently blinded. I talked to the mother and told her that I prayed for you and God healed you. Why don’t you believe what all your children do? She asked me to pray for God to heal her eyes to see and then she’d believe. I told her that you can pray with your heart, but only for God’s will for a miracle to happen. And it did. She saw until the day she died!

I then decided to form a church in Minneapolis for the Hmong people. There was a member who was possessed by a spirit. His family was so scared they didn’t stay in the same house. This man moved from Portland, Oregon to Fresno, California to Minneapolis. He finally decided to convert to Christianity. He told me that there was this particular spirit that came to him every day. I prayed for him on Sunday. On Monday night the spirit didn’t come to him, but he saw something bright and white and it said, ‘I will be your commander.’ So he got up and rejoiced, even though he didn’t know what that bright light was saying. I told him what it meant when he came to me and asked me for a translation. That night the spirits didn’t come to him, but when he left the house and went outside, he felt its presence. The first night he went to work, it was a snowy night and he worked third shift. There, an old lady came looking for Yee Lee, which was this man. This old lady was the spirit that was always around him. From that time on, finally, the spirit left him alone. Right now, I don’t know what happened to him. That was a sign from God to me.

We needed the Bible so quickly, so I went to a Bible Society. They gave us a copyright and said if we could do it, it would be our own. Within two years we were finished. We were the first bible translated and then CMA finished theirs after. In 1999, the Green Hmong asked me to make a Green Hmong hymn book because we already had the White Hmong hymn book. Since we had the copyright, we made many copies and sent them out to Vietnam and Laos. The Lord God had me serve him in many ways.

Before I became a pastor, I had a strange dream of a tree. I woke up and asked God what He wanted, because I was nothing. But I realized that God uses me to do something very important for Him. I knew nothing on Earth could live forever except God–yes, and His Word. And we were able to translate the Bible. It wasn’t just me, but it was God’s will for me. I didn’t give up and I thank God for using me to fulfill his will.

Do you have anything to say to the next generation when they hear these things you talk about?
I want everyone to understand that every skill cannot be attained, but if you want to become a preacher, anyone can. A preacher does not serve man, but God. Everyone who truly believes in God, like in Romans 12, can be a living sacrifice for God. Be open for God and be available for God. Anything that you can do for God, even at work, give it to God and glorify God, and he will bless you. I can testify to that because I was once there. I was pretty well off, but money does not stay around forever, but God’s blessings will never run out because I gave to Him all that I can! He will never forsake you.


Pang Her Vang

Interviewer: Peter Chou Vang
Translator/Transcriber: Peter Chou Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer


What is your name, where were you born, and how old are you?

My name is Pang Her.

My father was called Cher Kou Her, but when we came to the US they called him Ya Yua Her instead. My mother’s name is Shoua and she is from the Kong clan [Shoua Kong]. When they had me, they lived in the village of *Ton Thao in the province of *Xieng Caong. This is all I know. I do not know if it was a city or something else but the village of *Ton Thao.

Before I could remember anything, my father was already a soldier. I do not know what type of soldiers, but they were all wearing red berets. When my father was still in the military the Vietnamese [communists] came into our village, so he had to move. My parents decided to take us somewhere else. They then took us to *Pon Kong. When we crossed the *Na Kang River to [the village of] *Pho Vien. I remember we slept for one night in *Pho Vien. My grandmother [on my mother’s side] was already in *Pon Kong. We then went to *Pon Kong and I remember it was not long after we arrived that they set up a school there. They told us to go to school, but I don’t remember exactly how old I was. They allowed us [children] all to go to school, but we only stayed in *Pon Kong for two years. Then they sent [General Vang Pao’s] soldiers from Long Cheng to set up a fortress on *Pon Kong. We knew we couldn’t live there anymore, and we were afraid of the Vietnamese, so we decided to move to *Po Sue. From there airplanes from Long Cheng came and picked us up. We then came to Long Cheng and from there to *San Tong. We said that we were farmers, so they moved us again to *Po Khan Houa. We farmed there and that was where I grew up and was married. We came straight to Thailand from there. (4:21)

Were your parents both Christians when you were born?
My father and mother were both Christians before they even met. As far as I know, my mother was still a little child when missionaries came and taught them Christianity. When I was growing up I didn’t know about our traditional religion anymore. Both my parents took us to church from a small age until now. (4:58)


Were you one of the first Hmong groups to become Christian?
I don’t know. But as my grandmother said, they were the first group to become believers. My parents, who are old (my father is now over 60 years old), both were Christians even before they were married. My father was in one of the first Hmong groups to go to Bible School to study to become pastors. At this time, my grandma was by herself and was lonely and cried a lot, [Bible school was very far away], so my father decided to stay back and help Grandma with the gardening.

However, some of his relatives did go and were one of the first groups of Hmong in that area to study to become pastors. When we lived in *Po Khan Houa, I don’t remember what year I was married, but we still lived there. In 1975 I had two children, but by then General Vang Pao left the country. We went to [the] *Hang Her [region] and we slept there for one night at a village on a riverbank. I don’t remember what it was called but it might have been River *Na Lee.

The first day it was we, the Green Hmong, who said that we are pushing on [to go to Thailand], but Vietnamese soldiers were blocking the way and didn’t allow us to pass. They threatened to kill us if we went. We were frightened and came back [to the village] and slept a second night there. The White Hmong decided to be in the front this time, and the soldiers still wouldn’t let us pass. [The White Hmong] were determined and they pushed the soldiers aside. The soldiers instantly killed those who were in the front and the people panicked. The Vietnamese killed and wounded a couple of people. Two died immediately on that bridge. Thousands of people panicked and rushed back. The older people were trampling over the young ones. We couldn’t get to *Vien Xieng because the Vietnamese were blocking the way. We stayed at *Na Sue, but we didn’t know what to do, because there was not a grain of rice to eat. When we got to *Na Sue, we searched for everything edible and ate it. We decided to go back to our old farms so we could at least find some food.

When we came back to our old farms we discussed our situation. We agreed that if we did not ‘become Vietnamese’ we would all be killed. We decided to become ‘Vietnamese’ [meaning that we would act like we were communist] when the Vietnamese came to visit us. We hid all of our weapons and didn’t shoot any of them.

We had been there for about a year when Hmong guerilla fighters [soldiers who stayed behind instead of fleeing to Thailand] from *Phon Bia came and told us that General Vang Pao had come back and that it was time for us to fight against the Vietnamese. They were lying, but we didn’t know anything, so we thought it was true. Everyone went back to find their weapons that they had hidden and started to ambush Vietnamese convoys on the roads. The Vietnamese couldn’t come in to our village, and they became very angry. They sent a lot of soldiers to come and fight us. In 1977, they attacked our region. They came by night, and by morning when they started to fight us they had set up artillery in all the high ground. They didn’t even bother to come in to our village, and they started to shell us from north of *Na Mooe. From there they shelled us, and everybody panicked and ran. They fired on the whole region, including small slim mountain and the big slim mountain area. It took them one day to do it. People didn’t know where to flee. Some who were in the garden fields ran all about and those in the villages ran into their garden fields. Mothers went one way and children went another way. It took us all night just to regroup and to find more people that we knew near Mount–I think it was called *Mount Kou-yeh. We were there for 20 days. The Vietnamese still shelled us and we couldn’t live there anymore, so we fled to *Na Feng. There was no food in this region. There were so many Hmong here that we crossed over to *Sa La and lived there. We didn’t know what to. We could become ‘Vietnamese’ again and live in the city of Phon Savan or go somewhere else. We were very worried. We decided to make a garden there and some of our relatives came back from Thailand to fight the Vietnamese in this area. During this time there was much anti-Vietnamese activity in this area; the Vietnamese didn’t dare to come near. Those who had come from Thailand told us we should go there, too. (13:56)

Were you married by then?
Yes, I was married and had three children (14:04)

Did you still live with your parents?
Yes, we were together, but when we came to the region of *Na Phen we were separated. I went with the Xiong clan. I was married to a man from the Xiong clan back then. I went to *Sa La and we lived there for about half a year. Then we were told to move to Thailand. We then moved from there to various villages. During this time we were very scared because there were many Vietnamese around. It took us eight days to come to the Mekong River. There were many who came with us, but we were the second group to arrive. The first group was the Yang Clan. There were more than 300 in our group. The first group came down to the river and poisoned their children with opium. [Otherwise babies make too much noise and risk getting the whole group killed.] Even so, the Vietnamese found them, started shooting at them, and chased them.

When they came back to us they were very upset and angry. They started to shoot their guns and we thought the Vietnamese were trying to kill us. We fled and hid. Everyone went their own way. We hid for one or two days. Along the way I met some of my relatives. One of them was sick and died at *Mount Pa Chou. We stayed there for a couple of days and decided to investigate the situation along the river to see if it was safe to cross over to Thailand. Instead of going down to the river before knowing the dangers, they just headed for the closest place to forge the river. They hid the women and children in the forest. When they tried to look for a place to cross [the Vietnamese] shot Cheng’s father [my first husband]. Two others hid for two days and came back and told us there was no way to cross. They didn’t know what to do. After this incident, we stayed there for ten more days with little edible food to eat. We ate leaves and vines and tried to pull out roots or the inner parts of edible plants to eat. We immediately ate things that weren’t bitter, as long as we could swallow them. We tried to dig out potato-like roots and cook them to eat them so we wouldn’t die. We thought we would certainly die if we stayed like this. We decided to go back down to the river.

This time we went down river and approached a place that looked like it might be safe to cross. We waited for nightfall to cross. The men told us that they would go look again to see if it was safe and then they would come back and get us if it was safe. When we got to the river bank there were many Vietnamese patrolling it. When the men came back they tried to spook us by speaking Lao [Vietnamese can’t speak Hmong so they speak in Lao for the Hmong to understand.] We women and children got scared and we fled until they told us who they really were.

The second try we went upriver to the same place we were a few days before. If we didn’t make it this time we were going to die. They hid us a little north of there and four men tried to look for a place to escape over the water. The Vietnamese spotted and killed one of them and the remaining who survived told us to go back to the forest and hide. This time we had nothing to eat and the only thing we had was the clothing on us, just our children and blankets.

When we were hiding there for a day or so, many other Hmong also came there. There were many of them, because they could not go on. They all decided to surrender to the Vietnamese. Some agreed, while others did not. The Vietnamese knew where we were. When they shot the men who were looking for a good place to cross the river, they got letters and maps of where everyone was and how many of us there were. This information was given to the boat-owners so they would know how many boats we needed. There were three groups. We were the first group and the most tired. We could not even walk anymore and had nothing to eat. Our group decided to surrender. Another group decided to go back and fight a guerilla war against the Vietnamese. Others hid and hoped that they could eventually find a safe place to cross the river. The next day we decided to surrender. We sent four or five men, about three young ones and two older who could speak to the Vietnamese, to the Vietnamese’s area to surrender and ask for an escort and food. They spoke to the Vietnamese and they told them that it was a good thing that they came today. The next day was a scheduled assault on the area where the Hmong were hiding. They gave the men two pieces of white cloth because the next day they’d have many soldiers and these soldiers could not distinguish our group from the others. They said they were planning to kill everyone, including women and children, but they told us to hold and wave out these two white cloths so they would know who we were and would not shoot us. The men came back and told us that the next day at 6am we all had to be ready and gather at a large slab of rock to surrender to the Vietnamese.

The next day, just when it was about to dawn, we moved out and we didn’t know how many soldiers there were. The men told us women to go out first with the flags to the large slab of rock. Those of us women who were starving came to a roadway before the slab of rock. There were a lot of Vietnamese soldiers there already. They had probably come during the night. On both sides of the road were Vietnamese soldiers pointing guns at us. We carried the two white pieces of cloth so we weren’t hurt. The males in our group who were 14 years old or older were all tied up together. The Vietnamese took all our guns and knives. The women and children were not tied. Along the way, when they met someone who wasn’t firing at them, they let them join our group. Those who resisted were killed. After they rounded us up, many more Vietnamese soldiers appeared–all with white, pale faces and speaking a language we had never heard of. We didn’t even know what kind of people they were. In Laos, most of us have yellowish skin and we thought the same about them. Most were pale white with high nostrils and spoke a language that none of us understood. They didn’t understand any Lao, but there were two Hmong men with them who translated for them. Other than that, we couldn’t communicate.

They took us to Pa Ly and we slept there for one night. There we were given food and the Vietnamese told us not to eat too much because we were starving for over 20 days now. They gave us a little bit of rice. We were caged up for 15 days in a school. The men were still all tied up. If any of the men wanted to relieve themselves, the Vietnamese would release him and guard him and then re-tie him after he was finished.

They then sent us to *Vien Cheng and we were sent back to *Na Sue. Now the Vietnamese controlled us, and we lived like that for two years. We then moved to *Mong Peng and *Na Pong. This was the second time we tried to escape and we succeeded. Our relatives from Thailand got the news and picked us up at the river. We lived in the refugee camp of *Vienine. This is all I have to say. (31:21)

Who was *Vang Kai Vue?
Vang Kai Vue was a military leader in *Moung Nong in the providence of *Xieng Khoung.

He served under General Vang Pao?
He served under General Vang Pao in *Keng So. During this time, the Vietnamese made my father a leader in charge of *Pah Dou. We moved from *Pah Dou to *Pha Hom. My father was *Nie Kong Lia [military commander]. He received his second star in *Pha Hom. We moved from *Pha Hom to *Moung Chai. The Vietnamese chased us until *Moung Chai. My father received the military rank of *Capitent. In 1975 when General Vang Pao left the country, my father was a *Commenda [higher military rank]. Hence the name, *Commenda Gung Neng Xiong. In 1969, I was serving with the US force in Laos. I was a radio operator who eavesdrops on the enemy. For example, we would listen to all the conversations going from the field troops back to Hanoi regarding which logistical supplies were in demand. We would record the radio messages and translate them in *Chen Meng Un Dor, Thailand. The [South] Vietnamese there would translate these messages into Laotian and English. We would relay this vital information back to our forts in Laos that the Vietnamese planned to attack. In this way, our troops were well prepared for the Vietnamese’s assaults. (5:20)


How long were you a soldier?
In 1969, when I was in *Moung Cha, I trained for a month. In 1969 in September or October, we were sent to *Moung Soia. We stayed there for two weeks before the Laotian government forced all those who served with General Vang Pao to leave that area. [During the secret war in Laos, Gen. Vang Pao’s weapons and pay came directly from the CIA, bypassing the corrupt Laotian government. This caused tensions in the Laotian anti-communist alliance.] It was agreed to give that area to the Vietnamese force [because of a truce]. We pulled back to Long Cheng. In 1971, we tried to take back the area. We went back and tried to take it. That year, many of the troops who participated in the fight suffered from foot infections. (6:35)

How were you trained? What type of weapons were you trained on? What was the quality of the leadership?
I wasn’t trained to fire the weapons; my specialty was in radio recording. There were four Thai and two American instructors who taught us. The Americans were ‘Mr. Moose,’ Mr. *Scroll and *Mr. Mathis. [CIA operatives were given code names. Peter and Mr. Phoumee were talking about the CIA operatives.] Mr. Mathis was in charge of the CIA supply from the Thailand air base at *San Chen Oua Doua. This was the big US airbase in Thailand where all the fighter/bomber planes were deployed to fight in South Vietnam and Laos. Mr. Moose was stationed in *Mua Na. He controlled the radio operators who were stationed with the frontline troops in the *San Khoua area. In December 1971, Communist Chinese troops together with the Vietnamese tried to take Long Cheng. I was stationed on Skyline 2 [key surrounding hills of Long Cheng]. The Vietnamese were just at the base of our hill sending radio messages to *Lang Seng to direct accurate artillery fire into Long Cheng. (The best Vietnamese artillery piece was the 122mm Russian-made artillery that has a longer range than any of the Hmong’s artillery.) That night, my friend and I were stationed up there with a company of Thai volunteers [By this time, the Hmong were so depleted of troops that Thai soldiers were sent to replace the fallen]. We intercepted the Vietnamese radio messages. One Vietnamese radio operator was far off while the other operator seemed to be close to our base. The closer radio operator would call for coordinated artillery barrage. If it was not accurate, he would call in to re-correct the coordinates. (The closer Vietnamese radio operator was a forward observation soldier who was giving coordinates for artillery.) Their two artillery pieces became very accurate after a while. They were targeting the residence of Colonel *Vang Seng and the Buddhist Temple. Some of the houses were burning. They fired all night until the morning. During the morning, one of our Thai instructors flew into Long Cheng to get the recording from us. We gave the tape to him and he flew off to *Na Sue. Na Sue was still a safe place while Long Cheng had primarily become a military base. [Long Cheng was at one time the second largest city in Laos due to the CIA secret air base there, along with General Vang Pao’s main base of operation. During the height of the war, the Long Cheng single airstrip was busier than Chicago International Airport.] Before nightfall, the plane carrying our Thai instructor came back. He ordered us to depart because the Vietnamese were planning a massive attack that night. Our bombers were going to carpet bomb all our positions to deny the enemy everything of value. Our options were to depart with him to Thailand or go back to our homes. We both quickly packed up our equipment and belongings and put them in the airplane and we flew to *Na Sue. (10:21)


What about the Thai troops?
The Thai troops were left on that hill. It was night already when we reached *Na Sue. We got on another plane to Thailand. Upon reaching Thailand we were given food and ordered back to work. We climbed aboard a C-47 transport plane and flew back to Laos again. [7 second pause] When we flew back to Long Cheng, it was being overrun already. Skyline 2 [a fortified ridge] was taken by the enemy while Skyline 1 was still heavily fought over. Our attack air crafts were bombing the ridge on Skyline 1. We didn’t know whether the Thais on the ridges were killed or had escaped. We fought all night and by morning the Vietnamese were in control of the majority of Long Cheng. The attack planes stationed in Long Cheng would take off only to bomb part of the Long Cheng area taken by the enemy. We circled around Long Cheng all night. We saw that the fort we both were in earlier was totally destroyed by our own planes after it was overrun. All the troops there were killed and the Vietnamese were everywhere. (11:52)

What did you do once the Vietnamese were firmly in control of the majority of Long Cheng?
There were no civilians in Long Cheng by then. There were only troops there. Some of our troops were still on isolated forts that surrounded Long Cheng. There was fierce house-to-house fighting in the general area of Long Cheng. The T-28 attack planes were all flown to *Na Sue. (12:25)

Was *Na Sue the second largest base for you?
*Na Sue was headquarters for USAID [United States Agency for International Development, which provided support for the local Hmong civilians]. The USAID was originally in *Sam Thom but when *Sam Thom was overrun, it was changed to *Na Sue. [Talking among ourselves over the matter.] The civilians who were business-minded moved to *Na Sue along with all their equipment. The majority of the civilians moved to *Pha Kheg and *Phon Tha, which is over the *NaNoung River. Everybody tried to disperse into the smaller villages and towns. We then moved our airbase over into Thailand after 1972. We flew into Laos but would not land there anymore. We were divided into two teams. One team flew during the day while the other flew during the night. I was on the team that flew during the night time.

What type of planes were used? Were they modified C-47 transport planes?
Yes, C-47s were used during the night missions but–[pause and confusion regarding the planes he used to be on for those missions]. At first, we used these twin engine dark green military planes and some smaller ones before we switched over to the C-47s. Only the C-47 can fly all night without refueling. The previous planes could not. The C-47s were modified to carry more fuel storage. In this way, we would take off at 6:00 pm and land back in Thailand at 6:00 am in the morning. (15:07)

How long did you do those night missions?
I flew these missions from 1971 to 1973. After 1973, the war in Laos was de-escalating. The Americans no long needed our program because they were pulling their troops out of the war [Vietnam], so we were disbanded and sent back to Laos. (15:41)

When you were on those night missions, did you and your crew mates encounter any enemy anti-aircraft fire?
Yes, we did. They tried to take us down, but we flew very high. We usually flew about 12,000 ft. [Most of the Vietnamese anti-aircraft weapons were heavy machine guns, effective only below 12,000 feet.] One time, one of the day-time planes was hit around 10:00 am by enemy fire close to the area of *Bam Na. It was hit twice on the tip of one of the wings. It made it back and was escorted by two T-28 fighter/bombers. We thought that these planes were heading for the airfield in *Vientiane [Capital of Laos] but it came back to Thailand instead. [We were discussing some of the Laotian words he was using in the previous sentence.] The planes didn’t land in *Vientiane because of the political situations there. Many in the Laotian government were supportive of the Communist cause and others were divided. There were too many Communist spies at the capital and our missions were secret, and so we were not authorized [by the Americans] to land in Laos. (17:20)

After 1973, when you were disbanded and flew back into Laos, where did you go and what did you do after that?
When we were disbanded, some of us became guerillas, continuing the fight, while others tried to settle back into their old life prior to the war.

What about you? What did you do?
I married in 1972 already. The Americans stopped sending aid to the Hmong after 1973 and the Americans were pulling out of the war. There was no more work left for us. We were sent back to Laos and I became a farmer once again. (18:18)

How many children did you have during that time?
I didn’t have any children yet. (18:25)

Can you tell us what year you escaped into Thailand and how you managed to do it?
In 1975, General Vang Pao left Laos and sought asylum in Thailand. In 1976, the Vietnamese came and took over the whole of Laos. Some of us became *Chao Fa [guerilla fighters named after a legendary figure and revolt during the French rule of Indo-China.] That same year, we moved out of our village of *Mouag Cha to *Mouan Oun near *Ma Na. We lived there until 1978. That year, the Vietnamese troops started to attack us there and everywhere else, including *Khe, *Moung Cha and the *Mouan Oun area including *Phom Bia. There were many Vietnamese troops who took part in the battle. We couldn’t fight effectively because we were tied down with our wives and children. We were dispersed into the jungles and lived on wild roots and plants for two years. In 1979, we couldn’t live like that any longer so we surrendered to the Vietnamese. We lived like that for a while. The Vietnamese forced us to work–in French its called *’coulee’ [forced labor]. [We both agree on the meaning of the French word.] We were forced to carry ammunition and rice for them from *Moung Chat to their forts in *Mouang Own. From *Mouang Own, we carried ammunition to the surrounding forts. After coming out of the jungle, we were very weak and sick with a high fever. They forced me to carried two 82 millimeter mortar rounds. I was so weak that by the time I finished carrying ammunition from *Ba Hi to the forts at *Mom Nia and *Pho Con Ha, I was about to die. They forced us to carry rice from *Moung Cha for their troops in eat at *Pho Na Kha, which is near *San Khoung. After this experience, we realized that the Vietnamese way was very ‘strange.’ It’s not like they didn’t have transportation aircraft and trucks to transport supplies to their troops. They refused to use their machines and forced us to the labor. It was a policy that we all didn’t like. They didn’t pay us anything; we did the labor for free. (21:55)

Did the Vietnamese know that you were a former soldier for General Vang Pao?
They knew that every one of us men were soldiers, but since we weren’t captured during the war, they couldn’t prove it.

What happened if they had proof that you were a soldier?
If they had proof, then I would have to go to the ‘re-education’ camps. Most who went to get ‘re-educated’ were higher-ranking officials. Anyone who was a Captain or above was taken to the camps. Those who went there never came back.

Were they all killed?
The Vietnamese would make them work until they died. Those who were below the official rank of Captain were allowed to come back if they followed orders. (22:49)

How did you and your family escape from the Vietnamese?
When we were still performing forced labor for the Vietnamese, I owned a lot of farm land on that hill. I didn’t know that the Vietnamese were going to build a fort there. Prior to burning that area to make it suitable for farming, we asked the Vietnamese commander of the fort for permission first. They had an 82mm mortar and 12.7mm heavy machinegun along with crates full of ammunitions in that fort. I asked the commander if his men could set fire to the grass around their fort while I set fire on the grass at the bottom of the hill. I told him that it was time for me to plant my corn. [Hmong slash-and-burn farming techniques required the burning of a selected area first to fertilize the seedlings because of the lack of nutrients in the tropical soil.] The commander ordered his troops but the field wouldn’t start on fire. The next day around 12 noon when it was blazing hot, my brother-in-law and I started to burn the grasses at the bottom of the hill after we received permission from the commander again. The soldiers wanted to see this event also. When the fire was started, a strong gust of wind moved the fire quickly into the Vietnamese fort. In the meantime, we were on the next hill across the ravine under the shade of some banana trees. We wanted to view the fire from there. When the wind and fire were picking up, some brush that was on fire blew straight into the Vietnamese eating quarters. The mess quickly caught on fire and then the bunkers that housed the 82mm mortar and the 12.7mm heavy machine gun also went up in flames. All the bunkers and buildings were connected, so the fire quickly spread everywhere. Suddenly the 82mm mortar and 12.7mm rounds started to explode! [He imitated the explosion by saying ‘Bee Boom!, Bee Boom!, Bee Boom!’] All the Vietnamese dashed out into the other side of the hill into the opium field. The Vietnamese started to fire their weapons into the air and towards our village. They probably expended all the ammunition they had with them. At that time we were very scared. Once we got home we met our grandfather who was visiting. He said, ‘Hey you two jokers, how did you guys manage to set fire to the Vietnamese’s fort? You two better do what you two have in mind!’ We asked him to go reconcile with the Vietnamese. I gave him a bottle of liquor to go talk to the Vietnamese commander. The commander told him that we did not need to worry. The commander told us not to leave the village and that he knew we didn’t do it on purpose. Both of us were responsible for building the roofs of the building while the Vietnamese troops would be making the sidings. I then quickly went over to our house and took off our roof thatch to contribute our share to the rebuilding of the fort. (26:42)

Phoumee Xiong

Interviewer: Peter (Chou) Vang
Translator/Transcriber: Peter (Chou) Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer
What is your name?
My name is Phoumee from the Xiong Clan. (00:11)

In Laos, when and where were you born? What were your parents’ names?

I was born in February 1952 in the village of *Moug Ngang in the providence of *Xieng Khouang of Laos. My father was *Gung Neng Xiong who was *Ta Bomb Txiah Pao’s son. [ P = What about your mother’s name?] My mother’s name was *Txong Vue who was the daughter of Vang Pia Vue, who was from *Nia Chia. (00:50)

When you were born, did they give you a Hmong name [Phoumee is a Laotian name]?
Yes they did. I was given the name *Ta Tong. (1:00)

Can you tell us what your chores were as a child growing up in your village?
After I was born in the village of *Na Vane in 1952, the French war was raging already. The French had arrested my grandfather and put him in the stockade in *Moug Ngang. After the Vietnamese took the fort (at Moug Ngang) from the French, they freed my grandfather and put him in charge, giving him the title of *Tam Boung. Once the French retook our area, my grandfather was put back in the stockade for another year. After the French released my grandfather, our whole family moved to *Moung Khang Ker. We lived there for about four or five years. In 1963, Vang Kia Vue – that was when General Vang Pao received his fifth star [Was he given the rank of Brigadier General?]. Vang Kia Vue followed us to *Moung Khang Ker. This was when we joined with Vang Kia Vue to fight the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops. We fought like this until 1969. I was only a little kid then. I remember I could barely fire an M-1 *Grande but I could shoot an M-1 Carbine [ a smaller US supply military rifle].

Who was *Vang Kai Vue?
Vang Kai Vue was a military leader in *Moung Nong in the providence of *Xieng Khouang.

He served under General Vang Pao?
He served under General Vang Pao in *Keng So. During this time, the Vietnamese made my father a leader in charge of *Pah Dou. We moved from *Pah Dou to *Pha Hom. My father was *Nie Kong Lia [military commander]. He received his second star in *Pha Hom. We moved from *Pha Hom to *Moung Chai. The Vietnamese chased us until *Moung Chai. My father received the military rank of *Capitent. In 1975 when General Vang Pao left the country, my father was a *Commenda [higher military rank]. Hence the name, *Commenda Gung Neng Xiong. In 1969, I was serving with the US force in Laos. I was a radio operator who eavesdrops on the enemy. For example, we would listen to all the conversations going from the field troops back to Hanoi regarding which logistical supplies were in demand. We would record the radio messages and translate them in *Chen Meng Un Dor, Thailand. The [South] Vietnamese there would translate these messages into Laotian and English. We would relay this vital information back to our forts in Laos that the Vietnamese planned to attack. In this way, our troops were well prepared for the Vietnamese’s assaults. (5:20)

How long were you a soldier?
In 1969, when I was in *Moung Cha, I trained for a month. In 1969 in September or October, we were sent to *Moung Soia. We stayed there for two weeks before the Laotian government forced all those who served with General Vang Pao to leave that area. [During the secret war in Laos, Gen. Vang Pao’s weapons and pay came directly from the CIA, bypassing the corrupt Laotian government. This caused tensions in the Laotian anti-communist alliance.] It was agreed to give that area to the Vietnamese force [because of a truce]. We pulled back to Long Cheng. 1971, we tried to take back the area. We went back and tried to take it. That year, many of the troops who partook in the fight suffered from foot infections. (6:35)

How were you trained? What type of weapons were you trained on? What was the quality of the leadership?
I wasn’t trained to fire the weapons; my specialty was in radio recording. There were four Thai and two American instructors who taught us. The Americans were ‘Mr. Moose,’ Mr. *Scroll and *Mr. Mathis. [CIA operatives were given code names. Peter and Mr. Phoumee are talking about the CIA operatives.] Mr. Mathis was in charge of the CIA supply from the Thailand air base at *San Chen Oua Doua. This was the big US airbase in Thailand where all the fighter/bomber planes were deployed to fight in South Vietnam and Laos. Mr. Moose was stationed in *Mua Na. He controlled the radio operators who were stationed with the frontline troops in the *San Khoua area. In December 1971, Communist Chinese troops together with the Vietnamese tried to take Long Cheng. I was stationed on Skyline 2 [key surrounding hills of Long Cheng]. The Vietnamese were just at the base of our hill sending radio messages to *Lang Seng to direct accurate artillery fire into Long Cheng. (The best Vietnamese artillery piece was the 122mm Russian-made artillery that has a longer range than any of the Hmong’s artillery.) That night, my friend and I were stationed up there with a company of Thai volunteers [By this time, the Hmong were so depleted of troops that Thai soldiers were sent to replace the lost]. We intercepted the Vietnamese radio messages. One Vietnamese radio operator was far off while the other operator seemed to be close to our base. The closer radio operator would call for coordinated artillery barrage. If it was not accurate, he would call in to re-correct the coordinates. (The closer Vietnamese radio operator was a forward observation soldier who was giving coordinates for artillery.) Their two artillery pieces became very accurate after a while. They were targeting the residence of Colonel *Vang Seng and the Buddhist Temple. Some of the houses were burning. They fired all night until the morning. During the morning, one of our Thai instructors flew into Long Cheng to get the recording from us. We gave the tape to him and he flew off to *Na Sue. Na Sue was still a safe place while Long Cheng had primarily become a military base. (Long Cheng was at one time the second largest city in Laos due to the CIA secret air base there, along with General Vang Pao’s main base of operation. During the height of the war, the Long Cheng single airstrip was busier than Chicago International Airport.)**Where did you get this statistic??? Before nightfall, the plane carrying our Thai instructor came back. He ordered us to depart because the Vietnamese were planning a massive attack that night. Our bombers were going to carpet bomb all our positions to deny the enemy everything of value. Our options were to depart with him to Thailand or go back to our homes. We both quickly packed up our equipment and belongings and put them in the airplane and we flew to *Na Sue. (10:21)

What about the Thai troops?
The Thai troops were left on that hill. It was night already when we reached *Na Sue. We got on another plane to Thailand. Upon reaching Thailand we were given food and ordered back to work. We climbed aboard a C-47 transport plane and flew back to Laos again. [7 second pause] When we flew back to Long Cheng, it was being overrun already. Skyline 2 [a fortified ridge] was taken by the enemy while Skyline 1 was still heavily fought over. Our attack air crafts were bombing the ridge on Skyline 1. We don’t know whether the Thais on the ridges were killed or had escaped. We fought all night and by morning the Vietnamese were in control of the majority of Long Cheng. The attack planes stationed in Long Cheng would take off only to bomb part of the Long Cheng area taken by the enemy. We circled around Long Cheng all night. We saw that the fort that we both were in earlier was totally destroyed by our own planes after it was overrun. All the troops there were killed and the Vietnamese were everywhere. (11:52)

What did you do once the Vietnamese were firmly in control of the majority of Long Cheng?
There were no civilians in Long Cheng by then. There were only troops there. Some of our troops were still on isolated forts that surrounded Long Cheng. There was fierce house-to-house fighting in the general area of Long Cheng. The T-28 attack planes were all flown to *Na Sue. (12:25)

Was *Na Sue the second largest base for you guys?
*Na Sue was headquarters for USAID [United States Agency for International Development, which provided support for the local Hmong civilians]. The USAID was originally in *Sam Thom but when *Sam Thom was overrun, it was changed to *Na Sue. [Talking among ourselves over the matter.] The civilians who were business-minded moved to *Na Sue along with all their equipment. The majority of the civilians moved to *Pha Kheg and *Phon Tha, which is over the *NaNoung River. Everybody tried to disperse into the smaller villages and towns. We then moved our airbase over into Thailand after 1972. We flew into Laos but would not land there anymore. We were divided into two teams. One team flew during the day while the other flew during the night. I was on the team that flew during the night time.

What type of planes were used? Were they modified C-47 transport planes?
Yes, C-47s were used during the night missions but [pause and confusion regarding the planes he used to be on for those missions]. At first, we used these twin engine dark green military planes and some smaller ones before we switched over to the C-47s. Only the C-47 can fly all night without refueling. The previous planes could not. The C-47s were modified to carry more fuel storage. In this way, we would take off at 6:00 pm and land back in Thailand at 6:00 am in the morning. (15:07)

How long did you do those night missions?
I flew these missions from 1971 to 1973. After 1973, the war in Laos was de-escalating. The Americans no long needed our program because they were pulling their troops out of the war [Vietnam], so we were disbanded and sent back to Laos. (15:41)

When you were on those night missions, did you and your crew mates encounter any enemy anti-aircraft fire?
Yes, we did. They tried to take us down, but we flew very high. We usually flew about 12,000 ft. [Most of the Vietnamese anti-aircraft weapons were heavy machine guns, effective only below 12,000 feet.] One time, one of the day-time planes was hit around 10:00 am by enemy fire close to the area of *Bam Na. It was hit twice on the tip of one of the wings. It made it back and was escorted by two T-28 fighter/bombers. We thought that these planes were heading for the airfield in *Vientiene [Capital of Laos] but it came back to Thailand instead. [We were discussing some of the Laotian words he was using in the previous sentence.] The planes didn’t land in *Vientiene because of the political situations there. Many in the Laotian government were supportive of the Communist cause and others were divided. There were too many Communist spies at the capital and our missions were secret, and so we were not authorized [by the Americans] to land in Laos. (17:20)

After 1973, when you were disbanded and flew back into Laos, where did you go and what did you do after that?
When we were disbanded, some of us became guerillas, continuing the fight, while others tried to settle back into their old life prior to the war.

What about you? What did you do?
I married in 1972 already. The Americans stopped sending aid to the Hmong after 1973 and the Americans were pulling out of the war. There was no more work left for us. We were sent back to Laos and I became a farmer once again. (18:18)

How many children did you have during that time?
I didn’t have any children yet. (18:25)

Can you tell us what year you escaped into Thailand and how you managed to do it?
In 1975, General Vang Pao left Laos and sought asylum in Thailand. In 1976, the Vietnamese came and took over the whole of Laos. Some of us became *Chao Fa [guerilla fighters named after a legendary figure and revolt during the French rule of Indo-China.] That same year, we moved out of our village of *Mouag Cha to *Mouan Own near *Ma Na. We lived there until 1978. That year, the Vietnamese troops started to attack us there and everywhere else, including *Khe, *Moung Cha and the *Mouan Own area including *Phom Bia. There were many Vietnamese troops who took part in the battle. We couldn’t fight effectively because we were tied down with our wives and children. We were dispersed into the jungles and lived on wild roots and plants for two years. In 1979, we couldn’t live like that any longer so we surrendered to the Vietnamese. We lived like that for a while. The Vietnamese forced us to work-in French its called *’coulee’ [forced labor]. [We both agree on the meaning of the French word.] We were forced to carry ammunition and rice for them from *Moung Chat to their forts in *Mouang Own. From *Mouang Own, we carried ammunition to the surrounding forts. After coming out of the jungle, we were very weak and sick with a high fever. They forced me to carried two 82 millimeter mortar rounds. I was so weak that by the time I finished carrying ammunition from *Ba Hi to the forts at *Mom Nia and *Pho Con Ha, I was about to die. They forced us to carry rice from *Moung Cha for their troops in eat at *Pho Na Kha, which is near *San Khoung. After this experience, we realized that the Vietnamese way was very ‘strange.’ It’s not like they didn’t have transportation aircraft and trucks to transport supplies to their troops. They refused to use their machines and forced us to the labor. It was a policy that we all didn’t like. They didn’t pay us anything; we did the labor for free. (21:55)

Did the Vietnamese know that you were a former soldier for General Vang Pao?
They knew that every one of us men were soldiers, but since we weren’t captured during the war, they couldn’t prove it.

What happened if they had proof that you were a soldier?
If they had proof, then I would have to go to the ‘re-education’ camps. Most who went to get ‘re-educated’ were higher-ranking officials. Anyone who was a Captain or above was taken to the camps. Those who went there never came back.

Were they all killed?
The Vietnamese would make them work until they died. Those who were below the official rank of Captain were allowed to come back if they followed orders. (22:49)

How did you and your family escape from the Vietnamese?
When we were still performing forced labor for the Vietnamese, I owned a lot of farm land on that hill. I didn’t know that the Vietnamese were going to build a fort there. Prior to burning that area to make it suitable for farming, we asked the Vietnamese commander of the fort for permission first. They had an 82mm mortar and 12.7mm heavy machinegun along with crates full of ammunitions in that fort. I asked the commander if his men could set fire to the grass around their fort while I set fire on the grass at the bottom of the hill. I told him that it was time for me to plant my corn. [Hmong slash-and-burn farming techniques required the burning of a selected area first to fertilize the seedlings because of the lack of nutrients in the tropical soil.] The commander ordered his troops but the field wouldn’t start on fire. The next day around 12 noon when it was blazing hot, my brother-in-law and I started to burn the grasses at the bottom of the hill after we received permission from the commander again. The soldiers wanted to see this event also. When the fire was started, a strong gust of wind moved the fire quickly into the Vietnamese fort. In the meantime, we were on the next hill across the ravine under the shade of some banana trees. We wanted to view the fire from there. When the wind and fire were picking up, some brush that was on fire blew straight into the Vietnamese eating quarters. The mess quickly caught on fire and then the bunkers that housed the 82mm mortar and the 12.7mm heavy machine gun also went up in flames. All the bunkers and buildings were connected, so the fire quickly spread everywhere. Suddenly the 82mm mortar and 12.7mm rounds started to explode! [He imitated the explosion by saying ‘Bee Boom!, Bee Boom!, Bee Boom!’] All the Vietnamese dashed out into the other side of the hill into the opium field. The Vietnamese started to fire their weapons into the air and towards our village. They probably expended all the ammunition they had with them. At that time we were very scared. Once we got home we met our grandfather who was visiting. He said, ‘Hey you two jokers, how did you guys manage to set fire to the Vietnamese’s fort? You two better do what you two have in mind!’ We asked him to go reconcile with the Vietnamese. I gave him a bottle of liquor to go talk to the Vietnamese commander. The commander told him that we did not need to worry. The commander told us not to leave the village and that he knew we didn’t do it on purpose. Both of us were responsible for building the roofs of the building while the Vietnamese troops would be making the sidings. I then quickly went over to our house and took off our roof thatch to contribute our share to the rebuilding of the fort. (26:42)

Poj Noj Her

Interviewer: Peter (Chou) Vang
Translator/Transcriber: Peter (Chou) Vang
Editor: Paul Hillmer


Can you tell me your name and your parents’ names?
My name is Txiah from the Her Clan. My mother’s name is Sia from the Yang Clan. My father’s name is *Ga Noj, from the Her Clan. (0:18)

Can you tell me where you were born and raised?
I was born and raised in *Moung Chia. My parents were also born and raised in *Moung Chia. (0:30)

When you were a little child growing up, what did you do around the house?
The older folks took up to work on the garden and farm. (0:41)

Can you explain to me some of your chores that you did while growing up?
As soon as we knew how to dress ourselves, our parents took us to go farm with them. We woke up early to get the fire going to cook breakfast. After we finished breakfast, we packed our lunch in baskets (called *Ker) and headed off to farm. [Hmong traditional farms are located quite a distance away from the village so their livestock cannot eat and ruin the harvest.] We farmed until five in the afternoon before coming back to the village. (1:25)

What where the types of food available for your family to eat in Laos? Was it nutritious and filling?
It was poor quality food, but we are Hmong and we are used to it. We also raised some chicken and pigs to supplement the vegetables and rice and corn. (1:56)

I know that in Laos meat is scarce. In how many meals per week did you get to eat meat?
I think out of a week there was probably about two or three meals that had meat. There wasn’t a lot. (2:13)

What type of meat?
We ate mostly chicken and pork. (2:18)

What about for the New Year celebration? What did your family eat for the celebration? Also, what was the role that teenage girls played in the New Year celebration?
In Laos, it was a tradition set by our ancestors to have the New Year celebration on the first of December. It was taboo on that day for us to use money or to buy anything. Also, during that day it was the beginning of the New Year and we all dressed in our best traditional clothes. All the teenagers would go out to intermingle and have a courtship ball-tossing game. The young men would form a line and the young women would form another line parallel to them.

What was in that ball?
We used old cloths and made tossing balls out of them. We then use a new cloth as the cover for it. (3:38)

How were young women for the New Year celebration in the old days dressed up?
Back then we were very simple and we didn’t know how to dress up. There was really nothing to wear.

Was there any makeup?
There was no makeup at all. We just wrapped red and green cloths around our waists, put on our traditional clothes on top of our cloths and then wore our cap. We just went to the village square to have fun. (4:08)

The red and green clothes that you wore? Did you buy or make those?
We would buy them from the Chinese or Laotian traders.

What did you use to barter for it?
Since we were farmers we would trade our chickens and pigs for it. Also, we would sell a portion of our rice and corn harvest to the poor for cash and would use the cash to buy the clothes. (4:50)

How many new types of clothing did you get per year?
For the New Year celebration, each person got at least one new set of clothing during the first of December. [It is a Hmong tradition to celebrate the New Year.]

Both men and women received new clothing?
Yes, both sexes received new clothing. (5:12)

What about the necklaces? Were they real silver?
Yes they were genuine silver [she said this with great emphasis.] These necklaces were made from wedding silver gifts that were presented to the newlyweds during their marriage.

When you were growing up, were there still silversmiths who were producing these silver necklaces in your village?
They still did. (5:31)

Was the silversmith highly respected among the villagers?
We respected him because he was the only one who could make these necklaces for our sons and daughters to wear. (5:46)

Did you pay the silversmith cash in return for his service or did you barter with him?
Since he spent most of his time in his workshop and had no time to farm, we would trade a portion of our harvest or some livestock for his services.

Did you have to provide the silver?
Yes, we gave him the silver and he’d process the silver and work on it.

Where did you get the silver? Was it passed on to you from your parents and grandparents?
Some silver was passed down to us from our parents and grandparents. Another way was to trade a portion of our harvest with the Chinese or Laotian merchants. (6:51)

How long did it take a silversmith to make one silver necklace?
It took about a month for the silversmith to make one. (7:04)

A silversmith could make about 12 silver necklaces per year?
Yes, something like that. (7:07)

In Laos, how old were you before you were married?
In Laos, I don’t quite remember but I think I was about 20 years old before I was married. (7:24)

Before getting married, did you get a chance to go to school?
No, I did not. (7:30)

When you were married, was the wedding ceremony different from today’s Hmong weddings?
It was similar to today’s weddings. (7:40)

Where you a Christian or did you still believe in the traditional ways when you were married?
We still kept the traditional way. The difference between weddings in the Laos and today is that there weren’t any Christian weddings back then. (7:48)

When the Vietnamese came to your village, did you have any children yet?
[She confused about the question.] We didn’t have any children yet. We were newly wed and my husband was already a soldier fighting the Vietnamese. After the war was over (1975) my husband came back. We did have two children before we came over to the US. (8:27)

When your husband was in the military, what were some of the hardest troubles for you living back in the village? Did General Vang Pao and the Americans give you any aid?
When my husband went to war I didn’t have any children yet, so I still lived with my parents. [When PN had children, it was a Hmong custom for her to live with the in-laws.] Whatever my parents had they shared with me. Whenever my husband came back from the war, we would live on his monthly military pay. I would use his pay to buy food for the family to eat.

Was is it hard for you to live like this? Was it harder than before the war?
Before the war, life was good. There wasn’t a lot of hardship.

Did the Americans supply your family with anything?
They did provide some but your husband had to be a soldier for you to receive anything. If you didn’t have a son or a husband in the military then it was very hard for you. (9:59)

The Americans knew which ones were in the military to provide for his family?
Yes, only those with registered names were allowed any aid from the American. (10:04)

Did they drop rice for your village?
Yes, they did. (10:16)

How long did you live on supplies from the Americans during the course of the war?
We lived like that for [four or five seconds to think about how long they lived on the American’s aid] about six or seven years. (10:43)

When your husband was captured by the Vietnamese in 1977 or ’78, were you scared? What was going through your mind? Where were you during this time?
During that time, all the men were arrested and only the women and children were left. The Vietnamese deported us to *Moung Het in Vietnam. We were really wrenched at that time. [Both were confused about *Moung Het and were discussing about it.] *Moung Het was inside Vietnam, but it was close to the Laotian border. It was near the big city [Hanoi] that all the [Vietnamese] political leaders lived. We lived there for one year and we lived in a wretched condition. We didn’t hear any news about our husbands and loved ones, not knowing if they were dead or alive. Finally we were able to get permission and documentation to travel six days to *Phon Savan. (11:37)

Wow, that was far! Did you have any children at that time?
At that time I had three children. (11:42)

During the time when your husband was put in prison for three years, did you get any news that he was alive?
The first year there was no news, but the second and third years there was some news that he was alive. (11:59)

Who was the one who sent the letters notifying you that your husband was still alive?
We had some relatives who lived near the prison camp. They told me that my husband’s and his brother’s names were on the prison roster. We heard the news through word of mouth from Hmong who came over to us while we were still living in Vietnam. (12:29)

During those three years, what was the situation like for you?
I was very pitiful and wretched. If I speak more on this matter, I can talk on forever about it. I was in a very bad situation. My three children were still very young.

Who did you live with during this time?
My husband’s parents have already gone [to Thailand] so I stayed with my husband’s older brother’s wife. We shared a house together.

Did you have anyone else living with you?
There was *Hla Joua Khoua, our older brother, but he lived in his own house. (13:06)

Can you tell me how much suffering you went through?
When they were in prison camp we were in such a terrible state [emphasis greatly on how bad their condition was in the tone of her voice]. All we could do was to cry because there was nothing else to do. After not hearing from them for a year we thought they [her husband and his older brother] were both dead. When we were detained in Vietnam, we cried daily. We constantly prayed every day for their lives and to hear from them again. We prayed continuously even though we didn’t know about God at this time. After some time, our relatives from the village of *Pho Luj told us the news that my husband and his older brother were alive. That’s when we decided to get passage documents from the authority there to allow us to travel back to *Phon Savah. There, for the first time, we heard concrete news that they were alive. When they were in prison, we suffered heavily and so did our children. When we were deported [to *Noj Het, Vietnam] there was no one to provide food for us and it was very hard. The only thing we had was our lives. Our six day trek back was difficult, because there was no one to guide us and show us the way. Knowing no one, we just made our way over. When it got dark, we would beg Hmong families for places to stay for the night.

Just the two of you women?
Yes, on our way back, I was the one who led the way, and it was like that. (14:41)

How did you manage to survive without your husband for three years? [In the Hmong traditional culture the man provides for everything while the woman works in the home and at the farm. It was hard to not have a husband there to bring in the income.] Did anyone help provide for you and your family?
We had nothing to eat. I had some of my husband’s saved military pay and I used this to buy food from the Hmong along the way. Close relatives also gave us some food to eat. That was basically it. After this we were deported to Vietnam. We were registered for food and lived like that for a year. (15:16)

Did the Vietnamese know that you were the wife of a soldier who fought against them?
Yes, they did. (15:24)

Did the Vietnamese do any harm to you or your family?
They didn’t torture us, but they relocated us and that was already hard enough. They put my husband in a prison camp and they deported us to Vietnam so we couldn’t escape.

In Vietnam, were you allowed to travel around?
We were under house arrest and were not allowed to go anywhere. When it was time to give us food they brought it to us. Only then were we able to go out of our designated place to carry the food back to our house. (16:07)

Was there enough to eat?
There was enough to eat so we wouldn’t starve. It was very hard. (16:13)

Were there any relatives that could help your family?
No, there were none. (16:18)

When your husband was released and your family decided to escape to Thailand, how did you escape? Was it an illegal act at that time to try to escape?
After my husband was released, we lived with my relatives for a while. One of my uncles worked for the Vietnamese and through him we were able to get documents to move down to *Na Nyob. That’s how we escape to Thailand. (16:18)

Did you lose anyone close to you because of the war or the aftermath of the war?
I lost many. I had many relatives who were killed, but all of my siblings made it. One of my uncles lost his leg to an anti-personnel landmine, but he didn’t die. He’s living in the US today. (17:56)

[Track 2 ends here and continues into Track 3]

Was Thailand a harsh place for you and your family? How many children did you have when you were in Thailand?
While we were in Thailand I had four children.

Was Thailand hard for your family?
Thailand was better than living in Laos. (0:25)

Did the Thais mistreat your family in any way?
Yes, the Thais were mistreating us and we couldn’t move out of the refugee camps at all. Wherever they wanted us to stay, we had to stay there. There was no other place for us to go. We were relieved that there were no Vietnamese trying to kill us, but we were not allowed to go outside of the refugee camps. If we did, then we were beaten. We were very scared and tried to do whatever they said. (0:54)

[In the Thailand Refugee Camp] what were some ways of creating income within the camp? Did any of your relatives who had come over to the US send your family anything?
We came late to the Thai refugee camp; we couldn’t get registered in time because my husband was in prison. When we arrived to Thailand, the deadline for incoming refugee processing was over. We had to live for one year in *Vinai in a wretched situation. I had to make embroidering for cash, but we had to beg relatives for the needles, yarn and materials. After I completed the embroidering, we sent them over to my relatives in the US to sell. We used the money from the embroidering to buy food to eat in *Ban Vinai. (1:41)

Your relatives in the US–did they also give you additional cash?
Yes, they did. (1:48)

In Thailand, because of the overcrowded Hmong refugee population, were there diseases and pollution going around? Did you know any relatives, especially young infants, who were sick due to these situations?
When we were there, there were many sickness. It was really crowded and the water wasn’t sanitary. There was many dirty rotten things in the water. In *Vinai, there were a lot of death. My family was doing fine but many of our relatives died in the refugee camp.

So there is no death in your immediate family?
No there wasn’t. (2:33)

In the refugee camp, because you had four children, did you get additional help from the Thai or American government?
In *Vinai we weren’t registered, so we got whatever we could beg from our relatives or money from our relatives living in the US already. The children didn’t receive anything. (3:04)

How long did your family stay in Thailand before being registered into the refugee camp?
We stayed in *Vinai for two years, then we moved to *San Khan and lived there for six months. After that, we moved to *Phanat Nikhom. (3:16)

Were you and your family registered at all in the refugee camps?
We were registered by the Thais in *San Khan. It was also there that we were able to come over to the US. (3:37)

Were only ex-soldiers and their families allowed to register?
Yes, it was like that. Only ex-soldiers and their families were allowed to register. Once we were registered we were given food and cooking supplies. (3:58)

When your family first arrived in Thailand, why was your family unable to register? After all, your husband was an ex-soldier.
We came too late and the deadline for closing the camp had passed already.

The deadline was over?
Yes, they didn’t allow any more registering. The latecomers were illegally living in the camps. (4:22)

How long did your family staye in *Phanat Nikhom before coming to the US?
We stayed in *Phanat Nikhom for about six months. (4:29)

Once your family was registered, was it easier to live there?
Yes, that’s correct. Once we arrived in *San Kang, they found out that my husband was an ex-soldier and they allowed us to register. This is when they distributed food and other supplies for us. We stayed there for three months before being taken to *Phanat Nikhom. We stayed in *Phanat Nikhom for six months and during that time we were given food and other supplies as well. (5:04)

How much food was distributed to your family in *Phanat Nikhom? Can you go into detail about how much food was distributed on a regular week? They would distribute food twice every week.

How much rice per person?
One person received two bowls full of rice. [PN cupping her hands together to indicate how big the bowl was.]

Everybody was given the same amount?
Yes, that’s correct. They also distributed meat, vegetables and firewood twice per week. (5:47)

Was some of the food that was distributed spoiled due to the heat and environment you and your family were in?
We were too starving to complain. There was nothing else to eat. The meat and vegetables were all bad. They were old and bad but there was nothing we could do. What we couldn’t eat we threw away. (6:14)

Before arriving in the US, what was your impression about the US?
We thought that it was a better place where we would be able find enough to eat and a safe place for us to live. (6:39)

Was your impression of America different after you lived here for a while?
There were some differences. It’s a better place, but due we couldn’t speak the English language or make sense of the culture, so it was hard for us to look for food to eat. When we first arrived, they gave us money to buy food and pay for our rent [welfare]. Once we had to work, it was another matter. We didn’t know how to do anything and it was very stressful. (7:29)

How long was your family on welfare before working?
We lived on welfare in California until 1998 before we started to work. (7:46)

Your family came in 1987?
We came on April 10th 1987. (7:50)

All together, how many people are in your family?
There are eight total in our family. [She meant eight children? 10 total in their family].

What are their names?
The oldest child is Paj Vang [female], next is *Shoua Vang [male], the third one is Tou Vang [male], the fourth one is Seng, the fifth one is *Txong [female], the sixth one is *Ong, the seventh is Steve and the eighth is Tony. (8:25)

Do you think your children who were born in the US are different from you?
They are different from us.

Is it a good or a bad thing?
It’s a good thing, but our ways and habits are different. If we follow our traditional way, then our children will not understand. We don’t understand their American ways and we don’t like it, either. (8:58)

Would you like to say something to Hmong students who will be listening to your message ten or so years down the road? What does it mean to be Hmong?
I would like to say to all the American-Hmong youth, male or female, that when we lived in the old world we were poor, but we listened to our parents and we matured really fast. We weren’t so poor that we had to beg others for help. Although we weren’t educated, we were able to go out and provide for ourselves. Here in the US, it’s not the strength that will win the day, it is education. Now it’s the mind and the pencil that will win bread on the table. I would like to see our children work hard in school so they can help the elders when they are successful. Even though the youth don’t understand our traditional ways, I hope they will understand that because they are Hmong they must work hard and listen to their parents’ words. I want to see an understanding between the old and the young. This is all I have to say. (10:46)

Do you have anything else to say?
Yes, I have too much on my mind to say. (10:54)

Do you consider the next generation of Hmong born here in the US too Americanized?
I believe if the next generation doesn’t keep our ways, then they will not understand our heritage and culture. They won’t know our history, our food, our traditional clothing and the way we brought up our children. Our old way of life in Laos will be lost. (11:45)

Are you afraid that they will let go of our culture and embrace American culture?
We are afraid that they will marry other races or ethnic groups that will not respect our old way and traditions. We are worried about this. We’re afraid, so that is why we want the young Hmong generation that grew up in Thailand but was raised here to teach their American-born counterparts to appreciate our culture. When our traditions and culture disappear, we will become a pitiful race and will fall behind others. Other races and ethnic groups will consider us unimportant. (12:27)

Would you like the American government or a Hmong organization to create something for the Hmong to remember their history and the values of the Hmong culture?
Other nations have programs set up for them, I wish the Hmong to have the same so we are remembered. This is what I want the government to do. (12:56)

Do you have anything else to say?
Yes, I do have some more to say. (13:04)

I know that the US is very different from Laos. Even if you were younger and you were allowed to go back and settle in Laos, would you do it?
I do believe that if we could go back, we would. If we want to be an important race we must come together. Here in the US, we are mingled into a large, diverse group and we are losing our traditions and heritage. Back in Laos, we took care of each other no matter who you were. As long as you were Hmong, you were taken care of by your people because you shared the same common culture and identity. Even though we were worse off and had less than here in the US, we had great love in our community. Even if you killed a chicken, a pig or an ox, you invited the whole village to come and enjoy it with you. Here in the US, we have lost this important value of our culture. We don’t see each other and have lost so many of our cultural values. Back in Laos, before the New Year, we would kill a pig, an ox or a water buffalo and invite the whole village to eat with us for a whole day. (14:43)

Would you be able to trade the comforts of the US to go back to Laos–comforts such as electricity and vehicles? Could you live without these things?
I believe that if Laos was peaceful again like it was before the war, then I would be willing to sacrifice all those comforts to go back. [Peter clarifies the question.] We were a lot happier there than here.

You would rather walk than take a car?
Yes, I would rather walk. It was fun and peaceful. There were no worries. Over in Laos, your brain didn’t hurt like here. If we didn’t have electricity, we could always build camp fires like in the old days. We didn’t argue and have divorces like here in the US. If we were young, we wouldn’t regret going back to Laos and starting our life again. (16:04)

Do you have anything more to say about Laos; something that I might have missed?
Back in Laos, even if our children were 18 years old or older, they still gave much respect to the parents and elders. We as daughters listened to our parents without arguing back. We weren’t like the generation here in the US. We lived very differently. In Laos, once there was sunlight in the morning, around 3 or 4 a.m., the girls were up to make breakfast for the day. Here in the US, our children are very different from us when we were young. If we were younger, we could perform the tasks that we used to do back in Laos. This is something good that we must remember about our past even if we live here in the US. We must follow the culture of this land, but we must also keep some of ours so that our people will not disappear. (17:11)

Sia Ly Thao

Interviewer: Tou Thao (grandson)
Translators/Transcribers: Soua Lee (Part One) and Peter Vang (Parts Two & Three)
Editor: Paul Hillmer


Before the war, what was your life like?
Before the war, we didn’t know anything. In the morning, we had to go shop for food every day. One morning, Grandma told me to go shop to prepare breakfast. We lived about two miles away. I was looking for food, and all of a sudden people were running like crazy. I heard shouting: ‘Vietnamese coming! Vietnamese coming! Vietnamese coming!’ Everyone ran in their own way. When I got home, it was a lie. A few months later, I went shopping and the same thing happened. I heard, ‘Vietnamese coming! Vietnamese coming! Hurry, run run!’ I thought, ‘OK,’ and ran back home. When I got home, the Vietnamese were already coming close to us. They said we had to run–it was not a false alarm. So we prepared our things. Our father said, ‘All of you go and stay in the mountain. I will go sleep with the soldiers at the base. I will not come.’ At that time, Grandma had Uncle Yia, Uncle Ying, Uncle Kou, Uncle Chao, Aunt Jer, Uncle Ger. Uncle Ger was still a baby.

How old were you?
I was about 15 or 16. It was 1961. We took a dog. It would only bark when people or ghosts came. It was a good dog, unlike other dogs that always barked. When that dog barked, there were either people or ghosts around. This time, Uncle said ‘All of you take the cow and leave.’ We could only bring the cow because there were too many pigs and chickens, so we didn’t take them.

So you left them all?
Yes, we left them in the house and closed the door behind.

Did you regret leaving the animals?
We left as far as 10 miles and slept there. In the daytime, Uncle Yia and I came back home to feed the pigs and chickens. When it got dark, we left again. Maybe Uncle Yia was about 7 years old. Nws ua kuv luag rau qhov kuv yog tus hlob. Now, when we came the first time–nothing happened. We just opened the door. The second time, they had already come and stolen our wheat.

Who stole it?
The Vietnamese soldiers. The second time we came, we had a pond of fish, and they already destroyed it and took the fish. We came to get the rice. We got back on the path, and the Vietnamese soldiers stopped and pointed their guns at us. That was the last time we went to our house. The next day, Uncle sent some people to come get us. We left with them to Long Cheng, the flat ground village. We saw General Vang Pao. We lived there for a few years. At the town, your father and I were both single. We got married at *Phu Kho (Phuj Khom) and had Sheng and Houa. Then we left to Thailand because the Vietnamese soldiers were coming. Your father did not take the car with us. He took the boat.


What village were you in before you fled?
We were in *Phu Kho. We went to *Na Sue.

What was the night like when you were going to run?
That night–they said for us to wake up early and prepare food to eat.

Who said that?
The villagers. They said ‘tomorrow we have to run because the Vietnamese soldiers are coming.’

Were you scared then?
I was scared.

What were you thinking?
I could not sleep. I only prepared a small bag. Grandma woke up early to cook a pot of rice. Tia and Wong were very small. After she finished the rice, we went to the street. Your father came to meet us. He piggybacked Tia and I piggybacked Wong–

Was it dark?
It was almost light in the morning. Ong was still little. Your father gave his shirt for her to carry. After a while, she got tired and could not walk, so your father just threw the shirt away, and he didn’t have a shirt to wear. We hired a taxi and took it to *Na Sue.

What happened in Na Sue?
We got to *Na Sue and slept there for a night. Your father said he was a soldier. The Vietnamese soldiers knew him. We took the car, and he went by foot, so if the soldiers saw him, he could lie that he w