2001: Stephen Magagnini, The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee
Award for Diversity Writing
Sunday, January 28, 2001
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Diversity writing

Stephen Magagnini

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Family reaps bitter harvest in America

September 10, 2000

First in a three-part series

At the end of Albion Way, a dead-end street in south Sacramento, Hmong children play America’s game, shooting baskets on a rickety hoop.

Beyond the hoop outside her ramshackle apartment, Nou Her has transformed a field into a little slice of Laos.

On this drizzly morning, Nou Her, 56, comes alive. While a plump, wildly optimistic Hmong boy casts his fishing rod into a large rain puddle, she pulls weeds from the rows of mustard greens, onions, beans, cilantro, sugar cane and other crops she has raised since she was a child in the mountains of Laos. Her ailing husband, Yong Chue Thao, carries her hoe and helps as much as he can.

The field is their only refuge, the only place in America they truly feel Hmong.

Her and Thao, 57, have also lovingly raised 12 children, considered gifts from the heavens in Hmong culture. But it has been an uneven, sometimes disastrous harvest in America’s urban jungle. Three of their sons are in prison for murder.

On Albion Way, a 5,000-year-old culture is dying.

Decades of tragedy

In Laos, Yong Chue Thao was a captain, a war hero who saved the lives of seven American pilots shot down in the jungle.

For nearly 15 years, he and thousands of other Hmong as young as 12 — vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped — battled the North Vietnamese army to a stalemate in northern Laos.

Three days after he landed in America in 1976, he went to work on an Alabama assembly line, making lawn mowers for $2.75 an hour. He processed chickens in Arkansas, stitched upholstery in Kansas and cut mushrooms in Utah.

By the time the family moved to Sacramento in 1988, Thao didn’t have much fight left.

Slowed by a stiff back and a queasy stomach, he drives his teenage children to and from school, then retreats to his apartment, watching TV shows he doesn’t understand and trying to put a smile on decades of tragedy.

Like many Hmong in their 40s, 50s and 60s, Thao is a broken man, defeated first by the communists, then by brutal Thai refugee camp guards, now by the English language.

In Laos, where he fed and protected his family, his word was law. Here, he has suffered the humiliation of unskilled jobs, welfare checks addressed to his wife and total dependence on children who have never known him for the man he was in Laos.

But the worst defeat of all has been at the hands of sons Sou, Lee and Chun — each convicted of a different gang murder. Sou and Lee claim they’re innocent; Chun says it was an accident.

Together, they represent thousands of Hmong American youth alienated from parents and society.

Sacramento’s fastest-growing gangs are Hmong, eclipsing other Asian American street gangs, police say. Hmong gangs have been involved in at least six shootings in the north county in the past four months. Paul Suwa, a veteran police gang detective, estimates that more than a dozen Hmong gangs with a total of at least 270 members are operating here.

Hundreds of other young Hmong are ditching school or marking time in Juvenile Hall, the California Youth Authority or state prisons.

Their older siblings remember the rice terraces carved into the mountaintops of Laos, where they grew mentally and physically tough and learned to honor their parents as part of an intricate culture built on honesty, spirit worship and clan loyalty.

But many younger brothers and sisters, raised in Thai refugee camps and America’s ghettoes, know their parents only as impoverished strangers from another time and place who can’t deal with landlords, doctors or school officials without their help.

Until the Thao family and thousands of other Hmong were driven from the mountains of Laos by the Vietnamese and Lao communists in 1975, they lived a tribal existence free of telephones, electricity, plumbing, banks, lawyers or schools.

Their children became adults as early as 12, expected to work, marry and raise children to help in the fields. Most never learned to read or write; they passed on their wisdom through stories, not books.

The Hmong “are unique even among refugee groups,” says University of California, Berkeley, professor Ron Takaki. “Their adaptation to America is filled with hazards and barriers and cultural land mines.”

Unlike other refugees, few Hmong ever dreamed of coming to America. Their elders told fantastic tales of yellow-haired, long-nosed American giants who dined on plump Hmong.

But in coming to the United States, Thao never imagined his sons would turn violent here. He couldn’t show them the way — he’d never even seen a pencil before he came to America — but he tried to teach them respect. On rare occasions, he struck them, as the culture prescribes. More often, he begged them to stay home. His wife, too, swallowed her pride. In a culture where love is rarely expressed, “I’d tell them I loved them as they walked out the door,” says Nou Her.

Detective Suwa and his partner, Sharon McClatchy — who have known the Thao family for years — ache for them and hundreds of other hapless Hmong parents.

“If this town only knew,” Suwa says. “These kids b.s. these parents so bad.”

By the time Thao and his wife knew the depth of the trouble their sons were in, it was too late — the young men were on their way to prison.

The leftover people

Sou Thao is a thoughtful, well-groomed, quiet young man. His shoulder-length black hair flows from a receding hairline that he says dates back to the time four Vietnamese American kids jumped him in the Burbank High School library and yanked out most of his hair.

“They were in a gang; I was not,” he says. And so began Sou Thao’s life as “Hitman,” one of the toughest, most respected Hmong gangsters in Northern California. He became an icon for Hmong youths who knew no other heroes, including his younger brothers, who followed him into the gang life.

On April 21, Sou turned 28 in California State Prison, Solano. He has just passed the six-year mark of 16 years-to-life for the murder of a Hmong youth.

Police investigating the murder found a photo of more than 40 Hmong boys and girls flashing gang signs, and a large poster titled, “‘The Leftover People’ ... We will never die, we just multiply.”

The Leftover People. That’s exactly how many Hmong, young and old, see themselves: leftovers from the CIA’s secret war in Laos, a war that robbed them of their homes and their way of life. Leftovers dumped in America’s worst neighborhoods, unable to read street signs, much less their kids’ gang signs.

When the Thao family moved into their three-bedroom apartment at the end of Albion Way in 1988, they entered a new kind of killing field. Bursts of Uzi fire tore through the neighborhood as Crips and Bloods engaged in a bloody cycle of retaliation.

Sou and his friends, figuring they had nothing to lose, bought stolen guns and defended themselves. In America, they had no identity — they felt neither Hmong nor American — so the gangs gave them new ones: “Too Short,” “Rooster,” “Lonely,” “New Wave.” Sou became “Hitman.”

Now, his identity is Inmate No. J75216. He has had no visitors since his conviction. No one has visited younger brothers Lee and Chun, either. All three say they’re ashamed to let their parents see them in prison; in Hmong culture, violent criminals are disowned by their clans and families.

Sou says racism shaped his early years in America. Like many Hmong families, the Thaos moved around a lot, led by Sou’s grandfather, a fertility expert who treated Hmong across the nation.

“Every time you move, you get picked on,” Sou says.

When he entered Burbank High in 1988, he says, the south Sacramento school was polarized by gangs seething with racial hatred. Then, there were only a few dozen Hmong students; now there are more than 500.

After Sou was jumped at Burbank, he fled to Chico, where his older brother Bee lived, and got a job as a movie usher.

But he returned to Sacramento 18 months later to attend Fremont Continuation School. He worked as a cook at Burger King and ran with MOD (Masters of Destruction), a Hmong gang whose influence has spread from California to the Carolinas.

Sou soon became a legend in the deadly turf war between south Sacramento-based MOD and archrival AFG (Asian Family Gangsters), a Hmong gang based in North Sacramento.

In the past six years, Southeast Asian gang-related shootings have erupted at high schools, on freeways and on streets, says probation officer Todd Winfrey. “It puts a lot of the public at risk.”

Sou Thao’s fury was fed by the 1993 gangland murder of his best friend, Jimmy Yang, 16.

Police say Sou became a killer on June 17, 1994, after two carloads of Asian Family Gangsters drove around Susan B. Anthony Elementary School, the heart of MOD territory, and shot at several Tiny Little Rascals, the Cub Scout version of MOD.

Later that night, Sou and other Hmong gangsters ordered some Tiny Little Rascals to get them a “G ride” — a stolen car. Then they drove to North Sacramento to exact their revenge.

Police say that at 2:18 a.m. they killed Khao Heu, a one-time Asian Family Gangster, with a shotgun blast to the head.

The key witness against Sou was his little brother Lee. Though he has made his peace with his brother’s betrayal, Sou says “his story was all lies.’’

Sou, who finished high school in prison last year, has come to appreciate education. On the outside, he says, college never crossed his mind. No one suggested it.

Prison never crossed his mind, either. “You’re so angry about everything else you don’t even think about that.”

“We had no mentors,” he says, no one to help him feel good about being Hmong American. “A mentor that’s involved in the community would help a lot, someone who pays attention to our personal problems, school problems.”

His dad, like many Hmong fathers, talked to him only when he got in trouble. His mom urged him to find a wife, hoping that would get him out of the gang life, but he never had a real girlfriend.

Still, Sou — like his brothers — doesn’t blame his parents for his descent into gang life. “They did their best,” he says. “We didn’t listen.”

Fleeing Thailand

Nou Her wears a multicolored headdress — a fusion of red, yellow, green and purple — and a face chiseled with a mother’s pain. When she talks about her imprisoned sons, she cries like a wounded animal.

“The children that came from Laos seem to respect me more, while the kids that were born here seem to be out of control,” she says. “They are more intelligent than I am, they know the system better than I do.”

Nou Her thinks she was born in 1945, in Laos. When she was 11, her father died of a snake bite, and her mother remarried and left Nou Her on her own. At 14, she married Thao.

In the past 18 years, she has watched Thao deteriorate. A bleeding ulcer has left him able to stomach only bread and rice, and arthritis has made his body so stiff he can barely bathe himself. He watches CNN or Hmong videos on a couch under a figurine of Christ — the Thaos, like many Hmong, have become Christians, hoping to change their luck.

Thao’s father was famous in Hmong circles for his ability to treat infertility by placing his hands on women’s stomachs and readjusting their internal organs. In Laos, the Thaos grew sugar cane, rice, bananas and opium — it is legal there — and raised oxen, cows and sheep. “Life was good,” Thao says.

But at age 16, just three days after he married Nou Her, Thao was recruited into the CIA’s secret army led by the legendary Gen. Vang Pao.

Thao and his 120 men and boys battled the North Vietnamese army at the fabled Plain of Jars, giant stone pillars known as the Hmong Stonehenge. He was wounded in the hand and the head.

Sent home in 1975, he found there was nothing to return to. His family already had fled the communists, crossing the Mekong River into Thailand on bamboo rafts.

Thao found them a year later, in Ban Vinai refugee camp.

The Thaos, like the rest of the Hmong in the camps, had little choice: They could return to Laos with nothing and risk being executed by the communists, or they could take their chances in America, a place so alien it might as well have been the moon.

Most came here with no idea how to turn on a faucet, a thermostat or a stove, no notion of the joy of soaking in a hot bath. Forget about filling out a job application.

And America’s institutions and agencies were totally unprepared for them, despite official efforts ranging from English classes to job training programs.

“I perceive a lack of willingness by social service providers, cops, teachers — anybody — to even try to understand these communities,” says police Sgt. Fernando Enriquez, who has held gang prevention workshops for Hmong parents. “This is a cultural tragedy that we’re seeing unfold. They’re going to go from (being) disenfranchised to cultural extinction.”

Today, most of Thao’s 12 children are scattered like mustard seeds. His oldest daughter lives in Minnesota with her husband’s family. Four others live in Utah, including Pai, once a star student. Now 20, she takes a few college classes, works nights sewing air bags and minds her older brother’s children during the day.

Only three children are still at home, including youngest son Jer, 16, who already has had scrapes with gangs and the law.

For all his trials, Yong Chue Thao doesn’t blame the U.S. government. He says the people of Laos lost the war themselves. “If I could turn back time,” he says, “I would still fight.” He blames his sons’ troubles on the neighborhood, but doesn’t quite know where else to go.

“I miss my freedom”

Lee Thao lives a few minutes from the untamed beauty of California’s rugged North Coast. But he never gets to see it. He’s doing 25 years at Pelican Bay State Prison, a concrete hellhole 400 miles from Sacramento.

Lee, who stands 5-foot-3 and weighs maybe 125 pounds, is “walking the line with some of the toughest inmates in the world,” says a corrections officer. In March, 200 rioted.

Early one July morning, Lee, 22, is let out of his A Block cell to meet his first-ever visitor: a reporter.

He says his street name was “White Boy,” because of his light brown hair and fair complexion. He misses his mother’s plain, steamed rice and his midnight fishing trips for stripers and sturgeon, sometimes in stolen cars.

“I miss my freedom, really,” he says.

Of the three Thao brothers in prison, Lee was the least violent — and the most tragic.

He was born in Selma, Ala., and grew up in Merced and Sacramento. He earned a B-plus average at Burbank High before he dropped out. “If I’d have stuck to school, I’d have been somebody.”

Lee wanted to play football, but his parents didn’t want him to get hurt. He says organized sports could help save younger brother Jer: “Basketball, anything where he’s not out on the street like we were ... “ But few after-school programs actively recruit Hmong youth.

Soon after Lee moved to Sacramento, he started hanging out in Susan B. Anthony Park, where some Hmong youths administered a two-minute beating, his initiation into the Tiny Little Rascals.

Had his parents been stricter, “that would have made me worse,” he says. “I had that attitude.”

In 1992, he was sent to Juvenile Hall for stealing guns. “It wasn’t no punishment. It was like a camp ... you met all your friends.”

At 15, he told Sacramento Police Detective Jeff Gardner that his brother Sou was involved in a murder. Three months later, he unwittingly implicated himself in the drive-by killing of a 15-year-old member of a rival Lao gang.

Police say Lee and his fellow gangbangers stole a van, then drove alongside the victim’s car and gunned him down in front of a church on Meadowview Road.

Lee was all the cops had, at first. “I didn’t know I needed a lawyer,” he says. According to court records, Gardner told him, “I don’t want to think that there will be any charges filed against you in this shooting.”

But after Lee told police who was in the stolen van, two of the suspects he named testified against him. Lee claims that although he helped steal the vehicle, he was in Stockton the night of the shooting.

Now Lee chops vegetables in the prison mess hall for 30 cents an hour, draws pictures of knights and dragons, and counsels a Hmong gangster from Crescent City as part of Pelican Bay’s “Scared Straight” program.

Prison didn’t dash Lee’s dreams. He never had any. “We wouldn’t think past our next good time about the consequences. We really messed it up for ourselves and our family. We just lost them ... We didn’t see the sacrifices they made to get here.”

A warning shot

Chun Thao, at 21 the youngest of three Sacramento Hmong brothers in prison for murder, represents a sliver of hope for his shattered family on Albion Way.

Unlike his brothers, who will spend the first decade of the 21st century locked up in state prison, Chun is scheduled to return home by 2002.

More boarding school than prison, the California Youth Authority’s facility in Paso Robles has given Chun a real shot at redemption. He roams the well-manicured grounds with relative freedom.

It’s five years since he shot and killed “Little T,” a 14-year-old Lao boy whose gang crashed a south Sacramento birthday party. Chun claims he only fired a warning shot to defend the children at the party, that he didn’t intend to hit anyone.

Though he says he’s sorry and talks of becoming a role model for Hmong youth, prison officials wonder whether Chun has really changed. A CYA spokeswoman describes Chun’s frozen demeanor at parole hearings as “flat.”

By the time Chun was a sixth-grader at Susan B. Anthony, he’d joined his older brother Lee’s gang, the Tiny Little Rascals. They’d skip school, steal cars, rob houses, buy guns and terrorize the neighborhood.

“The teachers would want to talk to my parents. I told them my parents didn’t speak English.”

He says his father and older brother Billy would whip him with a belt, then lecture him about how he could become anything if he’d finish school. But, he says, “I was a little hard ass. When they beat me, it just made me madder. I was angry at them for being right.”

His parents blame the neighborhood, but Chun says he would have joined a gang no matter where he grew up. His gangster brothers tried to keep him off the streets, but they were the only ones he looked up to.

Strange as it seems, Chun says, “I’m kind of happy being locked up instead of being out there. I would have done something worse, or I would have been killed.”

He calls his mom every month, and writes to his sister May. She and her husband, both ex-gangsters, now have an infant son.

Getting married is the only way your “homies” will let you leave the gang life, Chun says. When a 15-year-old friend tried to quit the gang, “they beat him up bad.”

In April, Chun got his high school diploma, and plans to go to college when he gets out. He’s read “How to get a Job,” and his favorite, “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.”

“The message,” he says, “is that everybody goes through bad times.”

“Where’s Waldo?”

Hmong parents and their children are lost in America, even to each other. Often they literally don’t speak the same language.

The Thaos’ youngest son, Jer, 16, teeters on the brink of disaster. But he doesn’t speak or understand Hmong well enough to share his deepest thoughts and fears with his parents.

“Where’s Aunt Thao?” he asks in halting Hmong about a relative who used to live with them.

His mother responds in Hmong, which Jer can’t decipher.

“My mom doesn’t get what I’m saying,” he says in frustration. “I can’t explain ... “

Mother and son, however, understand a bribe. His mom paid him $90 to cut off his Mohawk and pony tail; now he wears a flat-top fade and a new leather jacket.

On this gray weekday morning, Jer is hanging around the house in his baggy green bell bottoms, doing nothing much. He doesn’t emerge from his bedroom until 11 a.m., claiming a stomachache.

Asked the last time he went to school, Jer looks at his watch. “I forgot,” he says.

Jer Thao has become the “Where’s Waldo?” of the Sacramento City Unified School District. He hasn’t been to school for more than a month, and nobody knows where he is.

District officials say he’s at Goethe Middle School, but he hasn’t been there since May 1999. Officials at Burbank High School, where he enrolled in September, say he’s supposed to be at Thurgood Marshall Continuation School. But the principal there has no record of him.

“This is the biggest mystery in the world, Jer Thao,” says Burbank Principal Kathleen Whalen. “He was in trouble from the git-go, smoking on school grounds ... Of course he’s failing.”

The school scheduled a behavior hearing in December, but Jer’s parents didn’t show up. They couldn’t read the letter notifying them about the hearing. And Jer didn’t tell them.

“Jer’s doing everything he can for a family reunion (in prison),” says Bob Sandoval, Burbank’s vice principal of discipline.

Sandoval says Burbank’s 507 Hmong students include several dozen Jers, kids who drift in and out of school. In a classic Catch-22, those caught cutting class are suspended for five days.

When Jer finally shows up at Thurgood Marshall, he’s bullied by several other students. “They’re mad-dogging him, challenging him to fight,” says Suwa, the detective. He guesses that Jer’s tormentors might be retaliating because their friends were killed by his brothers.

Fighting isn’t Jer’s style. If he’s not shooting baskets on the rusting hoop overlooking his mother’s garden, you can usually find him at a friend’s house, watching videos or playing video games.

“School?” he yawns. “It’s not all that hard ... I’m just lazy and don’t do my work.”

Harvest of hope

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon. Nou Her and her youngest daughters, May and Mai, are watching May’s 8-month-old son KayBe play with a toy on the living room floor.

May, 19, has a full-time job with the U.S. Census Bureau; her husband stays home with KayBe.

Mai, 14, a quiet girl with chestnut hair, is doing well at Burbank High and has found her passion: the violin.

Nou Her wanders out to her garden to fill a few bags with mustard greens, then returns to cradle KayBe. For one afternoon, she is all hope and smiles. There will be new crops to harvest, new generations to nurture.

Copyright 2000 © The Sacramento Bee

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Activists chart path for a new generation

September 10, 2000

The six little girls giggle when Xeng Xiong writes a Hmong phrase on the blackboard, then translates it into English: “You are very beautiful.”

For Xiong, 30, witnessing Hmong children say and write “You are very beautiful” (cawhjong gaow heng) in their native language is indeed a thing of beauty.

While the younger kids learn Hmong language, values and folk tales, Pahua Lor, a student at the University of California, Davis, helps the teenagers with their homework and teaches them about affirmative action,equal rights and other American ideas.

They belong to a grass-roots program aptly named HOPES (Hmong Organization for Parents, Educators and. HOPES doesn’t get a dime of public or foundation money — it’s driven by an all-volunteer corps of community activists.

They’re just part of a new wave of Hmong freedom fighters, ages 18-35, who are going to war against the demons of illiteracy, truancy, delinquency and poverty that are tearing apart Hmong society. Born in Laos but schooled in America, they are challenging police, school administrators and city officials to wake up before Hmong culture is wiped out here.

The freedom fighters are spread out around the community. Some are college students. Others are teachers. Still others are social workers.

Tsia Xiong, HOPES’ founder, is among those leading the charge. Xiong, like teacher Xeng Xiong (no relation) is that rarest of birds: a 30-year-old Hmong bachelor. His life is a whirlwind of probation hearings, mentoring programs, a summer day camp, parenting workshops and visits to troubled families.

Last year, when he was given a community service award, Xiong was in no mood to celebrate.

There’s no after-school program to keep our kids in school. No Hmong teachers at Grant High (one has since been hired). Less than 10 percent of the Hmong in the Sacramento City Unified School District are reading at grade level. Our Juvenile Hall numbers keep increasing,” he tells the stunned crowd. “We need to solve these problems or the Hmong community in Sacramento will cease to exist.”

He’s angry that city officials haven’t hired a Hmong community liaison to bridge the language and culture barrier — a job he and others have been doing for free.

Copyright 2000 © The Sacramento Bee

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Hmong women building bridges

September 11, 2000

Second in a three-part series

In the back room of a south Sacramento welfare office, a quiet revolution is under way.

A dozen Hmong women sit around a table, eating strawberries and trying to solve the mounting problems facing Hmong families in America.

Tonight, they are learning how to say “I love you” to their children. While many American parents say “I love you” as often as “Good morning,” few Hmong are comfortable with the expression — as if to say it would somehow devalue it.

Slowly, the crushing burden of Hmong womanhood unfolds. Debbie is missing tonight; no longer able to cope with her 10 children or the shame of her rumored affair, she has tried to hang herself. Meanwhile, three of Nue’s four teenage sons are AWOL, and after 19 years, her arranged marriage is crumbling.

Though nearly every woman in the group is in the throes of a personal crisis, an aura of strength and optimism fills the room.

That confidence is embodied in May Ying Ly, the cherub-faced founder of Hmong Women’s Heritage Association, which earlier this year received a $400,000 grant from The California Endowment to help troubled families — and to help Hmong elders bridge the generation gap.

Ly’s sister-in-law Nue embodies the angst of Hmong women. At 31, Nue has six teenagers (including the three who are AWOL). “She takes care of everything, the dinner, the homework, the housecleaning, the parent-teacher meetings,” Ly says. “Her husband never changed a diaper.”

Some Hmong men consider Ly and her confederates heretics intent on dismantling male-dominated Hmong society. But the organization is fast becoming one of the most influential Hmong groups in California.

“Some of the women say life in America is scarier than running from the war in Laos,” says Ly, 32. Many Hmong women, including several in Ly’s family, “are looking at their situation and they’re taking off — or trying to,” she says. “They’re willing to give up everything, including their kids, to do what it takes to be happy.”

Hmong men won’t publicly criticize the group’s Hmong-style feminism, but Ly suggests they’re feeling a loss of control.

“There’s more rights in this country and women take advantage of it,” she says. “Hmong men are actually very nervous — they blame Hmong Women (Ly’s association) because there is this problem and we want some voice ... We have to combine what’s positive from the old culture with what’s good in this country.”

Ly’s life is a high-wire act between old and new. Her two daughters have American names — Mercedes and Candace; she named her son, now 9, Ntuj Tshiab (pronounced Tdoo Che), which means “New World” in Hmong. “So he’ll always remember that he has to make a difference in the world,” she says.

One weekend, Ly and her children pick strawberries on her mother’s farm in Merced. The next, Ly and Mercedes, 11, fly to Las Vegas for a Backstreet Boys concert. Ly has held dinners honoring Hmong clan leaders — even though they are always men — and criticized the old Hmong guard for living in the past.

She peppers her English with “yada yada yadas,” yet she’s fluent enough in Hmong to be author Ann Fadiman’s interpreter for “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” a nonfiction book about a sick Hmong child caught between cultures.

Up at 6:30 a.m. on a typical weekday, Ly makes rice, eggs and maple sausage for her family, then changes into SuperHmong.

From 9 to noon she teaches survival skills to Hmong women who know a thing or two about the subject. One 56-year-old grandmother says proudly, “I delivered all 12 of my babies by myself and never let their heads touch the ground.”

Then Ly bounces from crisis to crisis.

She rushes to UC Davis Medical Center to visit a pregnant 15-year-old in intensive care with pneumonia and a bladder infection. “The family was really traditional. They tied strings around their wrists for good luck and called in a midwife to massage away the sickness,” she says later. The hospital “gave her some antibiotics and she’s doing fine.”

After that, she’s on the trail of her nephews, Nue’s sons, only one of whom showed up at school.

Two of them, enticed by Ly’s promise of “delicious, delicious food” and a $5-a-day stipend, turn up at her evening survival skills for teens class. They and eight other youths learn how to find and keep a job, set goals, solve legal problems and deal calmly with the turmoil raging in their often crowded, chaotic homes.

The most anguished part of Ly’s day is yet to come. That night and the next, Ly and her husband host emergency meetings of clan leaders.

Their objective: to save her sister-in-law’s marriage.

Fed up with a spouse who shoots pool five nights a week while she scrambles after her sons, Nue is nearly at the end of her rope.

“I don’t know what to do,” she says. The vice principal at Burbank High School told her to stick around a couple of days a week, as some other Hmong mothers do, to make sure her sons get to class. “I can’t do that,” says Nue, who works for a children’s advocacy group. “If I don’t go to my job, they don’t have food on the table.”

She visited a Hmong fortune teller, who tried to sell her a $400 elixir guaranteed to keep her sons out of trouble. “She said if I put it on my lips and talk to my kids, they will listen.”

Instead, Nue bought a $25 bottle of “magic” water. She poured it into five cups for her sons and husband. “They said, ‘What’s this for?’ I said, ‘Just drink it.’ “

The water didn’t do the trick, so Nue has been salting away money from her job to start a new life.

“There’s nothing good in my marriage,” she says. “He doesn’t talk to me, and he’s not a good father to my children ... If I don’t get out, I’ll sink and drown.”

The clan leaders order her husband, Joua, to start acting like one — less pool, more parenting. He says he’ll try harder. “I’m short-tempered,” he admits, but says Nue’s acid tongue is partly to blame. “I do 60 percent right, but that’s still not good enough for her.”

A way out

Like many Hmong women her age, Nue played by the rules in Laos, only to find the game of life turned upside down in America.

When she was 6, her family landed in Santa Barbara. She’ll never forget the humiliation of her first day of kindergarten: She was sent home because she wasn’t wearing underpants beneath her skirt. “We don’t wear underwear in Laos,” she says.

Then her family moved in with a stepbrother in Orem, Utah. When she was 13, one of her stepbrother’s soccer buddies, Joua, paid her stepsister a $20 bribe to get Nue out of the house for what Nue thought was a baby-sitting mission.

Instead, Joua and four male members of his clan grabbed her and put her in a van. Then Joua held her hand, announced he loved her and said he was going to marry her.

Nue knew girls were kidnapped into marriage in Laos, but couldn’t believe this was happening to her in Utah. He was 22; she was a sixth-grader.

She cried, screamed and begged them to let her go. But Joua’s mind was made up.

Joua didn’t touch her, but he spent three days in the same room with her, making sure she didn’t jump out the window. According to Hmong custom, if a girl spends three days in a man’s home, even if there’s no physical contact, she must marry him as long as he can pay the “bride price” set by her parents.

When Joua brought Nue back home, Nue’s mother wept, then told her, “Just go and learn what you have to do to be a good wife, mother and daughter-in-law.”

Joua bought Nue for $1,500.

“Why do you want to sell your daughter like an animal?” Nue says. “Every time you have a fight with your husband or your in-laws ... they remind you how much they paid for you.”

Wife-napping is slowly fading away in America. If a Hmong girl marries before her 18th birthday these days, it’s usually because she’s madly in love, pregnant or desperate to get out from under her mountain of chores.

But most clans still support arranged marriages, and most husbands are still expected to pay a bride price ranging from $6,000 to upwards of $10,000. Looks are less important than a woman’s clan reputation, capacity for hard work and education — though some traditionalists accuse college-educated women of using their careers as a cover for extramarital affairs.

“My uncle married a woman with a master’s degree in social work; her bride price was $25,000,” Ly says.

The bride price serves as an insurance policy against bad wives and husbands. If a woman dishonors her husband, some clans give him a refund. And if your clan helps you pay the bride price, you’d better not do anything to shame them or you can forget about their help in the future.

Even in California, the pressure to go through with an arranged marriage can be enormous.

Nue didn’t call the cops when she was kidnapped because, tired of picking up aluminum cans for pocket change, she saw marriage as a way out of her poverty-stricken family.

It took her about a month to fall in love with her husband. “He treated me right,” she says. They had six children in rapid succession.

In Laos, each child meant another pair of hands to harvest crops, feed pigs, cook and clean. There was no birth control; even in America, many Hmong know little more than what their children learn in sex education. In Sacramento, there are Hmong families with as many as 14 children.

“I love you”

About eight months after Nue’s youngest child was born, she says her husband beat her up over $20 — he admits striking her but says it was over $40 — that had fallen out of his pocket.

“The minute I walked in he called me a thief,” Nue says. “He slapped me, then he kicked me and I fell down. The next thing I remember I was in the hospital” with a ruptured spleen.

Much of her love died that day.

Joua begged forgiveness and paid Nue’s mom a $1,000 fine. A Hmong who beats his wife can be fined $5,000 by her clan, which is refundable if he treats her lovingly for three years.

Joua, 41, is not one to hide the truth. “I blacked out, maybe,” he says, between games of eight ball at the Jointed Cue, a billiard parlor on Fruitridge Road that became his nighttime sanctuary starting in 1986. “I got mad, stupid, whatever.”

Joua twirls on a counter stool, his trademark toothpick clenched in his left cheek. A fellow pool player addresses him as “master.” Here, he is a man to be respected.

Pool hall manager Carlos MuÐoz says Joua used to hang out there all the time. “They only have one car. She’d want to go and he wouldn’t give her the keys.”

But since the clan’s intervention two weeks earlier, Joua has cut back his pool habit to Tuesday nights, and then only with the permission of “the boss,” Nue snarls playfully, as she leans over the rail and blasts the eight ball at the corner pocket.

Instead, Joua takes his kids to play soccer or basketball and tries to help them with their homework. There are no more nightly shouting matches.

“I’m trying to change a lot,” Joua says. “I don’t want her to go; I’m really worried about it.”

On Mother’s Day he took Nue out on the town and bought her a $300 Hmong outfit, imported from China, at the Hmong store on Stockton Boulevard. Back home, while the family watched a video of Hmong New Year’s in Sacramento, two of Nue’s children brought her a teddy bear and some flowers and told her they loved her.

Then Joua told her, “I love you, too.”

“I only hear that once a year,” Nue says. “It’s very hard for us to say that word. It made me feel special.”

Joua’s new role model is his brother-in-law Pheng Ly, May Ying Ly’s husband, who cooks and washes dishes.

Pheng and May Ying met in Merced. She was a nerdy high school junior; he was a community college student, “this cute guy in a red shirt who had already put a diamond engagement ring on my best friend’s finger.”

When Pheng’s engagement fell through, May Ying consoled him. They married during her sophomore year at California State University, Sacramento. She went on to become a supervisor at the county welfare office, where she saw dozens of Hmong families caught between their desire to get off welfare and their dependence on Medi-Cal health insurance.

Ly says she owes much of her success to her late father, Cha Ly Xiong, one of the first Hmong school teachers in Laos.

On April 23, 1976, he brought his family from Thailand’s Ban Vinai refugee camp — where Ly remembers watching many people sicken and die — to Honolulu.

Her father, who spoke English, had no trouble finding jobs as a social worker or interpreter in Hawaii, Orange County and Merced, where he was killed in a car accident when Ly was 16.

She says the only reason she hasn’t been flayed for her feminism is because her father was a war hero whose memory still commands respect from the old “generals” who were leaders in Laos.

Close-knit clans

Ly has reached out to members of the old guard, offering them a place in her center where they can talk free of distractions. She has challenged many of the old ways, yet she’s a firm believer in the close-knit clan and its moral authority. “We don’t have a word for cousins — it’s brother or sister,” she says, and clan elders are called “uncle.”

But some clan leaders still have multiple wives, which Ly says undermines sexual equality. Gen. Vang Pao, the legendary Hmong leader who led the CIA’s secret war in Laos from 1960 to 1975, took eight wives from the largest of the 18 Hmong clans. (In keeping with American law, he has since divorced all but one.)

In Laos, there were reasons for polygamy: When a man was killed in the war, his brother was duty-bound to marry his widow and raise his children.

But in Sacramento and Stockton, there are still Hmong men in their 20s and 30s with two or even three wives, much to Ly’s chagrin. Some Hmong husbands threaten to get a second wife, and a few have actually recruited second wives in Laos.

Although early teen marriages and multiple wives aren’t legal here, some Hmong couples avoid scrutiny by not registering with the courts.

Marriage remains the most sacred event in a Hmong’s life. In Laos, divorce was rare. So was theft or spousal abuse because anyone who reflected badly on the clan quickly became an outcast.

But what worked for generations in Laos often breaks down in America. “This country is so big, people can hide their mistakes,” Nue says. “There isn’t that group pressure.”

Many older Hmong think the “Land of the Free” is too free. They complain they can’t force their children to go to school, or do their homework, or even come home at night. And many Hmong men feel that women, too, are abusing their freedom of choice.

Here, women realize they are free to sleep with and marry whom they choose. They are free to pursue jobs or an education. They are free to demand equal rights and to get out of a bad or loveless marriage.

The balance of power has shifted dramatically as young Hmong women do better in school — partly because their parents are stricter with them — and often are more likely to get and hold a job than their male counterparts.

“The women are very quick — they’ve learned a lot about this country,” Ly says. “They take their kids to Cub Scouts, learn cooking, go to church. The Hmong men are the slowest to change and they’re the ones who distrust the system the most.”

Power struggles between Hmong men and women sometimes turn fatal. One of Ly’s shell-shocked clients is Mai Thao, who was widowed in November when, after years of frustration and financial problems in America, her husband killed their five youngest children, then himself.

Ly has heard that some men blame the association for fomenting marital strife. But she and her members say the best way to save Hmong marriages is to break with the destructive patterns of the past.

For instance, association president Sia Thao makes her son and two daughters split the chores: “Nobody is going to be anybody’s maid for life.”

She says Hmong mothers are the glue that holds families together. But when it comes to raising children in America, she admits she doesn’t know where to start, except to say, “I love you.”

Because Hmong parents rarely show their love, many Hmong children feel unloved and unwanted, Thao says. Tell them every morning that you love them,” Thao advises the women around the table. “It really works.”

A Hmong maverick

One recent Friday night, Ly and her husband unwind over a round of golf in Land Park. “Pheng’s really good,” she says. “It’s too humiliating to keep score.”

Ly returns home to a hysterical phone call from another relative whose husband has just tossed out all her clothes and told her to leave.

It’s time to get out of the marriage, Ly tells her.

“She got married at 14, and her husband had an affair that lasted five years. When she found out, she was a veggie ... The clan leaders lectured (him) for 2 1/2 days that he had shamed the family, yada yada yada, and told him if he left, he would be disowned by the clan.”

Ly had already spent two sleepless nights at their house, making sure they didn’t shoot each other. She even tried to slap some sense into the husband.

“He said ‘It’s none of your business.’ I said, ‘If your wife blows your brains out and her brains out, too, your kids become my kids.’ “

Then Ly confronted the husband’s mistress. “She said, I’m not a b---- who sleeps with other people’s husbands.’ I said, ‘Hel-lo ... ‘ “

Saturday, after honing her medical interpreting skills at a workshop in Oakland, Ly takes her daughter Mercedes shopping for the latest teen foot fashion — black platform heels. Then the family dines out at a Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant.

After spending Sunday morning at her Mormon church, Ly plays her favorite song, “I Walk By Faith,” on the piano. She and her daughter have been taking lessons, free of charge, from Sister Catherine Coleman, a member of Ly’s church.

“I just play for myself when I feel really down,” Ly says. It’s not easy being a mom, a wife, a mentor, a marital counselor and a Hmong maverick. “I’m just afraid I might be doing too much.”

Pheng Ly, a taciturn fellow, jokes that he’s the man behind Hmong Women. A modern Hmong man, he takes pride in his wife’s activism. “I love it,” he says. “I tell her, ‘You do it, then I’ll back you up.’ “

As May Ying has evolved, so too has Pheng. “He said, ‘I thought I was marrying somebody who was just going to be my wife and cook for me and my children — instead, you are everything!’ “ she says. “Having the respect of my husband is fuel for what I do.”

Copyright 2000 © The Sacramento Bee

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Hmong teen builds future in two conflicting worlds

September 12, 2000

Third in a three-part series

Julie Chang showed off her moves at her first-ever teen dance, causing her first-ever breakup — all on the same wild night.

“This was the first time I went to a party in my whole life,” says Chang, 16, her fingers combing raven locks that flow past her waist. “It was so fun.”

She boogied to “Larger Than Life” by the Backstreet Boys that fateful May night, then was confronted by her jealous boyfriend, who didn’t know how to fast dance.

“He said it’s over. His friend was saying that I was dancing with other guys — those were my girlfriends! I was so mad, too. I didn’t cry — I’m not the one who broke up, I didn’t do anything wrong ... I was saying forget it, he’s too old anyway. He’s 21.”

Her words pour out like a mountain stream in May. It’s all part of Julie Chang’s grand American adventure. She’s 4-foot-11 without her high-heeled Soda shoes, but larger than life — a diminutive dynamo who honors her ancient culture while embracing the raft of opportunities that have come her way in Sacramento.

Things other American teens take for granted are landmarks in Julie’s life: She recently saw her first movie and dined at her first all-you-can-eat buffet.

The future of the Hmong will fall on the shoulders of hundreds of young people like her who straddle two worlds often at odds.

Balancing those worlds will challenge Julie in ways she can’t imagine.

It’s 5:30 a.m. in her family’s mildewed Meadowview apartment. The aroma of fried hot dogs, green beans and fresh-steamed rice wafts from the kitchen. Even her father’s prize fighting cock is asleep, but Julie has already showered, dressed and made breakfast for her family — 14 in all, including nine younger brothers and a baby sister.

For her grandmother, afflicted with dizzy spells and high blood pressure, she has prepared a medicinal chicken soup. “It’s part of my job,” she says. “I’m proud of it.”

She was up past midnight studying for a history test, but there’s not a crease on her eager face, not a shadow under her mahogany eyes. She hems her black bell bottoms while a parade of bleary-eyed brothers emerges from the bedroom.

One by one, they hop onto giant 50-gallon water jars — left over from Y2K, when many Hmong thought the world would end — surrounding a small oval kitchen table, and devour breakfast.

Also in the kitchen are two 40-pound bags of rice, a neatly stacked pile of clean dishes Julie washed the night before, and a list of 50 phone numbers — all for members of the Chang clan.

Soon, the three-bedroom house returns to its normal chaos: children bouncing on the sofa and chasing one another around the living room, babies bawling, the phone ringing.

Gliding through this kinetic sea is Julie Chang, Burbank High sophomore, big sister, chief cook and wok washer, laundress, textile artist, tutor, interpreter and the shining hope of the Chang family.

“Sometimes I have so much to do, I don’t have time to go to sleep,” says Julie, who shares a bedroom with her five oldest brothers. “Last night, I slept on the sofa.”

At 7:20 a.m., Julie’s mom begins ferrying children to school in her red pickup. She drops Julie and her brother Meng, 15, at Luther Burbank High School.

More than 500 Hmong attend Burbank, making them the school’s largest ethnic group. They shine on the chess team, the volleyball team, in student government and the math/science engineering academy. Burbank has its share of ethnic tension, but most Hmong mix easily with other kids.

Miraculously, Julie is managing a 3.5 GPA. She’s also president of an Asian American girls club, a regular at the Friday afternoon Hmong forum and the star of Xavier Young’s “All Hmong, All The Time” language class.

A few months ago her father, who earns $900 a month washing rental cars at Sacramento International Airport, paid her the ultimate compliment: He bought her a computer.

The computer, now squeezed into her bedroom, “is helping a lot,” Julie says. But she still has to wait for her brothers to fall asleep before she can concentrate. “They’re so annoying, talking talking talking ...

“I love my life and I’m very happy, but I wish I was a boy,” she confides. “Girls do so much more work. I’ve been cooking since I was a little girl in the refugee camp.”

Culture shock

Until she came to Sacramento six years ago, Julie had never been beyond the barbed wire of the Thai refugee camp where she was born.

From the time she was 6, she and her mom embroidered Hmong story cloths known as pa ndao that tell the Hmong odyssey through pictures. Julie stitched stories of a war she’d never seen in a country she’d never visited, then sold them in the camp.

Her family was among the last wave of Hmong refugees to leave the camps. Her grandparents held out hope of returning to Laos to the last.

In 1994, armed only with her ABCs and 1-2-3’s, she was thrust into the fifth grade at Freeport Elementary School. Her initial excitement turned to sorrow when the other Hmong girls in her class tired of translating for her. “I understood what they were talking about, but I couldn’t say it back.”

Her parents were struggling, too. They felt abandoned by her aunt, who had sponsored them in Sacramento, then moved to Minnesota. “My parents said, ‘Why is she going over there? We came over here because of her.’”

Julie’s a fast learner. She taught herself to read and write Hmong in two months and she’s steadily mastering English. When her grandmother had surgery to remove a fist-sized growth on her back, Julie went to the hospital — a place she’d never been before — to translate.

“I cannot really translate from English to Hmong,” she says. “There’s no word for ‘complicated’ in Hmong.”

And that, in a word, describes the Hmong predicament: America is a land of many belief systems, cultures and lifestyles, confusing newcomers who have lived by the same rules for centuries.

As the eldest daughter in a Hmong family, Julie rarely has time for fun.

“Fun?” she does a double take. “I never have time to go play my sport, volleyball.” In six years here, she has seen one movie, “Godzilla,” and then only on a field trip. She does watch Hmong videos and catches snatches of “Friends” on TV.

The other night, she awoke at 4 a.m. to finish “Sweet Valley High,” the latest in her diet of teen romance novels.

Even then, the house isn’t always peaceful. Sometimes Julie can hear her 75-year-old grandmother, recently widowed, crying in the next room or listening to sad Hmong songs. Sometimes Julie reads while brushing her teeth.

Julie’s brains, looks and work ethic have already generated several marriage proposals, including one from the guy who broke up with her at the dance.

“He still calls me every day,” she says. “He says he’s sorry, he wants another chance because it’s hard to find a girl like me.”

He comes over Saturday nights and talks of love, “but I’m not taking it seriously,” she says. “I don’t have time to date. Education is more important.”

Her mother, Cheng Thao, begs Julie, “Don’t get married early. You’re the only one who can help me.” It’s Julie who helps her mom shop, Julie who helps her grandmother cash her SSI (Supplemental Security Income) check, Julie who explains the notes from school, Julie who plans her siblings’ birthday parties.

But Julie and her mom both know that when a traditional Hmong girl marries is often beyond her control.

Orphans reborn

Cheng Thao, 33, met her husband in the refugee camp in 1983. She was brushing her teeth when he claimed her. He softened her up with love talk, and three weeks later, they married.

She still waits for him to come home at 11:30 p.m. after eight hours of washing cars.

At 34, Chang Lor is a handsome, practical man in a black Nike cap. His family adores him. “My dad caught a sturgeon in the river,” brags son Meng. “He can wash 30 cars in an hour.”

Chang’s a firm believer in shamanism, but he allows his sons to hedge their spiritual bets: They go to Christian Sunday school.

Still, he values his Hmong heritage enough to set aside $15 a week for flute lessons for his eldest sons, Meng and Tou.

Meng finds it boring, but Tou, 13, enjoys feeling the music vibrate through him. He takes his flute off the wall and plays one of the 11 tunes he’s mastered, a song about orphans being reborn. It’s a fitting metaphor for the Hmong, orphans of history being reborn in America.

Chang also has enrolled Meng and Tou in Hmong 2000, a paramilitary youth group that meets Tuesday and Thursday nights. He sent Julie, too, but she quit to concentrate on school.

Chang’s father, Choua Neng Chang, was a soldier for 20 years and mayor of a mountaintop county of 20,000. He was renowned as a mediator, investigator and judge.

After Laos fell to the communists in 1975, Choua Neng Chang moved his family into the highlands and fought with the Hmong guerrillas.

In April 1981, the Changs and about 1,000 other Hmong lashed bamboo trees into rafts and fled across the Mekong River into Thailand. About half drowned in the crossing.

Julie’s dad studied English for two years in Sacramento but still finds the language frustrating. He dreams of buying a home and seeing his children through college. He expects Julie to lead the way.

Hmong girls doing well

Like Julie, half of the Hmong girls at Burbank have B averages or better, compared with 40 percent of the boys, says Principal Kathleen Whelan. Only 25 girls — 10 percent — have less than C averages, compared with 23 percent of the boys.

The disparity can be traced to the culture — while boys are often allowed to go out and play with their friends and roam the streets, Hmong parents keep a much tighter rein on their daughters, says Mai Xi Lee, a Hmong counselor at Burbank. “For a lot of girls, school is their only outlet.”

Still, the girls’ success is remarkable given their responsibilities at home, Lee says.

Julie’s brother Meng, who also maintains a B-plus average, does vacuum, wash some dishes and make a few meals. But little is expected of their younger brothers.

Lee calls Julie “your typical Hmong girl but more so. Not only is she an obedient daughter who knows her duties quite well, she also knows American culture well enough to do well in school so she can be successful at whatever she wants to do.”

Julie handles her many roles with grace and pride, partly because she was raised in an all-Hmong environment that offered no choice, and because her parents are wise enough to nourish her dreams.

But some of Julie’s Hmong peers at Burbank, especially those born in America, find it harder to balance both worlds.

“I’m going through the struggle right now,” says Mary Xiong, a freckle-faced senior who won a scholarship to St. Mary’s College in Moraga. She says that when she becomes the Hmong Oprah, her first talk show topic will be “Double Lives of Hmong Youth.”

Sometimes her parents support her desire to pursue a career. “Then, they’ll give me lectures: ‘You’re getting old; You’ll be 18 soon; When are you going to marry your boyfriend?’”

Traditional Hmong girls aren’t allowed to date, partly because some Hmong parents believe their daughters will be kidnapped into marriage or their suitors will spike their drinks with a magic potion to turn them into love slaves.

If a Hmong boy breaks up with a Hmong girl after several months, he may have to pay her parents a fine, even if there was no physical contact.

Mary, yearbook editor and president of the Hmong club, says at 13 she was ready to marry her first crush, but thankfully he backed off. She says her aunt wasn’t so lucky: “She got married last summer at 18 ... Now she’s pregnant and divorced.”

Mary swears she won’t get married until she’s 30 or 40. Julie says she wants to wait at least until she has finished college. But despite the pitfalls of early marriage, counselor Lee estimates as many as 60 Hmong girls at Burbank — more than one in five — are already married. Some became wives at 14.

Julie’s dreams

At the Friday afternoon Hmong Forum led by Hmong teacher Xavier Young, Julie and other students open up about how hard it is to reconcile their modern American dreams with the expectations of their old world parents.

“The only time I can talk to my dad is when we’re eating dinner,” says one girl. “I’d like to talk to him about education, but I’m just embarrassed.”

Yee Xiong, 17, lost two older brothers in the secret war in Laos. But when he asks about the war, “My dad just walks away or turns the TV louder ... it’s just too painful to talk about.”

Young, one of nearly 40 Hmong teachers who have been hired by the Sacramento City Unified School District in recent years, appreciates how hard it is for Hmong kids and parents to know one another.

“A lot of our students are hitting the same wall over and over again,” he says, “but at the same time, a lot of these students are going to come back and lead us whether they like it or not.”

He’s counting on Julie to become one of those leaders.

After a long day of French adjectives, Bolshevik history, probability, anatomy and Hmong language, Julie presides over a meeting of the all-girl She Club.

Today the club, which deals with everything from leadership skills to breast cancer, is preparing a dance performance.

Julie shows a sextet of Asian American girls how to gracefully twirl their hands and move their feet to a haunting Hmong love song. The song is about the first stages of a breakup (moral: You’ll feel the heartache later).

At 5 p.m., her mother drives her home, where anarchy reigns. Meng has pulled out a hunk of frozen mystery meat from the freezer. He’s hacking it up for dinner, stopping now and then to attend to a crying baby. The other kids draw with colored markers, watch TV or chase one another around the house.

Julie takes over, cooking a dinner that’s not unlike the breakfast she made 14 hours earlier.

It’s not until Saturday afternoon that she’s able to steal a few moments for herself in the cool confines of the library a few blocks from her home. She asks the librarians to help her research how to become a registered nurse, a teacher, a scientist.

Tears shine in Julie’s eyes when she thinks of Laos, the country that has shaped so much of her life, even though she has never even been there. “We don’t have a country of our own,” she laments.

But she’s making America her own and says she’s impatient to join the new wave of Hmong leaders. “I feel like I want to be in college, right there, right now,” she says. “It seems so incredible to make my dreams come true.”

But Julie’s blueprint for life in America was about to change dramatically.

“It’s too late”

After Julie came home from summer school at the end of July, her cousin showed up to fix her computer. He brought with him Kou Vue, a 17-year-old boy Julie met about a year ago at a meeting of Hmong 2000, the paramilitary youth group.

The computer fixed, the three of them got into Kou’s car. But Kou dropped off Julie’s cousin first, then told Julie he planned to marry her.

She was shocked: “We never went out; he just came to visit me. We never actually talked about love.”

What happened next was even more of a shock.

Kou, a junior at Florin High, took Julie to his home, where all his relatives were waiting for her. As they walked through the front door, a shaman swirled a live chicken over their heads — a traditional Hmong ceremony marking the start of the marriage.

The next day, Julie’s mother called and offered to take her home.

“No,” said Julie. “It’s too late.” In Hmong culture, she knows, leaving once you’ve been claimed by a boy can ruin your reputation for life.

“He’s a nice guy, you’ll have a nice future,” her mother responded.

Julie felt scared, confused and excited all at once. She likes Kou, and says she went with him of her own free will. Yet she knows little about him except that he gets good grades and everybody thinks he’s nice. And, she says, he has promised to support her dream of going to college.

A bride price was set — $6,400 — and the wedding took place Aug. 4 at her parents’ home.

“I feel so bad for myself,” Julie said during her third day in Kou’s house — the day the Hmong believe a bride’s fate is sealed. “I shouldn’t have come with him that day. Before this, I told the whole world I didn’t want to get married.”

But, like a million Hmong girls before her, she’s resigned to her fate: “Everyone regrets it after we get married,” she says. “But I think he loves me, so I will stay with him.”

Copyright 2000 © The Sacramento Bee

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Pursuit of the past

Hmong refugee makes bittersweet pilgrimage

December 31, 2000

VIENTIANE, Laos — Conflicting images burn through T.T. Vang’s brain as he flies over the mountains of his native Laos.

He sees the land where he was born and raised, the land where his father bled to death, unable to get help while his village was under communist siege.

He sees himself riding horses “like a little Mongol, a little cowboy,” carefree and wild. He sees a handmade bomb wrapped in barbed wire explode in his face, leaving him deaf for a year. He sees his nephew blown in half by a communist rocket barely two yards away.

“From the sky, my country looks beautiful, but 25 years ago it was destroyed by something terrible,” he says.

Tsong Tong Vang, T.T. for short, is one of an estimated 10,000 American Hmong who returned home this year flush with hard-earned dollars and visions of a prewar Shangri-La.

He’s carrying a dozen envelopes containing $5,000 from friends in Sacramento, to dispense to their relatives in Laos who make as little as $50 a year.

Like most Hmong refugees, severed from their roots and relatives when the communist Pathet Lao took over in 1975, Vang has unfinished business in Laos. Eight years ago, he was denied permission to visit his father’s grave and his birthplace, a village that grazes the sky.

This time, he hopes to make it home.

In Sacramento, Vang is a man accustomed to success: travel agent by day, security guard by night, chairman of his Hmong Catholic Church and host of a daily radio show, “Hmong New Life,” whose callers reveal how life in America has changed them.

He also is a husband and father of nine bilingual children — two sons and seven daughters.

Vang looks older than his 46 years, his face creased with laugh lines that overlay wrinkles of hardship and tragedy. He fled Laos in September 1975. His memory is still seared by images of a hellish eight-day trek across leech-infested mountains and jungles into Thailand.

As his plane descends toward the capital of Vientiane, Vang gazes down on the murky, mercurial Mekong River — where thousands of Hmong drowned trying to escape to Thailand — and wonders whether he will be treated like a spy.

He knows his clan name, Vang, is the most distrusted name of all. The legendary Gen. Vang Pao led the CIA’s secret Hmong army against the communists from 1961 to 1975. He remains on the Lao government’s “Most Wanted” list for heading the Hmong resistance from his Southern California headquarters.

T.T. Vang knows his name could get him kicked out of the country. That’s what happened to Nhia Chou Vang, a West Sacramento security guard who saved for years to visit his sister in 1999, only to be booted out the day after his arrival by Lao police for serving in Vang Pao’s army 25 years ago.

The name Vang might also get you killed. That’s presumably what happened to Michael Vang of Fresno, who mysteriously vanished while crossing the Mekong into Laos in February 1999. His disappearance triggered congressional investigations, stalled the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Vientiane, and delayed most-favored-nation status for Laos.

This year has been particularly tense for any visitors to Laos. Bombs have gone off at a restaurant, a hotel, and at the Vientiane airport.


As soon as his feet touch Lao soil, T.T. Vang wonders whether he’s finally welcome. He muses about running for office in Laos someday, and certainly looks the part in his white dress shirt, pleated French pants, smooth leather jacket and tasseled loafers. His fine reddish-blond hair — a trait of a full-blooded Hmong — is perfectly coifed.

“I could become a congressman, but I’d have to move back to Laos and be reborn again,” he says, adding that he’s been reborn three times already: first, as a Catholic student in the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang; then, as a medic and translator in Thailand after the war; and again, as a U.S. citizen.

Vang’s pro-Lao reverie is shattered by customs officials, who detain him and about 20 other Hmong and Mien Americans for an hour, rummaging through every piece of their luggage.

While white Americans breeze through unquestioned, Vang must fork over $100 to Lao customs officers for his still camera and video camera. He angrily blames the discrimination on jealousy and suspicion.

He acknowledges, however that plenty of Hmong in America do support the Hmong resistance in Laos. In March, Thai border agents arrested two gun-toting Hmong brothers from Sacramento who were trying to cross the Mekong into Laos.

In Vientiane, a city of some 540,000 with Internet cafes alongside ancient temples, Vang pays $6.50 to broadcast on Hmong radio. He lets relatives in the north know of his impending arrival.

Then, he visits an old Hmong friend, whose husband was killed in 1975 when his shovel hit a cluster bomb the size of a tennis ball. It was one of thousands of UXOs (unexploded ordnance) dropped by U.S. planes on Laos.

That bomb made his friend a widow and a hard-core communist. Dozens of Lao still lose limbs and lives to the UXOs every year.

A talkative, worldly man, Vang seems no more than three degrees of separation from any Hmong in the United States or in Laos. Hmong communists, royalists, rebels, shamans, priests — Vang knows them all, including some who have given up on America and moved back to Southeast Asia.

Vang’s first cousin fled Merced with several other Hmong families for Hmong villages in Thailand because they were having trouble with their teenagers and thought America would be destroyed in Y2K. They believe the Hmong messiah will lead them to Laos, Vang says.

So far, few American Hmong have returned to Laos permanently. Among those are outcasts, outlaws or lotharios searching for second wives or mistresses, said one United Nations observer.

Even law-abiding American Hmong in Laos keep low profiles to minimize “the death threats (from anti-communist Hmong in the U.S.) that surface any time someone has anything to do with Laos,” said the observer.

But some younger Hmong Americans enjoy being in the spotlight in Laos. At his hotel, Vang meets the Twin Stars, a touring Hmong soccer team from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Soccer has long been the national sport, and in the morning market in Vientiane, Vang sees a Hmong boy crying and begging his mother for a soccer ball. Vang buys him the ball for $6 — more than a week’s pay in Laos, one of the poorest places on the planet.

The largest unit of currency, the 5,000-kip note, is worth 60 cents, and the government’s stated goal is to raise per-capita income to $400 a year.

The typical Hmong family makes only about $50 a year if they’re farmers, maybe $120 if their wives and daughters make pa ndao, the colorful needlework for which the Hmong are famous.


Travel in Laos is dicey at best. Lao Aviation, the only airline, doesn’t meet international safety standards. Accidents are so frequent that its motto is “Every Passenger Insured.”

Driving can be dangerous, too. The Japanese government, for instance, won’t let its employees make the seven-hour drive north from Vientiane to the old capital of Luang Prabang for fear they’ll be kidnapped or robbed.

Vang chooses to fly to Luang Prabang, tucked between two rivers and the mountains of north-central Laos. Except for some clouds literally hovering inside the cabin, the 45-minute flight is smooth.

He is greeted at the airport by his cousin, Li Phone Vang, who heard Vang’s radio message and rode his motorbike for eight hours over decaying roads to see him.

Vang gets a far chillier reception at his hotel in Luang Prabang: The desk clerk immediately takes his passport to the police station.

“What about my fellow Americans?” Vang asks, referring to The Bee reporter and photographer. He’s told police require returning Hmong to register “for security reasons.”

He’s visibly stung, but soon he’s strolling through “Luang’bang,” as the city is known, reliving the good times. He passes the old downtown theater where he saw his first movies — Chinese kung fu flicks and Indian romances. He saw his first textbooks as a 12-year-old first-grader at a nearby public boarding school.

It was in 1965, two years after his father’s death, that Vang’s older brother moved the family to Luang’bang.

“If we’d stayed in my father’s village, I’d be dead,” Vang says. Four of his brothers died there of cholera, malaria or yellow fever.


Hiring taxis, Vang visits a series of Hmong villages south of Luang’bang, where he lived as a teenager.

At the first village, he hands out 10 envelopes, each containing at least $100, sent by his deacon in Sacramento.

Ten women weep for joy — the money will buy clothes, furniture and cookware. It’s obvious which Hmong have relatives in America — they’re the families with new homes, TVs and meat on the table.

The deacon’s mother-in-law asks about her daughter in Sacramento, who she’s heard has lost interest in her marriage. She asks about her grandson, whose wife took their infant son and ran away with another man.

In village after village, the Hmong never tire of hearing about marital problems in America.

Ancient Hmong marriage customs have changed in Laos, too. Vang’s cousin, a city councilman, says that in 1995 the Lao government passed laws restricting the Hmong to one wife and outlawing “wifenapping,” the practice of kidnapping a future wife.

The anti-bigamy law has improved Hmong marriages, the councilman says, because wives “don’t worry about being replaced.”

Vang also gets an earful about the government crackdown on opium, a cash crop that nets Hmong farmers as much as $1,000 a year.

The government has promised to help the Hmong grow replacement crops, but too often that help does not materialize.

Vang meets a Hmong tuk tuk (taxi) driver who studied economics in Russia only to see all the good jobs go to his lowland Lao classmates.

“Lao democracy is a total fraud,” the driver says. “They use the Hmong name to get international funding, but the funding doesn’t get to the Hmong.”

Still, the roughly 400,000 Hmong in Laos, population 5.4 million, are better off than the other ethnic tribes. Besides help from the states and opium sales, they sell their traditional pa ndao needlework. At one market, Vang sees a Lao woman sewing pa ndao. It turns out she’s working for the Hmong.

One of T.T. Vang’s relatives, 13-year-old Tia Yang, sews pa ndao from dawn to dusk.

“I really want to go to school — I’d like to become a nurse someday — but my parents won’t let me,” she confides. “Uniforms and schoolbooks cost too much.”

Before 1975, more than 90 percent of the Hmong were illiterate, says Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Sisavath Khamsaly, who like other Hmong in government has taken a lowland Lao name. Now, Khamsaly says, 60 percent can read and write.

But few Hmong make it past the third grade, Vang says. And many parents would rather put their daughters to work than send them to school.

Vang went to elementary school in a city 20 miles south of Luang’bang, walking six miles home every weekend to help work on his family’s farm.

He attended school with his nephew Yeng Pao Vang, who at 16 was the pride of the Hmong — “He was better than the Lao students. He wanted to be a doctor or a pilot,” Vang says.

But by 1973, the Hmong general, Vang Pao, was arming schoolboys.

“We were playing soldier — we didn’t realize the danger. That’s why so many got wiped out,” T.T. Vang recalls.

At a hill just south of Xieng Ngeun city, Vang asks the driver to stop. “I was wounded right here,” he says. “The communists attacked at 3 a.m. Dec. 3, 1973. My nephew was killed right there — his body was buried next to that big tree.”

Vang fled to a Buddhist temple, his head bleeding badly, his hearing gone. Thanks to a French doctor, he regained his hearing after a year.


Vang heads to the provincial capital of Udomxai, where in 1992 officials turned him back, telling him it was “unsafe” to visit his old village.

About 45 minutes outside the town, Vang’s driver lurches around a mountain curve and nearly runs into a rogue elephant. Later they learn that the elephant had attacked its master that morning, putting him in the hospital.

The elephant is an apt metaphor for Laos, which for centuries called itself the “Kingdom of a Million Elephants.”

Elephants, like the Lao government, are hard to figure. Laotians joke that the Lao PDR stands for “please don’t rush,” not Peoples’ Democratic Republic. This may explain why Laos isn’t brutally totalitarian, but it also explains why it takes years to build roads, schools and health facilities.

At breakfast the next morning, Vang’s hands shake so much he can barely drink his coffee as he steels himself for the visit to the provincial authorities. After a tense, two-hour wait, they give him the necessary papers, and the bumpy, six-hour odyssey to his village begins.

Each pockmarked mile brings Vang closer to his traditional Hmong youth.

He points out the value of plants along the road: Elephant grass is used to make pillows and mattresses, mountain grass makes the best roof, and French grass is good medicine. A few years ago, when his daughter’s menstrual flow wouldn’t stop, a relative sent him some French grass roots to make a tea that cured her.

Though a devout Catholic, Vang swears by the saga of Chou Xia Lor, the Hmong Tiger Man. In the 1950s Lor, a magician, would change from a man to a tiger and back by putting a bamboo basket over his head.

“This Tiger Man kidnapped shamans, beautiful ladies and children and turned them into his followers,” Vang says, adding that two of his childhood friends were taken by the Tiger Man.

The pickup truck Vang has hired hits a rock and stops. Vang and four relatives jump out and disappear down an overgrown jungle path.

“I’ve waited almost 36 years for this,” says Vang, his voice full of excitement and sadness. He leads the way through briars and branches to a large, overgrown earthen mound.

This is the final resting place of Wa Chia Vang, farmer, horseman, humanitarian and T.T.’s dad.

Wa Chia, founder of the village of Ban Mai where T.T. was born, taught his people how to farm, build and treat each other kindly. He grew opium, like other Hmong, but never smoked or drank. He raised village orphans as his own.

T.T. Vang stands by the grave and weeps.

“My dad picked this place out. He asked to face the rising sun — the Hmong feel the rising sun has the power to raise the dead,” Vang says.

Vang places wild French grass flowers and a photo of his mother, who died in 1998, on his father’s grave. “She’s the best flower of all,” he says.


Finally, Vang arrives in Ban Mai, a village time forgot until two years ago, when an international labor organization paid 150 villagers $1.80 a day to shovel out a crude road.

The village is a collection of 72 thatched huts between mountains planted with rice and purple and white opium poppies. It has no school, no plumbing, no electricity, no medical or dental care. Old superstitions die hard: A snake or a bird in the house is bad luck, but a cockroach is welcome because it means there’s plenty of food.

Vang is received like a returning hero.

Several villagers his age burst into sobs at the sight of him, then nestle in his arms like small children. They are some of the orphans Vang’s father took in. Everyone calls him grandfather, out of respect.

Still, they can’t resist testing him. They hand him a stick of sugar cane and a Hmong knife to see if he can still handle himself. Vang skins the cane beautifully.

Vang stays in his village for three days, grousing about the cold nights and the hard bamboo bed. Two soldiers shadow him, and a police officer sleeps by his side.

One afternoon, after a feast of buffalo and wild pig, Vang seems to forget these hardships and more: the year a plague of grasshoppers destroyed the rice crop, or the year the rats devoured it.

“If you work hard, God provides everything — water from the spring, firewood, roofing, fresh air, and night music from the owls, birds and insects,” he says.

“Let my wife know I’m not coming back. I’ll just build a house on top of the mountain. Each of my children will send me $50 a month, and I’ll have a good life. If democracy comes here, I’m pretty sure I’m going to run for Congress.”

But his wristwatch gives him away — he hasn’t reset it since he left Sacramento. “I’m never going to change my watch to Lao time,” he says with a faint smile.

A week later, Vang is back in Sacramento.

Copyright 2000 © The Sacramento Bee

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