No matter what some citizens of the world may think of the United States, it is still the last great hope for many people. There are large numbers of Mexicans, Carribbean Islanders, Eastern Europeans, Africans and others who move here to make a better life for themselves and their families. Many are escaping great hardship and injustices and others are looking for the security and comforts that American life may offer.
One of the groups of people who began moving to America in the 1980s is the Hmong, a racial minority, who have been living in Thailand and Laos after being forced out of China many centuries ago. The Vietnam War gave the mountain residing Hmongs the opportunity to collaborate with the U.S. Armed Forces, and, since the end of that War, they have been attacked and systematically removed from their homes by Laotian soldiers, killed or moved to settlement camps in Thailand.
When I picked up the award winning book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman over 10 years ago, I knew next to nothing about this group of people. Fadiman explains what happened when sophisticated American doctors met an uneducated Non-English speaking immigrant Hmong family with a very seriously ill daughter. The clash of cultures and the inability to communicate produced a tragic chain of events and misunderstandings that jeopardized the quality of the child’s life.
Not only was verbal communication very difficult, but the Hmong immigrants could not read or write. It has been widely reported that the Hmongs had been without a written language since it became eradicated over many centuries of persecution under Chinese rule. In the late 20th century, an attempt was made to reintroduce a Hmong written alphabet in a romanized form, but it met with limited success. Fadiman details the difficulties the Hmong people faced with no written language and also gives insight into their history, background, and the unsettling events that led them to the United States. As the book unfolds, it is clear that the gulf between this family and the American medical system was both unbridgeable and unavoidable.
I had virtually forgotten about the Hmongs until a new release, Latehomecomer: a Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang, leaped off the shelf and into my hands. At the present time most Americans still know little about the Hmong culture and those that do are mystified by their immigration to the U.S. The Hmongs now number over 180,000 and have settled mainly in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, all areas that are completely foreign to their way of life in Laos. This beautifully wrought memoir traces Yang’s family history from the mountains of Laos where they had helped the Americans during the Vietnam War to their present day life in Minnesota. In the late 1970s, many Hmongs were rounded up and executed while others escaped and moved higher up in the mountains.
Yang’s family was fortunate to flee to the Laotian mountains and jungles. And, as the Laotian soldiers closed in, they managed to elude capture and cross the treacherous Mekong River to find a semblance of freedom at a refugee camp in Thailand where the author was born. This horrific ordeal is narrated movingly by Yang as she describes everyday life in the camp with her extended family and how they lived in crowded, poor conditions until they were sponsored and able to move to St. Paul, MInnesota.
The move was bittersweet when Yang’s beloved grandmother was separated from them to go live with another son who settled in California. Grandmother was the heart of their family and the conduit for all the Hmong history, culture and traditions that helped keep this small ethnic group alive over many difficult centuries. Grandmother’s annual visits until her death ensured that their traditions survived and Yang’s family continues to honor this culture and folklore. The ability to hold onto these customs and their past also gave the Yang family the strength to survive life in America. Each family member, from adult to child, is invested in assisting the whole family achieve the American dream. Life has not been easy in the United States, but these proud people are committed to educating their children, working hard and becoming productive, valuable members of American society.
For two fascinating looks at this very small group of American immigrants, these two books will move you and make you proud that America is home to so many diverse cultures.