The Hmong in South East Asia were US allies during the Vietnam war, recruited to help protect their villages from the north Vietnamese. Now, many of them have relocated to the US after the war to escape reprisals. A look at how they have adapted to living in America.
RAY SUAREZ: Another of our reports on the legacy of the Vietnam War, 25 years after the American withdrawal. Tonight, we have the story of a group from Vietnam’s neighbor, Laos. The Hmong fought for the United States and are now trying to make their way in this country. Correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro of Twin Cities Public Television in Minnesota has our report.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For a few days each November, an arena best known for Minnesota’s famous high school hockey league has become the site for a new tradition, called the Hmong New Year.
(Singing in Hmong)
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The twin cities are home to the largest Hmong population in North America, about 60,000 people. They began arriving from Laos and Thai refugee camps in the late ’70s, initially placed here by local church-based refugee relief groups. And while this community has plenty to celebrate, social workers and educators say it’s been a struggle. Of all the Southeast Asian refugees who fled for the U.S., none was more reluctant or less prepared than the Hmong. Hmong music, artwork, and ceremonies depict an agrarian people who fled once, a century before, from China to almost total isolation in the hills of Laos. Until the mid-20th century, the Hmong did not have a written language or a currency.
Practicing old traditions
SPOKESMAN: There is money now. Soldiers are paid about 10 dollars a month. A road is started toward the south.
Hmong fighterFRED DE SAM LAZARO: The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which made this film about the Hmong, also brought them into the political mainstream by recruiting them to fight the communist Pathet Lao. Seventy-year-old Chong Neng Vang is one of thousands of Hmong men who put down their sickles and took up U.S.-provided arms for a grueling, costly guerrilla war.
CHONG NENG VANG (Translated): We were living in peace and did not want any part of the war, but we were being captured by the communists, and tortured.
We were fighting to keep our way of life.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: After 16 years as a soldier, in which he saw four brothers die, Vang has little more to show than a body mangled by shrapnel and bullet wounds. Even though he came to the U.S. in 1981, he has still not adjusted to a culture he does not fully understand, in which his own way of life is not understood.
CHONG NENG VANG: (Translated) I do not speak the language, so that has been difficult. I do not own my own home. We have to rely on our government Social Security check. In Laos, we were able to perform our rituals without embarrassment, without worrying about neighbors. Here there is no space to perform animal sacrifices. Our rituals are not accepted here.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Those rituals are integral to Hmong religious customs and practices, which are unique and not influenced by other major Asian religions. Funerals can last anywhere from four to seven days. A pig is sacrificed as guests partake of a sumptuous meal. A chicken is also sacrificed, and used to convey the departed spirit to the afterlife.
XAO VANG: The chicken is the most important thing of the dead person because the chicken can fly and can make a noise to let people in heaven know that she is coming.
Children learning new ways
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But it is perhaps language skills that have most handicapped many in the Hmong community. Chong Neng Vang’s son Ce, who was in his early 20s when he arrived, says he still feels handicapped by his limited English and by his inability to provide for his wife and nine children.
CE VANG: (Translated) In Laos, we had a lot of children because you needed them as helpers. Here, having more children is more costly.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Costly and constant reminders of what the parents don’t know about American life, reminders most evident when the kids reach school age. Mee Moua is a community activist who came to the U.S. from a Thai refugee camp when she was six.
MEE MOUA, Attorney/Activist: For you and me, our children go to school and they come home at the end of the day, I know that I have to set aside a certain amount of time to do homework and a certain amount of time for television watching, and then at a certain time they go to bed. These are everyday routines that we take for granted. My parents never had that.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Moua says parents frequently don’t know how to prepare their kids for school, and many cannot understand what their children are learning. Even today, some schools are unable to provide interpreters for parents, and are forced to use children to translate from teacher to parent during conferences. This undermining of traditional parental authority is blamed for a high occurrence of depression, even suicide among elders, and in part for teen delinquency and gang activity.
MEE MOUA: And so because that has been set up, you give an opportunity for the kid to become the parent, to learn so much more than what the parents know, and you’re just sort of giving them more opportunities to… I guess to break away from, you know, the parents’ authority. And that’s, I think, the crux of what’s making life really hard here for Hmong families.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But for all the problems within the Hmong community, things are improving. Unemployment, for example, is down from 60 percent earlier this decade to about 45 percent now. And there are some real successes, like Mee Moua, who is a lawyer with a prestigious Minnesota firm.
MEE MOUA: We are really no longer refugees. Many, many people are working individuals, they’re business owners in this community. We have well over 800 Hmong businesses in the twin cities alone. I’m a member of the Hmong Bar Association.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But to achieve that success, Mee Moua, like a growing number of Hmong women, broke with one tradition: That’s marriage and motherhood in their early teens. Moua married at 29, and recently became a new mother at 30. Moua is optimistic for her son Chase’s generation, which she says will benefit more fully from the education system, even if many of their parents haven’t. Ce Vang and his wife, Cher Xiong, placed their children in a new charter school that emphasizes a strongly disciplined core-knowledge curriculum.
CE VANG: (Translated) I like the discipline, the fact that they wear uniforms. They seem to look out for the overall well-being of the children.
CHILDREN: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.
FRANKLIN SONN: The New Spirit School was founded in 1998, and although not targeted or even located in the community, quickly filled up with Hmong kids. They now account for 85 percent of the enrollment.
ALLISON STONE, Teacher: Everyone say, “lifeguard.”
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: School officials say Hmong parents were attracted by the promise of more parent involvement in school affairs. English-as-a-second-language teacher Allison Stone says parents are deeply concerned, but often limited in how much help they can offer from home.
ALLISON STONE: Their culture is very oral, which kind of translates in a school setting that kids are able to learn the language and they’re able to speak and to understand much sooner than they’re able to read and write. And I think that’s especially the support that’s lacking at home is their reading and writing.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: However, Stone says Hmong parents are able to team with teachers in instilling a learning discipline, and school director Michael Ricci says the kids have many more Hmong role models.
MICHAEL RICCI, New Spirit Charter School: They have now their own professionals in this community– lawyers and doctors and dentists– not unlike any other immigrant group that came here 100, 150 years ago had to start with the very basic professions before they became educated into the higher professions.
More community professionals
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And those now in the professions, like Mee Moua, have helped bring considerable political savvy to the Hmong community. They are lobbying Congress for an exemption to the English language requirement for the U.S. citizenship test. And in Minnesota, they won a loud public battle with a popular radio station over controversial broadcasts they deemed offensive.
ANNOUNCER: It was not our intention to offend the Hmong community. We are sorry for stating that Hmong should either assimilate or hit the road. Hmong are deserving of our fullest respect.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That issue of respect continues to torment the community’s elders, like Chong Neng Vang, men who lost the land they fought for, and lack the tools to cope in their new home.
CHONG NENG VANG: (Translated) The U.S. government, the CIA initiated the contact with us. They began this relationship. Now it seems like we’re left out to dry. I was a soldier, and I would like to be treated like a soldier, with a veteran’s pension.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For now, Vang’s generation of old Hmong soldiers will more likely depend on their children, at least for respect as elders, as they celebrate the old traditions and the new achievements of an emerging Hmong American community.
RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this week making it easier for Hmong to obtain American citizenship. The bill awaits Senate action.
Manufacturers commitment questions
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Environmental groups have praised the Japanese carmakers for what they call a practical approach to cleaner cars, using intermediate technology instead of waiting for the iffier “pie in the sky” breakthroughs before bringing cars to market. The Sierra Club’s Dan Becker charges that Detroit is using the PNGV Project as an environmental fig leaf.
DAN BECKER, Sierra Club: Detroit has taken advantage of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles to create a scam. They produce one single, or two production prototypes, they sit on their fuel economy standards and refuse to make any progress. They churn out more and more gas guzzling SUV’s so that now we’re producing less efficient cars on average than we were in 1980.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Becker charged that Detroit is not seriously trying to sell cleaner cars. For example, he said all three PNGV models use diesel engines, which won’t meet the tight emission standards in California, a crucial bellwether market for new models, because it’s so large.
DAN BECKER: The Japanese chose cleaner gasoline hybrids. Diesel emissions are probable carcinogens, which is why California will not allow these PNGV vehicles to be sold in California.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ford’s Bill Powers is adamant that Detroit is deeply committed to the PNGV’S success. As for diesel engines, he says they get better mileage than gasoline or spark-ignition engines. Further down the road, he says a new fuel cell technology, with no harmful gases, could become viable. All, he says, are options for California.
BILL POWERS: We are doing very deep research, not just us, but with our partner… Other auto company partners as well as Sandia Los Alamos Federal Laboratories to make breakthroughs to help us clean up diesels. If we can’t sell diesels in California, we won’t sell diesels in California. We’ll have clean spark ignition engines to play that role.
Is there a market for fuel-efficient cars?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But convincing buyers into the new hybrid cars may not be easy. Almost half the current total sales, at profits of $10,000 to $20,000 per-vehicle are in the large, thirsty, sport utility vehicles, or SUV’s, in spite of recent increases in gas prices. Csaba Csere, is editor of Car and Driver Magazine.
CSABA CSERE, Editor, Car & Driver Magazine: On opinion poll after opinion poll, Americans are very concerned about saving the environment. And you can phrase the question any way you want: They want to save fuel, they want to reduce oil imports, they care about the air, they care about the water purity. And then they go down to the dealership and they buy the giant jumbo SUV’s. So they say one thing and they act differently, and for the car companies who must actually sell the product, this is an enormous concern.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Critics of Detroit’s automakers say Americans simply haven’t had viable choices in alternative cleaner cars. So all eyes will be on the new Japanese hybrids as consumers kick the tires for the first time. At $20,000 when it comes on the market this fall, the Toyota Prius is about $4,000 more than a regular sedan, which will offset much of the savings in fuel. Toyota is counting on consumers like Ed Roth who will pay extra for a clean car.
ED ROTH: I’d have to consider what’s going to happen 20 years from now, and if this would make things better, you know, it would be a consideration.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: With increased sales and economies of scale, Toyota says it can bring prices down. However, the hybrids have a tall marketing order ahead of them, judging from this random poll at a recent auto show.
CONSUMER: There’s not a lot of technology explained at this point. I’d like to know more about that.
CONSUMER: There’s some question about the mechanical side of them. As far as what it costs to repair them.
CONSUMER: I think it’s a bit early yet. We’re still gasoline-minded.
CONSUMER: They’re too light to haul a boat.
CONSUMER: If they would come out with a hybrid SUV, I would buy it. Does that sound strange?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Apparently not to Ford. Early in April, Ford announced it would indeed offer a hybrid version of a smaller SUV called the Escape in 2003. It would be the first domestic automaker to actually deliver a car within the PNGV’s deadline, although its mileage will be about half the project’s goal at about 40 miles per gallon.