Monday, April 20, 2015 The Hmong: America's fiercest allies -- once left behind -- now call the U.S. home Third and fourth generations are now being raised in Akron and other Midwestern communities by WKSU's M.L. SCHULTZE This story is part of a special series.
Web Editor M.L. Schultze
SLIDESHOW: Hmong helped the U.S. fight what's been called the 'Secret War' in Laos, and many eventually found their way to the U.S.
Editor's note: Extended interviews about the escape from southeast Asia and life in the U.S. and Akron are continued below this story.
Forty years after Vietnam officially came to a close for the U.S., the role of the Hmong people remains largely unknown here. But it’s had a lasting impact on second and even third generations in Akron. As part of our series exploring the legacy of the Vietnam War in Northeast Ohio, WKSU’s M.L. Schultze spoke with the Akron Hmong community about its attempts to honor the past and prepare for the future.
LISTEN: 40 years after Vietnam fell, the Hmong make their way in towns like AkronOther options: MP3 Download(6:48)
It’s a Sunday morning, and about two dozen 20-somethings and middle schoolers are getting together at Asia Services in Action on Akron’s east side. They’re practicing their Hmong names during a class of what’s called Hmong Ohio Of Tomorrow.
Nalee Vang and Houaj Chi Vue are among those leading the class. They say one goal is educating the broader community as well.
“I think ultimately our goal here is to just make sure there is a little bit of separation of Hmong people from Chinese people or Hmong people from Thai people or just because we lived in Laos doesn’t mean we are Laotian," says Nalee.
And, jokes Houaj Chi Vue: “Not ultimately, but one of the goals is probably so everyone can get rid of the ‘Have you ever seen Gran Torino?'
The secret war and a glimmer of recognition ‘Gran Torino’ – as in the Clint Eastwood movie about a retired autoworker, a Hmong family and the huge changes as their lives and cultures come together in battered working-class neighborhood.
Both say the movie has its inaccuracies, but beats the alternative: Anonymity for a proud community of about 500 people in Akron – the largest concentration of Hmong in Ohio.
It’s the other side of the world from the mountainous regions of southeast Asia where Hmong clans – dominated by names like Vue and Vang -- congregated and migrated for centuries. And, notes Nalee, where the CIA recruited and trained Hmong to fight Communists in Laos in “The Secret War.”
“No one knows that the Hmong people were involved with the U.S. people. … We fought for them hard. And we were sought after because we were working with the enemy in hopes that they would bring us here, in hopes they would give us opportunities. And in the end, the U.S. left and they kind of just left us there.”
A long migration Many Hmong made it to the U.S. after Laos fell in 1975. More ended up in prison or in refugee camps in Thailand, then emigrating to places like Fresno and St. Paul, then to places like Akron.
LISTEN: An interview with Yee Vue Xiong on life in Laos, Thailand and the U.S.
Yee Vue Xiong was among them. She’s a perpetually smiling woman – even when she describes bodies of young boys she saw as a child. She remembers the years from 1975 through 1978 in the jungle struggling for the basics like food and clothing.
“We eat bamboo. And there were no shoes. Our feet were very tough. If we had no shoe, we walk without shoe.”
Sewing, stories and support These days, she’s a regular at a weekly sewing circle of Hmong mothers and children.
They fill a room at Goodwill on Waterloo with two languages and the whir of sewing machines. And with the brilliant fabrics that will become traditional Hmong jackets, elaborately embroidered skirts and long, narrow aprons.
Kitty Leung, a caseworker with Asia Services, facilitates the group. She says the needlework is as much about telling the story of the Hmong as about clothing.
"We had one killed, shot in the stomach and he laid there for 10 days."
--Yee Vue Xiong on the experiences of her childhood
“It’s a way for the parents to show their daughters how to sew so they can build a relationship there and their traditional outfit is such an important part of the culture that I think we should hold onto.”
No dirty laundry But Leung says the gatherings are about support as well. The Hmong -- many brought here through churches in the 90s -- have been in Ohio longer than many Asian immigrants. But Leung, who was born in Hong Kong, says in some ways, they’re a tougher community to connect to services.
“People traditionally rely on their own support structure like their own community. And perhaps culturally, People generally don’t like to, what is that idiom? ‘Hang their dirty laundry?’ So people generally keep things to themselves.”
New generations But nearly half of the roughly 260,000 Hmong in the U.S. are 18 and younger. And American ways are affecting the culture – even among those dedicated to preserving it.
Sometimes that runs counter to a patriarchical structure in which women leave their clans when they marry and where it’s still not rare for men at gatherings to eat first.
Changing gender roles Prai Vue – who’s been in the U.S. since the early '90s, when he was 2 -- says he’s in awe of his sister, who adopted English and pursued higher education faster than he. But he and Houag Chi Vue say the balance still needs to tip ever so slightly toward tradition.
“One of our Hmong leaders, say between the men and women, now we’re doing 50-50. But the woman should just give that 1 percent to the guy because … I think it helps to preserve our tradition.”
Still, when Yee Vu Xiong pauses at her sewing machine and speaks of her five children, she beams brightest when she speaks of her daughters at the University of Akron and Kent State – and in Akron’s early college program.
“No education, (it’s) really hard living. Like me. I got no education. I work like a cow.”
And Cathy Vue of Asia Services, says Hmong reverence for education is increasingly embraced by mothers and girls.
“A lot of females are pursuing higher education, are graduating so they’re coming out as professionals. But a lot of males, those numbers are a lot lower. And I think that’s definitely shifted the power as well between men and women for our generation.”
Next generation The even younger generation – middle schoolers – say it falls to them to find a balance. Mai See Lor emigrated from Thailand about 10 years ago, when she was 3.
“My parents and grandparents, they’ve told me a lot of these stories and it kind of inspires me. I want to make a name for the Hmong community and I want to make my community proud of me.”
She says some of that will come with honoring the sacrifices of the past. Some from embracing the future.
Images with audio
← LISTEN: A discussion of gender roles with Nalee Vang, Houaj Chi Vue, Prai Vue and Cathy Vue.
← LISTEN: An interview on culture and change with Shen Yang, whose family came from the camps in Thailand to Colorado and eventually to Akron.
← LISTEN: Many Hmong settled in Fresno and St. Paul,which has created some contrasts as the decades go by, says Shen Yang.
← LISTEN: Prai Vue talks (far right) talks about trying to strike a balance of tradition and progress.
← LISTEN: Three middle schoolers, Ethan Vue, Mai See Lor and Tyler Vue, talk about their goals.
← LISTEN: Txai Lee Xiong still goes by the name Dang. His parents gave him the nickname when he was a toddler because -- they joke -- he cried as a baby so he must not have liked his real name.