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A Hmong generation finds its voice in writing

FRESNO, Calif. » In many ways, the preoccupations of the young writers who gather every week here over supermarket cheese and crackers are those of young people everywhere. They grapple with loneliness, the mystifying behavior of siblings, being gay, the parents who do not understand them.

But as the first generation to grow up with a written language, English — rather than the traditional spoken Hmong — the members of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle are addressing a new kind of coming of age in America. It is one in which living room sofas are moved for the arrival of a shaman on Saturday mornings and in which Fourth of July fireworks are avoided because they elicit terrifying flashbacks among their parents.

Mai Der Vang, a 30-year-old poet and a project director for New America Media, an ethnic news organization, writes about the lives her mother and father could not have:

And what you learn on back-to-school night,
when your mother does not know how to
write your name on the chalkboard
of your fourth grade class.

They call themselves the 1.75 generation, mostly born in the United States but still strongly identifying with their Hmong roots. They are the sons and daughters of the hundreds of thousands of Hmong villagers in Laos who were covertly trained by the Central Intelligence Agency to repel communist forces during the Vietnam War. Although the oldest writers were born in Thai refugee camps, most grew up in the Central Valley of California or in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

In the U.S., traumatic memories of wartime atrocities are often compounded by language issues, poverty and social isolation. The writers’ parents grew up not only without a written language, but without much knowledge of the outside world.

In monthly workshops and in "How Do I Begin?," an anthology of their writing recently published by Heyday Books, Vang and her colleagues try to make sense of the dualities of growing up Hmong American, especially the hidden inner lives of parents often expressed as an inchoate sadness.

In Laos, only one child — usually the eldest son — was chosen to attend school, said Pos L. Moua, 41, a creative writing and English teacher at Merced College. When his father was younger, he spent his days "taking food to his older brother, a long journey by donkey," Moua said. Now 74 and ailing, Moua’s father had deeply wanted an education; when his son read him a poem he had written, he wept.

"They have an urge to talk about feelings," Moua said of his father. "But the limitations in the new world changed the way they perceived life."

The limitations have been profound: About a quarter of Hmong families nationally live in poverty. In Fresno, the percentage is even higher, at 35 percent. And in California, nearly 43 percent of Hmong ages 25 and older have less than a high school diploma, according to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census.

In a study of the Hmong community by the Center for Health Disparities of the University of California, Davis, poverty was cited by families as a major contributor to mental illness. In the 1990s, a wave of teen suicides in Fresno cast the challenges of assimilation into bas-relief, with truancy among boys still a major issue.

"In the U.S., the family power structure gets switched around," said Shwaw Vang, a clinical social worker at Khasiah House, a Hmong mental health clinic in Madison, Wis. "It’s the young who are able to communicate with the larger community, which gives them authority, while parents are relegated to religious and healing ceremonies and taking care of the house."

Writing is a way to reinforce "Hmongness," said Burlee Vang, the circles’ 29-year-old founder, who has a mohawk and goatee and is not related to either Mai or Shwaw Vang. He started the group seven years ago "out of loneliness," he said. With no Hmong literary tradition, "in college, all these Asian kids were asking, ‘What’s Hmong?"’ Burlee Vang said. "You didn’t have a history book to give them."

The circle started inauspiciously in the party room of a Chinese restaurant where readings were interrupted by clanking ice from the soda fountain dispenser.

The themes of their work provide a rare window onto the Hmong-American experience. Mai Neng Moua, for instance, offers a tragicomic soliloquy on the role of the "nyab," or Hmong daughter-in-law, and how it conflicts with feminist values (she suggests a handbook called "Nyab for Dummies"). Some, like Khaty Xiong, write about the abyss between Hmong parent and child:

Father learn to love me,
I promise I will cleanse the soil between your toes
And brush the dust from your hands,
If only you will love me.

In her poem "Your Janitor: Is My Father," Mai Vang writes about the anonymity of her father’s work picking up trash from office cubicles. Vang’s mother has suffered from depression, though as a girl Vang never understood what it was.

A clue to her mother’s circumspect nature arrived inadvertently when Mai Vang stumbled upon an unopened suitcase in her closet. It contained the tattered embroidered jacket she wore as a girl the night she had to flee her Laotian village. Such tangible remnants, which she calls "objects of exile," triggered her mother’s concealed memories.

"You might find these relics in a suitcase, and that’s how the stories happen," she said. "Parents don’t sit down and say, ‘Let me tell you. …"’

Several weeks ago, Ying Thao, 29, discovered, while watching a travelogue on Hmong TV, that his mother was a master artisan in Laos, celebrated for making hemp cloth from scratch.

"Here in Fresno, she goes to Hancock Fabrics, JoAnn or Wal-Mart," he observed. "I sensed she didn’t want to be reminded of herself."

Thao, who is gay, has his own difficulties sharing his life with his parents. "There is literally no word for homosexuality in Hmong," he said. He grew up in a close-knit family with four brothers and six sisters in a one-bedroom apartment in Fresno. His young nephews, however, are growing up "only eating American food and hardly speaking Hmong," which saddens him.

Coming to terms with their parents’ experience, from Laos to Fresno, and preserving it in the printed word is the major impetus for Soul Choj Vang and his colleagues:

Now, here I am, adopted citizen,
Not rooted in this land, unable to taste
The spirit in its dust,
To sense its moods in the pollen.
How do I begin my song?

"Our parents will never write," Mai Vang said. "So we write for them."


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