From Laos to Fresno: Hmong Try to Adjust

Times Staff Writer

The San Joaquin Valley has become the unlikely caretaker to a poignant legacy of the Vietnam War. In the last three years, more than a third of the 60,000 Hmong refugees living in this country have resettled in the valley, and authorities here anticipate that thousands more of the Laotian mountain tribesmen will follow.

The Hmong, who fought as U.S. allies in Southeast Asia, have arrived here in such large numbers that it is a distinct possibility that they will change Fresno almost as much as Fresno changes them.

15,000 Moved In

An estimated 15,000 Hmong have moved into this city of 235,800. Nearly 9 of 10 are on welfare. They have overwhelmed social service agencies, forced 10 elementary schools into year-round sessions and created instant Hmong ghettos in two low-rent neighborhoods.


They come from cities across the country, seeking comforts attendant to a strength in numbers and a rural existence that at least vaguely resembles the life they knew in Laos. There have been a few successes, especially among the school-age children. But what most Hmong have found are hardships, ranging from a profound struggle to escape poverty to pathetic encounters with nuances of modern American life.

“These people,” said Barbara Christl, a social worker, “are slaying dragons every day.”

Of all the refugees of the Vietnam War, the Hmong have the fewest tools with which to adapt to American society. Theirs has been a journey more of time than miles. Until missionaries came to their mountain villages three decades ago, the Hmong had no written language. Many still believe in good and evil spirits and mystical priests (called shamans ) and are wary of modern medicine. They are strangers to most inventions of the 20th Century.

There have been tragedies associated with the migration--a suicide by a Hmong who apparently was overcome with shame and confusion after being jailed for a traffic violation, mysterious sleeping deaths of middle-age males and attempts to prosecute Hmong men as criminals for engaging in what to them was the customary way of claiming a young bride.

Simple day-to-day living presents an unceasing battery of less dramatic but equally telling tests. Last week, for example, Hmong children danced excitedly home from public schools wearing floppy paper rabbit ears and filled with expectations about a magical visit from the Easter bunny. For their parents, many of whom still believe that animal sacrifices can chase away evil spirits, it meant groping to understand the intricacies of an egg hunt in order to save their children from disappointment.

Cooking Hot Dogs

“I used to get a lot of questions about that kind of stuff,” said Anne Haddox, who directed a Hmong resettlement program here before becoming an aide to Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.). “The women all wanted to learn how to cook hot dogs for their kids.”

Driving, too, can be tough. For many Hmong (pronounced mong, like song), their first exposure to machinery was the appearance of American military helicopters, and the finer points of motoring sometimes escape them.

A Fresno police officer spotted a car moving slowly across an intersection in a succession of jerks. Traffic was tangled in both directions. The motorist turned out to be a Hmong. His problem was rooted in confusion about the corner’s blinking red light.

“He understood that when the light comes red, you stop,” recalled Frank Velasquez, assistant director of Social Services for Fresno County. “So every time it blinked, he stopped. To him, it was logical.”

Even the routine flyover of a helicopter can trigger a tragic encounter with dark memories, one of the most enduring enemies of the war-battered Hmong. An English teacher at an adult school recalled how a young man in one of her classes dived trembling under a desk when he heard the whop whop whop of an approaching copter’s rotors.

“He was just petrified,” the instructor recalled. “Then, when he realized what he had done, he was very embarrassed.”

Fought for CIA

The Hmong refugees fled Laos because to stay meant death or imprisonment. Other tribesmen had sided with Communist forces, but most of those now in the United States and in Thailand refugee camps fought in the Central Intelligence Agency’s so-called secret war in Laos, harassing enemy supply routes and retrieving downed U.S. pilots. An estimated 15,000 were killed in combat.

The plan was to scatter the Hmong, to stir them into the American melting pot in tiny portions. This did not work. Many were placed in northeastern cities, and some found the winter cold unbearable and the rents too high. Other states would not grant them welfare assistance. In Orange County, San Francisco and other refugee strongholds in California, some experts said, the Hmong did not mix well with more cosmopolitan Southeast Asians, who tend to regard the tribesmen as bumpkins.

One family moved to Fresno in 1978 and did well growing cherry tomatoes. Word spread. By 1982, the migration was in full swing, and shortly thereafter the valley had a glut of both Hmong and cherry tomatoes.

So far, the promise of farming has been largely unfulfilled. This is the home of the corporate farm and agribusiness, and the little plots of land the Hmong have been able to buy or lease rarely prove economically viable.

Still, a few persist. Koa Vang, a 41-year-old Hmong tribesman turned jungle fighter turned refugee, can be found working among cherry peppers and snow peas growing on four acres of rock-hard dirt he purchased two years ago adjacent to a tract of run-down houses.

Around here, four acres do not a farm make. Many well-to-do growers have bigger lawns. And yet, from the sorry soil on what Vang calls his farm he hopes to coax enough crops to support an extended family of 10. Vang said he spends about $5,000 a year on the land--he cannot afford to hire help--and his crops generate an income of about $6,000.

“It’s hard,” he said, “very hard.”

On this spring Saturday, Vang was moving water to the fragile pepper seedlings via a grid of ditches and furrows. This in itself represented a triumph of assimilation.

“Here we have to use tractors, fertilizer, water--many things to use,” Vang said. In the mountains of Laos, to farm was to place a seed in the fertile soil and let rain do the rest.

There have been other lessons. “In my country,” he said, “we make something one year and we eat for one year. We lived year to year. Here we make one week and we eat one week. We live week to week. In my country, there were no bills, no taxes, no payments. But here, at the first of month, any kind of bill comes.”

Tend Tiny Plots

A few Hmong farmers have done exceptionally well growing strawberries on leased land. Others, like Vang, are trying to make it with vegetables popular in Asian dishes. But for most Hmong, “farming” has meant tending gardens on church grounds and other vacant lots made available to them. A church organizer said 150 families were waiting for garden plots of one-tenth of an acre.

Hmong have been discouraged from hiring on as seasonal farmhands by a welfare rule that makes them ineligible for benefits if they work for more than 100 hours a month. With their large numbers of dependants and inability to find anything other than the most menial of jobs, they make more money on welfare.

“What we are doing with this rule is guaranteeing welfare dependency,” said Velasquez of the Social Services Department. Fresno officials appealed to the federal government to make the county the subject of a study of the benefits of modifying the 100-hour rule. Turned away, they now are seeking support from lawmakers.

No direct Hmong resettlement from Thailand is allowed in Fresno, Merced and San Joaquin counties, and Hmong leaders also have attempted to dissuade any prospective new immigrants from coming here. Nonetheless, about 1,500 more Hmong are to be allowed into the United States this year from Thailand refugee camps, and officials here anticipate that half will end up in Fresno.

“Most of the refugees in Thailand want to come to Fresno,” said Tony Vang, a Hmong community leader. “Everybody is saying, ‘I want to go to Fresno. I want to go to Fresno.’ ”

Test of Tolerance

While the soaring Hmong population now supports seven Hmong markets, a cultural crafts store and even a Hmong auto mechanic, it also has dropped the vacancy rate of low-income housing from 20% to 2%; added 5,000 students to the elementary schools in five years, necessitating interschool busing; driven up an already high unemployment rate and tested the tolerance of some Fresnans. A “Why us?” attitude seems to be developing.

Police officials said the Hmong have been largely law-abiding, far more often victims rather than perpetrators of crime. The Hmong also tend to settle such matters among themselves.

Many Fresnans fret that the Hmong will bring some exotic new disease into the community, a concern that was heightened in the early 1980s when several Hmong men across the country--and two here--succumbed to a mysterious sleeping disease. Though the deaths have decreased, researchers still do not fully understand what caused them.

The newcomers as yet have met with few overt acts of racism, and indeed many Fresnans see the Hmong as hard-working people who in time will contribute to the community and transfuse it with healthy new blood.

There have, however, been some subtle digs from elected officials, resentment among other welfare recipients and petty redneck harassment.

Mistaken Impression

“One of the saddest calls I got was by a woman who overnight had been surrounded by Hmong families,” said City Councilman Chris Peterson, whose district encompasses a Hmong enclave. “Her son had died in Vietnam and she said that for all she knew they had killed him.” Peterson arranged for a Vietnam veteran to telephone the woman and explain that the Hmong had been American allies.

Any discomfort that Fresnans feel pales in comparison to that experienced by the newcomers themselves--especially by the older ones who would have preferred to stay in their precious mountains in the first place.

In Laos, they were respected leaders in their clannish society. Here, many Hmong elders spend their days in adult schools learning words like rug and song and reciting American conversations from lesson books.

“That’s . . . a . . . good-looking . . . sports car,” a class of about 20 adults chanted in unison at a junior high school one March afternoon.

“Thank you,” the students continued in a singsong cadence.

“We . . . bought . . . it . . . last . . . week.”

Faces Turn Somber

The class was interrupted when a television set was wheeled in so that a tape of a network broadcast about the Hmong could be played. Giggles and chatter stopped suddenly, and faces became somber and transfixed, when old footage of the Hmong in their native habitat flickered across the screen.

“I . . . want . . . to . . . exchange . . . this . . . dress,” the next recital began.

Older Hmong dream of a return to their homeland to the point of obsession. Social workers said some old people feel so useless they seem to simply give up and die. They must rely on their children to translate, not only words, but an entire way of life. The role reversals can be troublesome; a Hmong girl in junior high school wrote this poem:

My mother is my student

I teach my mother

But my mother does not study

She just wants to play with my daddy

I don’t want to teach my mother anymore

I never want to teach my mother again

I hate to teach my mother!

There have been more touchy splits between the young on their way to becoming wholly Americanized and the old clinging desperately to a lost way of life. In Laos, for example, Hmong men wanting to marry a teen-age girl could make an arrangement with her parents and then simply abduct her. Some Hmong girls have resisted that rite in this country, and four such encounters have ended in kidnap and rape charges. One case was dropped, charges were reduced in two others and the fourth ended in acquittal.

Children Flourish

Social workers and Hmong leaders believe that the transitional problems facing the Hmong will not be solved in time to help the older generations; it is the children who will flourish.

“These kids are soaring,” Wolters Elementary School Principal Seth Atamian said of the 350 Hmong and Laotian refugees who now form the majority of his student body. He said they study hard, pick up English quickly and do even better in math. They also have a way of flicking marbles with their middle fingers that makes them unbeatable when playing with their thumb-wielding Anglo schoolmates.

Some children are so quickly becoming Americanized that there is concern about them losing too much of their culture.

“It is not good if they gain one culture and lose another,” said Cha Yang, a 35-year-old father of two who runs a Hmong Mini-Mart here. Yang stocks mostly Asian foods, but lately Apple Jacks have crept onto the shelves of his tidy store.

A visit to the Lee home was instructive. Eleven people live in the three-bedroom house. The oldest is Khoua Pao Lee, 54. A former soldier and a shaman, he sat on one of three couches in the living room. Over the course of an hour, he said nothing and his face remained expressionless.

He has three sons--Chou Lee, 32, who is looking for work; Vang Cherta Lee, 25, a student at Fresno City College, and Mai Lee, a 16-year-old high school student. The two younger brothers have a garage band that plays traditional Hmong music and heavy metal.

Brothers Do Talking

Wives and infant children sat quietly with grandfather against a wall adorned with diplomas from English and trades classes, a team picture of the Fresno Giants, an Asian calendar and a giant color poster of a jungle scene. The brothers did the talking.

“In the mountains,” said Vang Lee, who fought for five years alongside his father, “my father and mother knew everything. Here, we have taught them their address, but they can’t really go anywhere. They can’t get on a bus and go downtown. They would get lost.”

Lee said that while his parents want to return to Laos, he intends to become a citizen and stay in the United States. He would like to visit the homeland on vacation. He has three children. The youngest, only 5 months old, is called Elvis.