If you type the word “Hmong” into a Microsoft Word document, the spell check dictionary underlines it with a squiggly red line. The Hmong, a significant part of the Twin Cities community, are evidently unknown to Microsoft—and perhaps to most Americans.
The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang, published by Coffee House Press (2008). $14.95. Yang will be reading from The Latehomecomer on April 10 at 7 p.m. at the Concordia University Center for Hmong Studies.
Furthermore, most people do not know that the Hmong have survived and flourished in the mountains of Southeast Asia for millennia, dating in the historical record as far back as 2700 B.C.E. Most are not aware of the Secret War that the CIA waged in Laos from 1960 to 1975 and that many Hmong soldiers were consigned into the war and promised protection for helping the U.S. fight the communists. Most do not know that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Laos led to a large-scale genocide campaign when the North Vietnamese army began hunting down and killing the Hmong people. Those who could escaped into neighboring Thailand to await portage to the U.S. where they could begin building a life—a real life, not a life marked by exile, flight, poverty, and death.
|Also in the Daily Planet, read Mark Weaver’s interview with Kao Kalia Yang and hear an audio excerpt from that interview.|
Kao Kalia Yang’s book The Latehomecomer traces the story of her family starting in the late 1970s, when her recently-wed mother and father were separated by the encroachment of North Vietnamese soldiers and then fled for their lives through jungles, over mountains, and across raging rivers to Thailand. Yang was born in 1980 in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp and spent the first seven years of her life there before her father and uncles convinced their aging mother that they would all be better off in the U.S. Once in the United States, however, the family’s odyssey had only just begun.
Yang’s account is heartfelt and marked by inspiring insight into human life. In addition to relating the struggles of her family and the Hmong people, she recounts life from the perspective of a precocious, sensitive girl growing up first in the McDonough Housing Project, then a haunted rent-subsidized house, and finally the Yangs’ own cozy but mold-ridden home in St. Paul. She and her sister braved Minnesota winters and the St. Paul school system, striving to find their place and dealing with the stigma of attending English as a Second Language classes.
Memories of death and struggle in the old country—and the realities of poverty and minority status in the new—are never far away. Ultimately, Yang is forced to personally come to terms with death as she works through a diagnosis of lupus and the approaching death of her grandmother, a phenomenal woman who helped her family finally find a place to call home.
Yang hopes that her book can resonate with American readers as a story that matters because it touches upon human universals. She hopes all Americans can come to know that what has happened to the Hmong in the world is relevant to our own individual experiences—so that we remember who we are as Americans, so that we are empowered to live the life set before us, and so that we are empowered to tell our own stories as well.
Among the many universal themes Yang’s story touches upon is love: “Love,” she writes, “is the reason why my mother and father stick together in a hard life when they might have an easier one apart; love is the reason why you choose a life with someone, and you don’t turn back although your heart cries sometimes…and you wish out loud that things were easier.”
Yang’s grandmother stands as a bastion of strength and honor as she continually encourages her family to survive and do their best with what they have been given. She tells her worried family while they consider the daunting task of becoming Americans, “Lasting change cannot be forced, only inspired.” Appropriately, Yang’s inspiring story encourages Americans from all backgrounds and ethnicities to live an excellent life.
In a time in the U.S. when families are struggling and our government is fighting wars on foreign soil, fate has brought the Hmong—an ancient people who embody a sense of community, respect for elders, and a fighting spirit—to forge a new life from the ashes of suffering. Thus, fate has provided us with voices like Yang, who help us see that the Hmong story is an American story and that by learning the story of the Hmong, we learn a lesson of lasting relevance about our own humanity.
Mark Weaver (email@example.com) grew up in Fairborn, Ohio and then embarked on a life journey that has taken him across the U.S. and around the world. He has spent the last ten years teaching linguistics and English as a second language at colleges and universities in Texas, Minnesota, and California. Before that, he worked with a linguistics organization in Ethiopia. He is currently a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.