by Joe Nathan, 9/11/08 • Where and when did your family, and your people come to Minnesota? Why? What surprised you, and what delighted you?
These questions came up as I read a wonderful new book, “The Latehomecomer,” by Kao Lalia Yang. This was one of those rare books that made me sad when it ended. The writing was so engaging, and the stories so compelling.
Yang was born in 1980 Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugge Camp, and came to St. Paul when she was six years old. Her story is in part, deeply about the Hmong experience in Minnesota –and readers learn a great deal about Hmong culture (such as the central role chickens play). But Yang’s writing is also deeply American – when we are at our best. Here for example, is how she describes what her father told his children:
“My father told us that we were his future in America and that it did not matter if we were boys or girls. He had called our spirits from the clouds, and we would be his future on the earth…We were in America and the small size of our feet would not determine how far we could travel in life.”
Two centuries of immigrant parents, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Japanese, British, Bolivian, whatever have encouraged their children in similar ways. And the discomfort that Yang feels as she and her sister translate for their parents is readily understandable. She describes a number of times in stores where she was called on to ask for things because her English was better than her parents, “It’s hard to watch your parents stumble before other adults.”
Yang includes plenty of humor. There is, for example, the time when her revered grandmother flies to Minnesota for the first time. It has been a long, long flight, and the grandmother had problems with an escalator at the San Francisco airport. Her long dress had become mired in the machine, which officials had to stop so that she could proceed. Yang notes, “Many things in American were not made for her slow feet.”
The love between grandmother and granddaughter is one of the book’s central themes. As her health fades, “In all the languages of the earth, in all the richness of words, there is no word, no comparison, no equivalent for my grandmother trying to be strong for me….”
Now a Minnesota public high school, Carleton and Columbia University graduate, Yang is helping immigrants with translating, writing and business services.(Her lovely website is at www.kaokaliayang.com)
Although Yang’s particular culture is quite different that most of us, her ideals are deeply American. She is optimistic, humble and hopeful. The book ends with thanks to her mother, father, grandmother and other family members: “My hand is all caught up in yours. Together we are typing on the keyboards of time. We will pick up the same warm breeze, the winds of summer. Our dreams are coming true, my Hmong brothers and sisters.”