MERCED, CALIF. — IN 1977, seven-year-old Zang Moua lived with her extended family of 25 in the hills of Laos, sleeping in makeshift huts for days at a time, sustained by wild herbs and vegetables.
In 1978, she found herself in a Portland, Ore., classroom, utterly confounded by language and customs and frightened of her larger, white-skinned classmates.
"I was like an owl spinning my head around saying, 'who, what, where, when?' " recalls Moua, now a 22-year-old college student, wife, and mother of two. Moua's story is a case study in the relocation of nearly 200,000 Laotian lowlanders and Hmong highlanders who fled the communist Pathet Lao regime that conquered her country when the United States withdrew in 1973.
Under State Department resettlement programs, more than 800,000 Southeast Asian refugees have settled in the US since 1975, approximately 40 percent in California. Central California - primarily Fresno, Merced, and Modesto - now has the largest Laotian and Hmong population (about 60,000) outside Laos. Since the primarily rural Hmong aided US troops in Cambodia and Vietnam during the Vietnam War, the new regime threatened the Hmong with genocide.
"They wanted us to disappear," recalls Moua, recounting a year of mass executions in the hillsides similar to those in neighboring Cambodia, where executions by the Pol Pot regime were recounted in the major film "The Killing Fields."
Moua's family fled on foot to neighboring Thailand where refugee camps were set up. A year in exile left her family with several options: return to Laos; remain in a refugee camp; or emigrate to the US, France, or Australia. Her brother-in-law tried the US first, sending letters, photos, and videotapes back to Thailand of a land with big cars and big cities.
"We were afraid to try it because the Thai government had been feeding us movies of Chuck Norris and Rambo," Moua recalls. "We didn't think we were ready for such violence." When a sponsoring family in America offered help, Moua relented and spent a year with 15 relatives in a one-bedroom apartment in Portland, Ore. The weather was too cold, and Americans gave her an icy welcome.
"I couldn't learn anything and I was afraid to go out," she recalls. "It was awful." Finally, the same brother-in-law visited the warmer climate of Merced, Calif.
"Merced has the much warmer climate we were used to," says Moua. "And the community is based on agriculture we understand," she says.
Moua wanted to become an exception to the 65 percent of her fellow countryman who live on welfare in Merced. She knew education was the key. "All I cared about was learning, keeping a roof over my head and food in my belly," she says. By studying after school, taking additional English courses in the summer, and being tutored in math and reading, Moua was able to passed proficiency exams to enter high school.
Graduating from Merced High School with high grades, Moua then won a California grant of about $8,000 with which she is studying accounting at Merced College. "Zang is an exceptional student and a very hard worker," says James Moua (no relation), a counselor at the Lao Family Community Center.
"A majority of the Hmong remain as agricultural workers, because they don't have the language or social skills for anything else," says Ernest Velasquez, director of the Fresno County Department of Social Services. Twelve thousand Hmong live in the community of 57,000, mostly concentrated in the south end of town. Though his department spent $100 million on refugees in 1990, including job training and education, most cannot find jobs.
But Moua has become the exception. Besides attending college full-time at night, she has a 40-hour week at the local Hmong counseling center, helping other refugees deal with everything from welfare forms to driver's licenses. Her husband works for a turkey company in nearby Modesto and the couple have two children, ages three and four.
The Hmong "are incredibly hard workers," says State Sen. Dan McCorquodale (D), noting that education and language are the keys to assimilating the Hmong refugees in the US. Adding that other, more urban areas in California had been dominated by Asians in the past, he says, "it will take longer for the Hmong in the Central Valley because they come from a rural, non-entrepreneurial background."