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A Hmong refugee finds power in the written word

Kao Kalia Yang's memoir aims to make her people less 'invisible' to the world.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2008

Latehomecomer: Kao Kalia Yang hopes her memoir will help change not just Hmong lives, but all lives. She came to the US as a refugee from Laos as a child in 1982.

Der Yang/Coffee House Press

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St. Paul, Minn.

"I want to be a part of the curriculum. I want to be taught and read." These would big words coming from anyone, but they are particularly startling flying out of the mouth of a diminutive young woman (she stands about 4 feet 10 inches), clad in a brown and yellow polka-dotted sundress and teetering on the edge of strappy platform sandals.

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If you saw her in a high school cafeteria, you could easily take Kao Kalia Yang for a student – and not much more than a sophomore. But sitting here in her office in a scruffy section of St. Paul, she channels adulthood through an almost uncanny earnestness.

"I have always been this way," she explains in a tiny, lilting voice. "I look young but inside I have the wisdom of the old."

Wisdom is what Ms. Yang will need to complete the task she has set for herself in life: speaking for a people who have no voice. She wants to tell their stories, earn them recognition, and help them find home.

Although she is already well on her way. At the age of 28, with the recent release of "The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir" Yang became the first Hmong writer to publish a full-length book in the United States. It's a remarkable achievement for a young woman who, as an immigrant child, struggled painfully with the English language. But it's also a fitting milestone for a would-be reformer who believes that words can help to make a better world.

Yang's ethnicity is deeply felt. Her earliest memory is of being asked who she is and knowing that the right answer was "I am Hmong." Yet the Hmong have no homeland and their written language was almost lost in long years of suppression. The Hmong are believed to have originated in China – at least they are known to have been living there as many as 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. But centuries of oppression drove them into Laos. There, for about 200 years, they lived a simple rural life sometimes described as idyllic – until the Vietnam War. When fighting in Vietnam spilled across the border into Laos, 30,000 Hmong men and boys were recruited by the CIA in an operation known as "the Secret War."

As many as a third of the Hmong in Laos at the time were killed in the war. But the US pulled out in 1975, and promises of help for the Hmong were not fulfilled.

That's where Yang's story starts. The Vietnamese government issued a death warrant against the Hmong for their role in the Vietnam War. Thousands more Hmong were hunted down and killed. (By some estimates, another third of Laos's Hmong perished at this time.) Yang's parents were teenagers in 1975 when both their families were forced into hiding in the Laotian jungle where the two young people met. Their first child (Yang's sister, Dawb) was born in 1979 while her parents were being held in captivity by Vietnamese soldiers. Yang herself was born in 1980 in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp after the family made a narrow escape across the Mekong River to Thailand. Cordoned off on a 400-acre piece of land, Ban Vinai was home to 35,000 to 45,000 Hmong refugees – including the Yangs – between 1980 and 1987. They finally were resettled in St. Paul, Minn., where many Hmong refugees had preceded them – perhaps too many. (About 180,000 Hmong live in the US, mostly in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.)

There was no hero's welcome in America. On the contrary, the Hmong often met with hostility. Not only did most Americans know nothing of their service during the Vietnam War, they couldn't distinguish them from their former persecutors, the Chinese and the Vietnamese.

"In America," Yang writes, "there was no Hmong – as if we hadn't existed at all in America's eyes." At the same time, "we had no more lands to return to."

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