New home in the heartland. Hmong family makes the shift from Southeast Asia to small-town America

KNOCK on the door and one, two, three, four brown, boyish faces appear through the window. They can't get the door open. Even their father, Tou Lee, has to jiggle the handle several times before welcoming in a visitor. Except for Tou (pronounced ``too''), no one in the family speaks much English. The four boys - Vang Neng, Cha, Pheng, and Yia - prefer to roll on the floor and giggle excitedly. Tou's father, Yong Koua, approaches in blue pants and bare feet to shake hands. ``Good-bye,'' he says politely, revealing with a smile what he really means to say.

If language remains a barrier for these transplanted Hmong, there are other signs the family is making the adjustment from rural Southeast Asia to small-town America. The boys watch cartoons on a color television. Disposable diapers sit by the crib of three-month-old Seng, the fifth child and only daughter of Tou and his wife, Kialor. Out the back window, Tou points proudly to his used Chevy, a cream-and-chocolate affair with power windows. ``This is my van,'' he says.

It's been 15 months since the Lees arrived in the United States, ending a journey that began with a 1975 communist takeover in Laos. Like thousands of Hmong, the Lees fled, taking refuge first in the mountains and forest outside their village and, in 1980, starting for Thailand.

Unable to use roads patrolled by soldiers, the Lees and 600 other Hmong beat a path through the forest to reach the Thai border. The 27-day trek cost the lives of more than 20 Hmong - including three of Tou's relatives - who were killed either by communist troops or the Mekong River, which some of the villagers didn't cross successfully.

For six years, the Lees lived in a Thai refugee camp. ``I think it was good,'' Tou recalls of their experience in the camp. In April 1986, the family was allowed to join two relatives already living in Eau Claire, Wis., a community of 50,000 that boasts more than 1,000 Hmong.

In many ways, Eau Claire has been good to the Lees. Tou has a part-time cleanup job downtown that, along with welfare payments, seems to keep the family going. He hopes to enter a job-training program and lauds the educational opportunities for his children. Only a week earlier, the family moved to this house, which overlooks the Chippewa River and their old neighborhood in a poor section of town.

But the influx of Hmong has concerned some residents, says a local postman whose route is now peppered with Xiongs, Mouas, and Vangs. And Tou is worried that his parents, without English, won't find work. ``They just stay at home and look through the window,'' he says.

On this particular day, though, Tou's mother, Chao Lor, has donned a red woolen hat and picked greens from one of the family garden plots under a sizzling sun.

Late in the afternoon, her husband, Yong Koua, disappears into the basement and returns with a can of unrefrigerated Mountain Dew. He offers it to a visitor, waits patiently for the visitor to open it, then opens his own can and sips it silently.

Today, warm Mountain Dew tastes just fine.

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