SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Zang Moua stepped off a plane from Thailand to Portland, Ore., in 1978, all she noticed were city lights and cold air.
The former Hmong refugee, now 20, was among the earliest of nearly 200,000 Laotian lowlanders and Hmong highlanders that have fled the Communist Pathet Lao that conquered her country when the United States withdrew support in 1973.
Under a state department resettlement program, Moua followed family members first to Portland and then - for reasons of climate - to central California, which now has the largest Laotian and Hmong population in the US (about 50,000). Of the more than 800,000 Southeast Asian refugees that have settled in the US since 1975, approximately 40 percent have settled in California. "My brother came [to Merced] and felt the warm, sunny air," she recalls. "He said, 'You must come, it is like Laos.' "
Fresno now has the largest community of Hmong outside Laos. From cities such as Fresno, Stockton, and Sacramento, the migration has continued to smaller communities: Porterville, Visalia, and Chico.
The new Southeast Asian immigrants are both welcome and problematic, according to authorities. Because of severe language problems and cultural shyness, 65 percent are on welfare roles, according to Ernest Velaquez, director of the Fresno County Department of Social Services. His department spent $100 million on refugees alone in 1990. But although state and federal assistance pays 95 percent of the cost of education and training in several trades, communities have a hard time placing them in jobs.
"They do gardening and farm work well," said longtime Merced resident Mary Johnson, "but getting a job is like being stalled on the ramp to a busy freeway." Twelve thousand Hmong in this small community of 57,000 are concentrated in the south end of town, up to 15 per apartment or small rental home.
Zang Moua is an exception to the pattern. Because she emigrated at such an early age, she has been able to conquer the language difficulties that have blocked further advancement for others. By staying after school daily for many years, she was able to pass proficiency exams. Moua now studies accounting at Merced College on a California grant."It may take years, but those that learn the language will assimilate well," says the area's state Sen. Dan McCorquodale (D).