"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.
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."
It's a harsh story and yet Yang has no bitterness. "She has so much hope," says Chris Fischbach, Yang's senior editor at Coffee House Press, publishers of "The Latehomecomer." "She believes so much in democracy." She sees her quest to tell the story of the Hmong, "as a splendid burden," says Mr. Fischbach. "She feels so lucky to be speaking for the people who can't tell their own story."
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Yang's entry into America, at age 7, wasn't easy. Her parents, who had only rudimentary educations and whose skills were best suited to a rural environment, fought to learn job skills and to understand the new world around them. And Yang was mostly silent in her first years here.
Her sister, Dawb, she writes, "had the kind of intelligence that a teacher could see." But Yang herself was "perpetually biting my lower lips ... I didn't speak easily or well." Obsessed with the fear that her voice didn't sound normal in English, Yang whispered at school and gave only monosyllabic replies to her teachers' questions – a strategy that caused most to ignore her after a while.
But finally, in high school, Yang caught her English teacher's attention with a thoughtful essay asking whether Romeo and Juliet were bound by love or lust. The teacher told Yang she had a "talent for literature." Suddenly, writes Yang, "she opened up a real possibility that I could excel."
She won a scholarship to highly selective Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. There, she says, she faced culture shock, living and interacting with students who communicated through e-mail and thought vacations to Paris were ordinary fare. But through meeting new people and having new experiences, she says, "I was forced to become braver."
Another seminal event happened while Yang was in college. Her grandmother, the beloved family matriarch, died. "My grandmother had so much fear of being forgotten," says Yang, eyes moist and voice trembling as she remembers. Her grandmother was illiterate and yet as a shaman and healer, she carried much of Hmong tradition and wisdom within her.
"She understood herself so profoundly," says Yang. "I loved books and looked for answers there. She found answers inside herself." In tribute, Yang began writing her book as a series of "love letters" to her grandmother.
Today, Yang travels wherever she is invited to read from her book and speak about the Hmong. "People cry at her readings all the time," says Fischbach. Other immigrants say, "I'm not Hmong, but this is my experience."
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For the Hmong, Yang's words have special resonance. "As soon as I heard about her book I said, 'That's my story, too!' " says Nancy Lee, a St. Paul high school junior. "[I] did chores and then nagged my mom for the last $5" to be able to buy "The Latehomecomer."
"We all know her," says Helen Hang, owner of St. Paul's Chili Pepper Cafe. "We all know the book."
Yang and her sister rent an office in St. Paul's Frogtown, where many Hmong live. There, Dawb practices public interest law while Yang sits on community boards, works as a court interpreter, and does whatever else she feels needs doing for the Hmong. Between them, the two say they earn just enough to pay their rent.
That's typical of the Hmong, says Jeff Lindsay, an Appleton, Wis., resident who lives among the Hmong and maintains a website explaining their history and culture. "They're entrepreneurial but there is less interest in moneymaking." For so many generations, he says, "being Hmong meant just surviving." And surviving meant helping one another.
But as devoted as Yang is to her people, she does not believe she will be content to stop with their story. She has a higher goal in mind.
"I want the human word to have the power to change the human life. Through language," explains the young woman who found it so hard to learn English, "I really believe that we can learn to become better." But first she says, "I start with the Hmong because I know the Hmong."