EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) – Forty years after the first Hmong refugees arrived in the United States with no idea how they would ever feel like a part of this strange new world, elders from Eau Claire’s largest minority fear their offspring may have adjusted too well.
In reflecting on the Hmong transition from primitive conditions in Southeast Asia to modern America, local Hmong leaders said recently they are proud their people have made so much progress in a relatively short period of time, but also expressed regret about their culture fading away, the Leader-Telegram reports (http://bit.ly/1y5xAZC ).
When 4-year-old Caitlin Lee left a refugee camp in Thailand to come to the U.S. in 1980, her parents worried about whether their children would lose their identity.
“Now I’m a mom, and that’s my same exact fear,” said Lee, an equal opportunity specialist in UW-Eau Claire’s Affirmative Action Office. “I look at my two sons and wonder how, as a parent, I am going to teach my boys to be American but to be proud and aware of their Hmong heritage.”
That anxiety is nearly universal among Hmong parents, she said, who worry their children don’t speak enough Hmong or understand their culture and history as well as they should.
“We’re becoming Americans, but we’re Hmong-Americans too,” said Lee, who was the first female president of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, from 2008 to 2012. “That is a special part of us that we want to keep.”
The Hmong are an ethnic group that served as U.S. allies in the CIA’s “secret war” against communist forces in Laos from the early 1960s until the Vietnam War ended in 1975. After the U.S. withdrawal, many Hmong residents fled Laos to refugee camps in Thailand to avoid retribution from the communists for aiding the Americans. Thousands of those refugees subsequently resettled in the United States.
When Yong Kay and Houa Moua touched down at Chippewa Valley Regional Airport in April 1976, they were the third Hmong family to arrive in Eau Claire. They carried nothing but their two children and the clothes on their backs.
From the language and the landscape to the weather and the people, everything was entirely different from anything they’d encountered growing up in Laos.
“It was cold. I felt like I stepped into a giant cooler,” Yong Kay told attendees on a recent Thursday at UW-Eau Claire’s annual Hmong Fellowship Banquet he helped launch 26 years ago to forge a stronger connection between the community and its Hmong population.
When the Mouas decided to come to America, Yong Kay recalled an uncle telling him they would serve as Hmong seed in this new part of the world.
While that initial wave of refugees undoubtedly has multiplied – Hmong leaders estimate the Eau Claire area now is home to about 4,000 Hmong residents – Yong Kay said it always was important for him that those seeds not just grow but flourish.
“Being the seed doesn’t mean just to survive, but to be part of the community at large,” Yong Kay said.
Yong Kay is a former Hmong Mutual Assistance Association executive director and longtime community liaison for the city of Eau Claire and the Police Department, while Houa worked for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department for 24 years. They were honored for their efforts to aid the Eau Claire Hmong community by being named a “Point of Light” in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.
Thirty-nine years after his arrival, Yong Kay is particularly pleased to see a new generation of Hmong leaders emerging as the elders take a less prominent role.
One of the key breakthroughs in helping the Hmong community feel like a contributing part of the overall Eau Claire community came in the area of politics, where Hmong candidates have mounted several successful campaigns for local office.
Lar Zeng Xiong, son of the late local Hmong leader Joe Bee Xiong, talked at the banquet about the dramatic impact of his father’s election to an at-large seat on the City Council in 1996.
Lar Zeng, now 31, recalled how as a young student his main goal was to be accepted by his classmates and seen as “normal.” He stopped speaking Hmong at school when his friends thought it was odd. He was confused about his identity and admitted thinking it would be easier just to be white.
He grew more comfortable with his Hmong-American identity after his father taught him how to play traditional Hmong instruments and perform Hmong dances.
But when his father revealed his intention to run for a City Council seat, Lar Zeng recalled doubting that the city was ready to elect a Hmong candidate. Joe Bee’s victory showed how far the Hmong had come from their early days in the city when residents endured many disturbing incidents of racism.
Joe Bee himself reported white people spitting on him and beating him up so badly he had to go to a hospital shortly after he came to Eau Claire in 1980. So when that same man was elected to represent the whole city, Lar Zeng felt the community finally had embraced its Hmong members.
“That said, Eau Claire was our home, and we were here to stay,” he said.
Despite the immense progress, the journey is far from over, Hmong leaders say, as there are still obstacles to overcome.
While racist incidents are fewer and farther between than when the first Hmong refugees arrived in Eau Claire, they still occur on occasion. Just last month a racist social media post directed at Hmong students prompted a rally at UW-Eau Claire. The theme: “Not on my campus. Not in my community.”
Economically, Hmong residents have made dramatic gains.
Willis Chue Kou Xiong, president of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, noted that a large percentage of early Hmong refugees relied on public assistance when they first arrived, but now that is rarely the case, with the exception of those who receive disability or Social Security benefits.
“Most Hmong now are working to support their families,” he said, enabling them to spread out to nicer areas of the community instead of clustering in poor neighborhoods.
However, 2010 U.S. census data still showed an employment gap, with 8.3 percent of Eau Claire County residents in the labor force claiming to be at least partially Hmong remaining unemployed, compared with 4 percent for the overall labor force.
Likewise, median family income for Hmong households was $41,550, compared with $64,507 for the whole county.
For Blia Schwahn, school/?community liaison for the Eau Claire school district, the progress she has seen among Hmong-American students has been remarkable since she arrived in 1979 at age 14, unable to speak any English and having never attended school, and was placed in sixth grade.
“I cried three or four times every day before the school day was over,” Schwahn said.
These days speaking basic English is not as big a problem for Hmong students. The challenges are more about reading comprehension and overcoming limited exposure to English at home and less access than other students to museums, plays and other American cultural experiences.
“By the time many Hmong students enter kindergarten, they’re already behind,” said Schwahn, who advocates for more early childhood education.
In 2013-14, the gap was evident in Wisconsin Student Assessment System test scores for all grades in the Eau Claire school district.
Among Asian students, 23 percent performed at a proficient or advanced level on reading tests, compared with 43.1 percent for white students. In math, 43.2 percent of Asian students rated proficient or higher, compared with 55.9 percent for their white classmates.
Greater school involvement by Hmong parents as the generations go by and they become more familiar with the school system likely will improve the performance of Hmong students, Schwahn said.
Willis Chue Kou Xiong also echoed concerns about younger Hmong residents losing touch with their cultural heritage.
“The new generations need to know where they came from,” he said.
After 37 years in Eau Claire, the Mouas moved to Minnesota two years ago to be closer to their grandchildren, but they both expressed delight at being back in the city where they once started a new life.
In a declaration seemingly symbolic of the transition undergone by many local Hmong residents, Yong Kay said simply: “This is home for us.”
Information from: Leader-Telegram, http://www.leadertelegram.com/