The Hmong families walked through villages that were abandoned and fields that were untended. Foua herself had been forced to discard her dowry. The Lees had been fortunate that they could cross into Thailand on foot. But most of the Hmong had to cross the Mekong River when they didn’t know how to swim. It was such a nightmare that most of the Hmong in the United States couldn’t forget the horror. Many of the babies and children strapped to their parents’ back drowned in the crossing when the parents used any floatation device they could find to make the crossing. Later, many of the Hmong refused to give up the floatation devices that had carried them across the river. They held on to them even into the hospital doors where they were taken for treatment. Sometimes, the communist soldiers would allow one group to cross safely and then open fire on the next. Relatives would have to stand on one side and watch the ones they loved die.
The author once made the statement to one Hmong elder in America about the cohesiveness of the Hmong community. The man agreed but pointed out that there was a great deal of guilt among them after the Mekong crossings. This was due to the individual desire for survival. They were not the same people when they made it to the other side, and as the elder said, “When you try to restick this thing together, it is like putting glue on a broken glass.” Most of the Hmong, upwards of half the population who left Laos, died en route. Then, those who reached Thailand were often robbed and raped by Thai bandits and eighty percent were found to be suffering from malnutrition, malaria, anemia, and infections.
At first, they were placed in makeshift camps near the Lao border, but eventually were consolidated into one large camp in southeast Thailand, fifteen miles from the Mekong River. It was called Ban Vinai, and it was, in effect, a large-scale charitable institution that continued the job of eroding Hmong self-sufficiency. The camps didn’t allow anyone to do anything of value and so the people spent their time eating and living and eating and dying. To add to the terrible conditions, camp officials held the Hmong responsible for their own conditions. In fact, Westerners really disliked the Hmong, calling them filthy, difficult, backward, and rigid. It was a perfect example of Western expatriates’ uneasiness when confronted with different ethnicities.
Many of the Hmong began to emigrate to the United States, even though most of the disparaging comments made about them in the camps were made by Americans. They came because Vang Pao, their former leader, had settled in Montana. The best-educated Hmong came in the first wave and the least-educated came in later waves. They grew accustomed to lying to immigration officials to ensure that all of their family gained admittance. It was understood that every refugee problem had three “durable solutions”: local integration, voluntary repatriation, and resettlement in another country. The Lao government did not want the first; the Hmong did not want the second and later even the third. They did not want to emigrate at first to the US, because they feared the rumors they heard about life in America, especially the doctors. Furthermore, Ban Vinai was powerfully Hmong and especially the elderly were reluctant to leave. However, in 1992, Thailand closed Ban Vinai, and so the Hmong had only two choices left: settle in another country or return to Laos. At that point the Hmong came up against anti-immigration feelings in the US and were often now rejected. As a result, many of the Hmong were forced by the Thai government to return to Laos where some were persecuted or killed. Some Hmong simply said no to both choices and fled right through the fingers of the Lao soldiers. It was obvious that once again, like so many times before, the Hmong found ways to get out of tight spots.
The entire immigration problem for the Hmong brings to mind how difficult life became for them after the war ended. No one wanted them, and yet, their culture had been nearly decimated and someone should want them. Their differences made them, at once, unique and difficult to understand. Unfortunately, no one wanted to take the time to understand them.