This chapter deals with the Lees and other Hmong as refugees in the United States. The Lees arrived on December 19, 1980, and spent two years in Portland, Oregon before moving to Merced. The airplane flight for most of the Hmong was fraught with anxiety and shame, because they became airsick and didn’t know how to use the toilets, and they thought they had to pay for their food, and they had no money. The first week in Portland which followed was miserably disorienting. The Lees’ relatives had to show them how to do everything. They also had to rely on their children a great deal in this strange country. Seventeen years later, not much has changed for the Lees. They still speak only Hmong and practice only Hmong traditions. During their eighth year in the US, they had only ever invited one American adult into their home: Jeanine Hilt. “It would be hard to imagine anything further from the vaunted American ideal of assimilation, in which immigrants are expected to submerge their cultural differences in order to embrace a shared national identity. E pluribus Unum: from many, one.”
In the early 1910s and 1920s, immigrant workers in the Ford automotive plant in Dearborn, Michigan, were give en free, compulsory “Americanization” classes. At their graduation ceremony, there was a giant wooden pot which the teachers stirred with ten-foot ladles. The students would walk into the pot wearing their traditional costumes, singing folk songs from the country of their origin, and walk out of the pot in suits, ties, and dresses, singing the US National Anthem. They had come to America with the hope of assimilating into mainstream American society. The Hmong came for the same reason they left China: because they were trying to resist assimilation. As a result, the Hmong became known as “involuntary migrants.”
What the Hmong wanted here was to be left alone to be Hmong. General Vang Pao had suggested that the United Stated provide them with a little land to call their own, but it was a proposal that was never seriously considered. The author wondered what the comparison would be of the cost of his land proposal scheme to what the government has actually spent over the years on the Hmong’s needs. The actual logistical details of the Hmong’s resettlement were left up to VOLAGs or national voluntary resettlement agencies. Of course, this was a bureaucratic agency, and the Hmong were not known for holding bureaucrats. They described their experiences with this agency as a more serious problem that either war memories or separation from family. They also had problems, because many of the VOLAGs had Christian religious affiliations and were always trying to convert the Hmong. As a result, it was described, the Hmong were more likely to require psychiatric treatment after associations with such people.
Another situation that was extremely unfamiliar to the Hmong was the flat land and the freezing winters. Then, the government, to encourage assimilation, adopted a policy of dispersal rather than clustering. They wanted to stir the Hmong into the melting pot in tiny, manageable portions. Group solidarity, the cornerstone of Hmong social organization for more than two thousand years, was completely ignored. As a result, some were resettled in cities while some nuclear families, unaccompanied by any of their extended relatives, were settled in isolated rural areas. They began to exhibit unusually high levels of anxiety, depression, and paranoia. One example was a father suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder hung himself and ordered his wife and children to do so as well. At the last minute, the wife changed her mind and cut the family down. Unfortunately, she couldn’t save their only son or her husband. In hindsight, Lionel Rosenblatt, the former United States Refugee Coordinator in Thailand, conceded that the resettlement had been catastrophically mishandled.
Like their Hmong brothers and sisters, the Lees had some of the same anxious, depressed and paranoiac experiences. The customs they were expected to follow seemed so peculiar, the rules and regulations so numerous, the language so hard to learn, and the emphasis on literacy and the decoding of other unfamiliar symbols so strong, that many Hmong were overwhelmed. Just as the United States seemed incomprehensible to the Hmong, so they seemed incomprehensible to Americans. They were referred to as the most primitive group in America, and inaccuracies about them were in no short supply. To add to all these problems, the leading cause of death among young Hmong men was SIDS, or cardiac failure triggered by a bad dream.
It could not be denied that the Hmong were genuinely mysterious. Hardly anyone knew that they had a rich history, a complex culture, an efficient social system, and enviable family values. This then was ideal blank surface for which to project xenophobic fantasies. This included the xenophobic mode of rumor in which the Hmong were said to run a white slave trade; they forced their children to run in front of cars to get big insurance settlements; or they sold their daughters and bought wives. The Hmong also became prime marks for predators who stole from them and often beat them for any number of reasons, but often because of resentment over what was perceived as preferential treatment. One Hmong whose son was shot and killed by three men who forced his family’s car off the Interstate and demanded money, said, “In a war, you know who your enemies are. Here, you don’t know if the person walking up to you will hurt you.”