One thing in all the instances of violence against the Hmong stands out; the Hmong didn’t fight back. It was clear that they weren’t the docile, passive Asians of popular stereotype if one looked at their past. Why then didn’t they fight back against Americans? In the United States, many were too proud to lower themselves to the level of petty criminals they encountered, or even to admit they had been victims. They also felt that nothing here in the United States was worth defending. There were exceptions, but they were rare. Most Hmong kept an apprehensive distance from everything that may bring them in contact with the American penal system. In their villages in Laos, there were no prisons, and the Hmong sense of justice was pragmatic and personal: how would incarceration benefit the victim? Corporal punishment was unknown. Instead, various forms of public humiliation were employed as deterrent to crime. In the final analysis, if the Hmong felt persecuted, they always turned to their time-honored alternative to violence: flight. Between 1982 and 1984, three quarters of the Hmong population in Philadelphia alone simply left town and joined relatives in other cities. This became known as the “secondary migration,” and it definitively sabotaged the government’s attempt at assimilation. There were also other reasons for migrating: moving to states that provided welfare benefits or they moved to agricultural states such as California where they might be able to farm. By the far the greatest reason for migration was to reunify with their clans.
Unfortunately, the most popular areas of secondary resettlement all had high unemployment rates, and they got higher. They had to compete with out-of-work Americans for even the most unskilled jobs, and the dream of farming fizzled because the Hmong only knew how to farm through slash-and-burn techniques. They didn’t know much at all about American farming. This didn’t halt the migration. “The more Thaos or Xiongs there were in one place, the more mutual assistance they could provide, the more cultural traditions they could practice together, and the more stable their community would be. Americans, however, tended to view secondary migration as an indication of instability and dependence. It became a gulf between the American ideal of rugged individualism and the Hmong idea of group interdependence.” The government tried to stop the migration to welfare state and offered enticements to get the Hmong already there to leave. They resettled eight hundred families in such places as Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they fared well. They became self-sufficient and had jobs in manufacturing plants or local trades. When asked what they thought of Hmong workers, eight-six percent of Americans in these areas rated them very good. The Hmong bought homes and settled into the community and their children became lawyers, doctors, dentists, engineers, and other professionals.
However, for the Hmong who remained in the high unemployment areas, the success of those 800 families resettled was moot. They had no jobs at all. To Americans, they were unsuccessful, because they failed the economic test, but in other areas such as crime, child abuse, divorce, and illegitimacy, they rated far higher than their American counterparts. Furthermore, the contradictions of the American welfare system made it almost impossible for the average family to become independent. For example, a man with seven children would have to make $10.60 an hour and work forty hours a week to equal his welfare stipend. Few Hmong had the skills to get a job with this kind of paycheck, so even this example was impossible for them to obtain. “Few things galled the Hmong more than to be criticized for accepting public assistance. For one thing, they felt they deserved the money. Every Hmong had a different version of what is called ‘The Promise’: a written or oral contract, made by CIA personnel in Laos, that if the Hmong fought for the Americans, the Americans would aid them if the Pathet Lao won the war.” They had risked their lives for the Americans, and then, they were betrayed. The first betrayal came when high-ranking officials were airlifted out of Laos while the rest of the Hmong were left behind. The second betrayal came when the refugees in the Laos were not automatically admitted to the US. The third betrayal came when they found when they came to the US that they were ineligible for veterans’ benefits. Fourth, they were condemned for being on welfare, and finally they were betrayed when the government declared that welfare would stop.
The truth was that none of the Hmong wanted to be on welfare. What right-thinking Hmong would choose to be yoked to one of the most bureaucratic institutions in America? What Hmong would want to be addicted to a ways of life that some clan leaders likened to opium? And what Hmong would choose to be a dog waiting for scraps? The truth was that the Hmong, when stacked up against other Southeast Asian immigrants, fared the lowest: most depressed, most psychologically dysfunctional, least educated, least literate, and less likely to cite “a better life” for coming to America. The Hmong characterized themselves as having “difficult livers,” or damage through soul loss. Dr. Bill Selvidge had a patient complaining of a bad back, but Selvidge realized that he was suffering from depression. The man had become agoraphobic, afraid to leave his house, because he thought if he walked more than a few blocks, he’d get lost. It was the perfect metaphor: he had seen his entire immediate family die in Laos, he’d seen his entire country collapse, and he never was going to find his way home again. He was an example of a malady called “profound loss of home,” and the ache of homesickness can be incapacitating. One Hmong was taken to visit Plymouth Plantation and the Pilgrim village. He asked after he sees the thatched houses and free-running chickens whether he could move there and make it his home.
Many Hmong said they dreamed of Laos every night, but they never dreamed of America. They longed to go home, but home was pre-war Laos, which no longer existed. So their psychological reality was both full and empty: full of the past and empty of new ideas and life experiences. They have found it especially hard to deal with present threats to their old identities. In Laos, the elderly always stood first in line of family hierarchy, but in the US, the youngest knew more about the customs and culture of America and so they became more valuable to the family trying to adjust. This was termed by psychologists as “role loss,” and of all the stresses in the Hmong community, this was one of the most corrosive. As a result, the Hmong still view any earmarks of assimilation as an insult and a threat. However, they have begun to lose control of the respect accorded to the elderly by the young. As the Hmong children become more individually assimilated to American culture, the less respect they show the older generation. One of the most poignant questions ever asked by an older Hmong reflects this area of concern: “Why, when what we did worked so well for two hundred years, is everything breaking down?” But the author says that even though much has broken down, not everything has. The Hmong culture is probably the only one which has been so little eroded by assimilation. Even more crucially, the essential Hmong temperament has been eradicable. They have responded to the hardships in the United States by becoming even more Hmong. Their “ethnic durability can be attributed to six factors: religion; love of liberty; traditional costumes; refusal to marry outside their race; life in the cold, dry mountainous areas; and the toughening effects of war.” (pg. 208)
This chapter deals with the Hmong’s difficulty adjusting to American life. They have run the gauntlet of problems here, but today they are doing passably or better on the first four reasons for their ethnic durability.