When the author first arrived in Merced, she saw no Hmong and had to stop at a gas station and ask where they lived. The attendant, a guy named Frank, told her where they lived. When she asked him why he thought they had chosen Merced, he replied with a Dumb Hmong story and laughed hysterically. She followed Frank’s directions and found the Hmong on the wrong side of the tracks. She didn’t know at the time, but she had landed in the most intensely Hmong place in the United States. The Hmong constituted a far greater fraction of the local population even though there were more Hmong in such places as Minneapolis. There were fourteen clans represented in Merced County, and they constantly drove from town to town visiting relatives. It also meant that young people had no problem finding marriage partners. Everything that meant anything to the Hmong was close by from shamans to qeejs, the musical instrument that was a Hmong life staple. When they couldn’t find bamboo, they made their qeejs from pvc pipe. They believed that the qeej spoke to its audience – for example, giving travel directions to a dead soul – and this is not a metaphor. The qeej has six pipes and four of the six represent the tones of the Hmong language.
The anthropologist Eric Crystal loved Merced and the Hmong. He said that they test you every minute, but once you pass the test, they are fantastic. He thought they were on the best organized, most focused groups you could find on earth. This just made the author even more determined to find the answer to the question: How in heaven’s name could this have happened here? The answer could be found in two words: Dang Moua. He was the indefatigable grocer, interpreter, and pig farmer who had once been a clerk-typist at the American Embassy. He was to the Hmong what Daniel Boone bore to Kentucky. His pursuit of the American Dream was unbelievable. No one would ever be Dang’s boos but Dang. He worked eighteen hours a day and in his spare time, when he lived in Richmond, he would go to the library to study climates and soil conditions and crop yields in other states. That’s where, along with word from a brother who lived in Southern California, he learned about the Central Valley. So, the next day, he and his family left for California. They arrived in Merced with $34. The first job he got was picking peaches and figs, and he could easily trap jackrabbits and squirrels for dinner. To Dang, worn beyond weariness by the journey from Laos to Thailand to Virginia to California, it was the long-desired terminus. Because of him, a favorable buzz arose in the Hmong community throughout the country, and so the Hmong began to migrate to Merced.
The migration became an economic catastrophe for Merced. It was already low in per capita income. Now the Hmong arrived and 79% received public assistance. They were not primarily or even solely responsible for Merced’s fiscal crisis. There was also the accelerating transfer from agricultural work from people to machines; the double-digit unemployment rate; the 1995 closing of Castle Air Force base; and a 1992 restructuring of California sales and property taxes that returned more to the state and less to the county. Add to that Proposition 187, California’s 1994 referendum that banned public services to illegal immigrants, and it was obvious that even legal immigrants would not be welcomed with open arms. However, there were some in Merced that welcomed the Hmong. Jeff McMahon, a young reporter at the Merced Sun-Star, felt their culture was a blessing to the community. The warmest welcome came when the Hmong, among other ethnic groups, became naturalized citizens in the Merced County Administration building.