There were, of course, many who felt differently. Dr. Robert Small told the author that he and his friends were outraged when the Hmong came to Merced. How could the government bring such nonworking people into their community? He was irate that these people seemed to know no shame, being on the dole and that they were happy that way. It was also a matter of racism. People sometimes showed their resentment of the Hmong as a race. Dang was asked by a man in a car why he hadn’t just died in Vietnam instead of coming to Merced. He followed his father’s advice which was to be kind to people who treat you like a beast. But the man didn’t respond to his kindness. Dang wondered if he was a veteran and was convinced that Dang was the enemy. This was not far from the truth, because many people confused the Hmong with the Vietnamese, and sometimes, they were known by the derogatory name American soldiers had given the Vietcong – gooks. The Hmong took pains to explain that they had fought for the United States, but it usually made no difference. They even demonstrated against the new requirement that they work sixteen hours a week in public service jobs which the Hmong likened to slavery. They assumed that aid with no strings attached was no more than their proper due. They expected the Americans to be grateful for their help in the war while Americans expected the Hmong to be grateful for their aid. Sometimes, the author felt the Hmong of Merced were like one of those visual perception puzzles: if you looked one way at it, you saw a vase; if you looked another way, you saw two faces, and whichever image you saw, it was almost impossible to see, at least at first glance, the other.
As for the Merced school system, again, what you saw again depended on your point of view. From one perspective, the Hmong children were a disaster. They forced the school system to deal with sudden overcrowding and desegregation to keep schools from being almost entirely Asian. They had to come up with money to build new schools and buses to take the Hmong children to them. On the other hand, the Hmong children rarely caused disciplinary problems and regularly filled the honor rolls. Four of the Lees’ children received Student of the Month awards. The parents would thank the teachers for teaching their child and would come to every meeting to make sure their children were fulfilling their duties. There were some Hmong children that didn’t fit this example and joined gangs and carried guns. Nonetheless, once they reached adulthood, the Hmong had a low overall crime rate compared with other people below the poverty level.
The most frequent criticism the author ever heard was that the Hmong were terrible drivers. They also consistently cheated on their driver’s exam. Because they couldn’t read the questions or fill in the correct X on the answer sheet, they learned to cheat through sewing! The women would embroider the Xs in the correct answer order on sleeves or button plackets so that the men could pass the test! The Hmong found this an ethical behavior, because they needed the car to stay close to their clans, so cheating was a way to keep the community together. The author liked the term “differently ethical” as a way to describe their behavior. The Hmong believed that rules and regulations were particularly breakable if the conflicted with the group ethic. They viewed it as the triumph of intelligence over bureaucracy.
The obligation to put the group before the self also had some negative consequences: stress, loss of privacy, a punishing sense of responsibility. Anyone who acted as a liaison for the community would be inundated with telephone calls and demands from so many for so much. Two of these included Blia Yao Moua and Jonas Vangay. Both had studied in France and had been offered jobs there. However, they believed if they stayed there, they would feel guilty, because of their obligation to the Hmong community. They had earned leadership roles in Merced, but little money and little peace of mind. They helped the community negotiate the public-assistance labyrinth and were part of a group of four or five people who had no private life whatsoever. Blia had an ambitious housing scheme – called Hmongtown - that involved the purchase of land and the building of houses that would remind the people of Laos. He thought it would boost their morale, and they would take good care of it. But when the author returned to Merced a year later, no one had heard of Hmongtown and Blia had left. He had burned out and stopped working for the community. As for Jonas, he agreed to have dinner one evening with the author, but was forty-five minutes late because he was helping a Hmong. The dinner was not a success, because the author didn’t realize something about Jonas and other Hmong: they really only belonged in their own community. Jonas said, “I am the chameleon animal. You can place me anyplace, and I will survive, but I will not belong. I must tell you that I do not really belong anywhere.”
This chapter is a basic interpretation of what brought an overwhelming number of Hmong to Merced. It analyzes how they migrate as a community even here in the United States and how they cling to each other over and above any and all else.