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The 1.5 Generation: Hmong of Wisconsin

Maysee Yang Herr

(Part 1 of 3)

Many people know that Hmong Americans came to this country as refugees from Laos. But Mai Zong Vue, intercultural program coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, is worried this may be all they know. In media and public perception, Vue thinks Hmong Americans are stuck in the stories of their past.

To be sure, this past is important and complex. Hmong Americans have a complicated relationship with the United States government. The CIA enlisted Hmong men in Laos to fight in their “Secret War,” an attempt to use local fighters to crush North Vietnamese supply routes that ran through Laos, a technically neutral country. After decades of war, the communist takeover in 1975 led to a refugee diaspora across the world, from France to Australia to the US. Over 100,000 Hmong came to the US as political refugees, and today the largest populations are in Minnesota, California and Wisconsin. Wisconsin alone has almost 50,000 Hmong, making up about 38 percent of the total Asian population in the state.

Mai Zong Vue
Mai Zong Vue

Vue wants people to understand that a lot has happened since then.

“This is the new chapter to the Hmong community’s life where we call Wisconsin home,” said Vue.

An important player in this new chapter is what Vue calls the “1.5 generation.” This is the generation of those born in Laos or Thai refugee camps and transported to America in their childhood. They represent the link between their parents, who lived through the war and are fluent in Hmong, and their children, who were born in America and are fluent in English.

Vue sees this generation as unique, as its members are the gatekeepers that pave the way for future generations of Hmong Americans to follow. They successfully made the transition to homeowners, taxpayers and active citizens, Vue said.

“They are leaders in their own field, and they are the community brokers and advocates that are trying to bridge the Hmong communities they live in with the mainstream,” said Vue.

To showcase some of their impressive accomplishments, we are presenting 12 profiles of Wisconsin Hmong professionals in the “1.5 generation.”

These profiles are not representative of the whole community, as there are Hmong professionals in many other fields than those listed here, including business, human services and politics. While not totally representative, these profiles do share common themes.

The parents of these individuals placed a high value on schooling, and often worked multiple jobs to ensure their children could get the best education available. An acute realization of their parents’ sacrifices fueled a drive to achieve. Now, they look to help the next generation, acting as mentors and role models.

“They are the fabric of the Hmong community,” Vue said.

Here are some of their stories.

Nengher Vang: Learn from the past
Assistant Professor at UW-Whitewater, department of history

Nengher Vang
Nengher Vang

Nengher Vang firmly believes this country was founded on great principles like freedom and equality. But over the years, America has deviated from these ideas — whether through slavery, imperialism, immigration policies or its response to international events like genocide and refugee crises.

Vang lived through one of these less-than-proud moments of American history — America’s military intervention in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s. So when Vang teaches American foreign relations at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he tries to encourage his students to prevent history from repeating itself.

Although Hmong people had worked as pilots, monitored radars and directed airstrikes for the U.S. in its war against Communism in Laos for more than a decade, when the war was over, the US did not want to accept the Hmong as refugees. The Hmong, who were largely illiterate, were considered “too primitive,” Vang said. Left with few options, many Hmong made the long journey to refugee camps in Thailand.

Vang’s family spent four years on the move: hiding in the jungle, sometimes surrendering and being placed in Communist detention centers, fleeing again, and finally arriving at Ban Vinai, one of Thailand’s largest refugee camps. Vang spent seven years of his childhood there and nine more months in a refugee processing center before immigrating to America in September 1988.

“There’s not a fence or walls in Ban Vinai, but there’s an imaginary border that you cannot go beyond,” Vang said. If a Thai security guard found refugees outside this border, they would be subject to penalties like beating, imprisonment or fines.

While Vang and thousands of others were eventually granted refugee status and re-settled in the United States, he doesn’t believe American international policy has significantly improved since then.

Just a few years ago, Vang was reading about Afghan interpreters who had worked for the US during the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Just as the US had abandoned the Hmong after the communists came to power, the US was denying many Afghan interpreters’ requests for refuge in the US after the Taliban began targeting them.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God this is happening again,’ and I’m pretty sure it’s going to continue in Iraq, in Syria, and in other places where we intervene and get people to serve for us. In the end, when they’re targeted by the enemies, we’re saying ‘No, we’re not going to provide refuge or a safe haven for you,’” Vang said.

This empathy for oppressed groups of all kinds developed throughout his education. In college, he found himself isolated among a predominately white, upper- and middle-class, well-educated student population. He made some friends with international students from Africa and South Korea, but found real connection when he was introduced to the works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As someone who had lived as a minority his whole life — in America and in Laos — and as a refugee with limited rights in Thailand, Vang could strongly identify with King’s plea for equality and his struggle to create a “beloved community.”

This connection with King, along with the social problems he saw in Hmong communities across America in the early 1990s, were what inspired him to major in sociology. He followed his bachelor’s with a Masters’ in theology, a Masters’ in peace studies and a PhD in history. All of these degrees were motivated in part by his desire to promote equality, freedom and “democratic visions not just for the Hmong community, but for all communities.”

But Vang believes that to attain this vision, everyone, especially his students, need to think critically about American foreign policy. This criticism doesn’t come from place of bitterness.

“I very much love America,” Vang said. “It is out of a sense of love and perhaps also a sense of duty as a citizen of America that we need to be critical in the ways in which our country is engaging with the rest of the world. We need to make sure that America continues to be a beacon of hope for freedom and democracy for oppressed people.”

Maysee Yang Herr: Helping Hmong stay in touch with their linguistic roots
Associate Professor at UW-Steven’s Point, school of education

Maysee Yang Herr
Maysee Yang Herr

As soon as Maysee Yang Herr’s family moved to the United States, her father made it clear that education was a priority. With no English skills, he set out to attain a high school degree, a rare feat for a Hmong man of his generation. This set a high bar for Herr and her siblings.

“My father said, ‘I didn’t bring you here for nothing. I came here and I’m working hard because I want more for you children. I came not knowing any English and I finished a high school degree. I expect that at the very least that you all will receive a bachelor’s degree,’” Herr said.

Herr got a bachelor’s degree — and a few more degrees to boot. She now has a master’s degree in educational psychology and a PhD in curriculum studies. Now, she helps give out degrees as an associate professor of education at UW-Stevens Point.

Herr doesn’t confine her teaching skills to college students; she also wants to give the younger generation of Hmong American children an opportunity to learn about their culture.

Herr knows firsthand the difficulties of staying in touch with her Hmong heritage. Because she was born in a Thai refugee camp and came to the US when she was just three months old, she learned English easily and Hmong with more effort. She distinctly remembers a moment when she was trying to explain the concept of an earthquake to an aunt, who had recently immigrated from Laos.

“I tried to explain it to her with my English-thinking mind, and I tried to translate the English into Hmong and that wasn’t working … so of course my mom has to say, ‘Hmong American children these days; they don’t know Hmong words!’” Herr said. “To this day, I remember that word because of that moment. It was a sad moment for me to realize that I didn’t know as much Hmong as I should.”

That realization was part of what led her to start summer Hmong language and culture camps in her hometown of Wausau. She wasn’t the only one looking for a way to connect with her culture. Hmong parents had expressed the wish for some sort of Hmong school, as their children were more comfortable speaking English than Hmong. Non-Hmong parents approached her as well, saying they wanted their children to be able to socially engage in an increasingly diverse world.

When Herr considers her future, the one thing she knows is that teaching will always be a part of her career. She’s realized that teaching is deep in her blood; Herr’s father and brother are also teaching in various fields.

“I can’t escape it, so I embrace it,” she said.

Paul Ly Tong Pao: Education is an investment
Student Service Specialist for the PEOPLE program at East High School, Madison

Paul Ly Tong Pao
Paul Ly Tong Pao

When you move to a new country, some changes are big and traumatic, and some are small and off-putting.

When the communists took over Laos in 1975, Paul Ly Tong Pao’s family ties to the old regime meant a quick flight was in order. His grandfather had worked for the French administration and the King of Laos, and his grandfather’s brother was a general in the Royal Army for the CIA. Clearly unwelcome in the new regime, his family escaped to France.

Only five at the time, Pao was enrolled in kindergarten and learned French naturally and fluently. Other changes were not so natural, especially for his parents, who didn’t speak French. The culture was different. The lifestyle was different. The breakfasts were different. Suddenly, instead of waking up to steamed rice every morning, bread and pastries had staged a coup d’etat.

But these and other hardships brought about something valuable — personal experience — that Pao feels obligated to share with the next generation. A love of helping people and teaching them to be self-sufficient have guided his career.

When Pao was working full-time as a program coordinator at a community center, members of the Hmong community kept asking him to translate for them at the hospital. He did this so often that the hospital staff noticed. Finally, a Meriter Hospital interpreter called and told him: “If you want to be paid, you know we can hire you.”

Pao is happy to interpret, but he believes one of the most powerful ways to help people is to enable them to get an education. He currently works as a student services specialist for the PEOPLE program in Madison, which aims to prepare low-income students and students of color for college. Pao oversees the East High School site, which means he acts as supervisor, guidance counselor and occasional tutor to the 90 participants in the program.

In this job, he preaches the gospel of education. Education is what prevents the stress of having to hold multiple, low-paying jobs like the ones the Hmong elders were forced to take, he says. Programs like PEOPLE make college attainable by offering scholarships, without which he knows many of these students would be forced to take out loans, postpone their education, or give up their dream of college altogether. But in America, he said, education is an investment.

“They pay you for your knowledge. They invest into you with scholarships that come from taxpayers,” he says. “Hopefully, you get a good job, and then we get more taxes for Uncle Sam.”

While Pao is passionate about his message on the importance of education, he makes sure to emphasize that UW-Madison is not the be-all, end-all of success. Technical schools, four-year schools, it doesn’t matter, said Pao. If you have the discipline to get the education, you will be better equipped to face whatever life throws at you.

Mayhoua Moua: Mediating between cultures
Executive Director of Southeast Asian Education Development, Inc.

Mayhoua Moua
Mayhoua Moua

Mayhoua Moua has vivid memories of her journey from Laos to Thailand to America.

She described fleeing from Laos for the book They Came to Wisconsin: “Before dawn my mother woke us. All the women and children were put in taxis … and the elders, too. We were so afraid. The children cried. We pushed the car to be silent. Pushed until daylight.”

She believes the memories of that experience help her to better identify with the struggles and needs of her community. For her whole career, she has used that knowledge to act as a mediator between that community and mainstream culture.

Moua started her career in the nonprofit realm, working with Laos Family Community, Inc. She helped Hmong American families find housing and employment and taught them how to navigate the welfare system. Later, she started her own consulting business, where she again acted as a middleman, this time between Hmong populations and business and organizations. She provided interpretation services for Hmong populations and Hmong cultural competency training for businesses, school, hospitals, clinics and even political candidates.

One of the most frequent messages of these trainings was one of humility: Don’t assume that because you have this training, you will have all the answers. The Hmong American community has many complexities, so ask questions, Moua said. One example she cites is differing medical care depending on whether a family subscribes to traditional Shamanism and Christianity.

“Like many other cultures, there are many layers of culture within the culture,” Moua said.

Now, Moua is the executive director of the Southeast Asian Education Development, Inc., and she’s still acting as a mediator, this time between the Hmong and medical communities.

Hmong populations have suffered high mortality rates of breast and cervical cancers, as a general lack of awareness of these diseases meant many Hmong women were not treated until the later stages of cancer, Moua said. The project aims to raise awareness and encourage early screenings.

Moua knows there are other groups in need of a mediator, and is looking to expand services to other Southeast Asian populations like Cambodians, Laotians and the Vietnamese. Southeast Asian Education Development, Inc., recently expanded their cancer education program to serve Burmese refugees.

“We went through it. Why not help them so they don’t have to go through the whole trouble of having to learn everything on their own?” Moua says.

(Next week: Part 2 of the “The 1.5 Generation”)