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HMONG ROOTS

Reprinted by permission, the following essay was written by See Vang, a member of the Big Buddy Program, who just graduated from SMSU with a degree in literature/creative writing.

As Iím sitting here, a small Hmong part of me is slowly drying up inside, like the roots of a fallen tree. It is dying so slowly that I donít feel it, but I know it.  There are times when I reach back to retrieve something that was there before, but no longer is.  Then I know the memory of my childhood is depleting.

            I remember in 1988 on the rugged hills of Camp Nam Yao in Thailand, the dark nights, my siblings and I cuddled around my mother like little piglets.  High up above us the night sky was full of sparkling stars.  Below us was a valley.  Across the valley on the other side, the land leveled off; a paved street ran horizontally.  During the day, I saw elephants come by with their owners, often spraying water from their trunks.  I saw cars, trucks, motorcycles, and Thai entrepreneurs hauling their baked goods and fresh produce on bikes and motorcycles.  That was the first paved street I had ever seen.

            A week earlier, the other half of my family was smuggled back to the border on that same road.  My father had returned to a camp along the border of Thailand and Laos along with niam loj or his first wife, my oldest brother, his wife, one step-sister, and a step-brother.  My father and his first wife hadnít wanted to come to America.  Although the majority of the refugees had planned to come, my fatherís first wife resented the idea.  Like thousands of Hmong refugees, she didnít know what or where America was and my father felt he had to stay with her.  After a couple months of constant quarreling, my father had decided to let my mother and four of us kids come to America, to be eaten by white giants. It seems now as if he was predicting Jeffrey Dahmerís cannibalism, before Dahmer was discovered in 1991.  My mother, however, argued that if all the Hmong were to be eaten, then let it be, as long as the family was together.  At the end of the two-month dispute, my family was split in half.  Each went in opposite directions.

            The night of their departure from Camp Nam Yao, everyone cried.  My brother and his new bride didnít want to go back with my father, but as a devout son, he felt obligated.  My young sister-in-lawís shoulders heaved as she gathered their clothes into a bag.  Her parents came and they too cried.  My mother clung to my brother and they cried.  My mother told him she had hoped so much for him to come to America with us.  It made him weep even more.  Everyone knew that if the family split up, there would be little or no chance of reuniting. My father patted each of our heads and sobbed like a little boy.  That was the first time Iíd seen him cry.  My stepsister and stepbrother cried too.  They didnít want to go back.  All of the people they knew were coming to America.  My mother made the last attempt to convince my father, but it didnít change his mind.  After they packed what little they could take, a Thai man led them into the dark.  The crying roared in our house once more.  The loud weeping attracted nearby neighbors to come watch the departure.  After they left my siblings and I sat on a dirt mound outside our house and watched their flashlights bob down the dirt path, cross the river to the other side, go up the hill, and finally into the vehicle that my father had arranged for them.  My brother beamed his flashlight back towards our house several times as the vehicle pulled into the street and drove away.  In the days that followed, our house felt empty with only five of us in it.  Several days later, my mother heard a rumor that my father would come back to kidnap us and leave my mother to come to America alone.  She was scared, but she wasnít about to lose.  She scouted a hiding place for us at night, in case my father returned.  The five of us used this uprooted tree hole at the edge of the cemetery for refuge.  We had only one worn-out blanket and a heavy-duty metal flashlight.  My mother wanted to conserve its batteries so we had to feel our way around in the black dirt, the insect-filled musty hole.  Then we spent a couple other nights at a relativeís house.  My father didnít come for us.  Years later, I learned that if it werenít for us, my mother did not need to come to America.  Ultimately, she wanted to give us a chance to live a better life, or so she had hoped. 

We remained in Nam Yao for two months while my mother completed the US Immigration Entry application.  Then, we boarded the bus for Camp Phanat Nikhom, where most of the people were in process of being resettled in a different country.  Phanat Nikhom for many of us was the thread that held together our past and the unknown.  After four months of basic training and paperwork, we boarded the plane for America.  Without knowing any useful words of English, we were transported across the ocean to America in October 1988.  In America, it seemed as if we were reborn.  We had to learn how to live all over again.  Perhaps, it is our second chance at life, a different life that we wouldnít have known if we had stayed with my father in Thailand.

            As an adult now, looking back, I canít say whether what each of them did was right or wrong.  Both my parents did what they thought was best then.  As time turns the blister to a callus, however, I have to say that I appreciated my motherís decision more.  She offered my siblings and me a life that is different.  I canít claim that it is so much better, for America in itself is also very corrupt, but in terms of getting an education, however, I must say it has forced me to be a more subjective human being.  Knowledge has offered me the opportunity to see my own life from a very different view.  When Iím at college among the crowd, I am just ďone of the international students,Ē but how I got here is different that a typical international student.  I am not here from a wealthy family in some foreign country, but I am here because itís the only place for me.  My roots had been plucked out of Laos and were transported to America.  After having been here for more than sixteen years, I still donít know if Minnesota is the proper place for a tropical plant.  My father, his first wife, brother, and step-siblings who went back now reside in Wat Tham Krabok, a temple being used as a camp in Thailand.  Inside the premises of this camp, they are closely watched like criminals.  They canít go to big cities like Bangkok or Chiang Mai to work because of their refugee status as a result of the Vietnam War, which supposedly ended thirty years ago.  They are like insects caught in a spider web, waiting to be eaten alive.  My father never expressed his regrets, but I know somewhere deep in that stone-hearted man, he regrets letting his family fall apart all those years ago on that night in Thailand.

            Now, sixteen years later, ďthe US government agreed to resettle 15,000 Hmong refugees who have been living illegally on the grounds of Wat Tham Krabok, a famous Buddhist temple in Thailand,Ē the NPR reports on March 5, 2004.

            I was thrilled with excitement when these words echoed in my ear.  I had a hard time believing that I would have a second chance to reunite with my father and other half of my family.  After many years of separation, I am more than ready to have a complete family again. In the last conversation my mother had with my brother in Thailand, he confirmed that my father and his other wife had already registered to come to America.  If all goes well, the first wave of this new group of Hmong refugees are to arrive in the summer of 2004.

            I wonder how my father looks now.  Has he aged?  How am I going to greet him?  I want to hug him, but a Hmong daughter does not hug her father.  Will I shake his hand?  I envisioned him descending the stairs at the Minneapolis Airport, exhausted and disoriented.  My brothers, sisters, mother, and I along with more than a dozen extended family member will be waiting for his arrival.  As soon as he walks through the glass door everyone will bombard him with hugs celebrating the long overdue reunion.  Heíll probably question two things:  What have the white giants done to my family?  And what have I gotten myself into?  Everyone will be crying again, except this time not with tears of sorrow, but joy.  My father will sob softly.  Then it will be my turn to greet him.  I will walk up to him and hug him, the American way.  I could imagine him patting my head once more as if sheltering a dying plant from the blazing sun.  Both our tears of joy will perhaps water the drying roots of a plant that has been long misplaced.  Our reunion symbolizes completeness.  By coming to America, my father will reconnect me with my past.  With him here, everything will be okay.  He will eventually like it here and be grateful that he has come.  He will come to understand how much his presence means to each of his children.  To me, he is the sheltering shade, the nutrient ground, and energy from the sun.  He is life.    

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