Area Hmong strive to keep their culture alive

By SALLY TATO, Lansing State Journal

A fan hums in the kitchen while Ying and Chou L. Xiong get ready to cook tubs of chicken and open their restaurant for the lunch crowd.

The refugees from Laos work 13-hour days at Thai Kitchen in Meridian Township to give their children a chance to go to college, a rare opportunity in Laos for their tribal group, known as the Hmong.

But in choosing to live in the United States, they've had to expose their children to Western pop culture with its MTV, its divorce rate and its disrespect for authority. Ying and Chou's valued upbringing of male prominence, arranged marriages, respect and close family ties is at risk.

Like other immigrant groups who came to America before them, Lansing's Hmong community struggles to cling to a culture that's slipping from its grasp.

"There are still many things about our ways that are good," said Ying, 48, who fled the farms of Laos at the close of the Vietnam War 25 years ago. He arrived in the United States with two shirts, two pairs of pants and the shoes on his feet. "We try to keep the good part of our culture."

Fearing persecution from the Laos government for helping the United States in the war, many Hmong sought freedom, landing with little money in France, Australia, Canada and the United States.

An estimated 160,000 Hmong live in this country, some 2,000 of them in the Lansing area. Millions still live in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and China.

Hmong is a tribal word meaning "free." It describes an ethnic minority that has lived for centuries in a number of Asian countries, retaining its independence despite communist rule.

The Xiongs, like other mid-Michigan Hmong, are proud of what they've accomplished for themselves and their four children, but admit they're having trouble accepting the influence American culture has on their kids.

Dating, long phone calls and parties are limited, particularly for their three daughters. When Ying and Chou were growing up in Laos, Hmong were considered adults at puberty and usually married in their teens. A girl who dated was considered risque and that hurt a family's reputation and the girl's chances of marrying.

While the Xiongs don't want to be that strict with their daughters, they don't want to abandon the moral lessons with which they were raised. They want their children to focus on getting an education and establishing successful careers.

Hmong youths don't always see things the same way. They sometimes fight for the freedom to live a Western lifestyle, sometimes caring little about the fore suffering the generation before them experienced in fleeing Asia.

Ying Xiong can still remember relocating across Laos every few months during the Vietnam War, his five siblings and his parents looking for a safe place far from the fighting to the west.

Ying was in his early 20s in the Laotian capital when the fighting finally stopped. He, like other Hmong, knew that the government wanted to punish them for helping the Americans during the Vietnam War.

"We didn't know where we were going," he said. "We had to figure out a way to get out of the country."

So he rented a van, picked up his family and drove them to the Mekong River, which separates Laos from Thailand. He paid a man the equivalent of $7 to get them across so they could flee to a refugee camp. Two years later, people were paying $700 to cross, he said.

It's a story shared by thousands of Hmong.

From Thailand, Ying immigrated to the United States, where he struggled to learn the language and ways of the American people. Here, he married Chou and they tried to combine Hmong and American ways.

Hmong families, like other immigrant groups, have tended to stay near each other for comfort, advice and to overcome language barriers. Refugee services relocated Hmong in many cities across the country, including Lansing. Here they settled in neighborhoods in north and south Lansing.

Today, Hmong remain a private society.

They look to elders within their family and the Hmong community for advice on problems such as domestic abuse and wayward children, even before going to the police. They give their sons more freedom than their daughters. And some seek out Hmong shamans to heal the sick.

organization that formed in 1983, sponsors local Hmong events including an annual picnic in Lansing. It also plans to create a youth group that will offer recreational and educational programs for Hmong teens and young adults who need guidance.

College tours, financial aid workshops and basketball nights are all preliminary plans, said Taying Yang, youth program coordinator for the organization.

Terry Walsh, vice president of Refugee Services in Lansing, which helps ethnic groups settle into this country, said the Hmong, more than other ethnic groups, are very self-sufficient and often try to assist each other.

"I would say that's positive," said Walsh, whose organization is a division of Catholic Social Services.

"It's positive because they look out for one another. It's positive because they always have someone to turn to. It's positive because they won't let someone fall through the cracks."

Still, the Hmong way of dealing with problems doesn't always keep youths out of trouble.

Hmong teens were involved in a high-profile rape case in Detroit last fall, and Lansing is home to three Asian gangs, including one made up of about 20-25 Hmong teens, said Lansing police Lt. Ray Hall. The gang, formed in the early 1990s, typically is responsible for break-ins and car thefts.

It's fear of that type of behavior that sparks many Hmong parents to return to their roots and enforce a strict Hmong upbringing, with little freedom to go out, and where the importance of family and a wholesome reputation are stressed, said Lao Lo, a liaison between the Hmong community and Lansing School District.

But Lo, along with other Hmong parents, realize compromise is inevitable. He expects Hmong youths to put less importance on traditional ways and begin to fully accept American culture.

Koua Vue has accepted that. The Hmong father of 10 said he gives his children the freedom their American friends have.

"The culture changes. You have to change," said Vue, a Lansing resident and maintenance worker for the East Lansing School District. "There is no way you keep the same way. You live in a different country."

The Xiongs' daughter Sheila, 17, and sister Rachel, 18, seem like any American teen-agers, but they're also Hmong.

"It's been interesting and difficult at the same time," said Sheila Xiong, who like her sister works part-time and helps their parents at the restaurant.

The teen-agers plan someday to share the history of the Hmong with their own children and to pass on the language and dances. But they don't see themselves as living traditional Hmong lives.

Rachel Xiong, a senior at Okemos High School.

"I am privileged to be Hmong. We have done a lot," Sheila Xiong said.

Their parents are glad.

"We want to encourage them and teach them to accomplish the dream we never had a chance to finish," Ying Xiong said.

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