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Weekly lunch helps elderly Hmong widower forget his loneliness

By: CROCKER STEPHENSON of the Journal Sentinel staff, April 3, 2002 Wednesday

He will be unable to read this.

He is 80 years old. English is as foreign to him as his name is likely to be foreign to you: Chiadoua Xiong.

An old man in a foreign land.

Milwaukee.

It's not just the words that swirl around him that are drained of meaning; it's the speaker's very purpose in speaking at all that is difficult to decode.

A woman opens her mouth. Words come out. A man hears the words and is moved to laughter. The exchange is a mystery to him. Its intent is invisible.

The man and woman, they might as well be goldfish swimming in a bowl: When they open their mouths, nothing comes out but bubbles.

Imagine his loneliness.

His wife is buried in Thailand. She died there a refugee. Brothers, parents, family and friends died in other elsewheres. Through a translator, he tells me that he cannot bear to talk about the dead.

"I lost most of my family by hunger, or they were killed by the communists, or they died from diarrhea," he says in Hmong. He does not look at me while his words are turned into English.

He was once a soldier. Fought the communists in Laos. First for the French. Then the French left, and he went back to farming. Then the Americans came, and he fought the communists for them.

He remembers when a plane crashed, how he and nine other men carried the three American and two Thai survivors to safety. A helicopter came, and took the five away.

The night he swam across the Mekong River, from Laos to Thailand, he cut three bamboo poles and lashed them together. He had to cut the bamboo slowly. There were enemy soldiers to the north and to the south.

He cut the bamboo slowly, slowly. Not making a sound.

He slipped into the river, clinging to his raft. Strapped to his back was his grandson, Zong Xiong, 1 month old.

Zong Xiong is grown now. He graduated from a Milwaukee high school. The United States -- its language, its culture, its future -- belongs to Zong Xiong. Chiadoua Xiong, his grandfather, is an 80-year-old man.

On Wednesdays, a group of Hmong men and women comes to the Milwaukee Christian Center, 2107 W. Greenfield Ave., to cook a traditional meal.

Maymao Lee coordinates the lunch, which on a recent Wednesday meant making sure that 45 cups of rice, 10 heads of cabbage, 13 pounds of ground pork and 24 cans of oyster mushrooms made their ways into the appropriate pots -- huge pots -- perched on liquid propane burners.

Seasonings are kept simple: a little salt, a little lemongrass. The smell fills the building. It is a smell Chiadoua Xiong understands.

Maybe 60 or 70 elderly Hmong men and women -- including Xiong -- come for the free lunch.

The sound they make as they sit to eat is celebratory. It is joyful. Death, loss and suffering are rarely spoken about.

"They don't talk about it because they will cry," Lee says. "And if they see one person crying, everybody will cry. Everybody.

"So we say, 'The food is ready. Eat and be happy. Get energy and be strong.' "

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Contact Crocker Stephenson at (414) 224-2539 or by e-mail at cstephenson@onwis.com.