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At peace, but dismayed by their environs - The Cultural Divide

By: Paul Toohey, The Australian, May 10, 2002, Friday

Paul Toohey finds out how a unique group of new settlers sees the rest of Australia

'AUSTRALIA is a country with a lot of tribes," says Lao Ly. "They all want to live by themselves and they don't want to listen to each other."

Ly represents a group of Hmong, one of the smallest and most unusual tribes to migrate to Australia.

The Hmong are usually described as stateless people, no longer having a country they can call home. The Hmong see most Australians as a frigid and forlorn lot, having lost the ability to communicate with their families and neighbours.

They say they can communicate with their alien ancestors. So perhaps we're even.

Subsistence mountain farmers, the Hmong were pushed out of China in the 19th century to Laos, where they lived until war visited them through the late 1950s, '60s and '70s. Strongly anti-communist, 25,000 Hmong assisted the Americans by staging attacks, from within Laos, on North Vietnamese as they moved along the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam.

When the US lost the Vietnam War, Laos also became communist. The Hmong were caught in the middle with "a very big problem".

They fled across the Mekong River to Thailand where some settled or, like Ly, stayed in refugee camps for years awaiting passage to the West.

Ly wanted to go to the US but when an Australian aid worker told him that "every Australian, no matter how rich or poor, had a car in his yard", he decided to come here. That was 19 years ago.

Now settled in Atherton, outside Cairns, this tiny group of Hmong are not exactly inconspicuous. Ly and his friends are, in fact, a breakaway group from the 400-strong Innisfail Hmong community. They wear the clothes of shamans and are dedicated solely to maintaining their ancient animist culture.

Ly was distressed by the smoking and drinking among children of the Innisfail Hmong and, with several other Hmong families, recently moved to Atherton to better direct their children's lives. He says he will not force his children to be the same as him, but he is at the very least obliged to show them the proper path.

The Hmong men wear bright blue silk clothes, with perhaps a red sash around the waist and black or white silk hats. One of their houses -- just behind Atherton's main drag -- is tied up in red ribbon to keep evil at bay.

Believing their people to be the first that God created, the Hmong practise soul-calling, in which a soul is summoned from another planet to inhabit the body of a newborn baby. They believe in the healing powers of pyramids and want to build one in Atherton. God created the universe but their ancestors -- through whom they maintain a direct link to God -- created Earth.

In death, they will go to an outer-space destination they are reluctant to name. They would practise animal sacrifice if our laws permitted. Their backyard chooks look nervous.

The Hmong experience in Australia has been bittersweet. To them, multiculturalism is a good idea that doesn't exist.

"We are not treated warmly here," says Ly. "But at least we live in a country without war."

Ly says it's not that Australians don't know how to interact with other cultures -- they simply don't know how to interact.

"Australians are too lonely," says Ly. "People here live by themselves. They eat by themselves. They never ask you to eat with them. So I asked them: 'You want to eat [with me]?' They did, but they never ask me to eat with them."

These Hmong believe "Australians are good people" who don't understand the fragility of their freedom. "We always thought Laos was free," says Ly, 49. "But it wasn't. Australia is the same. One day, you will become refugees, too."

Tomorrow, says Ly, his people, as former guerillas, would fight for Australia if they had to. But he says we are self-interested people who are difficult to motivate towards a single cause. "If we do not live together warmly, how can we fight together when the time comes?"

Being noticeably short and colourfully dressed hasn't helped the Hmong fall effortlessly into north Queensland life. "Wherever we go, we touch the eye," says Ly. "We feel good wearing your clothes, but ours give us protection of the spirit. So it's difficult."

The Hmong believe they are subjected to racism they can't quite put their fingers on -- maybe it's just that people think they're odd.

Ly suggests people everywhere are a little frightened of refugees -- not necessarily because they are foreigners, but because they are inevitably damaged people. "No one who hasn't been a refugee can know the pain of being a refugee," he says.

Even so, there is little sympathy among them for the Tampa refugees.

"This group from Tampa, they pay money to escape," says Chao Chang. "We do not call them refugees, quite. They still have a country -- they can live there now and nobody will hate them or kill them. We can't go back. For us, it's very risky."

Around the traps here, farmers complain that the Hmong won't work hard enough and that they are always trying to avoid paying tax by demanding cash for labour.

Apart from that, there seems to be no overt hostility towards them.

"They're honest and very religious," says Ivy Moynihan, 89, who rents the lower part of her house to a Hmong family and lives next door to Ly's family. Ivy, a white woman born and bred in Atherton, closes the book she is reading on her hero, Nelson Mandela.

"They're splendid. Why shouldn't they wear their costumes? If they were going about naked, perhaps, but otherwise how could one possibly object?"

Ly says Australians "scare each other. We should have the idea that we are like young children, just born. We should hold hands and look to the future.

"I am from Laos, but I should not think that way. We all have to build this country up, but first we need a good idea how we want to get along with the world."