The best storyteller Tou Ger Xiong has ever heard _ and he pays close attention to many, considering that he makes his living telling stories _ was his father.
When the children needed disciplining in Laos, his dad wouldn't yell or threaten. He'd say, "Here's a story. There once was a person in a similar situation. . . . " The kids would ponder and straighten out.
After the family came to America, Xiong heard his friends discussing where and when they were born, down to the detail of what time and which hospital. But the old country, Laos, issued no birth certificates. The biology of pregnancy and birth was just not talked about in Hmong culture. So his father would tell him:
"Son, it was a cold night. The harvest was just right. A misty rain crackled outside. In the middle of the night, there was a knock on the door. Your mother and I opened it. There you were, wrapped up in a cloth, and so lovable, so adorable. You were that gift of God for us, and you carried great power."
Each story of his dad's was laced with drama, with humor, and was told with great pacing and voicing. People would listen, spellbound, for hours, his son says, to his true-life stories and folk tales.
The younger Xiong, now 28, bills himself as the world's first Hmong storyteller and rap artist. His shows are fast-paced, funny, all wrapped around a message, just as his father's stories were. Xiong lives in Woodbury and has performed for schools, conferences and diversity workshops in 40 states. He commands fees as high as thousands of dollars. Nice life, he says, but here's the best part.
"I get to tell my own story _ not some white Harvard professor who's studied the Hmong people for 10 years. It's not the same."
It's quite the story. The father, Xia Ge Xiong, was well respected in Laos. He had only the equivalent of a second-grade education, but he rose to be mayor of five villages and became a captain in the Hmong secret army, working for four years with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Eventually, he had to get his family out fast.
When Tou Ger was 2 years old, his dad bribed a boatman to get the family across a river to safety in the middle of the night. The Xiongs made it, but people in the next boatload were robbed and dumped into the river. Only five survived. The rest, mostly children, died.
The Xiongs spent four years in a resettlement camp in Thailand.
"I remember the first time I saw someone different," he tells audiences. All Hmong people have "short, flat, beautiful noses," he says, but this missionary in the refugee camp was tall with yellow hair, blue eyes and "a nose that came all the way out to here." The pompous man babbled what sounded like gibberish to the Hmong; actually, it probably was English or French.
The children thought he was a big, ugly monster. That idea was reinforced by their mother, Sao Lou Vue, who warned Tou Ger, "Son, don't go too close." This guy could bite.
And then one day in 1979, his dad said a word that the children had never heard before: "America." The family was going to America. With no concept of world geography, no knowledge of plane trips, no television to see a broader world, the children's version was they'd get into a huge metal bird and go up in the clouds and there would be America, in the sky.
In Laos, where ice cream was a reward for good behavior, kids liked to chew even on plain ice. "And when we came to America, we came straight to Minnesota. In winter," he says. His oldest sister and brother-in-law had already moved to St. Paul. As soon as the car door opened, he and his brothers were grabbing hunks of snow and eating it like candy. They'd never seen an indoor toilet, and the first time nature called, he ran outside the apartment to find a tree. In his shows, he mimics his older sister's scream out the window:
"Noooooooooooooooooo. You can't do that. It's America."
Tou Ger and his siblings in some ways adapted quickly. While he loved learning, he came to hate school. Kids called him "gook" and "chink" and told him to go back to where he came from. They said their people had been in Vietnam and shot at people who looked like his people. "Are you related to Bruce Lee?" kids would often ask, and he got so aggravated that he started answering, "I'll tell Uncle Bruce to kick your butt." He'd flip on television and not see anybody who seemed at all like his family.
Maybe he wasn't as good as the American kids, he began to think. He worked hard to lose his accent, and he'd squeeze his nose every day so it wouldn't be so flat.
At home, his parents would tell him he wasn't Hmong enough. Stop complaining, they said. "Son, you be thankful for what you have _ a second chance in a country with no war." At school, he wasn't American enough. He hung out with Hmong kids, and pretty soon people assumed the boys were an Asian gang. At least they weren't picked on so badly then, but some of the Hmong guys got tougher and tougher.
"Be careful what you pretend to be," he tells kids in grade school and junior high. "Some of my Hmong friends in America are locked in jail still today. Some are dead. They were shot and died as teen-agers."
First in class
In his family, education was all.
His father would not scold, "Do your homework." He'd say (and this is the condensed version), "I went through the war. Your mother and I hid in the jungle. We ate what we could find off the trees to stay alive. We sacrificed everything we'd ever known so you could get an education. So get your little butt to your room and study."
The tactic worked. For three of four years in the '90s, one of the Xiong children was valedictorian at Humboldt High School in St. Paul: Moslais in 1991, Tou Ger in 1992 and Maylee in 1994. (The family didn't have anyone in the class of '93.) Among the 11 children, two became social workers, three elementary teachers, two work with computers, one is a probation officer, one is in college and one is taking a break from college.
The names of the younger generation tell a story. In order _ Maisee, Moua, Shoua, Eh, Mee, Ying, Moslais, Tou Ger, Maylee, Carter and Jeffrey. Jimmy Carter was president when the family got to the United States. (Tou Ger says that if a George Bush had been president, he'd have a little brother running around named Bush.) The other name was for Jeffrey Dufresne, a teacher who befriended the Xiong family long ago and to this day.
Meanwhile, the father _ once the mayor of five villages, remember _ was cleaning toilets, starting at $3.25 an hour. And struggling with English. He and his wife, for some reason, loved Big Macs, and their children were not always available for a run to McDonald's. So the dad, who drove a car, learned to go up to the drive-thru window and say in English, "Two Big Macs." The problem came when the clerk's voice would crackle over the speaker, "Would you like fries with that?" He'd say again, "Two Big Macs." "Apple pie?" "Two Big Macs." Sooner or later, two Big Macs would be pushed out the window. The way Tou Ger tells it, it's a sweet-and-sad story.
'Hear my story'
While a student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., he started working on what has become his craft. Three threads merged into one. He loved music and hip-hop culture. He was hooked on his father's stories and folk tales. He was nuts about comedy and theater. Voila, his life story on stage.
He has to get audience's attention in the first five minutes, especially when it's composed of kids. So he races onto stage, strips off layers of clothes down to a "Got rice?" T-shirt and sings, dances and plays Hmong instruments. He raps, and gets audiences, even older adults, to mimic his bopping gestures and chant after him, "Go, Hmong boy, go. Eat that spicy eggroll, Hmong boy." Audiences, already won over, bust up with laughter.
His message becomes, "This is the racism I grew up with. Hear my story." He doesn't preach much, mostly just tells.
Much to his surprise, his show about being the underdog resonates with many in the audience _ not just the only Hmong kid in a junior high who said maybe his classmates wouldn't pick on him so much anymore after hearing Xiong. One white kid told him he had similar stories; kids called him "trailer trash."
Every outsider hurts the same, Xiong says.
His dad died two years ago at age 62, and Tou Ger still speaks of him in the present tense. Xia Ge Xiong is an unseen presence at every performance.
It took a lot of talking to get his dad to see a performance. "I heard that you talk about me," the father protested. After two years of his boy's career on stage, he finally got the courage to attend. The son remembers, "In a way he saw his stories come to life through me." Tou Ger introduced him at the end, and the crowd gave the father a standing ovation. He wept.
_ Peg Meier is at email@example.com.
Tou Ger Xiong
Born: Oct. 15, 1973, in Laos.
Family: Eighth of 11 children. Single with a steady girlfriend.
Education: Graduated first in his class, Humboldt High School, St. Paul, 1992. Graduate in political science from Carleton College, Northfield, 1996.
Career: Diversity consultant, Hmong storyteller, comedian and rap artist.
Hobbies: Volunteers with Hmong groups. Chairman of the Hmong American partnership. Plays basketball, tennis.
Contact: 651-738-0141. E-mail: Txiong@rnc.net Web site: http://www.gohmongboy.com