For a First Time, the Written Word ; Hmong Americans Find New Voice in a Culture Far Away from Life in Laos

Article excerpt

As the first generation to grow up with a written language, English -- rather than the spoken Hmong -- the members of a writers' circle are addressing a new kind of coming of age in the United States.

In many ways, the preoccupations of the young writers who gather every week here over supermarket cheese and crackers are those of young people everywhere. They grapple with loneliness, the mystifying behavior of siblings, being gay, the parents who do not understand them.

But as the first generation to grow up with a written language, English -- rather than the traditional spoken Hmong -- the members of the Hmong American Writers' Circle are addressing a new kind of coming of age in the United States. It is one in whi ch living room sofas are moved for the arrival of a shaman on Saturday mornings and in which Fourth of July fireworks are avoided because they elicit terrifying flashbacks among their parents.

Mai Der Vang, a 30-year-old poet and a project director for New America Media, an ethnic news organization, writes about the lives her mother and father could not have:

And what you learn on back-to-school night,

when your mother does not know how to

write your name on the chalkboard

of your fourth grade class.

They call themselves the 1.75 generation, mostly born in the United States but still strongly identifying with their Hmong roots. They are the sons and daughters of the thousands of Hmong villagers in Laos who were covertly trained by the C.I.A. to repel communist forces during the Vietnam War. Although the oldest writers were born in Thai refugee camps, most grew up in the Central Valley of California or in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area of Minnesota.

In the United States, traumatic memories of wartime atrocities are often compounded by language issues, poverty and social isolation. The writers' parents grew up not only without a written language, but without much knowledge of the outside world.

In monthly workshops and in "How Do I Begin?", an anthology of their writing recently published by Heyday Books, Ms. Vang and her colleagues try to make sense of the dualities of growing up Hmong American, especially the hidden inner lives of parents often expressed as an inchoate sadness.

In Laos, only one child -- usually the eldest son -- was chosen to attend school, said Pos L. Moua, 41, a creative writing and English teacher at Merced College in California. When his father was younger, he spent his days "taking food to his older brother, a long journey by donkey," Mr. Moua said. Now 74 and ailing, Mr. Moua's father had deeply wanted an education; when his son read him a poem he had written, he wept.

"They have an urge to talk about feelings," Mr. Moua said of his father. "But the limitations in the new world changed the way they perceived life."

The limitations have been profound: about a quarter of Hmong families in the United States live in poverty. In Fresno, the percentage is even higher, at 35 percent. And in California, nearly 43 percent of Hmong 25 and older have less than a high school diploma, according to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census.

I n a study of the Hmong community by the Center for Health Disparities at the University of California, Davis, poverty was cited by families as a major contributor to mental illness. In the 1990s, a wave of teen suicides in Fresno cast the challenges of assimilation into relief, with truancy among boys still a major issue. …

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