About fifteen thousand Hmong refugees from Thailand are due to be resettled in the United States this year. Five thousand of them will go to the twin cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul in the midwestern state of Minnesota. MayTong Chang, a Hmong woman who has lived in Saint Paul for more than twenty years is gearing up to help the newcomers adjust to life in what for them will be a strange new land. Her story -- and theirs -- today on New American Voices.
Originally from Laos, for the past ten years these Hmong people have found refuge in a Buddhist temple in Thailand, guarded by golden statues of Buddha and surrounded by lush greenery and craggy hills. They will be coming to a modern, busy American metropolis in a state known for its ten thousand lakes and freezing winters. MayTong Chang, an adult literacy specialist at the Hmong Cultural Center in Saint Paul -- Minnesota’s capital city -- describes some of the challenges the new Hmong refugees face.
“They have no English language, so they have a language barrier. They come here, and they’re in culture shock. They have no education, they don’t have money, and they don’t have a place to live. In Laos, most of them were farmers, and when they come here they can’t farm. They have to go to work to support their families. And with no English and no education it’s hard for them to go find work.”
Nevertheless, help is available. So far this summer, 350 new Hmong refugees have arrived in the Twin Cities. Most were sponsored by relatives already living in Saint Paul or Minneapolis. Others had sponsors provided by one of the voluntary resettlement agencies. The sponsors’ role is to meet the refugees at the airport, make sure that they have decent housing, food and clothing for at least thirty days, and assist them in applying for any state or federal benefits for which they are eligible. The sponsors also help the refugees register their children in school, get medical exams, and look for jobs.
Hmong refugees first started arriving in the Twin Cities in the late 1970s. Now twenty-four thousand Hmong live in Saint Paul alone –- more than in any other city in the world. Ms. Chang says that while the first Hmong refugees in Minnesota were placed there by resettlement agencies, over time many more settled there because they liked the place.
“I think it’s because the people here are so friendly, and there’s so many different cultures living here, that it’s just . . . I don’t know, I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never encountered anybody who was really racist or who has not accepted me for who I am, and I think that’s why many people have moved here. And because there’s a lot of job opportunities.”
MayTong Chang was six years old when she arrived in Minnesota with her family in 1980. She still remembers her first impression.
“We came right in the middle of winter, it was so cold. And we didn’t know what snow was. We didn’t know if it was edible, or if it was going to be there throughout the whole year. When we first got off the plane, we didn’t know why they were bringing us huge coats and boots, until we got outside. The other thing that I remember is that I just got used to everything.”
It was much harder for MayTong Chang’s parents to get used to life in America, although her father eventually worked his way up to a General Education Diploma, or G.E.D –- the equivalent of a high school diploma -- and found work in a bank.
“It was very hard for my parents. They had to go and learn English. My father took adult education courses and finally got his G.E.D, which is very good. When we first came, my parents didn’t know how to drive, so they had to walk, they walked two miles to the closest Laundromat, carrying their laundry. And when they went shopping they didn’t know how to count American money, so the cashier would say ’twenty dollars’, and my parents would give them all the money they had, and then they had to trust the cashier to give them back the right amount of change.”
The refugees arriving this year will have a much easier time of it, Ms. Chang believes, because the Twin Cities area now has so many Hmong organizations and associations ready to assist them. She herself now teaches adult education classes in the Hmong Cultural Center.
“It’s very difficult, because some of them have never even seen a book before. So when they come to class, you have to start from scratch, like when you’re teaching a two-year-old and you have to start from the beginning: what a book is, and what you do with a piece of paper, how to hold a pencil.”
The Center also provides classes in American history and civics, cultural programs, and a diversity training program. Ms. Chang says the ethnic and racial variety of the Twin Cities can at first seem overwhelming to newcomers from a rural setting in Southeast Asia.
“I’ve had first-hand experience, because I just sponsored my mother-in-law from Laos. And she came from a community where there’s no electricity, no technology, and this was her first time seeing other people of other cultures and races and of other colors. And she was very . . . at first she was very afraid of them. And then I told her that these were just people of different cultures and races, and they come from different countries, and when people come from different countries they look different and they eat different food and they have different religions. And once they understand that, they’re more open to it and they’re not afraid any more.”
But despite all the hardships of adjusting to a different mix of people and a different style of life, MayTong Chang says that in the end, the Hmong refugees see the benefits of the move to America.
“The plus side -- there’s hope for the children. They can go and get an education, they can become whoever they want to become here, whereas in Laos, when they grow up, they just become farmers. Here they can become doctors and lawyers and teachers, there’s so many options out there.”
The options available to individuals in America are what Ms. Chang herself likes most about living in this country.
"I appreciate that there’s freedom here and that I can think for myself and be my own person. Because in the Hmong culture the women have no voices, in Laos women are not allowed to go to school, so women have no education and they don’t know anything and they have to listen to the men. But in this country everybody has equal rights, and that’s what I appreciate the most.”
In part two of this feature, we’ll focus on some of the issues that the strongly family-oriented Hmong face living in an American society that prizes individualism.