I am surrounded by strong and impactful leaders both professionally and personally. Even though I admire many of these leaders, I didn’t grow up knowing their story. Instead I was only witnessing their leadership role. This Fellowship has allowed me to make time to listen and learn about some of the people I have taken for granted in my life.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees to the U.S. after the Vietnam War. I was around 5 years old when my family escaped from Laos. In July 1975, when we arrived in the U.S. I was around 7 years old. Because we were among the few families in the first wave of Hmong resettlement to the U.S. there was little documentation of that history and experiences of people like my family who were uprooted from their homeland to towns and cities throughout America’s heartland.
In the 1980’s my search for my people’s history always started in libraries only to be disappointed that there were very few books written by Hmong or other Southeast Asians about themselves and their history. Their wounds were probably still too fresh and emotions too raw to travel from the heart onto the pages in books. The few books I found written by western historians were about the war and defense of politics, never about protecting people. Because I never saw the human side of the story, when I was young, I used to eavesdrop when I saw older people gathered around. That’s how I began to piece together their stories and information I heard to make sense of my own history. That must have been the start of my leadership journey. I found my way into community meetings and eventually working for nonprofits that served and cared for the people. In this role, I was often in positions where I had to educate the broader American public and institutional leaders about the plight of Southeast Asians, refugees, women, the marginalized and more. To ensure I do justice, I tried to provide an authentic voice so that I could be an effective advocate.
With strangers, I could carry on conversations for days. But within my own family, I didn’t have the same relationship. All these years I have been mustering the courage to ask my elders about their journey and how they were able to survive the war and rebuild their lives in the US. One of my Fellowship goals is to learn the cultural wisdom that exists in my community, my family. In my quest to be a wise elder, and to be the keeper of my family’s history, I decided to record my parents, aunts and uncles’ stories. Unlike the men, my aunts were very talkative and had sharp memories. With my cousin, we interviewed my dad a couple of times. He is nearly 80 years old and his memory is not as great. Sadly because of COVID19, it will be a while before we do more recordings.
What I know about my dad, I remember from my youth and learned from others in my community who admire him or worked with him when he was a young man in the CIA’s Secret War. Like those men, he was recruited late in his teenage years to be a soldier in the Special Guerilla Unit (SGU). He eventually became a Lt. Colonel. He is known as Yang Chu “phom luj” or big guns. I never understood why they called him that. There were other soldiers with the same name but he was distinguished by that description “phom luj’. Much later, I learned that he was in charge of artillery that is why he was given the nickname “big guns”.
Anyway, in the 1960’s being the youngest son, he was sent to school and completed a 5th grade education, the highest that anyone in his family had received at that time. His penmanship was flawless and until now he is very organized with files and record-keeping. His education earned him a lot of respect and he was seen as a leader. The ability to read and write meant that he was a smart man and his extended family relied on him to make important decisions and to lead them into the future. That must have been a lot of pressure and responsibility. I remember that he was also charming, generous and enjoyed making friends with people. Throughout my life, whenever I say I am his daughter, I realize that I am accorded a certain status, acceptance and inclusion. It was also a responsibility which made me feel like I should not act in ways that would taint his reputation. I resisted using his name because as a woman, I wanted to earn my own reputation and not rely on the patriarchs. However, I cannot deny that his vast relationship and well-liked personality laid a strong foundation for me when it became my turn to lead. My dad is a humble man and never used his title and never asked me to do it either. This is the first time I have ever written or talked about him.
Recently, an uncle who has an even higher military ranking and reputation than my dad called me to discuss a concern he had. This uncle has a big personality and fully embraces his past leadership reputation. But he can also be a bit humble like my dad and has maintained a relatively low profile about his role during the Secret War. Some years ago, he revealed to me the critical and covert responsibility he played during the war and later the advocacy efforts he led after the war ended which resulted in the resettlement of all the Hmong in Thai refugee camps in the 1970s to the 1990s. For the first time, he wanted to talk about his role in the war and how the deportation issue was a direct betrayal of what his generation had sacrificed to serve the US. He sought my advice, because he saw me as a leader, about how he can use his personal experience to testify against the US’s immigration policy. At my encouragement, he agreed to an interview with a journalist in April 2020 and below is an excerpt:
“As a teenager, he had been recruited to fight communism alongside the United States. His job was to protect the CIA at all costs. So, during the nine-year bombing campaign the U.S. carried out against Laos from 1964 to 1973 — making it the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history — Yang said he was in charge of calling some of the 2 million tons of artillery that rained on the country. At that time, during the war, it's either they kill me or I kill them,” he told NBC Asian America through his son.
He was 52 when he arrived [he immigrated to the US from France] and struggled to find a stable job that let him provide for his family. He made adult diapers for $7 an hour, he said, while his wife worked from home stapling earrings for sale onto pieces of paper.”
Leadership during war time is not comparable to leaders during peacetime. There is no training or books to read and guide you in the jungles of Laos. The loss of status and country, living with the memory of war, learning a new language and struggling to rebuild their lives -- these are all the things that continue to traumatize my dad and uncle. My uncle has violent nightmares, waking up in sweats and screaming almost every night for the last 40 years. Perhaps that is why he is ready to tell his side of the story, to let go of the past and to save the future.
I cannot imagine how people like my dad and my uncle felt during the war. The decisions they had to make with the little information given to them and at the expense of themselves, their family and the land they called their country. I’m sure they live with the knowledge and regret that they were used by their leaders and other nations. I have not fully appreciated their intelligence and wisdom. Their generation literally sacrificed themselves for their children, like me, so that I can have more education, gain the abilities to surpass them, and contribute to a peaceful world. Their love and generosity for their people and their phenomenal valor is incomparable! I want to honor their leadership no matter how heartbreaking and complex the situation was and continues to be.
I always thought that time would heal and each generation will be stronger. I know now that my people didn’t have the luxury of time. After being displaced and escaping their war torn country, they struggled to survive in this country, working long hours and many jobs to care for their children and to invest in the future. They never reaped the fruits of their labor. When you are unwilling refugees, 45 years is not long enough to forget and forgive. And because they haven’t forgotten, they can’t heal. There are not enough shamans in the world to call back the wandering souls and lost spirits of my people. Perhaps this is why young Hmong leaders today erect monuments, memorials, sing, rap or perform spoken words and designate significant holidays, like May 14th, to honor our veterans, their families and the past. This is how the young contribute to history and the healing journey. I am blessed to witness this transition.