Long, long before 1960, when a CIA operative known only as “Colonel Billy” ventured deep into the jungles of Laos to recruit the Hmong to fight Communism, the earth became flooded and everyone died except for a brother and sister.
God, or Yaw Sau (also known as Ntzew Nyong), told the brother and sister to marry because there was no one left to populate the earth. The brother and sister married and had a baby, but the baby had no human features. So God told the brother and sister to cut up their baby and throw each piece in a different place. The next morning when the brother and sister woke up, they saw that huts had appeared where their baby’s pieces had fallen. Not only was smoke coming out of these huts, but a husband and wife stood in each, and all the couples had different surnames.
This story is how the Hmong explain to themselves why they are divided into 20-odd clans, each clan having a different surname. Ethnologists speculate that Hmong clan surnames derived from 16th-century Chinese surnames, as the Hmong had lived in southwestern China from time immemorial. But in the early 19th Century, the Hmong were persecuted by China’s Qing Dynasty, and many migrated south into what became Laos, Thailand, and Burma.
It was in Laos, during the 1950s and 1960s, that the Hmong were caught up in the grand design of global politics. For reasons even Southeast Asian historians describe as “extremely confusing” and “impossibly complex,” the Hmong played a significant role in America’s, specifically the CIA’s, effort to curb Communist expansion in Vietnam and Laos. Depending on whom you believe, the CIA either offered the Hmong their own kingdom in exchange for their services, or at least safe conduct to someplace outside Laos if things fell apart. Things fell apart.
Given the general confusion of 1975, it’s difficult to remember that half of the Hmong living in Laos — some 150,000 people — fled the country. Under the newly declared Lao People’s Democratic Republic, ties to America, particularly to the CIA’s covert operations, were dangerous. There’s no use recalling the U.S. Attorney General Office’s rather abstruse criteria for who did or did not receive help fleeing Laos. There’s no use recalling the many flights between Laos and Thailand made by rickety C-47 cargo planes carrying the Hmong who met those criteria. You don’t remember these details. Many Hmong don’t remember these details.
What the local Hmong remember most clearly is their clan affiliation and that long ago they came from China. Clan is important because Hmong may not marry within the same clan, which means that if your surname is Vang, you can’t marry someone whose surname is Vang. Clan members regard each other as family. Remembering that your ancestors came from China is important, because when you die, your soul, during a three-day ritual, must be guided back to the land of its ancestors — China.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, about 5000 Hmong made their way to San Diego. In Laos they had been hill people, slash-and-bum farmers. They were animists in a largely Buddhist country. Unlike spicy Lao food, Hmong food was bland and simpler. Their elaborate tonal language was not written. Rituals— animal sacrifice, ancestor worship — gave form to their day-to-day lives. When they got sick, they went to a shaman, a man or a woman who could call their souls back into their bodies or appease their hungry ancestors. They’d never seen or used a gas range, flush toilet, or refrigerator. They’d never seen snow.
“I came to San Diego in 1979. But when I first came to America in 1978,1 went to Chicago,” remembers Boua Thao. “It started snowing, and we had no idea what it was. We thought the snowflakes were ashes. We thought that there’d been a fire, that maybe a house had caught fire and that ashes were falling from the sky.
“It’s easy to laugh about all that now. We can all laugh about things like that now. There are even Hmong videos about that time, when people first got here and didn’t know how things worked. People thought the toilet was
some kind of well and used the water for cooking. We can look back and laugh, but at the time it wasn’t so funny.” Thao and her husband live in a nice part of Linda Vista, in a large, ranch-style home with cathedral ceilings and plush couches. A computer sits in a nook near the kitchen. The Simpsons theme song rattles from the television. Thao works for San Diego City Schools as a case manager for pregnant teens. Her husband works as a case manager for the city’s social services. In the early 1980s, the two of them spent four years working in a Philippine processing camp for Hmong refugees. Thao and her husband are well known for their contributions to the Hmong resettlement effort.
Thao’s quick transition to the American middle-class owes a great deal to her paternal grandfather, who sent his son, Thao’s father, down from the hills to study in a town in Northern Laos. Thao’s father became a nurse. He gave his daughter a Lao first name, Boua, so she wouldn’t be discriminated against at the Italian Catholic school where she studied Lao and French.
“It was sort of like it is here, ethnic tensions on the playground. The Lao looked down on the Hmong. They teased Hmong kids, beat them up. It was rare for a Hmong girl to get an education. Before I left Laos, I spoke French better than I now speak English. I don’t speak French that well anymore. It’s been so many years.
“Our family was an exception. Maybe only 1 out of 50 Hmong families made that transition of coming down from the hills to live in towns. We didn’t even practice animism at home. Because my father was a nurse, he believed in Western medicine. At our house, there was no ancestor worship or animal sacrifice. If someone got sick, we didn’t bring in a shaman. We kept some customs, like not marrying within the clan. We knew about that and would never do that. But I guess you could say we really grew up without any religion.”