Hmong life in Madison
Fostering a vibrant community despite barriers
Forty years ago, the first group of Hmong immigrants left their homes and families in Southeast Asia for an uncertain future in the United States. Desperate to escape persecution in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were granted asylum, with the largest numbers settling in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Hmong who now call the Madison area home may face discrimination, barriers to education and employment and the monumental task of bridging two distinct cultures. Yet within this difficult framework, the Hmong have fostered a vibrant community and impacted the broader region.
Manila Kue fled Laos in 1975, when she was just six years old, on one of the few flights the United States military offered to Hmong soldiers and their families from the war-torn country to safety in Thailand. “We were on the very last plane out of Laos,” she recounts from her light-filled office at the Kajsiab House, a facility that promotes mental health care for the Hmong on Madison’s north side. “My whole family was trying to leave. We were being pushed onto the plane, everybody was shoving everybody … and it started rolling away.”
Kue made it on board, but her father, pregnant mother and younger sisters and brothers couldn’t get onto the plane. “I was at the refugee camp in Thailand for a few months with my older brothers and sisters, not knowing if I would ever see my family again,” she says. Thankfully, they eventually all made the journey safely, though her mother lost the baby on the way.
Kue arrived in the United States with her family in July 1976, after almost a year in the Thai refugee camp. As some of the first Hmong immigrants to arrive in the U.S.–in Sheboygan, sponsored by a Lutheran church–Kue’s family had no idea what to expect. “Many immigrants came here to start a better life,” says Kue, forty-six, who works as a clinical specialist. “But for us, at that time, we had no choice but to leave Laos. We were just trying to survive.”
Kue’s father, who was a police chief in Laos, began working as a forklift driver for a company in Sheboygan that made cooking oil. Her mother stayed home to raise the children. “It was difficult for my dad,” Kue recalls. “His status changed. In Laos, he was well respected, in an important position. Here, he worked at a company and struggled with finances. I remember my dad coming home one day and putting his head down on his knees. I thought he was sick or tired, but looking back, I think he was depressed.” Watching those changes in her parents was hard, and Kue concedes that starting a new life here “was pretty traumatizing. Our family was separated at first, and the kids at school, sometimes they were not nice. They said, ‘You so ugly,’ or ‘Why your hair black?’ or ‘Why you so short?'”
Kue’s brother, Xiong Kue, and his wife, See Kue, also arrived in 1976. They were among the first six Hmong immigrants to make their home in Sheboygan. See and Xiong Kue met first in Laos in 1974 but didn’t start dating until they reconnected in the Thai refugee camp. See Kue now lives in Madison with her daughter and son-in-law, Linda and Sam Aroonsavath, and their four children. See Kue’s husband passed away in 2000, but her youngest daughter, Amy Kue, and her two sons live nearby.
I sit at a heavy wooden dining table in the Aroonsavaths’ home to talk to See Kue, Linda Aroonsavath and Amy Kue. The large, comfortably decorated home is a striking juxtaposition to the story they weave about their difficult journey from Laos.
See Kue, now fifty-seven, and her family were sponsored by a Lutheran church in the Sheboygan area, a place vastly different from what they had expected. “In Laos, we thought the U.S. was just big cities,” she says. As their bus left Milwaukee and traveled through Wisconsin farmland, See Kue began to wonder if they had been tricked. “My mom was scared that they would become slaves on the farms,” says Aroonsavath.
See Kue nods and continues her story. “I was eighteen. I was pregnant. We get to the house of our sponsor and it is dark. When I wake up I look outside, it’s all just white snow. I went to every single window, all just white.” Not seeing any other people or houses, she panicked. “I wake up my husband. I say, ‘Wake up! I think something’s wrong! There’s no people, nothing.’ I started crying, yelling. I was so scared.”
The adjustment to life in snow-covered Wisconsin was not only scary, it was formidable for many Hmong immigrants. Families were separated, unable to speak English and unsure of how to navigate the education and employment systems and entirely reliant on their sponsors for support and guidance. For some families, it took several years to find their footing in their new life, while for others, the challenges continue to this day.
A Community in Context
For the Hmong, a minority ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia, hardship started well before they arrived on U.S. soil, and years before the Vietnam War. The word “Hmong” is said to mean “free people,” though there is no clear support for that translation. But it is true that the Hmong have no country to call their own. As local Hmong scholar Phillip Yang says, “We have no home.”
The earliest record of the Hmong people dates back to about 2700 BC in China, where roughly 2.7 million Hmong still live. They are traditionally subsistence farmers, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, where the forest is cleared and then burned to release nutrients into the soil. Once the nutrient base is depleted, they have to move their farms and families. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the Hmong began migrating south to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to escape the oppressive Chinese government and subsequently the Communist government in Vietnam.
Already working to survive in this new territory, life for the Hmong took another hard turn. From 1961 to 1975, roughly forty thousand Hmong were enlisted by the American CIA to fight the “secret war” against the Viet Cong; unlike in Vietnam, U.S. military involvement in Laos was not public. The Hmong army, headed by General Vang Pao, navigated the jungle, fighting against the North Vietnamese. They were trained to operate radar equipment, disrupt the supply chain along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and conduct search-and-rescue operations.
After the U.S. troops withdrew from the area in May 1975, families such as Manila Kue’s were forced apart and more than a hundred thousand civilians were left to find their way from Laos to Thai refugee camps without assistance from the U.S. If they made it to Thailand, families were promised asylum, but there was one huge, and often deadly, caveat–they had to make the perilous journey by crossing the Mekong River, where enemy troops waited.
Roughly twenty thousand Hmong soldiers died during the war, and thousands of Hmong civilians perished trying to escape. It is unclear how many civilians made it into the Thai refugee camps, but estimates number in the tens of thousands.
After the refugee camps closed in the mid-1990s, the Hmong families that remained were forced to repatriate to Laos, where they faced persecution, or remain in Thailand without the safety of official refugee status, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Additionally, in 2007, the New York Times reported that the number of Hmong veterans and their families still hiding in the jungle from the Laotian Army was somewhere in the hundreds to low thousands.
Waves of Experiences
The first group of Hmong refugees reached the United States in 1976. Since then, three waves of immigrants have followed each decade, with the most recent arriving in the early 2000s. Some were sponsored by church and social services, others by their relatives who have already made homes in the United States, the majority settling in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Those familial connections often helped to ease the transition to life in the U.S., though the process is still challenging for most.
Yang, forty-two, was part of the second wave of refugees. He fled Laos in the spring of 1983 with his sister, who was just three years old, on his back.
We meet at Cargo Coffee on the south side of Madison to chat. Yang arrives in a pressed white button-down shirt and dark slacks. He carries his briefcase in one hand and shakes my hand with the other. He has just finished his day of work at Edgewood College, where he is a faculty member in the School of Education. He sips his coffee as he tells me how his family escaped Laos.
“People crossed at night, make rafts, use tubes. Some hire Thai fisherman to make the trip. Many people die crossing the river,” he says. “When the Americans withdrew their troops, we went to the jungle for one and a half years, where my father was still fighting the Communist soldiers. There was no food. My father would go at night to a village to buy rice. One day my father said, ‘There’s no way we will survive.'”
Yang, barefoot, carried his sister for almost five days to get to the river. “During the day we sit; during the night we walk,” he says. “That’s the only way the Viet Cong don’t see us. When we get to the river, my sister was crying, so they give her opium so she can be quiet … She almost died [from the opium].”
Yang’s family spent three years at a Thai refugee camp before coming to Eau Claire in July 1986, sponsored by Lutheran Social Services of La Crosse. Yang was twelve years old. “We heard about Disney,” says Yang. “We heard many wonderful things about America … You’ll land in this beautiful country with city lights and tall blond people with blue eyes.'”
Though Yang found it difficult to start middle school with limited language skills, his family garnered support from their Hmong relatives who had arrived earlier. But not all immigrants from the second and third waves adjusted as well. Wacha and Chue Xiong, who arrived in Madison in August 1987 with their infant daughter in tow, had a tougher time.
I sit at the oval dining table in the kitchen of their small apartment on Madison’s east side. A black coffeemaker is nestled in between bags of sugar and cans of powdered milk. To the left of the sink a dish drain holds a precarious pile of white bowls adorned with a small blue floral design, several plates and a stack of cups. White plastic measuring spoons hang from a hook above the sink. As we talk with the help of an interpreter, a young boy passes through the kitchen to grab a paper towel, followed by a young man who shakes my hand in greeting, then heads out the door, backpack slung over his shoulder, a fringe of jet-black hair protruding from under his knit cap. Their pre-teen daughter heads to the living room, where the soft clicking of children engaged on their screens emerges. She speaks as easily with her parents in Hmong as she does with me in English.
“When I think back to the old days, I am frustrated and sad,” Wacha Xiong says. “I am sad because I came here alone. I had to leave my cousins, brothers and sisters and parents. I was in the army and I escaped with the soldiers. I thought we could get help [and bring my family], but when we got to the place where there was supposed to be help, they couldn’t help my family. I had to leave without them. I don’t know what to do here. I am uneducated and I cannot do anything here.”
The emotional trauma and frustration are coupled with the additional challenges of raising their large family–the Xiongs have fourteen children, ranging in age from six to twenty-six, including a son with disabilities who still lives at home. The three oldest are college graduates. Wacha and Chue Xiong, forty-nine and forty-five, strive to provide what they can for their kids but are limited by their lack of education and resources, as well as their being unemployed. They hold onto the hope that their children will continue their educations and have a better life.
Emphasis on Education
The Hmong refugees who arrived in the United States as adults often did not have the chance to pursue an education. Instead, as expert land stewards, they were given jobs on area farms. See Kue considers herself fortunate. “We were sponsored by a young pastor, Don Leonard, who supported us going to school,” she says. “My husband, Xiong [Kue], studied French [in Laos], and learned English by using a French-English dictionary. He studied ESL for two years, then transferred to UW-Madison. But not everyone had that option.”
See Kue was tutored by a young woman who helped her get her GED while she was pregnant. She now works at Madison College, providing ESL and GED testing support. Her daughter, Linda Aroonsavath, who was born in the U.S., emphasizes the importance of her parents’ success in education. “[My dad] was the first Hmong to graduate UW-Madison,” she says. “He earned a degree in electrical engineering. He was then recruited by the U.S. government to design chips for the black boxes for fighter jets.”
She continues, “My dad’s experience was a motivator to be successful. You think, he was the first Hmong to graduate UW, he built all this. Now I am working on my Ph.D. We had a very unique experience compared to other Hmong, but it was still very hard. His success was a drive in any success I’ve ever obtained. But,” she admits, “there are days I take it for granted.” Aroonsavath is a senior advisor at Madison College. Her sister Amy Kue works at Madison College as well, providing support for international students.
Yang’s parents, who had no formal schooling, began working on a farm in the Eau Claire area before moving to Madison in 1992. Once in Madison, they worked for a cleaning business and operated a grocery store for fifteen years before they turned their farming expertise into a profitable and sustainable business, buying land and starting Yang’s Fresh Produce. Their produce is sold at area farmers’ markets and to local restaurants and grocery stores.
“My father always had two dreams coming to America: to get an education, and better our lives. My father said, ‘I brought you to America to make something happen. This is your chance.’ My mom cooked every day so we had time to study,” he says.
Yang, who has a fourteen-year-old daughter with his wife, Briana, now holds a doctorate in education leadership from Edgewood College. “Six of my siblings have college education, and there are two doctors in the family. It is quite a remarkable achievement.”
He often thinks back to his parents’ sacrifices. “What we learned from our parents, these are real stories. That’s the kind of motivation we have.”
Wacha Xiong hopes his children are motivated by his life story as well. “Even though I don’t have the chance to go to school, I want my children to go to school, and have a good education, and hopefully in the future lead a normal life, like an average American, so they don’t face difficulty and sadness like I do.”
His wife, Chue Xiong, adds, “I want my children to be independent, and help themselves and have a good job.”
Their twelve-year-old daughter, Pau, seems to heed the message. “My dad is telling us to go to school so we can be successful,” she says. “They had to take care of my older sister, so they could not finish school. I want to finish and be successful, and show them what I did to help them.” Pau dreams of being an actress, a writer or a nurse when she grows up.
While many Hmong families today place a strong emphasis on formal education, that hasn’t always been the case–and that presents some challenges, says Aroonsavath.
“We don’t come from a culture that practiced education,” she says. “We are expected to perform academically like other Asian groups that are high academic achievers, but that is not our culture. We were a people with no formal education. Hmong families highly value education; they just don’t know how to do it. Even today the achievement gap for Hmong students is higher. There are a lot of things pushing against Hmong educational success.”
While Aroonsavath says discrimination is a daily reality, her resilience to it is high, fueled by her parents’ perseverance. “My parents were discriminated against for being on welfare and food stamps when they first arrived,” she says. “My dad didn’t want that for us. He refused to let us take any assistance, like WIC or Medicaid, even when I could have used it as a young mother. He said, ‘No, we will pay for this ourselves.'”
For Amy Kue, the pressure to prove herself is a burden she carries every day. “I have to speak well and be successful. I can’t fail. It’s hard to break that mentality. I have to prove to people that I earned where I am today, that it wasn’t given to me.”
With a growing population of Hmong youth–forty-four percent are under the age of eighteen–balancing Hmong and American cultures and building Hmong pride is critical for many families.
“We are in a transformative time,” Yang says. “I know that our kids might lose ties to family. They might not take care of their old parents. We take care of our parents, but I know my kids might move away, maybe I’ll be in a nursing home. But we always need to respect what our parents have done for us.”
Honoring cultural celebrations is an important way to uphold Hmong ways of life and to educate the younger population. The Hmong New Year, for example, is an important event in the community, celebrated each November with traditional foods, dances, games and clothing.
Agricultural practices are another important aspect of honoring and preserving Hmong traditions. The Hmong have farmed for thousands of years and have put their expertise to work in Wisconsin, greatly impacting agricultural production. Some of the younger generations see farming as a last resort or a job they have to take if they don’t have an education. But the growing success of the local Hmong farmers, such as the Yang family, and the demand for their products could help change that sentiment. Hmong farmers currently make up about fifteen percent of the weekly vendors at the outdoor Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Capitol Square.
And, of course, speaking the language helps the Hmong maintain connections to their roots and across generations. But Aroonsavath fears that is being lost as older generations pass away and younger generations become Americanized. Aroonsavath thinks that “in thirty years the next generation will not speak Hmong … That is sad. It’s hard to keep it going. I understand Hmong, but my kids don’t. My husband is Lao. We speak English to each other.”
Continuing religious practices is also essential for many Hmong, and it connects them to their life in Asia as well as their community here. Many families still practice their traditional spirit-based religion, while others have embraced Christianity. Though the two are distinct, they are not divisive.
The greatest issue for those who practice their traditional religion is the lack of acceptance by the non-Hmong in Madison. There are certain occasions that require the sacrifice of an animal, typically a chicken or goat. The sacrifice is done in a humane way, but because it is not a familiar practice, it has caused concern among non-Hmong neighbors. “We do not mean this to be harmful to anyone,” says Chue Xiong. “We have to do it, because it is a ritual. We do not mean to be not respectful or go against the law. We want the community to have an open mind and an open ear.”
Amy Kue would like her American neighbors to practice acceptance on a broader scope. “There is an untold history that is carried with the Hmong journey,” she says. “It brings insight into what was happening during that time and the involvement of the U.S. in foreign affairs and how that affects local people. We were forced to come here. That has shaped how the U.S. is evolving as a whole, but also communities where Hmong are starting to live. I don’t think people are aware of those influences.”
Trying to blend two cultures and multiple generations is not easy. “We do have a lot of conflict culturally, and generational conflict,” says Aroonsavath. “My mom carries a very traditional Hmong woman’s perspective. My sister and I are very independent, Americanized, and that clashes with some of the values of Hmong culture. My mom was very submissive [in her marriage], while I feel like I identify myself separately from my husband. Our day-to-day thoughts are different from those of my mother, but we still try to do family obligations. Being respectful to anyone who is your elder is an important value we instill in our kids. As I grow up and have my own daughters, we are creating our own culture that is not clear-cut American or Hmong. It is the ‘Kue-Savath life,’ as my daughter says. Which is the six-year-old way of saying this is the culture of our family.”
Aroonsavath suggests that perhaps even non-Hmong can learn from Hmong ways.
“Despite the challenges the Hmong face, Madison is a great community,” she says. “Community has always been a part of our culture. The Hmong can contribute to that collectivism, to fostering a sense of community in Madison. We can be positive role models for how important family and community are. We help make Madison very colorful, too. We help diversify this community, which is always a beautiful thing.”
A Focus on Food
A stroll around the Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Capitol Square will introduce you to the fifty or so Hmong farmers who regularly set up stands to sell their products. Over the past forty years, Hmong farmers have contributed to the rich fabric of Wisconsin agriculture and provided invaluable support for our community of talented chefs.
Chef Tory Miller of L’Etoile, Graze and Sujeo says that since he began going to market in 2003, the relationships he has built with the Hmong farmers and the products they offer have been essential to the success and vision of his restaurants. The Hmong farmers “walk a good line between growing what’s going to sell and what they are passionate about growing and eating,” says Miller.
The recent movement of local restaurants embracing Asian flavors can be seen from kimchi in pizzas to gochujang on pork belly and fish sauce dressing on salads. Chefs who shop at the market benefit from the Hmong offerings; they try out Asian produce to add to their dishes, which is “leading to an exciting time in Madison’s food scene development,” says Miller. He personally sources a multitude of ingredients, such as sugar snaps, baby carrots, radishes, daikon radishes, strawberries, raspberries and squash blossoms from Hmong vendors.
Over the years, Miller has developed important and lasting relationships with at least six Hmong vendors. Unfortunately, discrimination against Hmong farmers still exists, both by some patrons and fellow farmers. Miller suggests it is in part due to the language barrier and people’s discomfort when trying something new. Hmong farmers face additional challenges, including a lack of formal education and resources that hinders understading of market rules and regulations and can make it difficult to get farm certifications or to offer CSAs, resources that benefit non-Hmong farmers.
Supporting diversity, even when you’re talking vegetables, is a good thing. And a simple thank-you (ua tsaug, pronounced “wa chow” in Hmong) can take you far.
Connection and support
Launched in 2000, the Kajsiab House, located along the north shore of Lake Mendota, is a component of Journey Mental Health. The program is designed to support the Hmong population, primarily the elders who may live alone and struggle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The day starts with a large-group discussion. As is the custom in Hmong culture, the men sit on one side of the room, the women on the other, while they listen to announcements. The daily discussion addresses concerns in the community. The day I visit, they are talking about marriage.
Manila Kue, a clinical specialist, tells me, “They are talking about what works, what doesn’t work anymore, what we need to let go. Some of them had a lot of wives back home. Sometimes we get really hot debates, the women against the men.” She laughs.
Chatter emanates from a nearby kitchen, where a group of elder women and one young man are preparing lunch. Kue asks what they are making. “Beef with broccoli and mustard greens with pork,” the man responds. Kue says, “We try to make food that the elders like. Anyone can help cook; it is therapeutic for many of them.”
In addition to providing daily community activities, the staff at Kajsiab house provide assistance in many different areas, such as ESL classes, the citizenship application process, psychiatric therapy and daily support for their home lives, such as techniques for remembering to take medication.
To learn more about the Kajsiab house, visit journeymhc.org.
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