What Made Me Choose This Book
Memoirs are a staple in my reading life. I enjoy hearing how other people have lived their lives. I especially enjoy memoirs of challenges. When I discovered a memoir of a Hmong girls growing up as a refugee in the United States, I knew I’d enjoy it–how ever harrowing the tale. And, I was right.
In the mid 1980s I worked with a large number of resettled refugees from the Vietnam war–including a few Hmong. The circle of refugees came from Vietnam itself and from Cambodia and Laos. They started over. Their children, and the young adult refugees, fared best. They took the traditional path to success–math and science. Engineering in the case of most of these refugees. College spots that American students at that time weren’t eager to fill at what was then a branch campus of a state university. Nearly all found career success.
So, I started the Latehomecomer with a small amount of first-hand exposure to this group of refugees, a few of whom I kept up with somewhat until about 2000 when the ties became too tenuous, the memories of common experiences too old. They had mostly scattered from that city by then, as I had.
The Latehomecomer Story
Kao Kalia Yang’s family was part of a group of refugees arriving a little later than my former co-workers. Like so many Hmong in America they landed in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Minnesota–a world light years from their one-time home in Laos. Part of an ethic minority in Laos, where they were badly treated, Hmong communities would be mistreated and often viewed with hostility in their new country, the USA, as well. Happily for the author, her parents tried to focus their children on the opportunities of America, instead of the short comings and out-right cruelties. In her case, after problems in school at first, it worked well. She ended up going to prestigious Carleton College, one of nation’s most selective Liberal Arts colleges.
In addition to the family’s own story, the book also relates a few tales from Hmong folklore told by the author’s elderly grandmother. They make it possible to understand the worldview or mindset that the family and other Hmong brought with them to America–the lens through which they viewed American life upon arrival. They also help us to understand the Hmong culture which is often viewed with mistrust by Americans.
Finally, there is a vivid recounting of the Hmong funeral which lasts for days and involves just about anyone who wants to show up. The grocery list alone was staggering–the number of beef cattle and chickens slaughtered alone was amazing. The rights themselves were a folklorist’s dream to witness, even just in words.
I found the folklore a bit trying. Sadly, I just couldn’t get that interested in it. I was engrossed, though, in the story of their day-to-day life of trying to succeed in America. In Peace Corps, I too, had to hit the ground running with support similar to theirs. Her writing is incredibly evocative–I felt I was “there” throughout the entire book. I especially wanted to sample some of the incredible food she described here and there in the book.
I recommend this to anyone, but especially to those who may be concerned about refugees or who have a sizeable Hmong community nearby.
Here is an interesting interview with the author.