Jan 24, 2020

Far removed from their homeland, many Hmong learn to thrive in California’s Central Valley

Manlia Vang has called California’s Central Valley home all her life. Not so for her parents, or some of her older siblings.

The fifth oldest of 13 children, Vang was born several years after her parents immigrated to America from a Thai refugee camp in 1980. They were among the first wave of Hmong refugees fleeing from war-torn Laos, the traditional Hmong homeland.

With her feet planted firmly in America, but her parents’ way of life still rooted in Laos, Vang said she had a difficult upbringing balancing two cultures.

“When I grew up, I had to learn two languages,” said Manlia Vang, a 2006 graduate of Fresno State. “It was always difficult for me, but I got extra help from my teachers.”

Vang said she was often called upon by her parents for translation assistance and for looking after her younger siblings.

With her dad working as a custodian, Vang’s mom found a source of extra income working on a farm.

“My siblings and I grew up with [working on the farm],” Vang said. “It was hard work. But we learned how hard life would be without work. You get what you put out.”

Experiences such as Vang’s are not uncommon among Hmong immigrants in California, the state with the largest Hmong community.

In December 2003, over 15,000 Hmong immigrants came from Thailand’s Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp and made their new home in the United States. Of that number, a little over 2,000 Hmong resettled in Fresno – a city known for being the heart of California agriculture.

Because of the already well-represented population of Hmong in the Central Valley, incoming Hmong immigrants were able to be among their own culture. According to the 2000 U.S. Census data, Fresno is home to over 22,000 Hmong, which is the second highest concentration of Hmong in the United States

To understand why there are so many Hmong in not just the Central Valley, but the United States as well, it is important to note the history of the Hmong. Dr. Song Lee, an associate professor in counseling at Fresno State, said that inescapable war played a primary role.

“The Hmong moved here because of the war in Laos and the neighboring Southeast Asian countries, which affected their lives and villages,” Lee said. “They also sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War, which put the Hmong’s lives in danger when the Americans pulled out their support. The Hmong had to flee their homes to seek refugee in Thailand and then to other countries of the world, such as the U.S., Australia, France, etc. Basically, they came here for safety reasons.”

Lee said feelings of alienation and loneliness are typical for Hmong immigrants, especially the elders, who have difficulty adjusting to the Western ways.

“They miss their home and country,” Lee said. “They are torn apart from families and loved ones because of the war. They also experienced trauma that now causes them emotional pain. I think they feel powerless because they don’t have the job or language skills to survive here.”

Despite this, there are social and economic opportunities in America — especially in Fresno — that are available to incoming immigrants, which are key reasons as to why the Hmong choose to live here.

“Fresno offers the Hmong farming opportunities, family reunification, cultural diversity, social services and education for their children,” said Anthony T. Vang, a faculty member in the literacy and early education department at Fresno State.

Vang also said economic and educational opportunities for their children are important factors, as well as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Farming, in general, is a popular form of work among Hmong immigrants in the Valley. Pao Yang migrated from Laos nearly 20 years ago. Since then, the 54-year-old has been farming everything from fruit staples, such as strawberries, to popular Asian plants, such as bok choy. He said it is hard work, but the payoff is beneficial for his family.

“I have many children and grandchildren to care for,” Yang said. “Farming gives me the ability to help them have a better life in Fresno. It is very hard work and tiring, but it is a sacrifice I will make for them.”

Many of the Hmong who work in labor are forced to do so because they do not speak English very well. Without a proper grasp of the language, it is difficult for them to find other jobs. Hence, they tend to work in labor, such as farming or factory work, which according to Lee, is a plus to living in the Central Valley.

“I think the Hmong who don’t have job skills to work in Fresno have the opportunities such as agricultural work and labor work in the fields that other states can’t offer because of the cold weather in other states,” Lee said.

Some Hmong form and manage their own business. In Fresno, there are several Hmong-owned grocery stores that cater to the Asian population. Some of the fruits and plants actually come from the Hmong farmers.

“The Hmong people were soldiers and farmers back in their old country,” Vang said. “Their knowledge of commercial business is limited. Some of them started a business and didn’t survive very long, but others who have the educational background and a little knowledge of business are doing quite well.”

Lee said there is a demand for grocery stores in the valley where the Hmong community can congregate to. Having such businesses enables the Hmong community to buy food and other items that they are used to having back in Laos, Lee said.

“This helps other communities to be aware of the Hmong and their food and cultural items,” Lee said.

To help with the influx of Hmong immigrants, nonprofit organizations in Fresno County are available to aid the new arrivals. Some of these organizations include Lao Family Community of Fresno, Hmong Refugee Resettlement Task Force and The Fresno Center for New Americans, just to name a few.

“These are nonprofit organizations that help new refugees gain language and job skills. They also help them to seek the services that are needed and help them to locate and apply for jobs,” Lee said.

According to the Lao Family Community of Fresno Web site, the organization’s goal is to “empower refugees with the knowledge and skills to adapt to their new lives in America and [give] them full assistance in their journey towards achieving their fullest potential in becoming self-efficient and self-reliant in their new society.”

For Chou Her, Lao Family Community of Fresno did just what they aimed to do and as a result, helped the 40-year-old become acclimated to her new society in Fresno. Through the organization, Vang was offered help and assistance in finding work.

“I didn’t know anything when I came to America,” Vang said. “But Lao Family Community helped me adjust to living here. I gained a lot of knowledge through the organization, and for that, I am grateful.”

Her now co-owns a small business with her husband in Southwest Fresno and says nonprofit organizations such as Lao Family Community serve as a lifeline for incoming refugees.

But above all else, perhaps what makes the Hmong successful in their new society has little to do with opportunity, but instead, has much to do with family unity.

“I believe that it is important for people to know who the Hmong are and why they came to America,” Vang said. “Hmong people have a unit of traditional culture, language and a strong clan system that keeps them together. They are a family-oriented group.”

Manlia Vang agreed that family was a central theme in the Hmong community, and in her own life. She credits her family for pressuring her to complete school and emphasizing hard work.

“My parents always stressed getting an education,” Vang said. “It will make life a lot easier.”

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