Filling the gap: The Latehomecomer as a Hidden History of America

by Karina Rose Mahan

In American history we learned of the Vietnam War. We read about guerilla warfare and the Vietkong. The Ho Chi Minh Trail and communism and democracy and Americans and Vietnamese. There were no Hmong – as if we hadn’t existed at all in America’s eyes. And yet Hmong were all over America.”1

The Latehomecomer is a relatively new memoir written by Kao Kalia Yang in 2008. In it, she tells of her family’s immigration to America from a war-stricken Laos/Vietnam area, how they are forced to move to America as refugees as a result of «the Secret War of Laos.» We follow a young Kao, her older sister Dawb, her mother, father and grandmother on their plight to becoming Americans. In this essay I will discuss the history of the Hmong people and their part in the Vietnam war, and how this can directly be tied America’s history. In many ways, the history of the Hmong is an unheard history of America, and Yang’s project with this novel is to show this «other» voice that may reveal a part of American history as well.

The Latehomecomer does what many historians and political scientists have been working actively on for at least the past thirty years: tell a history that isn’t skewed by the conquerors, or fueled by political and ideological agendas. It seeks to tell the truth of the common people who have been ignored by mass media. There are two sides to every story, and as Howard Zinn says, in that “inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history,”2 Kao Kalia Yang chooses the side of the Hmong, a virtually unheard of ethnic minority group (until recently) that was commissioned by the CIA in 1961 to contain Vietnamese troop movements and rescue American flyers in Laos.3 The history of the Hmong is also a history of America, and the treatment of the Hmong people before and after the war by the American government and people is a reflection of America itself.

Howard Zinn writes: “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.”4The Latehomecomer is one of these “hidden episodes of the past,” and in these gaps that American history elegantly glosses over, we can find representations of America that may not be as flattering as it would like to be perceived. But the point of The Latehomecomer isn’t purely to expose the follies of a nation; it is about following the success of the Hmong people in America despite adversity, it is about joining together and creating an alternate America inside of America – but first and foremost it is a story about making a home when the rest of the world shut its door.

This essay will follow the Hmong people from the depths of the jungle to Minnesota. Since The Latehomecomer is a refugee memoir, its focus lies on the concept of “home,” and it deals with the friction of the Hmong need to create a space for themselves and American unwillingness to let them have it, and the juggling and melting of two identities. Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, this essay would like to emphasize on the connection between Hmong and American history, the inevitable intertwining of people, and the principle of how through hearing other accounts of ourselves, we can hopefully learn something new about ourselves.

We begin deep in the Laotian jungle. The year is circa 1978, the American soldiers have vanished and, as Yang puts it, “the Hmong knew that the only thing coming for them was death.” (8).

Kao Kalia Yang and her father in Thailand

American rhetoric will often have people believe that America goes to other countries to “help” them and build democracy. In Laos, this was not the case. Yang writes: “When Americans left Laos in 1975, they took the most influential, the biggest believers and fighters for democracy with them, and they left my family with thousands of others behind to wait for a fight that would end for so many in death.” (3) Many Hmong people believed in democracy and the cause America was fighting for, but instead of helping the overall situation, America involuntarily set them up as targets for North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao soldiers. This is a representation of America that conflicts with American ideology: America is not the hero, the helper or the friendly hand, it is a coward who leaves the fighting to children and backs out when things become too difficult. And what was America’s response to this? Delete it from the history books. Howard Zinn is all too familiar with this tactic. He writes: “To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves – unwittingly – to justify what was done.” (Page 8). Although American soldiers were not directly responsible for the deaths of the Hmong people, they certainly emphasized on the heroic aspects of being in Vietnam, and conveniently forgot the atrocities that happened to the Hmong people left behind. Concentrating on these things was an ideological choice that supported the idea of America being a helper. It is almost ridiculous to think that American children learned about the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but not about the very people who were slaughtered along that trail to aid American soldiers.

Yang gives us a very unique perspective of Indochina, post-Vietnam war in the beginning of her memoir. The war is over for America, over for the rest of the world, but here people are still fleeing for their lives. This fills an important gap in American history: it is proven that America will not always help the weak, or stay behind to “build a democracy” (reminiscent of America’s justification for being in Iraq now). America is portrayed as a fickle friend. They came, they smiled, they gave candy to children and then they left when they were needed the most. This representation of America de-romanticizes the image of the American soldier, and in a country with constant military expansion, that is a quite unpopular thing to do.

Life goes on for the young couple Chue Moua and Bee Yang on their flight for survival. In Phanat Nikhom Transition Camp, tidbits of information about America trickle down to the Hmong people who are preparing for their new lives. America is seen as something special to strive for; the Hmong spend their days learning how to flush toilets and make chicken sandwiches. Like America has tried so hard to do, they must forget that they have been abandoned by the American soldiers and now turn to them for help, for a home. To add insult to injury, the test the Hmong must take to go to America “was the hardest, because the fathers had to identify the pictures of white soldiers and tell what their names were and how long and hard the men had fought under the American leadership.” (101). Here the Hmong taste American exclusion for the first time. Not only is the American test the hardest, but “America was a place where they would not let illness in the door or admit little girls who could not hold pain.” (101). America is often depicted as Lady Liberty, the goddess Libertas who cries: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” (The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus). The representation of America in the transition camp contradicts the image of America being a welcomer of the poor and homeless. Ironically, it is harder to get into America than Australia or France, even though they were the ones partially responsible for why the Hmong no longer have a home.

In Phanat Nikhom Transition Camp, one thing becomes clear for the Yang family: America is not for the sick or elderly. This is something Yoau Lee comes to realize in time, and comments, “[Phanat Nikhom] was a place to practice being in America … where if you are old and you don’t have a car, you are like a man or a woman in a wheelchair with weak arms. You wait for others to push or pull. A child who does not have the face of youth.” (102) Elderly people like Youa Lee, who would have in all likelihood spent the rest of their days as active farmers, found themselves helpless in America. Dawb nearly jeopardizes her entire family’s journey when she catches pink eye, which Yang described as being “unwanted in America.” (112). Here we can trace again to the idea of an exclusive America: neither Dawb or Youa feel welcome or are wanted.

The Hmong family is split and sent to several parts of America, and the Yang family finds itself in a space originally created for returning soldiers – The McDonough townhouses. This is when the struggle for space begins for the family. The haunted section-8 house is a good example of this: the family is trapped because they cannot afford a better place, and meanwhile they have more children and need a larger place to live. Yang goes as far as saying that “there was hardly room to breathe” when they cooked food, because of the small space. (193) The St Paul Dispatch’s story “Hostility Grows Toward Hmong” which Yang mentions, illustrates that this space dichotomy is not only physical, but also psychological. (113) There is no room in America for the Hmong people; they must fight and struggle to keep a space for themselves. Here it might be helpful to point to history: if Americans had known how much they were responsible for making the Hmong people refugees, would they have been hostile toward them? Would they have yelled for the Hmong to “go home” or given them the middle finger? American ignorance of the Hmong people fueled a lot of hatred and exclusivity. If Americans destroyed the homes the Hmong already had, would it not be logical for them to give them a new home? Or at least be understanding of why some Hmong were forced to move to America? This is one of the main arguments for why Hmong history is a reflection of American history – the two have so much to do with each other, that it is harmful to delete one part of the history. This gap of knowledge is not only hurtful to the Hmong people, but also detrimental to Americans who must live side by side with Hmong refugees. Bee states: “Even in the very beginning, we knew that we were looking for a home. Other people, in moments of sadness and despair, can look to a place in the world: where they might belong. We are not like that. I knew that our chance was here.” (237). America is crucial for the Hmong’s survival, and in order for it to be a home, Americans must give them the space to allow them to settle.

As the Hmong settle in America, they find themselves slowly becoming American in different ways. “In the food and in the stores, our home emphasized America in different Hmong ways […] For our Yang family, it was wrestling,” Yang explains (149). The process of becoming American begins by accepting various aspects of its culture. For the fathers it is wrestling, for Dawb it is pepperoni pizza (193), and for Yang herself it was the part of her “American heart that was lonely for the outside world.” (205). These small changes do not make the Hmong Americans, but they eventually define themselves as Hmong American as they learn the language and raise children who have never known Laos. Only the children born in America are considered “ready-made Americans.”(202). Identifying oneself as “Hmong American” is a very interesting reflection of America – being American becomes a suffix of one’s identity. In this regard, America can “attach” itself to any identity. It never swallows Yang’s identity, it merely coexists along with her Hmong identity. In many immigrant novels, American identity is often seen as fluid or miscellaneous – it will place itself wherever seen fit. Yang is primarily Hmong, but where there are gaps of information about “the old world,” or where she feels different from the rest of her family, it can easily be categorized as being “American.”

Yang: Hmong, American ... or both?

Alongside the struggle of finding a home in America, we must not forget that the immigrant story often points to the future of the children, and the promise of success. Yang writes: “We were hearing of Hmong doctors and lawyers, both men and women, all excelling in America, building successful lives for themselves, their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers.” (198). She constantly reminds us that America brings a future to her people. They are building successful lives, more so than they could have done in Laos. In her writing there is skepticism to the “rags to riches” dream of America, but not to the idea of America being a better place. “And the adults kept saying: how lucky we are to be in America. I wasn’t convinced […] These new children were Americans. This was life in America, and it was not so bad after all” (178-9). In the representation of America, there is not only rejection and ignorance, but also a seed of hope that takes form in many things – including the book The Latehomecomeritself.

There is usually a good reason for why parts of history are hidden, and by highlighting the American/Hmong relationship, the abandoning and genocide of the Hmong people came forth. In filling the gap, journalists have uncovered many “forgotten” facts about the Secret War of Laos. Things have bettered for the Hmong people. In 1997, Washington officially acknowledged the effort of the Hmong soldiers.5  If you google “Hmong,” there are homepages dedicated to the Hmong people and recognize their involvement in the war and impact on the world. The Secret War is no longer “secret,” although it is largely ignored. But has America learned from its mistakes? Yang maintains that “What happened to the Hmong happened before us and will happen again after us. It is one group and then another. We were afraid. Now, we are beyond the fear.” (273). Several others are skeptical to the idea of progress. In 2010, it was estimated that around 3 000 Hmong were still hiding in the jungle.6 Andrew Perrin is quick to point this out in his article “Welcome to the Jungle,” where he writes: “But as the world has watched in awe of the might of the U.S. war machine in Iraq, the final scenes of a 30-year-old war in Indochina that America would rather forget are destined to play out unnoticed.” (3)

Hmong women in traditional clothing

 

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You can find The Latehomecomer here, and Howard Zinn’s famous A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the present here.

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Footnotes

1The Latehomecomer, pages 201-202

2A People’s History of the United States, page 10

3Facts taken from “A Blackbird’s Song” page 2, and “Welcome to the Jungle” page 2

4A People’s History of the United States, page 10

5“The Hmong and the CIA,” page 2

6“Hmong Refugees Live in Fear in Laos and Thailand,” page 1

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