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Surviving culture shock

Immigrants: Differences in language, custom and religion challenge both newcomers and lifelong Minnesotans.

March 08, 1999|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The nation read about the 24-year-old Hmong mother from St. Paul who killed her six children -- ages 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 11 -- by strangling them last year. Khoua Her, who has been convicted of murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison, was arrested after calling 911 with a simple statement -- "I don't know why I killed my kids."

"Virtually the only publicity we were getting in Minnesota was bad," said KaYing Yang, a Hmong activist who moved to Washington from St. Paul last year to become the director of the Southeast Asia Resource and Action Center.

In early June, another Hmong made headlines.

A 13-year-old girl from neighboring Wisconsin -- which also has had a large number of Hmong immigrants -- was charged with killing her newborn baby. The girl, who later would tell authorities that she had been raped by an uncle, had given birth to -- and then killed -- her baby boy in a bathroom stall of the YMCA.

The story hit the papers June 9.

That morning, as they were driving to work listening to talk radio, well over 100,000 Minnesotans heard Tom Barnard -- the Midwest's version of Howard Stern -- use the case as fodder for some morning laughs.

Speaking in pidgin English, Barnard commented that the girl could face a $10,000 fine for the crime, quipping, "Ten thousand dollars? Now that's a lot of egg rolls."

He didn't stop there. He took it one step further.

"Those people should either assimilate or hit the goddamn road."

Adapting to America's culture has been no easy task for the Hmong.

Clustered in primitive villages in the rugged mountains of Laos, the Hmong had no written language until 1953 and lived simple lives based on a set of shamanistic superstitions and tribal taboos. When CIA agents recruited them to fight -- dropping into the villages in helicopters -- Americans said that the Hmong had lived in such isolation that they examined the undersides of the aircraft in an attempt to determine their sex.

"Tom Barnard says, `Just assimilate,' " said Yang, in her office in Washington. "But he has no clue what that means for our people. They don't speak the language. They don't understand the rules. They grew up in huts with mud floors, and they think living in housing projects is luxury. They need time."

About 13 agencies have formed to help the Hmong adjust to life in the United States. A newspaper, the Hmong Tribune, began printing about six months ago. But because so many Hmong lived in isolation for much of their lives, the hurdles are enormous.

"You have no idea how completely isolated these people have always lived their lives," said Vee Phan Nelson, a refugee from Laos who is director of the Center for Asian and Pacific Islanders in Minneapolis.

"Growing up in Laos, we would see the Hmong come down out of the hills a few times a year to come to town. They were frozen in time. The best way to compare it would be to the early days of America when the settlers would see the Indians come out of the woods."

To make matters worse, it is almost impossible to teach English to many of the elders because there are no words in Hmong that can translate ideas such as automated teller machines or savings accounts, welfare or the Internal Revenue Service.

"Where do you start?" Yang asked, looking a little defeated.

But the Hmong -- as naive as they may be about modern American customs -- understand the signs of being unwelcome and ridiculed.

In a local newspaper, a Hmong student at the University of Minnesota described being treated as "a parasite" by locals. Others spoke of growing up in white middle America and regularly hearing elementary classmates call them "gook" or "slant-eyes."

"I grew up in Wisconsin, and every time I heard one of those names it did something to me," Yang said. "People threw rocks at our windows. People yelled on the street. It was very painful. Ask yourself: What does that do to a child?"

Despite hardships, the Hmong are irrevocably changing the face of Minnesota.

Twenty-five percent of children in the St. Paul School District are Hmong. Some Twin Cities' factories have assembly lines that are up to one-third Hmong. Dozens of Hmong have enrolled at the University of Minnesota; several have earned Ph.D.'s. The state Legislature is appointing citizen organizations to help the Hmong thrive in their new home. The first Hmong elected official in the United States sits on a Minnesota school board.

The Hmong are also fighting against racism and discrimination. After Barnard's radio comments, community leaders organized. They marched, protested, demanded an apology.

The next week, some of Minnesota's biggest corporations -- Perkins Family Restaurants, U.S. West, Kinko's, Prudential and the mammoth Mall of America -- pulled their advertising from Barnard's station, KQRS.

KQRS executives tried to rectify things -- without a public apology. Barnard was not fired, but the station offered to donate money for Hmong college scholarships and to air $150,000 worth of Hmong-community public service announcements.

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