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Growing up Hmong in Detroit

BY KIMBERLY CHOU

Published December 7, 2006

Asian Americans make up one of the most well-represented minority groups at the University. But their path to Ann Arbor isn't always easy - especially if it starts in Detroit.

Angela Cesere
High school student Mai Chou Lor speaks about her involvement in the Detroit Asian Youth Project during an event in South Quad Residence Hall last night. (STEVEN TAI/Daily)

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Maichou Lor and Dia Shia Yang, both high school seniors of Hmong heritage, and history Prof. Scott Kurashige underscored this point at a forum hosted by the United Asian American Organizations last night in South Quad Residence Hall.

Students at Detroit's Osborn High School, Lor and Yang spoke about the difficulties of being Hmong in Detroit. They said their traditional familial obligations and immigrant parents who speak little English often make their high school careers different from the typical American experience.

The Hmong are one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Southeast Asia. Many Hmong fled from Laos to the United States during the Vietnam War and the Laotian conflict. In the United States, Hmong are among the least affluent Asian immigrant groups. Detroit is home to one of the largest concentrations of Hmong in the United States.

Lor and Yang described what it is like to attend a high school often criticized for its lack of resources and tension among students. Dropouts, too, are common. When Lor started at Osborn in 2003, there were about 700 students in her class. Now there are 200.

Lor and Yang both participate in the Detroit Asian Youth Project, a student-founded group based in Detroit. The group's mission is to help Asian American teenagers in Detroit learn about Asian cultures, develop leadership skills and promote social and political self-awareness. The DAY Project mostly works with Hmong youth. Hmong make up the majority of Detroit's Asian community, said Emily Lawsin, a lecturer in Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies.

"(It) really helps us in learning about society," said Lor, who said she works two jobs outside of school to support her family. "It inspires us to be college students."

She said she plans to attend college. Her parents want her to go to school in Detroit.

Yang, though, said her parents will let her go to school anywhere in Michigan. But she plans to return to the city she grew up in.

"Wherever I go - (Detroit) is my hometown," she said. "I'm definitely coming back to Detroit."

That's exactly the attitude the DAY Project advocates.

On its xanga.com homepage, the group lists "Detroit revitalization" and "Chinatown revitalization" among its interests.

Yang said the DAY Project activity that inspired her most was a scavenger hunt in a neighborhood between 8 Mile and 6 Mile roads. The participants combed the streets to determine the ratio of vacant lots and abandoned houses (more than 60) to police cars (two).

"That kind of made me feel I have to come back," Yang said.

After the two teens spoke, organizers played a short video advertising the DAY Project, filmed by participants in the project.

Later, Kurashige lectured on white flight in Detroit and Warren and discrimination in metro Detroit against Asian-Americans Detroiters. Much of the racist sentiment against Asians in the area is rooted in people feeling that immigrants pose a threat to white Americans' jobs, he said.

The decline of the auto manufacturing industry, he said, has made that dynamic particularly pronounced in Detroit.