Aconcentrated piece of limbo between the industrial hum of Warren and the trickling sprawl toward downtown, Northeast Detroit is a fiefdom ruled by Cash-N-Go’s, Coney Islands and places of worship. The occasional Asian grocery store and church dot the landscape. At the heart of the neighborhood sits a public high school, middle school and elementary school, arranged in stair-step formation behind the block of 7 Mile and Hoover Road.
Welcome to the home of one of the highest Hmong concentrations in the United States.
Despite being one of the largest minority groups in Southeast Asia, the Hmong (pronounced mung) have long been misunderstood.
Like Asian gypsies, they have been historically persecuted, thousands of years ago in China and later, Laos. During the Vietnam War and Laotian conflict, the Hmong fled to Thai refugee camps.
From there, many immigrated to the United States, settling in Merced and Fresno in California, Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota. The Hmong moved to Wisconsin, Connecticut and Detroit. Detroit held the promise of factory jobs, often the best-available option for new immigrants with little grasp of English and large families to support.
Those lucky enough to have high ranking government or military officials in the family were airlifted from Laos to the Thai camps and came to the United States (as well as France, Canada and Australia) in the first wave. Dennis Kue, a Hmong bilingual teacher at Detroit’s Osborn High School, came to Philadelphia in 1980 with his government-official uncle’s family of 15 – “the biggest Hmong family to come to U.S. at that time,” he said. But less advantaged families without such connections had to find their own way to cross the Asian jungles to Thailand, often carrying all of their belongings on foot.
“(My parents) remind me what they went through, remind me what it took for them to get to the U.S.,” said LSA senior Leng Yang, a Hmong-American student born in Wisconsin and raised in Detroit. “They struggled so hard.”
Although nearly 8,000 members of the Southeast Asian minority group live in Michigan – predominantly in Northeast Detroit and, increasingly, Warren and Pontiac – few in the mainstream know more about the Hmong than what they have seen on Grey’s Anatomy. Last season on the hit TV show, Hmong characters refused to allow their daughter to undergo surgery until blessed by their shaman.
More recently, in the real world, an 18-year-old Hmong teenager was shot 27 times by Warren police in a confrontation the family considered police brutality, but the shooting garnered little media attention. The Hmong began coming to the States in 1975. Since then, there has been an unfortunate misconception of the Hmong as unwilling to learn English, staunchly set in their animist spiritual practices and refusing to adapt to the American way of life.
And unless they’ve researched outside Cultural Anthropology 101, it’s doubtful many University students know much about Hmong culture – or the Hmong students on campus.
“When we first came to this country, we were known as Laotian American, not Hmong American,” said Maykao Lytongpao, a bilingual teacher at Detroit’s Fleming Elementary.
Xiong said students who don’t know who the Hmong are mistake him for being Chinese or of another Asian ethnic background.
To find out what it’s like to be Hmong in Michigan, and at the University, the best sources are the Hmong students themselves.
“It’s kind of hard being both Hmong and American,” Yang said.
Yang estimates his parents came to the United States around 1980. Young and just out of the refugee camps, the couple had two children and would go on to have six more. The family moved frequently before Yang was born, crisscrossing from the Midwest to the East Coast and back. Yang’s mother found work in factories; his father was and is still on disability from injuries sustained fighting Laotian communists for the C.I.A., as many Hmong did during the Vietnam War.
And also as many Hmong did, the Yang family temporarily set aside certain traditions and attended church when a Christian group sponsored them to come to the United States. Catholic, Mormon and Lutheran service organizations have “adopted” thousands of Hmong families since they began immigrating stateside.
His family has since returned to Hmong practices, but balancing religion is one of the most difficult conflicts of being Hmong in America, Yang said. “You have to choose which values you want to keep: whether to convert to Christianity or to follow the old ways.”
These “old ways” include burning incense for ancestors and hu plig – or soul-calling – ceremonies for the Hmong New Year, said Maykao Lytongpao, a Hmong bilingual teacher at Detroit’s Fleming Elementary School. An active figure in the metro Detroit Hmong community, Lytongpao is the pageant and competition coordinator for the statewide Hmong New Year Festival, held annually in Lansing. She is one of the co-chairs for the Hmong National Development Conference, which celebrates its seventh year this spring with its first Detroit-hosted symposium.
But events like the Michigan New Year Festival aren’t readily available in cities and states with fewer Hmong.
Maipa Vang, who graduated from the University in 2002, lived in mostly white Muncie, Ind. while her father attended Ball State University. Sponsored by a Lutheran organization, Vang and her siblings attended church regularly and went to private school.
“My father felt he should do as (the Americans) are doing – they followed the ways of the Americans,” Vang said. “Essentially it was something he wasn’t really happy doing.”
Before fighting for the C.I.A.’s secret army, or Arm