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The Hmong of San Diego

Keeping the kids out of Tiny Oriental Crips and Hmong Bloods

Teng Vang - "We’re in a new country now. We’re living in the Western world. There are new ways of doing things, of thinking about things." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Teng Vang - "We’re in a new country now. We’re living in the Western world. There are new ways of doing things, of thinking about things."

Long, long before 1960, when a CIA operative known only as “Colonel Billy” ventured deep into the jungles of Laos to recruit the Hmong to fight Communism, the earth became flooded and everyone died except for a brother and sister.

God, or Yaw Sau (also known as Ntzew Nyong), told the brother and sister to marry because there was no one left to populate the earth. The brother and sister married and had a baby, but the baby had no human features. So God told the brother and sister to cut up their baby and throw each piece in a different place. The next morning when the brother and sister woke up, they saw that huts had appeared where their baby’s pieces had fallen. Not only was smoke coming out of these huts, but a husband and wife stood in each, and all the couples had different surnames.

This story is how the Hmong explain to themselves why they are divided into 20-odd clans, each clan having a different surname. Ethnologists speculate that Hmong clan surnames derived from 16th-century Chinese surnames, as the Hmong had lived in southwestern China from time immemorial. But in the early 19th Century, the Hmong were persecuted by China’s Qing Dynasty, and many migrated south into what became Laos, Thailand, and Burma.

It was in Laos, during the 1950s and 1960s, that the Hmong were caught up in the grand design of global politics. For reasons even Southeast Asian historians describe as “extremely confusing” and “impossibly complex,” the Hmong played a significant role in America’s, specifically the CIA’s, effort to curb Communist expansion in Vietnam and Laos. Depending on whom you believe, the CIA either offered the Hmong their own kingdom in exchange for their services, or at least safe conduct to someplace outside Laos if things fell apart. Things fell apart.

Given the general confusion of 1975, it’s difficult to remember that half of the Hmong living in Laos — some 150,000 people — fled the country. Under the newly declared Lao People’s Democratic Republic, ties to America, particularly to the CIA’s covert operations, were dangerous. There’s no use recalling the U.S. Attorney General Office’s rather abstruse criteria for who did or did not receive help fleeing Laos. There’s no use recalling the many flights between Laos and Thailand made by rickety C-47 cargo planes carrying the Hmong who met those criteria. You don’t remember these details. Many Hmong don’t remember these details.

What the local Hmong remember most clearly is their clan affiliation and that long ago they came from China. Clan is important because Hmong may not marry within the same clan, which means that if your surname is Vang, you can’t marry someone whose surname is Vang. Clan members regard each other as family. Remembering that your ancestors came from China is important, because when you die, your soul, during a three-day ritual, must be guided back to the land of its ancestors — China.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, about 5000 Hmong made their way to San Diego. In Laos they had been hill people, slash-and-bum farmers. They were animists in a largely Buddhist country. Unlike spicy Lao food, Hmong food was bland and simpler. Their elaborate tonal language was not written. Rituals— animal sacrifice, ancestor worship — gave form to their day-to-day lives. When they got sick, they went to a shaman, a man or a woman who could call their souls back into their bodies or appease their hungry ancestors. They’d never seen or used a gas range, flush toilet, or refrigerator. They’d never seen snow.

“I came to San Diego in 1979. But when I first came to America in 1978,1 went to Chicago,” remembers Boua Thao. “It started snowing, and we had no idea what it was. We thought the snowflakes were ashes. We thought that there’d been a fire, that maybe a house had caught fire and that ashes were falling from the sky.

“It’s easy to laugh about all that now. We can all laugh about things like that now. There are even Hmong videos about that time, when people first got here and didn’t know how things worked. People thought the toilet was some kind of well and used the water for cooking. We can look back and laugh, but at the time it wasn’t so funny.” Thao and her husband live in a nice part of Linda Vista, in a large, ranch-style home with cathedral ceilings and plush couches. A computer sits in a nook near the kitchen. The Simpsons theme song rattles from the television. Thao works for San Diego City Schools as a case manager for pregnant teens. Her husband works as a case manager for the city’s social services. In the early 1980s, the two of them spent four years working in a Philippine processing camp for Hmong refugees. Thao and her husband are well known for their contributions to the Hmong resettlement effort.

Thao’s quick transition to the American middle-class owes a great deal to her paternal grandfather, who sent his son, Thao’s father, down from the hills to study in a town in Northern Laos. Thao’s father became a nurse. He gave his daughter a Lao first name, Boua, so she wouldn’t be discriminated against at the Italian Catholic school where she studied Lao and French.

“It was sort of like it is here, ethnic tensions on the playground. The Lao looked down on the Hmong. They teased Hmong kids, beat them up. It was rare for a Hmong girl to get an education. Before I left Laos, I spoke French better than I now speak English. I don’t speak French that well anymore. It’s been so many years.

“Our family was an exception. Maybe only 1 out of 50 Hmong families made that transition of coming down from the hills to live in towns. We didn’t even practice animism at home. Because my father was a nurse, he believed in Western medicine. At our house, there was no ancestor worship or animal sacrifice. If someone got sick, we didn’t bring in a shaman. We kept some customs, like not marrying within the clan. We knew about that and would never do that. But I guess you could say we really grew up without any religion.”

Teng Vang works as a community affairs officer at the SDPD’s storefront office for the Indochinese community in Mid-City. He’s polite and soft-spoken, his policeman’s formality not quite hiding his basic sweetness. He came to San Diego as a teenager in 1978, learned English, did wd] in high school and college, and was hired by the SDPD, which, at the time, was making an effort to hire Southeast Asians. Over the past few years Vang has become less busy because 4000 of the original 5000 Hmong who settled in San Diego have moved to other larger Hmong communities, mostly in Fresno and SL Paul, Minnesota, where jobs are more plentiful and housing is cheaper.

Like Boua Thao, Vang is a Hmong exception. He’s a Christian. When he was 17 his grandmother became ill and a Hmong neighbor, a Christian, was very kind to her. Vang was impressed with the man’s willingness to help his grandmother and began speaking with him about religion. Vang, whose family were practicing animists, had never really heard about Jesus before. After studying the Bible, Vang was convinced that the God described in it was his God and that Jesus was his savior. He became a Christian and is now a pastor at the Hmong Christian Missionary Alliance Church.

Vang has seen firsthand the difficulties the Hmong have had making a new life for themselves in San Diego— the usual immigrant troubles of drug addiction and spousal abuse, the Hmong boys who fell in with the Tiny Oriental Crips, the Hmong boys who’ve recently begun calling themselves “Hmong Bloods,” a group the SDPD hasn’t yet recognized as a full-fledged gang. On the morning Vang took me to Linda Vista to visit one of San Diego’s ten Hmong shamans, I asked him if he thought it was possible to be a Hmong without being an animist.

Standing on the scruffy lawn of what once had been a Navy housing project, Vang squinted in the sunlight, arms loose at his sides, and thought. “Yes, I think so. I think being a Hmong means speaking the Hmong language. It means certain values, like respect for the elderly, respect for your parents. You don’t have to do animal sacrifices or worship your ancestors to be Hmong.

“Besides, we’re in a new country now. We’re living in the Western world. There are new ways of doing things, of thinking about things. My children are very Westernized. They’re Americans.”

We knocked on the front door of one of the small, blue, two-story apartments. We heard a baby laughing, some shuffling. Sixty-three-year-old Jou Thao answered the door. Short, jolly, dressed in black, Thao belongs to the same clan as Boua Thao, but his family never made the transition from hills to town. Jou Thao didn’t start to learn to read and write until he and his family made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand in the late 1970s.

For three generations, Thao’s family has produced shamans. A picture of his great-grandfather, the family’s first shaman, hangs on the wall to the right of Thao’s animist altar. His chubby-legged granddaughters milled around the living room, tottering over every few minutes to embrace his knees. While Thao hugged them and patted him, he spoke to me through Teng Vang about how he became a shaman.

He wanted to make it very clear that one doesn’t choose to be a shaman; one is chosen by the spirits. Most shamans are chosen when they’re 17 or 18 years old. Although the spirits chose Thao when he was 33, they chose him in the usual way. He became very sick. He was weak. He trembled. He ran a fever. He passed in and out of consciousness. He couldn’t be cured. And while he was deep in this spiritual sickness, he began to have dreams, the typical dreams of someone whom the spirits are choosing to become a shaman. He dreamt he was climbing tall mountains and riding horses.. .with Chinese people.

“Chinese people?” I asked.

“Yes,” Thao said through Vang “Chinese people. Long ago, the Chinese gave shamanism to the Hmong. We inherited it from them. So when you’re sick like that, and you dream of climbing mountains or riding horses with Chinese, you know the spirits are calling you to become a shaman.”

About 100 times a year people with physical or emotional problems seek Thao’s help. Some come from San Diego’s Hmong community. Others send for Thao from their homes in Santa Ana, Fresno, even St. Paul. These men and women haven’t chosen Thao; they’ve been guided to him by the spirits. The American Hmong community is small; the number of Hmong shamans is even smaller. Their names are generally known. A sick person, or the sick person’s family, perform a ritual that leads them to a particular shaman. While pronouncing the names of as many shamans as they know, they try to balance an egg on the curved side of a bottle. If they say a certain shaman’s name and the egg stays balanced on the bottle, they know they’ve found their shaman.

Thao offers no guarantees. The spirits and the sick person’s ancestors decide if the person will get well or not. The best Thao can do is enter a trance and ascend through the 12 gates of heaven, entreating spirits and ancestors to intervene on the sick person’s behalf. Other times he tries to call back the sick person’s soul. If a person suffers a shock or gets frightened, his soul will sometimes leave his body. This abrupt departure can cause illness. When Thao is successful, the sick person or the sick person’s family will offer Thao money — as little as $20 or $30 for a minor illness, as much as $300, $600, or even $1000 for a life-threatening case. Thao said his custom is to accept only half of what he’s offered.

Thao also explained that after a full recovery, Hmong tradition requires that the sick person’s family sacrifice pig. When the animal’s been butchered and cooked, the family gives the jawbone to Thao, who keeps it for a special ritual he performs at the end of each year when he shows the spirits how much work he’s done. The altar in his home where he performs this ritual is a simple boxy shelf covered in beige paper, decorated with gold leaf. A bamboo bowl holds hundreds of burned incense sticks. Beside the bowl sits the red-and-black mallet with which Thao bangs the brass gong he uses in his trances. Beneath the altar hangs a large metal hoop threaded, necklace-style, with bright metal discs. Thao uses the hoop to divine the outcome of a person’s illness. If he tosses the hoop to the floor and the discs all fall to one side, he knows the person will die. If the discs fall against each other in a haphazard way, the person will live. Thao said that when he’s in a trance, he feels “happy.”

In her large, comfortable Linda Vista home, Boua Thao told me that she would go to a shaman “only as a last resort, and I’d probably do it then only because my husband’s parents would pressure me.” After our interview with the shaman, I asked Teng Vang if, as a Christian, he would ever go to a shaman.

“Never,” he said. “Although I learned a lot today, things I’d never heard before, I would never go to a shaman. I no longer believe what they believe. They believe in reincarnation. They believe that animals have souls. I don’t believe any of that anymore. I don’t think they’re wrong. That’s their tradition. That’s their way of seeing things. I believe differently.”

We were standing again outside the shaman’s apartment on the scruffy lawn. Now many of the apartments are occupied by Mexican immigrants, and ranchero music wafted through their open windows. Boua Thao told me that in this part of Linda Vista there were three or four Hmong men who still practiced polygamy, as had been the Hmong custom “back in the old country.” These men, Boua Thao said, were middle-aged and had only two wives. But because the wives were somewhat Americanized, they refused to live in the same house with another wife. They demanded their own homes. Boua Thao thought the whole idea of polygamy was hilarious.

“What would I do with a husband like that?" she laughed. “Someone who shows up every few days after he’s been with another woman?”

I wanted to ask Teng Vang if he knew the men who practiced polygamy, but he was, I could tell, anxious to get back to work. Before he left me, however, he pointed out the apartment where, in 1992, two Hmong boys had been shot by Crips. With his finger Vang traced the path across the lawn that one boy had taken as he tried to escape. The other boy never had a chance to escape. He was shot through the forehead at point-blank range. Vang pointed to the spot where he died.

Vang went on to tell me how proud he was of his oldest son. “We never even had to wake him up for school. He liked going to school. He liked to study. He’s going to college, and we are so proud of him. I make sure to tell him that we’re proud of him.”

Vang said his son doesn’t speak Hmong very well, and although he knows a little bit about clans and how they work, he knows nothing about shamanism. We talked for a few minutes about how difficult it is to leave one’s country and customs behind, about how something as fundamental as a language can be forgotten in one generation.

Vang looked about the lawn, his eyes searching out the place where the Hmong boy had died. Vang sighed.

“It is sad,” he said.

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Teng Vang - "We’re in a new country now. We’re living in the Western world. There are new ways of doing things, of thinking about things." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Teng Vang - "We’re in a new country now. We’re living in the Western world. There are new ways of doing things, of thinking about things."

Long, long before 1960, when a CIA operative known only as “Colonel Billy” ventured deep into the jungles of Laos to recruit the Hmong to fight Communism, the earth became flooded and everyone died except for a brother and sister.

God, or Yaw Sau (also known as Ntzew Nyong), told the brother and sister to marry because there was no one left to populate the earth. The brother and sister married and had a baby, but the baby had no human features. So God told the brother and sister to cut up their baby and throw each piece in a different place. The next morning when the brother and sister woke up, they saw that huts had appeared where their baby’s pieces had fallen. Not only was smoke coming out of these huts, but a husband and wife stood in each, and all the couples had different surnames.

This story is how the Hmong explain to themselves why they are divided into 20-odd clans, each clan having a different surname. Ethnologists speculate that Hmong clan surnames derived from 16th-century Chinese surnames, as the Hmong had lived in southwestern China from time immemorial. But in the early 19th Century, the Hmong were persecuted by China’s Qing Dynasty, and many migrated south into what became Laos, Thailand, and Burma.

It was in Laos, during the 1950s and 1960s, that the Hmong were caught up in the grand design of global politics. For reasons even Southeast Asian historians describe as “extremely confusing” and “impossibly complex,” the Hmong played a significant role in America’s, specifically the CIA’s, effort to curb Communist expansion in Vietnam and Laos. Depending on whom you believe, the CIA either offered the Hmong their own kingdom in exchange for their services, or at least safe conduct to someplace outside Laos if things fell apart. Things fell apart.

Given the general confusion of 1975, it’s difficult to remember that half of the Hmong living in Laos — some 150,000 people — fled the country. Under the newly declared Lao People’s Democratic Republic, ties to America, particularly to the CIA’s covert operations, were dangerous. There’s no use recalling the U.S. Attorney General Office’s rather abstruse criteria for who did or did not receive help fleeing Laos. There’s no use recalling the many flights between Laos and Thailand made by rickety C-47 cargo planes carrying the Hmong who met those criteria. You don’t remember these details. Many Hmong don’t remember these details.

What the local Hmong remember most clearly is their clan affiliation and that long ago they came from China. Clan is important because Hmong may not marry within the same clan, which means that if your surname is Vang, you can’t marry someone whose surname is Vang. Clan members regard each other as family. Remembering that your ancestors came from China is important, because when you die, your soul, during a three-day ritual, must be guided back to the land of its ancestors — China.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, about 5000 Hmong made their way to San Diego. In Laos they had been hill people, slash-and-bum farmers. They were animists in a largely Buddhist country. Unlike spicy Lao food, Hmong food was bland and simpler. Their elaborate tonal language was not written. Rituals— animal sacrifice, ancestor worship — gave form to their day-to-day lives. When they got sick, they went to a shaman, a man or a woman who could call their souls back into their bodies or appease their hungry ancestors. They’d never seen or used a gas range, flush toilet, or refrigerator. They’d never seen snow.

“I came to San Diego in 1979. But when I first came to America in 1978,1 went to Chicago,” remembers Boua Thao. “It started snowing, and we had no idea what it was. We thought the snowflakes were ashes. We thought that there’d been a fire, that maybe a house had caught fire and that ashes were falling from the sky.

“It’s easy to laugh about all that now. We can all laugh about things like that now. There are even Hmong videos about that time, when people first got here and didn’t know how things worked. People thought the toilet was some kind of well and used the water for cooking. We can look back and laugh, but at the time it wasn’t so funny.” Thao and her husband live in a nice part of Linda Vista, in a large, ranch-style home with cathedral ceilings and plush couches. A computer sits in a nook near the kitchen. The Simpsons theme song rattles from the television. Thao works for San Diego City Schools as a case manager for pregnant teens. Her husband works as a case manager for the city’s social services. In the early 1980s, the two of them spent four years working in a Philippine processing camp for Hmong refugees. Thao and her husband are well known for their contributions to the Hmong resettlement effort.

Thao’s quick transition to the American middle-class owes a great deal to her paternal grandfather, who sent his son, Thao’s father, down from the hills to study in a town in Northern Laos. Thao’s father became a nurse. He gave his daughter a Lao first name, Boua, so she wouldn’t be discriminated against at the Italian Catholic school where she studied Lao and French.

“It was sort of like it is here, ethnic tensions on the playground. The Lao looked down on the Hmong. They teased Hmong kids, beat them up. It was rare for a Hmong girl to get an education. Before I left Laos, I spoke French better than I now speak English. I don’t speak French that well anymore. It’s been so many years.

“Our family was an exception. Maybe only 1 out of 50 Hmong families made that transition of coming down from the hills to live in towns. We didn’t even practice animism at home. Because my father was a nurse, he believed in Western medicine. At our house, there was no ancestor worship or animal sacrifice. If someone got sick, we didn’t bring in a shaman. We kept some customs, like not marrying within the clan. We knew about that and would never do that. But I guess you could say we really grew up without any religion.”

Teng Vang works as a community affairs officer at the SDPD’s storefront office for the Indochinese community in Mid-City. He’s polite and soft-spoken, his policeman’s formality not quite hiding his basic sweetness. He came to San Diego as a teenager in 1978, learned English, did wd] in high school and college, and was hired by the SDPD, which, at the time, was making an effort to hire Southeast Asians. Over the past few years Vang has become less busy because 4000 of the original 5000 Hmong who settled in San Diego have moved to other larger Hmong communities, mostly in Fresno and SL Paul, Minnesota, where jobs are more plentiful and housing is cheaper.

Like Boua Thao, Vang is a Hmong exception. He’s a Christian. When he was 17 his grandmother became ill and a Hmong neighbor, a Christian, was very kind to her. Vang was impressed with the man’s willingness to help his grandmother and began speaking with him about religion. Vang, whose family were practicing animists, had never really heard about Jesus before. After studying the Bible, Vang was convinced that the God described in it was his God and that Jesus was his savior. He became a Christian and is now a pastor at the Hmong Christian Missionary Alliance Church.

Vang has seen firsthand the difficulties the Hmong have had making a new life for themselves in San Diego— the usual immigrant troubles of drug addiction and spousal abuse, the Hmong boys who fell in with the Tiny Oriental Crips, the Hmong boys who’ve recently begun calling themselves “Hmong Bloods,” a group the SDPD hasn’t yet recognized as a full-fledged gang. On the morning Vang took me to Linda Vista to visit one of San Diego’s ten Hmong shamans, I asked him if he thought it was possible to be a Hmong without being an animist.

Standing on the scruffy lawn of what once had been a Navy housing project, Vang squinted in the sunlight, arms loose at his sides, and thought. “Yes, I think so. I think being a Hmong means speaking the Hmong language. It means certain values, like respect for the elderly, respect for your parents. You don’t have to do animal sacrifices or worship your ancestors to be Hmong.

“Besides, we’re in a new country now. We’re living in the Western world. There are new ways of doing things, of thinking about things. My children are very Westernized. They’re Americans.”

We knocked on the front door of one of the small, blue, two-story apartments. We heard a baby laughing, some shuffling. Sixty-three-year-old Jou Thao answered the door. Short, jolly, dressed in black, Thao belongs to the same clan as Boua Thao, but his family never made the transition from hills to town. Jou Thao didn’t start to learn to read and write until he and his family made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand in the late 1970s.

For three generations, Thao’s family has produced shamans. A picture of his great-grandfather, the family’s first shaman, hangs on the wall to the right of Thao’s animist altar. His chubby-legged granddaughters milled around the living room, tottering over every few minutes to embrace his knees. While Thao hugged them and patted him, he spoke to me through Teng Vang about how he became a shaman.

He wanted to make it very clear that one doesn’t choose to be a shaman; one is chosen by the spirits. Most shamans are chosen when they’re 17 or 18 years old. Although the spirits chose Thao when he was 33, they chose him in the usual way. He became very sick. He was weak. He trembled. He ran a fever. He passed in and out of consciousness. He couldn’t be cured. And while he was deep in this spiritual sickness, he began to have dreams, the typical dreams of someone whom the spirits are choosing to become a shaman. He dreamt he was climbing tall mountains and riding horses.. .with Chinese people.

“Chinese people?” I asked.

“Yes,” Thao said through Vang “Chinese people. Long ago, the Chinese gave shamanism to the Hmong. We inherited it from them. So when you’re sick like that, and you dream of climbing mountains or riding horses with Chinese, you know the spirits are calling you to become a shaman.”

About 100 times a year people with physical or emotional problems seek Thao’s help. Some come from San Diego’s Hmong community. Others send for Thao from their homes in Santa Ana, Fresno, even St. Paul. These men and women haven’t chosen Thao; they’ve been guided to him by the spirits. The American Hmong community is small; the number of Hmong shamans is even smaller. Their names are generally known. A sick person, or the sick person’s family, perform a ritual that leads them to a particular shaman. While pronouncing the names of as many shamans as they know, they try to balance an egg on the curved side of a bottle. If they say a certain shaman’s name and the egg stays balanced on the bottle, they know they’ve found their shaman.

Thao offers no guarantees. The spirits and the sick person’s ancestors decide if the person will get well or not. The best Thao can do is enter a trance and ascend through the 12 gates of heaven, entreating spirits and ancestors to intervene on the sick person’s behalf. Other times he tries to call back the sick person’s soul. If a person suffers a shock or gets frightened, his soul will sometimes leave his body. This abrupt departure can cause illness. When Thao is successful, the sick person or the sick person’s family will offer Thao money — as little as $20 or $30 for a minor illness, as much as $300, $600, or even $1000 for a life-threatening case. Thao said his custom is to accept only half of what he’s offered.

Thao also explained that after a full recovery, Hmong tradition requires that the sick person’s family sacrifice pig. When the animal’s been butchered and cooked, the family gives the jawbone to Thao, who keeps it for a special ritual he performs at the end of each year when he shows the spirits how much work he’s done. The altar in his home where he performs this ritual is a simple boxy shelf covered in beige paper, decorated with gold leaf. A bamboo bowl holds hundreds of burned incense sticks. Beside the bowl sits the red-and-black mallet with which Thao bangs the brass gong he uses in his trances. Beneath the altar hangs a large metal hoop threaded, necklace-style, with bright metal discs. Thao uses the hoop to divine the outcome of a person’s illness. If he tosses the hoop to the floor and the discs all fall to one side, he knows the person will die. If the discs fall against each other in a haphazard way, the person will live. Thao said that when he’s in a trance, he feels “happy.”

In her large, comfortable Linda Vista home, Boua Thao told me that she would go to a shaman “only as a last resort, and I’d probably do it then only because my husband’s parents would pressure me.” After our interview with the shaman, I asked Teng Vang if, as a Christian, he would ever go to a shaman.

“Never,” he said. “Although I learned a lot today, things I’d never heard before, I would never go to a shaman. I no longer believe what they believe. They believe in reincarnation. They believe that animals have souls. I don’t believe any of that anymore. I don’t think they’re wrong. That’s their tradition. That’s their way of seeing things. I believe differently.”

We were standing again outside the shaman’s apartment on the scruffy lawn. Now many of the apartments are occupied by Mexican immigrants, and ranchero music wafted through their open windows. Boua Thao told me that in this part of Linda Vista there were three or four Hmong men who still practiced polygamy, as had been the Hmong custom “back in the old country.” These men, Boua Thao said, were middle-aged and had only two wives. But because the wives were somewhat Americanized, they refused to live in the same house with another wife. They demanded their own homes. Boua Thao thought the whole idea of polygamy was hilarious.

“What would I do with a husband like that?" she laughed. “Someone who shows up every few days after he’s been with another woman?”

I wanted to ask Teng Vang if he knew the men who practiced polygamy, but he was, I could tell, anxious to get back to work. Before he left me, however, he pointed out the apartment where, in 1992, two Hmong boys had been shot by Crips. With his finger Vang traced the path across the lawn that one boy had taken as he tried to escape. The other boy never had a chance to escape. He was shot through the forehead at point-blank range. Vang pointed to the spot where he died.

Vang went on to tell me how proud he was of his oldest son. “We never even had to wake him up for school. He liked going to school. He liked to study. He’s going to college, and we are so proud of him. I make sure to tell him that we’re proud of him.”

Vang said his son doesn’t speak Hmong very well, and although he knows a little bit about clans and how they work, he knows nothing about shamanism. We talked for a few minutes about how difficult it is to leave one’s country and customs behind, about how something as fundamental as a language can be forgotten in one generation.

Vang looked about the lawn, his eyes searching out the place where the Hmong boy had died. Vang sighed.

“It is sad,” he said.

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