Surviving a Hard Journey, by Nejela Almohanna
Chia Chang Yang and his wife Yer Yang sat in front of the television after plugging in the third VCR tape of the night. Thousands of Hmong refugees appeared on the screen, talking about the Vietnam War. Women cried into the camera, telling stories of their deceased family members.
Silence suddenly crept into the room that had been filled moments before with Yer's chattering. The television showed military leader Vang Pao stepping onto a stage.
The Yangs’ mourned the loss of Pao, who had died a week earlier. A general in the Royal Army of Laos, Pao had led thousands of Hmong mercenaries in a CIA-trained secret army during the Vietnam War. After the war, the Laotian government tried to wipe out the Hmong tribes because of the help they provided to American troops, forcing the Hmong to flee to Thailand.
Pao headed negotiations to relocate Hmong refugees to the United States, making him a hero to to Hmong American refugees. The Yang family believes Pao is the reason they eventually made it to Spokane.
“He was a very powerful man,” Chia said.
Chia Yang pulled out his old military uniform and pointed at the stars on the collar. Recruited into the guerrillas army at the age of 12, Chia Yang lost three brothers in the war. He escaped the annihilation and headed to Thailand with his wife and children, surviving the journey by eating twigs and leaves. Planes dropped bombs from the sky and the roads were full of mines, Chia said. Along the way, one of the Yangs’ sons died. The family had to move quickly and Yer Yang could only wrap him in a cloth and leave him beside the road.
“This memory haunts me,” Yer Yang said through a translator. “I was never able to give him a proper burial.”
Chia Yang, Yer Yang, and their surviving children swam across the Mekong River to reach Thailand, clinging to logs as others drowned around them.
Living conditions were difficult in their Thai refugee camp, and resources were scarce. “We were hungry,” Chia said. “There was little food.” Thai guards would kill those who refused to pay bribes or would not obey orders, sometimes holding a wife hostage. Even once the bribe was paid or orders were carried out, the couple might be killed anyway.
Chia heard rumors at the camp church about a chance to leave Thailand for the United States. In 1979 the Yang family arrived in Spokane and has been living here ever since. They had to adjust to many new things in America, including snow. “The first time it snowed I went outside to see where it was coming from,” Chia said.
Some traditions have faded in the Yang family as they raised their children, but they still cook traditional Hmong food, and use old herbal remedies passed down from their great grandmother. Yer still pulls up weeds as she goes for walks and brings them home for soups and teas, said Pang Yang, her granddaughter.Some Hmong families let go of their traditions and heritage, Pang Yang said. She wants to raise her own children up so they remember the stories of their grandparents and all they went through to succeed in a new country.