A Life of Many Changes, by Aryn Gessel
Thaoyer Yang reclines on his plush couch, his bare feet resting upon the rich red carpet beneath. A huge television screen takes over the corner and the mantle bursts with family portraits. A stuffed deer head overlooks the living room, and the sound of clanking pots drifts in from the kitchen.
Years ago, Yang lived an entirely different life. He was born to a Hmong farming family in Xieng Khuang province, nestled in the small country of Laos. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong Laotians fought alongside the Americans against the Vietnamese, providing ground support and rescuing American pilots from captivity.
Yang’s family moved from place to place because of the ever-constant threat from the Vietnamese Communists. Whenever the soldiers came too close, the family fled.
“We would have been killed,” he said. “We escaped from the soldiers, but we didn’t have anything.”
His parents, three of his sisters, and two of his brothers were shot and killed by Vietnamese soldiers. Through the continuous moving, Yang learned Laotian and Thai, as well as some French.
Although Yang didn’t know it at the time, his future wife Pang Moua was living a similar life. She lost her mother and one of her brothers during the war. Moua, who kept her maiden name after marriage, and her sister managed to hide from the advancing Vietnamese.
“They shot at my sister and me 15 times,” she said. “But God protected me.”
The United States pulled out of Laos in 1973, leaving the Hmong people to fight the Vietnamese troops alone. By 1975, Laos was a Communist country. Those who helped fight the Vietnamese were in danger of execution. Over 100,000 Hmong escaped to Thai refugee camps. An estimated 30,000 were killed by Communist soldiers as they fled.
The Thai refugee camps threw people together from all over Laos. That’s how Yang and Moua ended up at the same refugee camp even though they came from different provinces in Laos. Nearby Thai villagers carted food and firewood in to sell to the camp’s occupants, who weren’t allowed to leave for any reason. The U.N. erected buildings for people to live in, but once those were full, refugees had to build their own houses.
“It was difficult,” Yang said. “Very difficult.”
International volunteers offered American culture training, and Yang and Moua were part of the same class. Refugees also taught each other skills. Yang and Moua taught Hmong, Laotian and Thai. Moua also taught Bible lessons to children.
Yang fell in love with Moua at first sight, said Mailia Yang, the couple’s fifth child. She says her father was drawn to her mother because she conducted herself like a good housewife – she could clean and cook, she was strong and sharp-minded, and she obeyed her father and the elders. Her voice was smooth and soft. Moua loved her younger siblings and helped her family as much as she could. Unlike some young women in the camp, she avoided drugs and prostitution. Yang, an orphan, wanted someone with these values to share his life.
Yang’s family practiced traditional Hmong Shamanism, a religion that makes contact with the spirit world through music. He was known for his skill playing the qeej, an instrument that creates a ritual, musical language.
On the other hand, Moua’s family was Christian. She wouldn’t marry a non-Christian, so Yang agreed to go to church and converted to Christianity during his first visit in 1985. What little that was left of his family disowned him when he denounced Shamanism and refused to play the qeej for religious ceremonies. Even though Hmong couples usually live with the husband’s parents after marriage, the couple moved near Moua’s family.
While still in the camp, their first child was born, a daughter. In the Hmong culture, the husband is responsible for delivering the child with help from the grandmothers. Both of their mothers were dead and no doctor was available, leaving Yang to deliver the child alone.
“I cut the cord, tied the cord, and cleaned the baby,” Yang said. “I did it myself.”
One year later in 1987, Moua’s oldest brother living in Spokane sponsored the young family’s move to America.
“It was difficult but the only way to survive,” Yang said. “We had to do it.”
Everything was new and unfamiliar. They had learned a bit of English in the refugee camp, but not enough to really communicate with their new Spokane neighbors.
“We are old people and our tongues are stiff,” Yang said. “The pronunciation is difficult.”
Soon their first son was also born at home because they had no car to go to the hospital.
“The baby delivered very fast,” Moua said. “I prayed to the Lord for an easy time.”
Yang needed to support their growing family but finding a job was difficult without referrals or experience. At first he worked in a hotel doing laundry for $3 to $4 an hour, a job which didn’t require any experience. He worked his way up to bus driver, then as a part-time school custodian. Now Yang works as a full-time machine operator for Nott Atwater, a small parts production company.
“My life right now is in the American culture,” Yang said. He believes that since they live in America, they must respect local customs. However, in the home Hmong traditions are kept; traditional food is served and Hmong is spoken. Older children are expected to set a good example for their younger siblings.
“We try to keep [traditions] close because once we’re gone, the kids won’t know,” Yang said.
Moua tells the children stories about life back in Laos, and Yang’s goal is to take the whole family back for a visit once he has saved up the money. If the children need something, they go to their father. He gives them money for school supplies and clothes. His children go to him for permission when they want to do something, even the older ones.
Mailia Yang says her favorite memory of her father is his cooking, particularly the squirrels that he shoots himself. Whenever their father cooks, it’s a real treat.
Twenty-six years ago, Yang lived in a refugee camp and practiced Shamanism. He was a single man who lost most of his family, and possessions, to the war. Today he owns a comfortable home in the United States and serves as an elder in his church. He keeps in touch with family still living in Thailand, and he has his wife and children. He still plays the qeej, although now he plays for New Year’s celebrations rather than funerals.
“He has shaped my identity to become someone who respects elders,” Mailia Yang said.”He has a lot of wisdom.”