Bringing their faith with them, by Audrey Gore

Christopher Moua has to be persuaded to eat more than dessert. He wants chocolate for his main course followed by chicken nuggets, and he doesn’t want to sit at the table. Christopher would rather eat on the go as he flies imaginary jets around the house, and fights with his older brother for computer time. The difference between Christopher and other suburban five year olds is that he speaks mostly Hmong.

           All the children in Christopher’s family were born in the United States, while their parents and grandparents made the hard journey from Laos to Thailand to Spokane, Wash. Christopher has only begun to learn English. With his siblings mostly speaking English and his grandparents only speaking Hmong, Christopher is one of his generation straddling the line between different cultures.

           The Hmong American culture that Christopher and his siblings have developed is living proof of everything that their parents, Ying Moua and Shouamee Yang, have accomplished and all that they have lost in their long pursuit of tolerance and freedom.

           “My kids are lucky to grow up here. They haven’t been through bad things, they haven’t seen suffering,” Ying Moua said.

           Ying Moua was born and lived in Laos until he was 17. By 1975, the communist government had taken over the country and Ying Moua’s family knew that they needed to flee. Many Hmong in Laos fought hard against communism and worked with the American military forces in the area, Ying Moua’s father and older brothers among them. The goal of communism in Laos, Ying Moua said, had nothing to do with equality and closing the gap between the rich and the poor. Instead, communist leaders acted as dictators over everyone, leaving all poor and hungry with massive control over everything the people did and where they went.

           Communism brought religious control. Christians relied heavily on their deep spiritual faith, Ying Moua said, and their knowledge of God’s love to get them through the fighting and the tough times.

           Christianity had reached their family when a missionary gave Ying Moua’s grandfather a Bible. He kept it with him for years, questioning the traditional Hmong spirit religion.  He kept the Bible under his pillow, where his sons found and read it after he died. “My grandfather had told his sons, ‘you are going to be Christian someday,’” Ying Moua said.

           The sons, including Ying Moua’s father, were overjoyed to find ideas such as hospitality, kindness, and love in the Bible that were not present in their traditional faith. Many in his family converted to Christianity.

           So, not only did the family face persecution for helping the Americans, they also were in danger because of their Christian faith. After much prayer, Ying Moua’s father decided for the family to escape from Laos.

           Braving the hot, dangerous jungle without food, they made their way to the capital, praying and putting their faith in God. Traveling across country without a government pass was illegal, so they pretended to be moving to a distant village to start a new farm. They made the dangerous journey across the border to Thailand through areas filled with soldiers and landmines. Unlike most Hmong families that made this journey, their immediate family didn’t suffer any losses.

         “Almost every Hmong family has a tragic story from that time because so many people died in the jungle,” Ying Moua said. One young cousin was walking through the jungle when a mine exploded in front of her. Though she seemed all right at the time, she never woke up the next morning.

  “In the jungle there was no way to arrange a burial; they just had to leave her there and move on,” Ying Moua said.

           The relief at having reached Thailand was marred by the terrible conditions in the refugee camps: high fences, no sanitation, and very little water and food. Some refugees became overwhelmed by the fear of dying and lost their faith. However, Ying Moua trusted that whatever God’s plan was would be what would happen, even if it was death.

 “If you have strong religion, you know that this is what God has in his plan and you are more prepared for these hardships,” Ying Moua said.

After a year in Thailand, the family finally was able to come to Spokane, Wash. Since the parents didn’t speak English, the children had to find jobs to support the family. Eventually, Ying Moua graduated from Eastern Washington University. He met his wife Shouamee Yang in Seattle and they have had four children: twin girls, Melody and Jasmine, then boys Emmanuel and of course Christopher.

           Ying Moua wants to hold on to his Hmong culture, but he hopes that his children will take the best from Hmong culture and the best from American culture and be the best people that they can be. Ying Moua also is relieved his children will grow up in what he calls a “Christian country,” where they can practice the Hmong traditions of hospitality, modesty, living simply, and kindness, traditions that go hand-in-hand with Christian faith, and where possessions are not as important as faith in God.

“It will be very hard to teach them. I teach them as much as I can, but telling them is like telling them a story. They don’t understand you and you can’t show them; they will never experience what we experienced,” Ying Moua said.

As Christopher grows up, he will probably, like his siblings, speak more English than Hmong. Though it is impossible to say what Christopher will chose to carry with him from his culture, Ying Moua hopes he will be influenced by his parents and their devotion to their faith.

    “We are a small people, trying to get educated, trying to grow,” Ying Moua said.