Five youths caught between cultures

St. Paul Pioneer Press © April 9, 2000

Johnson High School’s counseling office is painted with possibility. A “Career Choices’’ poster lays out the path to a bright future: self- awareness, investigating opportunities and creating a plan. A booklet called “Future Choices’’ reminds students “You make the choices for your own future.’’

Va Yang has come through this office several times, not to investigate opportunities or to create a plan, but simply to hang on to high school. Of the five Hmong in the Pioneer Press Class of 2000, only Va has a solid chance of graduating with his class.

Blong Vang, Cheng Moua and Tracy Lee were once Johnson students. Now, Blong takes classes at an alternative learning center and Cheng meanders toward a general equivalency degree. Tracy works full time and provides for a husband and son, having dropped out halfway through her sophomore year, when she became the first and only member of the 26-person Class of 2000 to have a baby. Betty Xiong, a senior at Como High School, also is married, and she’s missed so many classes over the past two years that graduating on time is a remote possibility.

Blong declined to speak for this story, telling an adult at his alternative school he’s ashamed about his situation and too embarrassed to represent Hmong youth.

Most Hmong teen-agers aren’t struggling like this. A Hmong girl was Johnson High’s valedictorian last year, and three-quarters of the Asian freshmen in St. Paul’s high schools go on to graduate on time — the same percentage as the district’s white students. But school officials and Hmong leaders say the circumstances, experiences and outlooks of these five teens aren’t unique among Hmong of this age and time.

The Class of 2000 Hmong are the first generation of their families born in the United States. They’re in families with six, seven, eight or more children, and all started life here in St. Paul’s McDonough housing project.

Their parents, who arrived in the mid-1970s with the first wave of Hmong immigration, grew up in Laos without education and only speak only Hmong. Most can’t read or write any language, and they’ve never connected intellectually or emotionally with the everyday lives of children growing up in America.

Each of these five is bright and intellectually capable, but none has developed an appreciation for learning, interests in student life or the discipline to succeed with academics. The concept of choice — independent thought and decision-making — is foreign and elusive. Several others in the Class of 2000 aren’t exploring their options, either, but for them it’s a more conscious avoidance. For these five Hmong, choice is a cultural enigma.

They’re neither dreamers nor realists. None is driven to be or to do anything specific. In Laos, men were primarily farmers; women were wives and mothers. Here, these five are more resigned — even comfortable — in letting other family members or sheer happenstance dictate the courses of their lives.

Ask these 18-year-olds what they want for their adult lives and they’ll mutter broad, tentative answers:

“To make a lot of money.’’

“To be happy.’’

“I’m not sure.’’

Ask what makes them unique, and each seems puzzled with the question. They come up with nothing. They have little sense of who they are as individuals or their places in the world.

Boys floating without focus

Va Yang has just come home from school, removed his shoes and plunked himself on the couch. It’s a cool, sunny afternoon, but you’d never know it from inside the Yangs’ apartment, just a door down from the Mouas in the McDonough complex, along an Interstate 35E frontage road in St. Paul’s North End.

A few inches of light slice through the living room’s dark, flower-patterned curtains, and Va’s watching a Chinese martial arts movie on the family’s DVD player and 31-inch screen. It’s not uncommon for Va to drain away entire afternoons and evenings like this, indoors, watching movies or playing on one of the four video game systems in the house, until going to sleep around midnight or later.

Va is short and stocky, with kind, rounded features and a soft voice. He rarely spends time with anyone outside his immediate family and cousins. Photos of parents and grandparents adorn the apartment’s thin white walls and the thumb-sized leaves of a bronze family tree, standing in the entertainment center.

Pieces of red cloth, cut into the shape of a dancing human figure, are taped above every upstairs bedroom. Va says they’re meant to ward off bad spirits, but he doesn’t know or embrace the deeper meanings of this and other Hmong customs. He’s heard about the generations of hardship in Laos and the Vietnam War that changed everything for all Hmong, but they seem like stories, and he can’t connect them to his life.

“My dad wants us to know about all these things that are part of our culture, but I don’t know anyone my age who cares anything about the religion,’’ he says. “They just want to be American.’’

Va missed two or three days of classes almost every week during his junior year, often sleeping through the first bell. A counselor told him he had no room left for absences if he hoped to graduate on time, and an older brother talked him into buckling down to earn a diploma and go to college. Now he’s on track to graduate and thinking of applying for his first job. In the fall, he might take computer classes at NEI College of Technology in Columbia Heights.

“I try to figure out what I’m interested in, what my future will be like,’’ he says. “I just let life see where it takes me.’’

Cheng Moua has much the same view, but he’s far more vulnerable to outside influence and distraction. He’s bone-thin and fun-loving, a follower who always tunes his radar for action.

One brother is in prison for murder and a younger brother is already on the police blotter. His oldest brother, Mike, is a Hmong civic leader here who has tried keeping Cheng on a straight path, but Cheng has spent too much time with the wrong people and failed to find any positive motivation. He dropped out of school this past November.

He and some friends whittled away would-be class time playing pool, bowling or just hanging out at someone’s house. They’d pass some afternoons at a movie theater, but Cheng didn’t have the money to keep that up, so he’d often just sit at home and gaze at the television.

Cheng tried alternative schooling, but when he learned there was no hope of graduating on time — too many absences over the previous three years — Mike suggested he simply get his G.E.D. But he only attends the HUB Learning Center a couple hours here, a couple hours there, whenever nothing more fun comes around to distract him. He could take the G.E.D. test any time, but he’s in no hurry.

Cheng spends most days now clerking for a book distributor. Some nights, he and his friends go to a dance club popular with Hmong youth, and Cheng might not come home through an entire weekend. His brothers have suggested he go into computers, but Cheng is thinking of trade school, studying auto mechanics and someday opening a repair shop with some friends.

“It’s just the lectures I get from my brother, from everybody — go to class, get good grades. I feel like I kinda let them down,’’ Cheng says. “I don’t know why I didn’t go. I don’t even remember what I did when I ditched. I guess I just wanted to have fun, but it just gets boring. A diploma looks better than a G.E.D., but I don’t want to be in school another couple of years to get it.’’

Parental disconnection

Fue Heu, associate director of St. Paul’s Hmong-American Partnership, sees similar struggles in many Hmong teen-agers, but attributes these to normal challenges and circumstances of the immigrant experience.

“For you, it was your great- great-great grandparents who lacked education and skills. For us, it’s our parents,’’ Heu says. “We live in the same time frame, but we have two realities.’’

For now, Heu says, the most successful Hmong are transplants who remember the hardships of their homeland and are young enough to take advantage of educational opportunities here. The challenges are more acute for American-born Hmong.

“They only hear about where their parents came from, but it means nothing to them,’’ he says. “They need to value that history and appreciate where they come from, to give them a sense of who they are so that they’re not lost.’’

At the same time, Hmong youth receive little practical support from parents who’ve struggled to adjust their own lives and livelihoods to American cultural and social norms. Acceptable methods of discipline back home could bring child protection caseworkers to their homes here.

In his new book, “Mongcq Education at the Crossroads’’ (University Press of America), Paoze Thao says many Laotian and Thai immigrants entrust schools to shape their children’s behavior and morality, as well as their educations, as teachers did back home. When their children rebel here, many Hmong parents are loath to bring their concerns to educators, Thao says, for fear of offending them. As it is, these five teens have looked more to older siblings than to parents as models of palatable assimilation.

Cheng is the oldest of five children still at home, and his mother long ago gave up the struggle to reign him in. She’s got her hands full with 14-year-old Stanley, who’s been arrested for assault and auto theft, and three younger children who seem smart, happy and, for now, trouble-free.

In Thailand, Cheng’s mother would have had to pay money she didn’t have to send her children to school, but says none of her 11 children would have struggled as some have in America.

“There are no gangs because there’s nothing to steal, and everybody gets along down there because you have to,’’ Shoua Vang, Cheng’s mother, says in words interpreted by Stanley. “I can’t trust Cheng to go to school. What do you do? What do you say with teen-agers? I talk, talk, talk, and they just don’t listen.’’

“I’m older now and I do what I want, and my mom doesn’t really know what to say to me,’’ Cheng says. “If we’d stayed in Thailand, things would be a lot different. I’d probably be a farm boy, working every day. Just from what I’ve seen in films, I can’t even imagine it. I would have been more in line, or I would get my ass kicked.’’

Little independence for girls

There are dozens and dozens of girls just like Betty Xiong in St. Paul’s high schools — quiet, unassuming and bound by culturally imposed marriages.

Betty and her boyfriend, Thai, dated for nine months before Thai told Betty’s mom they were having sex. In Hmong culture, girls are pressured to marry at the mere suspicion of a sexual relationship, or else bring shame to the family. With his revelation, Thai forced Betty’s hand into marriage.

These unions are rarely recorded in county documents, but they’re every bit as official in the Hmong community. A groom’s family pays the wife’s family a “bride price’’ often reaching $10,000 or more, so most brides move into the homes of their husbands’ families as indentured servants. They’re expected to cook, clean and fulfill other domestic demands from their in-laws, often leaving little room for homework or other self-needs.

Like many Hmong in such situations, Betty feels pressure to be a “good girl.’’ She left her husband this past Thanksgiving, but feared the separation would bring shame to her mother and brand herself as a “black widow’’ — nobody would want her again — so she returned.

On happy days, Betty’s makeup is subtle and pretty, her clothes crisp, bright and blue. The next day, her eyes might be blank with despair or swollen from a night of tears.

She regrets having sex “big time,’’ marrying too young and forfeiting her youth and freedom. She senses she has to start taking better care of her own needs, but wonders if whether she has the strength to persevere.

“I know I have to respect the traditions, but I don’t like it,’’ Betty says. “Everybody tells me to be patient, but I can’t be patient anymore. I want to be a good wife, but I don’t know how to be good. It seems everything I do is wrong. I get so mad and I cry too long. I don’t want to cry anymore.’’

She’s working part time at a Kmart through her school’s on-the- job training program, and thinking of attending Minneapolis Business College. Despite scores of absences over the past two years, she has passed Minnesota’s Basic Skills Test and could still graduate with her class.

Graduating was the last thing on Tracy Lee’s mind three years ago, when she married a boy named Yer and dropped out of Johnson High School halfway through her sophomore year. Her son, Bishop, turns 3 years old this June.

Only in America is Tracy a statistic of wayward youth. There’s no stigma of teen-age motherhood among Hmong, so long as the girls are also married, and motherhood has had at least one positive effect on Tracy.

While the four other Class of 2000 Hmong are in academic and cultural limbo, Tracy’s immediate responsibilities have motivated her to take relative control of her life. Her husband is unable or unwilling to hold a job, she says, so Tracy’s found steady work and secretarial training through a temporary employment agency.

Tracy doesn’t mind the financial load — Yer cares for Bishop during the day while she brings home close to $400 per week — and doing so has awakened her to everyday practicality. Tracy’s outlook stems largely from surrendering to reality.

She only deals in absolutes — she must earn money and raise a baby — and avoids the discomfort and self-doubt that can come with long-range plans. Her chief goal now is landing a permanent, full- time job with benefits. She doesn’t foresee returning to school.

“I was already off in my own little world, not thinking about school, not thinking about anything,’’ she says of her life before motherhood. “I wouldn’t be working if it wasn’t for Bishop. I’d probably still be depending on my parents. I didn’t really expect life to be like this, to be supporting my husband and my baby. Maybe I could have done a little better, but at my age, I’m fine.’’

Helen Ylonen, a guidance counselor at Johnson High School, wrote her master’s degree thesis on factors influencing Hmong girls to drop out of school. Until roughly 15 years ago, she found, most Hmong parents controlled every aspect of their daughters’ lives and futures, and high school often interfered with their plans. Today, even the most uneducated Hmong see the value of education, and in-laws allow married girls to stay in school so long as they continue living in their homes.

Johnson High and other schools have tailored home-study programs for new Hmong mothers, homebound by cultural rule. Working with nurses in their health centers, schools send teachers and assignments to the girls’ homes for up to six weeks.

Despite the efforts of schools, some married Hmong girls cave in to the unrelenting demands at home. Those with babies must resume cooking and cleaning chores as soon as they’re able, and many girls also work part time to supplement the family’s income. For some, school is an easy sacrifice. Tracy Lee had the option of home study, but she’d already mentally dropped out of school before giving birth.

“Some of the girls come into my office and say they don’t want to be Hmong anymore,’’ Ylonen says. “It breaks my heart, because these kids are so bright and they want to succeed, but they feel like their culture and customs are a burden.’’

Cultural intervention

“The big question is, `What can we do to help empower these kids to make decisions and take charge of their lives?’ ’’ says Fue Heu of the Hmong-American Partnership.

Some say the answer is focusing on literacy, both English and Hmong. None of the Class of 2000 Hmong read or write their parents’ language, and their grasp of English is functional but not strong enough to take on advanced material.

Anthony Lee last year tutored around 200 people, mostly youth, through his Hmong Language Institute in St. Paul. Lee’s own surveys have shown that few Hmong youth understand more than half of what their parents are saying. Strengthening their grasp of Hmong, Lee says, is a step toward bolstering English literacy.

“Most kids can’t even translate English to Hmong or Hmong to English, but the kids I teach say they feel happy they can finally communicate with their parents and understand their history,’’ Lee says. “If you know how important your own language is, you’ll appreciate English more. That’s when they can finally learn all they can about American culture and learn how to succeed in life here.’’

Educators also want to help Hmong youth understand and relate to a range of career choices. Many Hmong freshmen aspire to becoming lawyers, doctors or teachers — these professionals draw great respect — but these same youth rarely research options within those fields, Ylonen says, and often perceive them as beyond their means.

“I think it’ll be tough to get a good job,’’ Cheng Moua says. “I just don’t see many Asians at the high level that I see white people at, making thousands of dollars a week.’’

Johnson High School is among others offering courses designed to show students a range of opportunities within their specific fields of interest and teach them the necessary steps to pursue and achieve their goals. None of the Class of 2000 Hmong attended such a course.

Inspiring teens to take part in campus life is another key to student success, says Kay Arndt, Johnson’s principal. More Hmong have found connecting points in the past few years, she says, citing increased involvement with Johnson’s chess club and badminton teams and attendance at the prom. None of the Class of 2000 Hmong had anything to do with school beyond classes.

“All students do well when they attach to a school community,’’ Arndt says.

Hmong educated in America are now having children, and many of the conditions that hindered the Class of 2000 Hmong are dissolving with new generations. Fue Heu and others say these new parents will better relate and communicate with their children, understand and expect certain experiences and shed many of the fears, doubts and cultural barriers that separated them from their own parents.

Though neither of his parents finished school, Tracy Lee’s son, Bishop, in all likelihood won’t deal with the same circumstances that marked the cultural acclimation of his parents and grandparents.

“It’s going to take more than one generation, but sooner or later, the dominant culture will take over,’’ Heu says. “Children have to be strong enough to do what they have to do to be happy. But that’s also an American way of thinking, and that may not lead to happiness, either.’’