Lue Yang is a Hmong success story. He earns $11 an hour at a local lumber mill, owns a house littered with Fisher-Price toys and surrounded by a perfectly clipped lawn, and is a respected member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.
Only five years ago, Yang, 31, was a soldier in the defeated army of Hmong guerrillas, fleeing for his life to a refugee camp in Thailand. Yang, the son of a farmer who tilled his land with water buffalo, had enlisted at 17. t
"It was a bad time," he remembers now "We fought and fought. We were in the jungle for five or six months at a time without changing clothes. We would go without food for a week."
In those days, when the Central Intelligence Agency supplied the Hmong with rice to eat and weapons to fight the North Vietnamese, "We thought Americans were our friends," Yang said. "Now I don't know if that was true. We are asking ourselves why the war started."
Unlike the vast majority of Hmong, Yang was graduated from high school in his native town of Xiengkhouangville, and already spoke a little English when he arrived in the United States in June, 1976 sponsored by a Catholic Church in Boise, Idaho.
But his wife and child did not. They were frightened by the strange ways of America. "I had to go to the market. I had to cook. I had to solve every little problem. Nobody helped. It was very hard," Yang said.
When he could not find work in Boise, he began calling around the country to all the Hmong he knew. After two months, he heard of a job in Greenfield, Ind. He moved his family, worked there six months and was layed off.
Again, he called around, finally settling in Missoula. Today his is one of 12 out of 100 Hmong families here who did not receive welfare or food stamps. His wife works too, as a nurses's aide, and has given birth to two more children.
Still, it is a life close to the margins. Yang's two sisters live here with their families. All are on welfare; all speak little English. A few months ago, Yang sent $1,500 to Thailand to pay a man who swam across the Mekong River at night to fetch Yang's 66-year-old father, tying him under a bamboo raft to conceal him from communist soldiers.
Yang's six-bedroom house is full with his own three children and three teen-agers he has sponsored from refugee camps, one of them the son of a brother who died in the war.
At first, Americans were friendly, Yang said. But lately his family has been upset by hostile incidents. A robber entered his sister's house one night, threw all the furniture around and shouted obscenities while the family cowered in the kitchen. Yang's nephew was punched while returning from school.The victory garden his wife had cultivated in a plot with 20 other Hmong families, was destroyed by vandals.
Lue Yang picks and chooses when it comes to being American. He's given up Buddhism for Christianity, but he says he'll never send his father to a nursing home, a practice the Hmong abhor.
He says, "We would like to say we are the new Americans. Whether we want to be or not, we have to slowly adjust ourselves. A fish to go stay with a cat is impossible. A fish to go with a cat has to learn how the cat does."