In the malaria-infested refugee camps of Southeast Asia, they talk of a place in the western United States where the mountains are cool and forested, much like the highlands of northern Laos.

They call it "Hmongtana," and it is here, in this remote section of America, that hundreds of Hmong, a tribe of Laotian warriors, are choosing to begin a new life, halfway across the globe and several centuries away from home.

But for the Vietnam war, Americans might still think of the Hmong only as visions from the pages of National Geographic, dressed in embroidered black gowns and silver jewelry, cultivating rice and opium poppies in the jungle and warding off evil spirits with animal sacrifices.

Derisively called "Meo" (barbarians) by other Asians, Hmong guerrillas were recruited into a 30,000-man secret army by the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1960s. Since a pro-communist government took Laos in 1975, a savage extermination campaign has forced 90,000 Hmong to flee to Thailand.

So far, 35,000 of these mountain tribesmen have resettled in the United States, a new and perplexing ingredient for the melting pot. This nation, which has nonchalantly opened its doors to Kurds and Koreans, Lithuanians and Ethiopians, Cubans and Cape Verdeans, is welcoming a people who, for the most part, have never ridden in a car, attended school, shopped at a store, applied for a job or switched on an electric light.

The culture shock is on both sides.

Cindy Coleman of the Indochina Refugee Action Center held a special orientation session to persuade Philadelphia Hmong not to shoot city pigeons with their crossbows. One American landlord was stunned to find all the porcelain missing from the bathtub in a Hmong apartment. The women were beating their clothes clean with rocks.

In a Montana trailer park, residents complained when Hmong women sat topless on their porches.

For the Hmong, this new world of freeways and food stamps, checkbooks and birth control pills, is bewildering. "This is like Disneyland to them," said Pam Roberts, a Missoula-based International Rescue Committee official. "It's like us going to Mars and starting over again."

In 1975, the CIA relocated Gen. Vang Pao, head of the Hmong army, in Montana: it was isolated and it reminded him of his homeland. Since then more than 600 of his followers have settled here -- a small fraction of the Hmong who are scattered from Santa Ana to Arlington, but a disproportionate number for a rural community.

Missoula has hardly seen an Asian since Chinese laborers built the Northern Pacific Railroad here in the 1880s.

In a modest white farmhouse off a dirt road 30 miles south of town, "V.P." as the general is known, lives with his 88-year-old mother, 16 of his 26 children, and four of his six wifes. (At the insistence of the U.S. government, he technically divorced five wives, but four remain part of his household.)

On a sunny day last week, V.P. and three wives had left for California, but Vang Chong, his 25-year-old son, and Xia Thoa -- whom Chong called the "official wife" -- showed a visitor around the 430-acre farm, planted in green waves of barley.

While V.P's family may be somewhat Americanized -- Chong attended West Point -- assimilation is a schizophrenic process. A Suzuki motorcycle sits on the back porch. Ronald Reagan's face beams from a color television screen. The Bee Gees blare from a cassette player.

But the living room wall is decorated with a picture of a Laotian temple and two Hmong musical instruments. Xia Thao, dressed in a long Laotian skirt and speaking no English, seems to lead a life little changed. "In summer I work in the vegetable garden, in winter I sew blankets," she said, as her son translated.

Five miles down the road, Pao Lee, 21, a former guerrilla, has rented a rickety little house in Hamilton, a logging and ranching town of 2,500 people. He and 50 other Hmong spend five days a week learning carpentry at a job training program out of town.

While he is gone, his mother, a sister, two brothers, several cousins, his eight-months pregnant wife and his 16-month daughter survive on welfare checks. English classes, held for an hour a day in Hamilton during the winter, have folded for lack of funds.

May Xiong, the 63-year-old mother, is missing four front teeth. She is incongruously dressed in a pink polkadot jacket and blue rubber thongs, but there is a proud beauty about her: high cheekbones, shoulder-length black hair, smooth toffee-colored skin and an unblinking gaze.

Through an interpreter, she tells of raising chickens and tilling an acre of opium poppies in the Laotian mountains. Her husband, three sons and seven daughters died of disease. Four children survive -- three in Missoula.

Everything is fine here, May Xiong says, but she misses a son who lives in France. She wishes she had a car to visit other relatives. Life is, on balance, no better here than in Laos, she said. There she worked to raise food.Here she gets welfare.

Pao Lee's wife, Tru Vang, 25, sits nearby in a long Laotian skirt, her toenails painted pink, munching Halloween corn candy. With a band of hostile soldiers chasing behind, Tru walked three days and three nights and crossed the swift Mekong River on a makeshift raft to reach Thailand. She was seven months pregnant with her first child, weak with fever and terrified.

In Laos, Tru had never attended school -- the Hmong had no written language until missionaires invented one in the 1950s. Now she can write her own name, but she knows only a handful of English words.

Today Tru has a refrigerator, a stove and a telephone -- luxuries unheard of in Laos. But she is homesick for her village, and for relatives left behind. In the nine months since she arrived, she has yet to meet her neighbors.

"Maybe it is because I am not white," she said shyly. "We are yellow-skinned. We are different."

Next door, one of those neighbors, Travis Goodson, an unemployed truck driver, is mowing his lawn. "I have no objections to their being there," he said. "They're human like you and I. They just look a little different, that's all."

Except for a corps of 50 volunteer tutors in Missoula, Montanans have mostly ignored the Hmong. But in the last few months of recession and unemployment a rash of hostile incidents has taken refugees by surprise.

A 19-year-old Hmong playing tennis at Corvallis High School was shot at with a .22-caliber rifle by two whites in a pickup truck. The youth escaped on his bicycle.

Another Hmong was badly beaten by a group of Americans near a Missoula shopping center. Refugee children have been hit by rocks while walking home from school. Hmong homes have been ransacked.

Trying to clear up misunderstandings, the local newspaper, the Missoulian, editorialized a few weeks ago: "The three Hmong driving sportscars all have been employed at good jobs. No welfare or other government money paid for the cars. They are financing them and maintaining the cars with their own sweat. It's as American as apple pie."

The violence has caused morale among the refugees to plummet. "Everyone seems to be alert most of the time -- not really comfortable," says Mua Cha, head of a local self-help group. "Life is unstabilized."

But the Hmong, who have outlived persecution by the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the Lao, are tough survivors.

In Betsy Williams' daily English class, in Missoula, 13 Hmong women dressed in polyester pants and patterned shirts sit before a blackboard surrounded by Mother Goose illustrations, "What's your occ-u-pa-tions?" Williams asks each of the women.

"i'm a cooking," one replies. "Cook," Williams corrects. The others giggle.

The class in Missoula's vocational high school has been going for a year. "It's like teaching first grade, except your students can't speak English," Williams said. "The Hmong are highly motivated. They are very eager but most have never held a pencil before.

"They are used to living in the hills. One man came in wearing a bright pink plastic headband. They can't tell the difference between men's and women's clothes. We had to get an interpreter to explain that spitting in the halls was not acceptable. As soon as you tell them they are very grateful. They want desperately to belong."

Belonging, however, does not mean giving up Hmong customs. One Hmong father removed his typhoid-stricken three-year-old from a Missoula hospital to perform an exorcism ceremony. A rooster was made to walk over the child's swollen belly, the father later told a nurse. The child, who continued taking American medicine, recovered soon afterward.

Mua Cha, who attended the University of Montana, says 95 percent of the Hmong -- including himself -- believe in the spirits of their animist religion. "But we are afraid if we sacrifice a pig the Health Department will come and say we can't eat it," he says.

Some technological innovations are embraced with perhaps too much enthusiasm. Hmong mothers here, influenced by television and free formula distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are refusing to breast feed their babies, despite the efforts of Missoula public health nurses to convince them breast milk is healthier.

American refugee officials, used to dealing with the more educated Vietnamese, are somewhat baffled by the Hmong. "The techniques for teaching English to Vietnamese who have Ph.D.s from the Sorbonne won't work with a group of pre-literate people," Coleman of the Indochina Refugee Action Center, said. "Our training programs are crazy. We're teaching farmers to typeset, and repair air conditioners. It's culturally inappropriate."

U.S. officials complain that the Hmong follow tribal leaders' orders to turn down low-paying jobs and remain on welfare while they learn English. Large groups of Hmong also migrate in sudden response to tribal dictates, seeking better jobs and social programs.

"One weekend all the Hmong thundered out of Texas and moved to Kansas City, leaving their refugee workers perplexed," said Nan Borton, national coordinator of the International Rescue Committee. "There's a feeling that we don't have any control over what the Hmong are doing."

The culture clash leaves Americans alternately bemused, furious, delighted and wondering who is really doing the assimilating. "One thing is clear," Coleman said. "The Hmong want to be Hmong."