Kuxeng Yongchu sits amid piles of empty soft-drink cans in the back room at Mack's Market, sole proprietor of all he sees. The sight does not please him.
The cans and the particle-board desk, the rows of chips and soap on the shelves and video games by the front window are all his, along with the rest of the small grocery store here, his home for the last five years. In that time, he has settled into an American life dictated by economic necessity.
"Well, to be very frank with you," he says, "I don't like what I'm doing. I think I can be more useful. I can be beneficial to the people if I can have the opportunity to serve them in public life.
"This is the sad part. We are the people who used to discuss the national issues. Now we deal with paychecks, clothes. How far down we have been shot."
Seventeen hours a day, seven days a week, Yongchu sits or stands in his corner market with video games ringing in his ears and the cash register ringing hardly at all. "Somewhere," he says, "it will pay off. But the more memories you have, the harder it is."
Yongchu's memories are reflected in the flag decal on his desk--silver elephants on a field of red, the flag of the former kingdom of Laos. He lived there for more than two-thirds of his 30 years, a member of the Kue clan of the Hmong tribe. He was a man of high, dry mountains, and now he is stuck in the lowland winter mud.
December soaks into the system here, a persistent torture of water and wind, causing many of Yongchu's people--those who have not already left for California--to wear most, if not all, of the clothes they own all at once.
Yongchu is a member of Oregon's dwindling Hmong community. An estimated 3,000 of the 4,000 Hmong who lived here as recently as a year ago have gone. Leaving has become one thing the Hmong do especially well. They seem to have become perpetually homeless.
"We really don't want to move," Yongchu says. "Historically, the Hmong have not wanted to keep moving, but we simply cannot cope without help. The shuffling around, it won't be forever. The Hmong will settle in one place.
"The Hmong would be very happy to have a reservation, like the Indians. That would be fine, but we don't demand that. I think the Hmong will settle in one place, and that place we will call a Hmong hometown. That will happen sooner or later. When the refugee system is gone, then the Hmong go together."
"The Hmong feel, when I die I need a Hmong to see me. I don't want to die alone. If we're hungry, we'll all be hungry together."
The move from Oregon was precipitated last spring by a cut in federal benefits not replaced by state funds. California did replace the funds, so many Hmong went south.
The Hmong arrived here in the mid- to late-1970s a part of the general exodus from Southeast Asia during the conflict there. The Hmong had allied themselves with the United States in the secret war in Laos against the Pathet Lao and, when the war was lost, so were the Hmong. They fled, first to refugee camps in Thailand where many of them remain.
An estimated 50,000 Hmong eventually reached this country before a combination of immigration restrictions and personal preference stopped the flow. Most of them settled in Oregon, Washington, Montana and in California, where more than half now live.
Yongchu came to Oregon with a wife and two children--there are now three--in 1978, three years after leaving Laos. Half of the interim was spent in Texas, half in Thai camps. As one of the relatively few who received a formal education in Laos, he has been a leader of the Hmong in Oregon.
His tribe, primarily agriculturalists, was pre-literate until recently. Education was a rarity. Yongchu, though, was chosen for a university education as the Hmong were pulled from their mountains into national affairs by the war.
Because of that background, he had a head start here and, like most Hmong still in Oregon, he has work. But for Yongchu, ambivalence abounds.
The store, he says, is "like a price sticker," a fee that must be paid before anything else can be done.
"I think we have to build three things," he says. "One, especially in this society, is financial stability. Second is education, strength and knowledge. Then the last factor is strong unity and leadership."
Yongchu said he is glad he came to Oregon, glad that "in the past six years I feel I have learned more than in my lifetime." But freedom means hardship sometimes, he says.
"We're free, but we're not free to do all that we want. We have to struggle to survive. For me, I need to put food on the table. This takes all of my time.
"My worry for the younger generation is that the economic pressure will push a lot of people to forget. They will have no time to study about the Hmong," he says.
Yongchu says his children speak their native tongue only brokenly and can hardly talk with his mother-in-law, who speaks no English. They ask not about the past, but about the future, he says. He says he thinks the Hmong will maintain their cultural identity, in part because of a bond of common experience, a sense of their shared struggle.
"Everything is going well in this country, that's not all. You have to have strong political leaders to build a strong community. Politically, we are lost," he says, adding that the political leadership he wants must come from the Hmong themselves, not from outside. "For us, we need nobody to save our culture if we cannot save it ourselves."
The differences between the Hmong and the rest of America are as much cultural as ethnic, the culture of the country and of the city.
The Hmong, in their old world, in southern China and in the high hills of Laos and Vietnam, were sustained by their ability to move. There was always another mountain. But here, the climbing could end.
"I know that I can never be as good as my kids in this society," Yongchu says. "But we are not here just to enjoy life; we are here to build the community. This country will be the country of our kids."