What was it like for first-generation Mien immigrants when they settled in the United States?
It must have been extremely difficult, a massive culture shock to say the least. For starters, the great majority of Mien families came to the United States of America with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs—and maybe a few items of value like pieces of ornamental silver.
One must consider that immigrants from Laos, whether they may be of Lao, Mien, or Hmong ethnicity came from a largely premodern society. Sure, Laos in the 20th century did see some modernization efforts by the ruling French Indochinese government, but it was limited to the capital city of Vientiane and a few other cities in the country. The rest of the country was mostly reliant on an agricultural economy, and many of its farmers—especially in the highlands—were subsistence farmers. This meant that there was little wealth that could have been accumulated. Thus, when thousands of emmigrants left the country after the Secret War in the late 70s, they weren’t bringing with them much of anything.
Fortunately for the first wave of Mien immigrants, there were refugee assistance programs and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that helped facilitate the early stages of transition. For example, my family, like many others in the early 80s, were assigned a host-family to help us with a plethora of things as we settled first in Oregon. This included securing housing, finding employment wherever it was available, enrolling children into schools, education, and so forth. Such assistance to Mien immigrants was pivotal in providing some level of normalcy.
However, it was not long before Mien families were left to steer their own courses. By the early 80s, Mien-American communities were pretty much left to their own devices in cities as far north as Seattle, Washington, and as far south as Visalia, California.
Imagine you’re in this new country with no money. What would you do?
For virtually all Mien families, at least housing was not the worst issue. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the first wave of Mien families lived in expensive condos or owned decadent glass houses next to beaches. Hardly. But what I am saying is that there just weren’t many homeless Mien persons rumbling through the streets of the USA.
Mien folks were like other ethnic minority groups in the US getting by. We did what we had to do to secure housing, even if that meant cramming everyone into a small apartment or rented house. If you ask any Mien person that grew up in the early 80s, chances are high that they once lived in such a setting.
Regarding employment, the 80s were supposed to be a time of less government, lower taxes, and unbridled prosperity. The president at the time, Ronald W. Reagan had employed the Economy Recovery Tax Act of 1981, ushering in an era of conservative economic policies. Reagan promised that he would “make America great again.” It’s true, he actually said it way before President Trump ever put it on a bright red hat. In many ways, he succeeded. There was an expansion of economic growth during his two terms and most economists would agree that he added over ten million jobs.
However, one issue that many had with Reagan’s economic policies was that it also included massive cuts for social services. Anyone or any families that relied on state welfare programs were held to low funding levels. This logically had an effect on the thousands of Mien immigrants, especially older folks, that could not find employment. To be clear, it wasn’t that Mien folks weren’t trying to find work; language barriers, lack of networks, and unfamiliarity with the job market made it difficult for Mien immigrants to compete for openings.
There is much more to how Reagan’s policies affected minorities, especially African American communities in the country’s most dense urban centers. But that is for another day. The main point is that such was the economic environment at the time for Mien immigrants as they first arrived in the US.
How did Mien students manage in school?
In the media, Asian-Americans are often portrayed as fervent supporters of education. Tiger Parents are believed to push their children beyond limits to do well in school. While that may be true for some groups, it was not necessarily true for most Mien families.
As I have mentioned, Mien immigrants arrived in the US with virtually no money, and poverty was rampant in Mien-American communities. It was more practical for members of the family to earn income and not pursue higher education. In many instances, younger Mien-Americans felt obligated to help the family financially in any way they could.
In addition, Mien students often found themselves without much help at school. While there were some qualified Mien bilingual aides employed by school districts, they were far and few. If you grew up in the US in the early 80s, you probably know what I’m talking about. This was because prior to the late 70s, there weren’t any Mien immigrants in the States.
Unlike other Asian groups that had been in the country for a longer period, there wasn’t an infrastructure to facilitate English Language Learners of Mien descent. This was not as prevalent with younger children that started school in the US at early age, but it was a real problem for older students in middle school and high school. Imagine sitting in a school and not understanding what the teacher was saying and having no one to help you interpret.
At home, Mien students couldn’t rely on their parents for help. It’s not that parents didn’t want to help their kids. It’s just that back in the old country, formal education was very rare in the villages and where Mien populations may be found. Hence, parents not only lacked the educational background to help, but they also didn’t understand how educational institutions worked. This of course did not mean that parents didn’t push their children to do well in school and enter college. They just didn’t push them with the same ferocity as say...Tiger Parents.
What to do about Asian street gangs?
Perhaps one of the major issues that the first wave of Mien immigrants faced was the problem of street gangs. To be sure, much of the street gang activity in Mien-American communities was at its height in the 90s, but it was in the 80s that the seeds were planted. And it had a huge impact on the lives of many young Mien-Americans.
If you recall, the 80s and 90s saw a rise in gang culture, not only in urban settings but also in smaller towns across many parts of the US. You probably remember how the country was gripped with gangster rap on the airwaves and MTV. Up and down the West Coast, Mien-American communities witnessed the evolution of Mien street gangs. Some notable Mien street gangs you might have heard of include the Saebro Mafia, Sacramento Bad Boys, Sons of Death, and the Oakland Mien Crip.
For some, joining a gang was merely something fun to do, like participating in a popular trend. Others might have joined to find a sense of belonging or because of peer pressure. Either way, there were real consequences for many gang members that eventually found themselves in jail or killed. In many ways, it was an assault on the potential of many young Mien-Americans, ripping away their employment and educational opportunities.
Fortunately, for Mien street gangs it was never a generational thing. Gang members weren’t necessarily passing down the lifestyle to their children. Thus, as street gang activity began to wane in the early 2000s, Mien gangs virtually disappeared. But there was no doubt that a significant amount of damage had been done.
Passing the storm with grit and the village work ethic
If you were born in a village in Laos or Thailand or have visited villages in the motherland, you would understand first-hand that we come from a strong work ethic. We hail from a people that know what it takes to survive on the mountain. It’s the kind of determination that says no matter the circumstances, the unfortunate events, natural or unnatural, we can find a way to get out of it.
Even in the face of multiple challenges, we persevered and made it through the 80s. If we had to cram everyone into a small apartment or house, we did it. If we had to take on the most menial jobs, we took them and did not complain. And as difficult as it was for many Mien students in school, they still found ways to learn English and educate themselves as much as possible. It was not a coincidence that once Mien students developed basic English literacy, they usually did well.
So how did we make it through during the turbulent times? We did it in the same way that we did on the rugged mountains of Southern China and Southeast Asia. We did it with grit and the village work ethic.