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Crossing Cultures


Fri, Mar 23rd, 2001
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Monday, March 19, 2001

It's a bone chilling November evening in 1979. Members of Sheie and Garness Lutheran Churches of rural Mabel wait in the LaCrosse airport for a family coming across the Mekong River, Laotian mountains and centuries of cultural territory. The two churches are sponsoring a Hmong family to leave their refugee camp in Laos and come to live in the United States. After learning about the Hmong history and their present distress, many churches across our country are doing the same.

The Hmong are an ancient people who migrated from South-central Eurasia into China thousands of years ago and into Laos during the 19th century. In the 1960's, the U.S. government recruited Hmong men to rescue American pilots shot down over North Vietnam. Approximately one hundred Hmong died for every pilot they saved. When the United States withdrew >from the Vietnam War in 1975, it withdrew support for its Hmong allies, many of whom sought refuge in neutral Thailand. To get to Thailand, they had to cross the Mekong River. About 50,000 people made it across. About 50,000 died trying.

Chou Vang, his wife Xia, their young daughter Ahzoua and Grandmother Mia are among the lucky ones who made it safely into Laos, but not without the loss of two sons. These are the people we are waiting for in the LaCrosse airport. Suddenly they are standing in front of us, four real people, not just names on paper. Our guests look tired and bewildered. We welcome them as best we can, then Pastor Jay drives them back to Mabel and the house we have prepared for them, a house filled with donations of furniture, bedding, kitchen utensils and food.

We hope we can make this family feel at home here. The culture they left is so different from ours. They are accustomed to living in extended families or clans. Everyone plays an important role. They are blacksmiths, jewelers, wood-workers, weavers, seamstresses, hunters, herbal doctors and shamans. They are animists; for them, natural phenomena and objects, such as houses, rocks, and the wind are alive and have spirits. They record their history in patterns of the "Pandau," or brightly colored fibers woven into ceremonial cloth.

They are not accustomed to our modern conveniences. They do not know our language. One of our most important tasks is to teach our guests English. It is my job to coordinate their language teaching program. In preparation, I have studied English teaching techniques and learned something about the Hmong language, a tonal language in which any small error of enunciation may completely change a meaning. This will become obvious when my effort to learn Hmong phrases sends my students into fits of laughter.

A few days after their arrival, I timidly knock on the Vang's kitchen door. Xia answers the door with more dignity than I can summon for myself. Ahzoua stands behind Xia and Grandmother Mia sits in a rocking chair in the next room. Chou is already at his janitorial job.

Pointing to my books and myself I say, "My name is Nancy. I will teach you English." Xia nods and offers me a seat at their kitchen table. Mia nods from the living room. I soon realize she has no intention of learning English.

As time goes by, my students make good progress. One day, Ahzoua and Xia begin talking in their own language. They look at me and giggle. Xia leaves the room and returns with a bundle of clothes. Soon, they have dressed me in a Hmong ceremonial costume. A glance in the mirror tells me how incongruous I look wearing the clothes of the small, delicate, dark-skinned Hmong. We laugh and snap a picture. I consider this occurrence an honor.

Spring comes. We make plans for the future, then learn the Vang's are moving to St. Paul where they have relatives. They will now be part of an internal migration as separated families seek to regroup within this country.

Before they leave, our friends honor us with a Hmong feast. The people of Scheie and Garness Churches crowd into the Vang's backyard. Long tables hold mountains of food. We eat food we've never eaten before. The mountains disappear. We have done a good deed, I think, in sponsoring the Vang's, but they have given to us as well; they have stretched our boundaries and taught us how to care for each other more.

Saying good-by is hard. I shake Chou's hand and hug Ahzoua and Mia. By the time I reach Xia, we are both crying. I will never forget this courageous woman and her indomitable spirit. I will never forget our friendship.

Nancy Overcott

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