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The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir

4.2 35
by Kao Kalia Yang

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In the 70s and 80s, thousands of Hmong families made the journey from the war-torn jungles of Laos to the overcrowded refugee camps of Thailand and onward to the United States-all in search of a new place to call home. Decades later, their experiences remain largely unknown. Kao Kalia Yang was driven to tell her own family’s story after her grandmother's


In the 70s and 80s, thousands of Hmong families made the journey from the war-torn jungles of Laos to the overcrowded refugee camps of Thailand and onward to the United States-all in search of a new place to call home. Decades later, their experiences remain largely unknown. Kao Kalia Yang was driven to tell her own family’s story after her grandmother's death. The Latehomecomer is a tribute to that grandmother, a remarkable woman whose spirit held her family together through their imprisonment in Laos, their narrow escape into Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, their immigration to St. Paul when Yang was only six years old, and their transition to life in America. It is also an eloquent, firsthand account of a people who have worked hard to make their voices heard in their adopted homeland.

Editorial Reviews

California Bookwatch
“In many ways, these hardworking refugees followed the classic immigrant arc, with the adults working double jobs so the children could get an education and be a credit to the community. But the Hmong immigrants were also unique—coming from a non-Christian, rain forest culture, with no homeland to imagine returning to, with hardly anyone in America knowing anything about them. As Yang wryly notes, they studied the Vietnam War at school, without their lessons ever mentioning that the Hmong had been fighting for the Americans. Yang tells her family’s story with grace; she narrates their struggles, beautifully weaving in Hmong folklore and culture. By the end of this moving, unforgettable book, when Yang describes the death of her beloved grandmother, readers will delight at how intimately they have become part of this formerly strange culture.”
Publishers Weekly [starrred review]
“Yang recounts the harrowing journey of her family from Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand to the U.S. Eventually settling in St. Paul, Minnesota, their struggle was not over. Adapting to a new community that often did not understand nor want them was difficult. This difficulty was compounded by the fact that the Hmong, despite possessing a rich folkloric tradition, have no written language of their own. Determined to tell the story of both her family and her people, Yang intimately chronicles the immigrant experience from the Hmong perspective, providing a long-overdue contribution to the history and literature of ethnic America.”
Publishers Weekly

Yang, cofounder of the immigrant-services company Words Wanted, was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. Her grandmother had wanted to stay in the camp, to make it easier for her spirit to find its way back to her birthplace when she died, but people knew it would soon be liquidated. America looked promising, so Yang and her family, along with scores of other Hmong, left the jungles of Thailand to fly to California, then settle in St. Paul, Minn. In many ways, these hardworking refugees followed the classic immigrant arc, with the adults working double jobs so the children could get an education and be a credit to the community. But the Hmong immigrants were also unique-coming from a non-Christian, rain forest culture, with no homeland to imagine returning to, with hardly anyone in America knowing anything about them. As Yang wryly notes, they studied the Vietnam War at school, without their lessons ever mentioning that the Hmong had been fighting for the Americans. Yang tells her family's story with grace; she narrates their struggles, beautifully weaving in Hmong folklore and culture. By the end of this moving, unforgettable book, when Yang describes the death of her beloved grandmother, readers will delight at how intimately they have become part of this formerly strange culture. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Yang (cofounder, Words Wanted), of the Southeast Asian Hmong people, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. Her family was forced to flee the Pathet Lao, of Laos, who singled out the Hmong in retribution for their aiding the Americans during the Vietnam War. With no homeland to return to and not necessarily welcome in Thailand, Yang's family took the opportunity to come to the United States and make a new life. Through all the tumult, Yang's grandmother was a particularly loving influence, providing strength and the stories that molded Yang's identity as a Hmong woman as her family settled in St. Paul, MN. Unable to trust her "voice" in English, Yang struggled in school until an English teacher recognized her talent and encouraged her writing. She is indeed a natural storyteller. Yang chronicles her family's journey and draws the reader into the Hmong culture with the stories she shares along the way. Most powerfully rendered is her relationship with her grandmother. Highly recommended for both public libraries and academic libraries with Asia collections.
—Patti C. McCall

Kirkus Reviews
An uneven but inspiring memoir of the Hmong author's flight from post-Vietnam terror in Laos and Thailand to the United States. Expelled from China centuries ago, the Hmong people lived in the mountains of Laos, where the CIA recruited them during the Vietnam War. When the Americans left, the Hmong fled to the jungles as their vindictive former enemies hunted and slaughtered them relentlessly. A fortunate few-Yang's family included-escaped across the Mekong River into Thailand, after which, eventually, they found their way to America. The strongest parts of Yang's memoir deal with these early years, most occurring before her birth in 1980 in a Thai refugee camp. Delivering her was her paternal grandmother, who emerges as a figure of towering importance to the author. The survival of the family was nearly miraculous; flood, disease, poverty, hunger, violence and despair all threatened them continually. In 1987 they finally arrived in Minnesota, where they faced new struggles. During the ensuing 20 years, the parents worked ferociously, the children succeeded academically (the author graduated from Carleton College) and the American Dream, in many tangible ways, was realized. As such, it's unfortunate that the final two-thirds of the text is unbalanced and vitiated by cliche. The grandmother's illness, death and funeral consume nearly 40 pages, testing the resolve of even the most lachrymose reader. The freshness of the language-so evident in early chapters-grows ever more stale, and skeptics may roll their eyes at accounts of ghosts, witches and shamanic miracles. The prose needs serious tightening and burnishing, but Yang has performed an important service in bringing readers the storiesof a people whose history has been shamefully neglected.
From the Publisher

"Passionate and powerful, The Latehomecomer is a tale that highlights the universal pain of immigration, one of leaving home and adapting to new worlds."—The Culture Trip

Product Details

HighBridge Company
Publication date:
Edition description:
Unabridged; 10 hours
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

By Kao Kalia Yang
COFFEE HOUSE PRESS Copyright © 2008 Kao Kalia Yang
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56689-208-7


The world that they were living in could no longer hold them safe. It was 1975 and the Vietnam War, as the world knew it, was over. For the Hmong of Laos, for those who still lived in the mountains of Xieng Khuong, for my mother and my father, the American shield had been lifted.

The communist government that came to power in May of 1975, declared a death warrant against the Hmong who had helped the Americans in a war that would later be termed "The Secret War." On May 9, 1975 Khaosan Pathet Lao, the newspaper of the Lao People's Party, announced the agenda: "It is necessary to extirpate, down to the root, the Hmong minority."

The communist Pathet Lao soldiers and their North Vietnamese allies infiltrated Hmong villages and began a systematic campaign to kill off the Hmong who believed in the tenets of democracy and had fought against communist rule. While many of the 30,000 Hmong men and boys recruited by the CIA of the United States had been killed, the remnants of their fight remained, in the hearts and the homes of their wives and children, their mothers and fathers, their friends and neighbors. The Secret War, the biggest covert operation in CIA history, and its ramifications would tear into the history of a people, break into the pages of their lives, and let the winds of war and death blow them all over the world.

By 1975, the Hmong existed mainly as ragtag villages of mostly women and children. After most of the men had died, the CIA had gone to the boys, ten years old, eleven and twelve, and asked them to do the work that their fathers could not finish. In old photos, they hold guns in their small, dirty hands. Sometimes, with big smiles on their young faces. I know that their mothers waited by empty doorways for their return. By 1975, many of the Hmong were ready for peace.

The Hmong knew that the Americans had left: one day there were American pilots landing planes on the airstrip, tall men with fair skin walking around the village, laughing and buying local food items, giving candy to the small children. And then one day the planes flew away into the fog of the clouds, passed over the dark green mountain tops, and did not return. At first, they waited. When the murders started, and the last of the men and boys began disappearing, the Hmong knew that the only thing coming for them was death.

My mother was sixteen years old and my father was nineteen. She had dreamed of marrying an educated man and hoped to wear a white nurse's outfit. She imagined that one day she would be able to type with quick fingers on a typing machine, something she had once seen as a little girl in a provincial town. He yearned for a small farm with pens full of pigs and horses, a chicken coop of squawking, healthy chickens running around merrily about his feet. They were young. They did not know of each other. They each dreamt of a life that could not have included one another.

My Uncle Sai, my father's third eldest brother, was one of the first men to run into the jungle. He was only thirty years old. He had never been to school. He did not know how to write his name on paper. He could only vocalize in words. He had not fought as one of General Vang Pao's soldiers in the war. Still, it did not take long for the communist soldiers to come for him and his brothers.

It was noon. The soldiers were on a truck on the dirt road-men with guns in their hands. Uncle Sai saw that they were coming, and he looked at his family of starving children; because of the fighting, because Laos had been the most heavily bombed country in the war, and because of the bombs the Hmong could not stay in place and farm, and because the Americans had left and there were no more rice drops, because they were hungry and scared and they would die if he died, he looked at them, and he looked at the truck on the road, and he ran. He ran into the Laotian jungle. He was labeled a rebel. North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao soldiers were sent to hunt him and those who would follow him.

My mother's and father's families, like many others, fled into the jungle after Uncle Sai. For the families who surrendered to the soldiers, there were death and reeducation camps, syringes of hot liquid inserted into trembling veins, days in the blistering sun digging useless craters into the earth. For my mother's and father's families, the possibility of a new life, of foraging in fear, was a better choice than the separations of defeat, of death.

My mother and father met in 1978. By the time they met, both their families had been rebels in the jungle, scavenging for food and scrambling for shelter, for three years. They were hungry and dirty. They had gotten used to the scabs on their backs from the heavy packs, the gnawing hunger, the feeling that there was air in their stomachs all the time, and the bombs that fell from the sky destroying the green canopy and shattering the bodies of old men and women who could not run fast enough. They were used to the patterns of soldiers approaching, the bullets, the noise and the confusions of ambush, bullets that found home in hungry flesh. They saw this death all around them, but they were still young. They kept looking to live. Their first meeting was a small moment in passing.

I imagine sun-dappled jungle floors, a young man and a young woman, peeking at each other through lush vegetation, smiling shyly and then walking away slowly, lips bitten by clean, white teeth. Slow movements toward each other again, like in a dance. An orchestra of nature: leaves and wind and two shadows, a man and a woman, moving in smooth motions on even ground. How fanciful I am.

My mother does not talk about her past in terms of heartache. All the things that happened were things to live through. Her father had been a prosperous farmer; he left each son thirty heads of water buffalo. She was only six when he died. All she has of him are memories of an old thin man with a long braid who wore shoes all the time, whose feet were tender as a baby's. She was the only girl in her village to have the privilege of attending school with the boys. Her family could afford to do without her labor. She was an apt pupil who did her lessons carefully and recited them proudly, a rare trait in a Hmong girl of that period. If not for the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese soldiers entering their village, my mother would have achieved her dream of becoming a nurse, learned to type with quick fingers, and attracted an educated man.

She was well loved. Her brothers told her stories late into the night about beautiful Hmong girls who ventured too deep into bodies of water, Hmong girls who were taken as dragon brides into worlds of shimmering liquid. Her mother bought her good-quality velvet to make the traditional Hmong clothes and cooked special meals for her because she had a light appetite. The people in my mother's life cherished her, and she carries warm memories of the times before her marriage. Even the years of eating cornmush and cassava, because there were no more rice harvests, are years full of people who cared for her. My mother holds on to the times when her mother would save the sweetest wild yam, the softest part of a roasted cassava for her, even in the jungle, even in a war that carried no name, even among the dead bodies; my mother felt loved.

Unlike my mother, my father had a difficult childhood, with only a mother to take care of him. He was the youngest of nine surviving children. His father had died when he was just two years old. My father carries an image of an old man twisting long pieces of dried grass into twine for him to tie around chickens. All his life he would love chickens because of this one memory alone. His childhood was spent wishing for a father; he watched his four older brothers with their children and he yearned for his. His mother was a shaman and a medicine woman. She was always busy trying to find food and money to support her younger children, to send them to school. She spent much of her time scurrying over the hillsides looking for healing plants and walking from one village to the next performing rituals for the sick and soul-weary, leaving her youngest child to look at the ways his older brothers loved their children. Whenever he was lonely or sad, my father climbed to the tops of tall trees and looked at the world, searching for the places where his father could be.

My father has never been to the place where his father is buried. All he knows is what his brothers told him, their fingers pointing to a mountain that looked like an uneven green box rising out of the ground. When his family ran out of their village, my father, with a chicken tucked underneath his shirt, his thick black hair sticking straight up from his head, kept looking back at the mountain where his father's body was buried. He says that if he closes his eyes, he can see the imprint of the mountain on his lids. He'll always know the way back.

The Hmong had been living in the mountains of Laos for nearly two hundred years-since they fled from the wars in China. The mountains were their home and they knew them well. When Edward Landsdale, an agent for the CIA, advised the use of the Hmong in Laos against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao soldiers, he could not have known what history would do to them. The Americans entered the country and recruited Hmong to serve, first as guides and then later as fighters, without thought to the price their recruits would pay with their lives and the lives of their children for generations to come. The old ones who survived would carry shrapnel in their bodies, broken lives in their souls. For the young, for people like my mother and father, seeing bodies on the jungle floor, pieces of cloth wilting in the humid heat, was a horrible sight but a fact of being alive.

The day my father met my mother was a normal day of scavenging for food in the jungle. My mother was with her mother-they were returning from a search for bamboo shoots-when they passed by my father and his two best friends, who were hunting. It was a small moment in passing. If the sun had hidden behind a cloud, if the sound of wild game had come from a different direction, then perhaps I would still be flying among the clouds. But it wasn't so: he noticed her. He saw that she had clear skin and long black hair. He saw that her complexion was lighter than the average Hmong woman's. He noticed that there were beads in her hair. He thought her nose was too big. She pretended not to see him. She looked at him out of the corner of her eyes: a young man in rags with high cheekbones and spiky hair. She made note of his straight shoulders; her own were soft and curved. Discreetly, they passed one another; neither looked back.

After that fleeting moment, my father found out that the young woman with beads in her hair was named Chue Moua. Her family name was easy to trace; the Hmong families in the jungle had worked out a system of warnings and precautions against the soldiers hunting them. He found out that her family was camped not too far away from his, only a few hours of brisk walking. He admits with a smile that he was first attracted to her beauty, the way she carried herself with her chin parallel to the ground, and her fearlessness. She had developed a small reputation among the single men as being cold and haughty. Her smiles were reserved for those who knew her well, and she rarely spoke to strangers. When she did, it was efficient, straight talking. When the bullets started to fly and people were running in fear, my mother walked away. This to my father showed courage and calm, a rare maturity that he himself didn't have. She did not try to win his affections; she just accepted them.

My mother did not know very much about men. Her mother and brothers had always told her that when she wanted to marry anyone, she should let them know-they wouldn't stop her. She didn't find my father particularly attractive, although she thought he had a perfect smile (it would be years before she noticed that his two front teeth overlap a bit). He was different from my mother's other admirers because of the way he talked: he did not rush his words or slow them down. She had no patience for men who communicated, in their speech, the unsteadiness of hurried hearts, hungry bodies. She thought my father a serious young man; she had heard of his reputation for song poetry, although he never sang any for her because she was not the kind of young woman to seem interested. When they met, a handful of times under some jungle tree, he talked and she listened. There was a war being fought against them, and they were in the middle of a jungle, so she was not thinking about marriage. There were no moments of peeking through lush vegetation, no biting of lips, no even floors to dance upon.

My mother says she would not have married my father had she known that in doing so she would have to leave forever her mother and everyone else who loved her. For her, the future stretched only as far as the next step. It is hard to penetrate the density of a Southeast Asian jungle, with its heavy brush, its bamboo thickets, and its gnarled trees. The foliage, the paths, the terrain-it was all unmarked and unpredictable. There were no roads, no maps, only instincts. There had been news of a large regiment of North Vietnamese soldiers approaching the area. Many families had hidden for months trying to gather food, to wait out the harvest of wild plants, but it was no longer safe to stay in place. My mother's family wanted to go east, climb higher up the mountain slope; they hoped to find isolated peace and stay in Laos. My father's opted for the west, down the mountain; they had heard that there were refugee camps in Thailand across the Mekong River. It was dusk. They were supposed to say good-bye.

"I am not sure if I ever made a decision to marry your father," she says. "It was time for us to let go of each other's hands. I did not want to leave him. He did not want to leave me. So we thought we would walk together for a bit. I was thinking about how my mother would worry. The sun was setting, and the wind was rustling the leaves. At a tree where our paths would diverge, I realized that we were both standing still, not moving. The air came out of my chest, and I did not know where to look. If I had known that another sun would rise and I would see your father again, I would not have walked with him so far. I thought we were parting forever, and I wanted the walk to continue as far as it could go. Your father was not squeezing my hand, but his grip was firm. We kept holding hands. We chose a direction. I had no idea it would lead to marriage. Did I love him? Did he love me? It is the kind of decision that only young people can make in a war of no tomorrows. At that moment, I think neither of us saw the future."

Both families were unhappy with the match. My mother's family did not like the size and noise of my father's; they worried that my mother would not get enough to eat in a family with so many hungry children to feed. My father's family did not like my mother's size; she was small and they worried that she would not travel well amid the harshness of life. Worse yet, my father's older brother had married just a month earlier. There was no more money for a bride price, not even a modest one. My father's mother had nothing but a few cans of sweetened condensed milk and her shaman's tools, a bag of medicinal herbs, and a small collection of rags. My father begged and promised to pay back whatever each of his brothers could give. They looked at him, and they remembered that he had no father and that they were like his father, and so they worked hard to find a small bride price as a token of tradition. My mother heard about my father's family's objections. She asked if it mattered to him that she was small. He told her that small was cute. She believed him.

They were married in a clearing in her family's camp, which was little more than three or four banana-leaf-covered lean-tos around a small fire. There was no lavish wedding feast and only a few guests. Surrounded by the vast jungle, with the threat of soldiers approaching, a small group of people sat, at their center two young people concentrating hard on the ground. Whatever hopes my mother and father carried were suddenly caught in fear, in unknowing. They sneaked glances at the faces of the adults.


Excerpted from The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang Copyright © 2008 by Kao Kalia Yang. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a beautifully written and compelling book. It is heartwarming but heart wrenching as well. The first half captures the emotional terror and turmoil of a Hmong family fleeing from the Laotian communist regime after the collapse of the CIA 'secret war' in the mountain jungles of Laos. Romance, love, and the birth of a baby girl intertwine with the story of the family's escape and terrifying flight across the Mekong river. The emotional trials of life in a refugee camp come to life through the eyes, ears and heart of a small girl. The second half of the book helps us understand what it was like for a Hmong family to discover -- and rediscover -- itself in Minnesota, as Americans who want to settle and become part of their new society but also to retain their Hmongness. The reader discovers so much about what it means to be Hmong in the process of reading this book. The author doesn't lecture or preach, but conveys in simple, childlike prose her own early perspectives, impressions, fears, and pleasures and those of her family. She was a soulmate of her grandmother, a Hmong shaman, and shares with us many of the lessons, insights, and medicinal 'tools' she received from her. The concluding section, which recounts the personal, family, and community response to the death of the grandmother, is one of the most revealing and moving parts of the book. Latehomecomer is also a coming-of-age story of a sensitive girl, reminding us that Hmong children, like the rest of us, experience common struggles of maturation, sibling relationships, and emergence of special abilities.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have recently finished reading this book, and must say that it is amazing. I have already recommended it to all my friends. I am not sure if i have ever enjoyed a book this much. I am not sure why, but while reading this book memories of my own childhood growing up in Kentucky surfaced. anyway.. this one is a must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Had to read this for a college class and was just amazed by the story . I had such a great connection to the story for I, too, am a Hmong struggling with similar experiances.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book. I usually read very fast, but I read this slowly because I didn't want to miss a thing. Each sentence seems so profound. I will be looking for more books from Ms Yang! I especially hope she will write more of her family's stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a beautiful story .... the author's words and way of weaving her family history for all of us to picture. I was so touched by her relationship with her grandmother, and it brought back many memories of my grandmother. Thank you to Kao Kalia Yang for sharing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read many best-selling books that could not help but disappoint. The hype, the sales, everything simply ratchets up expectations too high. While "The Latehomecomer" may not be a runaway bestseller, it should be. Ms. Yang's story is moving, poetic, and warmly human. It links the story of the little-known Hmong people to the experiences of so many other immigrant and refugee groups that have come before and after them. Above all, Yang's prose has a loveliness that permeates this story and connects the reader to it in a powerful way. The recommended book below is a good overview of the history of the Hmong people. I saw Ms. Yang and Mr. Hillmer present together at Gustavus Adolphus College earlier this year, and they were great! Funny, moving, and thought-provoking.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Latehomcomer is a lovely story of survival and family.It provides a window into the Hmong culture and is beautifully written. I finished reading this book feeling honored that the young author shared her journey.This would be a great book club choice.
SUNA_LEE More than 1 year ago
As a Hmong refugee child myself, I have lived through similiar experiences as the author in a refugee camp. I found myself glued to the book and couldn't put it down. She has penned down beautifully in words my family's and my own struggles in America in trying to blend into a culture that is so unfamiliar. I felt her family's pain and I smiled with her as she found success later in life. This is definitely a read for anyone as the message is universal to many other refugees. This book will inspire you to overcome the struggles in life and will make you appreciate the opportunities given in America. Not only that, but will make you appreciate your parents' struggles to make your life better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the first book from a brilliant young Hmong writer. A true and touching memoir of the experiences of the author and her family. From their flight from Laos to the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota, their story is spell binding. This is a must read for all persons who wish to learn of the lives of the Hmong people. Kao Kalia Yang is a young woman, just 29, of immense talent.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A touching story about a family's journey from the jungles of Laos to the refugee camps of Thailand to the city of St. Paul. Yang has a gift for story telling. Throughout the story the love of family shines through their hardships. I gained a deeper understanding of Hmong culture. Yang tells an important and compelling immigration story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful storytelling and a bittersweet read that intertwines folklore, cultural history, and the Asian American experience.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DouglasRachko More than 1 year ago
I was woefully ignorant of the identity and plight of the Hmong people before reading Kao Kalia Yang's beautifully written book. Her memoir touches the heart and enlightens.
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