This week’s S-Files post is an oral history essay by Mien American student, Kassy Saeppunh, for her Asian American Studies 10 course. In this essay, Saeppunh interviews her mother, Yian Saephanh, about her her painful and traumatic experiences as a Mien refugee journeying to America. Oral histories such as this one are incredibly powerful as they expose a perspective completely left out of mainstream American history and the “master narrative”. As important as these stories are to our collective consciousness of American culture, history and politics, the irony remains that they often go unheard because of language barriers, the trauma of remembering and the fear of U.S. government retaliation. Saeppunh’s essay shares an invaluable perspective about the Mien/Mien American experience that helps complete our understanding of American history and global politics.
My Mother’s Perspective
by Kassy Saeppunh
My mother, Yian Saephanh, is a refugee from a country torn by war. Her life story as a young Mien girl to her painful journey to America is put in her perspective; I am merely here to tell her story and let others know what she and many others have been through that is not revealed in history books. My mother’s story of how she ultimately ended up in America is one that I find quite unique, while others, who have experienced or know someone who has experienced life as a refugee, may find it very common. Nonetheless, I feel that her story should be known in order to reveal the personal perspective of a Mien immigrant and her journey through life. For this assignment, I had to interview my mother through the phone. I had a pre-set list of questions to ask her, but I realized throughout the interview process that she was not as comfortable as I thought she would be. I realized that by asking her these questions, I was forcing her to relive those memories that she has tried so hard to forget. Not only was I opening up old wounds, I was scaring her as well by making her try to remember the past and the trauma she been through. I remember calling her back a day later to clarify a few questions and she snapped at me and told me to stop asking such specific questions before the U.S. government ships her back to Laos. It was then that I realized that I was making her relive the terror of war and bringing out the fear as well. Due to the Secret War, many Mien refugees fear the American government and I realized its impact, not only my mother, but many others as well. It is through my mother’s retelling about her experiences during the Secret War and a bit of research that I unravel the reasons behind the fear that many Mien immigrants have. With my mother’s past, present, and future in mind, I explore her culture, life in Laos, the reasons behind her fear of the U.S. government, her journey to America, and her never-ending journey to find a place in American society as a minority by taking her story and incorporating it into the history of Southeast Asian refugees.
The Mien are a small sub-group of Southeast Asians, with the majority of the population living in Laos. Originally from southern China, the Mien left to neighboring countries in rebellion of the Chinese government centuries ago.[i] In Laos, the Mien lived in the high mountains and usually kept to themselves.[ii] In the highlands, the Mien resided in twelve clans and in each clan there was a leader, who was more of a spokesman and dispute settler within each clan than an actual leader, and each clan’s name represented the last names of the people within them. My grandfather himself was the leader of the Saelee clan. Everyday the Mien wake up at the crack of dawn, have breakfast, walk hours in the jungle to go work in the fields, come back home at dusk, have dinner, and do the same thing over the next day. My mother’s story of being Mien is one that is a bit complicated. My mom is actually ethnically Cambodian and grew up culturally Mien. Her Cambodian father had a gambling addiction and sold my mother to a Mien man, my grandfather, who couldn’t have children with his wife. So as easy as that, my mother was taken away from her birth parents at the age of four and was brought to a whole new family and a whole new culture. My mother, whom my grandparents renamed Yian was the first of four children that they would adopt. My mother told me the meaning of her name in Mien literally means “to trade” because of how she was brought into the family. Initially scared when she first left with my grandfather, she easily adjusted and learned the Mien language within a few months and wasn’t alone when my grandparents adopted more children into the family. As the eldest daughter, my mother was expected to do many things such as cook, clean, and work in the fields. Thus began my mother’s new life as a dutiful Mien daughter.
As a child and the eldest daughter, my mother had many responsibilities. When her parents went to work in the fields, she would clean the house, take care of the animals, and prepare a meal for her parents by the time they came home. As Ying and Chao explained, the ordinary Mien child would watch over their younger siblings, do the sewing, and even work in the fields.[iii] As an adult, my grandfather had an arranged marriage for my mother. I asked my mother how she felt at the time of her arranged marriage and her only response was that her parents urged her to get married and live with them to take care of them. “My parents didn’t have children to look after them so they urged me, as the eldest, to marry and live with them. So they found a husband for me to make sure I stayed home.”[iv] As an old cultural tradition, many Mien children are expected to live and care for their parents as adults.[v] In a traditional Mien family, the children were expected to help their parents with whatever they asked, cook every meal, clean the house, and most important of all, show respect at all times. Hence, my mother was quickly married and was expected to care for her parents and husband. It wasn’t until seven children and thirteen years later that my mother separated from her husband in the United States. In the United States, her responsibilities remained the same toward her parents. Although living in different households, my mother had to make sure my grandparents had a roof over their head, were financially stable living on their own, and quickly assisted them whenever they called.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, the Second Geneva Conference of 1962 guaranteed that Laos remained neutral, but the United States violated the agreement. Known as “America’s Secret Army,” the Mien and the Hmong people were recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to fight guerrilla style against the communists in Laos.[vi] As Mien men risked their lives fighting on their own land for the politically powerful United States, the United States continued to drop millions of bombs onto the once beautiful land in an attempt to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail that was allowing the North Vietnamese to supply their communist troops in South Vietnam.[vii] As the American troops began to withdraw from Vietnam after the cease-fire agreement in 1973, the communist took over Laos in 1975. Under President Ford’s “parole,” South Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees entered the United States, but because the war in Laos was not considered as dangerous, those in Laos remained defenseless to fend for themselves.[viii] After the withdrawal of American troops from Laos, the Mien and Hmong people were targeted by the communist Pathet Lao for helping the Americans. My mother described her experience of the day her village was raided by the Pathet Lao and her journey to Thailand:
“I was pregnant at the time with my fourth child. My parents somehow heard through other villagers that the Pathet Lao were coming, so we had already left into the wilderness of the deep jungles. I hid my children under the green banana leaves because the Pathet Lao would shoot at the greenish yellow banana leaves thinking there were people under there. I, along with my husband, and a few other villagers returned home to grab as much food as possible for our long journey. All I remember were the gun shots going through our roofs. I don’t know why, but I thought about bringing one of the pigs with us so I grabbed a stick and began beating the pig to go as I was running. Little did I know, out of fright, I had beaten the pig so hard that it actually became bruised and died. My husband and I got extremely lucky when we were stopped by a militia man. He held a gun to my husband, but luckily another militia man saw that I was pregnant and intervened. He spoke in Laos saying that my husband and I were not part of it and they let us go. I didn’t know to be relieved or shocked, but my husband and I got up and ran through the jungles. We had nowhere to go and the only place we knew of was Thailand. So with the rest of the villagers, my family and I began our fourteen day journey walk to Thailand. There were people who had actually went to Thailand before, so we hired them and as a village, we all followed, trusting that we would be in Thailand soon. There were days where we couldn’t see a thing because it was so dark. All we had were some flashlights, carrying our children on our backs and whatever food we had, hoping that we would get there soon.”[ix]
Knowing my mother’s struggle to get to Thailand, I understand her hesitation during our interview and the pain I was making her remember. Due to my mother’s experience of escape, she views the American government at fault for tearing apart her home country and harbors a fear that the United States is powerful enough to do it again. It is because of experiences like my mother’s that other Mien refugees have a sense of fear toward the American government.
[i]Charles C. Irby and Ernest M. Pon, “Confronting New Mountains: Mental Health Problems among Male Hmong and Mien Refugees” (110)
[ii]Yu-Wen Ying and Chua Chiem Chao, “Intergenerational Relationship in Iu Mien American Families” (48)
[iii]Yu-Wen Ying and Chua Chiem Chao, “Intergenerational Relationship in Iu Mien American Families” (55)
[iv]Yian Saephanh, Kassy Saeppunh, Telephone Interview, January 28, 2011.
[v]Yu-Wen Ying and Chua Chiem Chao, “Intergenerational Relationship in Iu Mien American Families” (57)
[vi]Charles C. Irby and Ernest M. Pon, “Confronting New Mountains: Mental Health Problems among Male Hmong and Mien Refugees” (110)
[vii]Sucheng Chan. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Print.
[viii]Sucheng Chan. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Print. (Chapter 8)
[ix]Yian Saephanh, Kassy Saeppunh, Telephone Interview, January 28, 2011.