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Survivor recalls flight from Laos
Alicia School's Hmong interpreter uses experiences to help newcomers
Grief visits Neng Xiong at Thanksgiving.
That's when the abundance of food and clean water — most basic of the many resources and opportunities available to him now — remind him of a sister who died for the lack of them.
Xiong, who, according to his official paperwork, is 38 years old, sits comfortably now under a tent-like canopy of passion fruit plants outside his home in Linda.
The small garden sanctuary, which he engineered for himself, his wife and his own three children, features a range of plants common in his native Laos.
His job as Hmong interpreter and assistant instructor at Alicia Intermediate School in Linda keeps him firmly planted in this American community, and has done so for nearly 20 years.
But he is never far from memories of a more uncertain time.
He had been part of an early wave of Hmong tribespeople who fled pursuing communist mercenaries in Laos after U.S. forces pulled out of the country.
Xiong says he left his village at about age 7 with his parents, three brothers, three sisters and various extended family members. They left their lives behind with little except clothes, blankets and 50 pounds of rice.
"We struggled all the way," he says of the treacherous two-month trek.
Neither he nor his siblings had ever worn shoes or seen a house with running water, or a grocery store. They sought only safety. Opportunity and comfort were beyond their imaginations, Xiong says.
"I never thought that I would make it here," he says. "I'm lucky to be here to tell this story."
Born in a field
He had been born in a corn field, he says, laughing. It was a common place for a Hmong woman to give birth.
There were no birth certificates. Only those Hmong who would later be sponsored to travel out of Southeast Asia as refugees would be assigned a birth date based on approximate age.
Xiong's earliest memories are of riding water buffalo. The family kept a small herd, and at a young age, he had been tasked with helping care for the animals. He fished and hunted with his father, and listened to the old stories told by elders that were meant to serve as a means of education.
In May 1975, he says, mortar rounds and gunfire from communist insurgents sent many in his village packing, and his parents sold their animals and prepared to flee.
"My parents didn't feel safe," he says.
His grandfather walked three days to reach the family from his own village and help them leave. Xiong, his grandfather and an uncle set out a few days early to scout the way back to the grandfather's house, and the rest of the family followed.
Tanks were rolling through his grandfather's village — a sight Xiong had never seen.
They finished preparations and began the long journey south toward the Mekong River, and Thailand beyond.
Xiong's grandfather was unwilling to leave his home and his village and the life that was familiar to him, Xiong says. The old man stayed behind and was killed.
Death became an everyday occurrence for the family.
A few days out, they saw flares and heard arms fire. A group of Hmong ahead of them on the trail had been ambushed. Seeing their bodies, Xiong's group back-tracked and hid.
They waited several days, and next time out, they split up into smaller groups and only traveled under cover of darkness.
"We had kids and old people and we knew the communists were behind us and everywhere," Xiong says.
Many elderly travelers gave up, sat down and allowed themselves to be left behind.
Xiong's group ate bamboo shoots, snails, dried meats and rice, when they could prepare it.
"There wasn't much," he says. "We would drink any water — sometimes mud puddle water."
After finally reaching the Mekong and paying for transport across to Thailand, pirates took the rest of what Xiong's group had.
An uncle's friend from a town nearby helped set them up on a fishing boat, and the family boarded for what Xiong says was a terrifying two-hour ride.
Most parties attempted to cross in makeshift boats and rafts made of inner tubes.
"Lots and lots of people died in that river," Xiong says. "Hmong people are from the mountains and can't swim."
And bands of communist troops were known to attack at the river.
Xiong says parents gave some of the smallest children opium, "so they would make no noise during crossing."
When the family finally arrived on the other side, he says, "We felt a lot safer and happier."
They were taken to Nong Kai, a tiny, crowded refugee camp with little in the way of provisions and less in the way of sanitation.
United Nations supply rations came, but were scarce, Xiong said.
The sole water source was a well that had been dug near sewage trenches.
Xiong's little sister, already weakened from the family's long and stressful journey, fell ill.
"They would play the drums when someone there would die," Xiong says of the camp. "We would hear the drums constantly — every day."
His sister perished for lack of nourishment, Xiong says, and was buried in a blanket beside a garbage dump, the only ground available. He later saw the same terrain excavated. He caught glimpses of dozens of blankets, like his sister's, being pulled up from below.
When the brand new 400-acre Ban Vinai refugee camp opened up nearby — former home to many Hmong families in the Marysville area — Xiong's family had been in their squalid quarters for about two years.
Conditions were better in the new camp. Occasionally, he says, he and his father would sneak out of the fenced compound to go on hunting expeditions.
In 1980, after more than three years at Ban Vinai, they were taken to Bangkok by bus and given two weeks of physical examinations and cultural indoctrination to prepare them for life in the United States. A Mormon church had given notice to sponsor their expatriation.
"Just being on that bus was so cool," says Xiong. He was about 11 or 12 years old at that time, he says, and had never ridden in a vehicle.
At the airport, he saw an escalator for the first time, and accidentally ran through a plate glass window trying to catch up to his parents who had gone in search of a bathroom.
"I hadn't seen too many clean glass windows before," Xiong says, shaking his head and marveling about the fact that he wasn't badly hurt.
The prospect of traveling to America was frightening, because myths about Americans had been rampant at Ban Vinai.
"We thought they were giants who would eat us," Xiong says. It was December when they arrived in San Francisco.
After a brief stay in refugee housing there (where they were supplied with king-sized beds but slept on the floor out of habit), they were sent to Spokane, Wash. — their first American hometown.
Snow was everywhere.
Xiong was wearing shorts and a pair of sandals made from old tires, which he was given in Thailand.
On their first day of school, he and his sister were introduced to a third-grade classroom full of white students several years younger than themselves, and to their African-American teacher. They did not understand a word of what the teacher said, and were afraid she would eat them.
Xiong still remembers Mrs. Bryant, that first teacher. He has gone back to Spokane in recent years to visit her and speak to her students about his first experiences in America.
"She was a wonderful lady," he says. "But when she first came to hug me, I almost peed in my pants."
He had spent those first years of school quietly struggling to learn English. There were no interpreters or special outreach counselors.
But Xiong wanted to learn and did.
By the time he moved to California for his last year of high school, he was a year ahead of other kids his own age. He attended Lindhurst High part-time and translated English for Hmong students at Alicia School.
He married at 18 and, by then, was employed full-time at Alicia.
His children — 8, 14 and 17 — all have heard his story many times.
So have his students at Alicia.
Parents of many of the Hmong students there have been concerned about next year's transition to Yuba Gardens Intermediate School.
Alicia will close its doors after the school year ends this week — a result of health and safety concerns about the property.
Xiong will make the move with his students, and he says it will be a dramatic change for all concerned.
He also will be losing his partnership with Alicia teacher Brenda Lizardo, with whom he has been teaching new English learners — mostly Hmong and Mexican — for nearly 20 years.
Lizardo plans to take a job teaching kindergarten at a nearby elementary school.
Lizardo "has been almost like a mom to me," Xiong says. "She watched my kids grow up. It's so weird. I'll be on my own for the first time."
The difficulty of challenges he faces now pale in comparison, he admits, to the ones he has already overcome.
Eventually, he says, he plans to leave his current job for work as a youth probation officer.
He has been attending Yuba College on a part-time basis in order to do so.
"I know most of the kids that live in this town and I want to contribute — I really do," he says. Xiong says he hopes his experience and knowledge about the Hmong community can steer a few teens clear of gang involvement and violence.
In the meantime, he will continue to help middle schoolers — especially those who are recent Hmong immigrants — to make their own transitions to American life.
"I tell them how their own parents crossed the Mekong River," he says. "I tell them how hard they struggled.
And I tell them to respect their elders," Xiong says, "even if they don't speak this new language."
Contact Appeal reporter Nancy Pasternack at 749-4712 or firstname.lastname@example.org