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Hmong refugee shares harrowing tale of survival
She lost her left arm to shrapnel wounds and infection during an epic flight from Laotian soldiers. She spent nearly 10 years in a refugee camp, and at only 4 feet 9 inches tall, had difficulty feeling at ease when she arrived in the United States in 1988.
But Mee Yang's life has been a special kind of immigrant story that should be shared and understood by Americans, said her daughter, Kia Mai Vang, 17, of Marysville.
Kia Mai Vang and her high school friend Kevin Yang — who was eager to share his own cross-cultural, transglobal family tale — proudly modeled traditional Hmong costumes for an art workshop on Sunday at Gallery 34 in Marysville.
Kia Mai Vang's mother speaks very little English, and like most Hmong of her generation, has worked hard not to call attention to herself in this new, fast-moving country.
But she answered her daughter's questions, and in her native language, spoke of the day when she found herself losing consciousness and bleeding profusely from her injury.
She was just 10.
"My grandfather carried her for a month through the forest," Kia Mai Vang said. "When she recalls it, she is scared."
The family eventually reached a hospital in Thailand where doctors amputated what was left of Mee Yang's arm.
Less than four years later, she married Kia Mai Vang's father.
Kevin Yang, 17, laughed at the reaction he is accustomed to seeing when he tells Americans about weddings in his family.
"In our culture, they get married young," he said.
The hand-made vest he wore Sunday is a lot like one his father might have worn in his home village in the mountains of Laos during weddings and other important ceremonies.
The teenagers both laughed about the Vans sneakers that accompanied Kevin Yang's traditional Hmong attire.
Mee Yang, 47, laughed about the hefty block-heeled shoes she herself wore.
She had never worn shoes before coming to the United States and neither had anyone in her village.
Just one generation removed from the tribal lifestyle of their parents, the Lindhurst High School seniors said they hope to help educate others about the culture and plight of the Hmong.
"To this day, not many people here know that Hmong people were in the war," Kevin Yang said of what Americans generally think of as the Vietnam War.
Cambodia and Laos too were embroiled in proxy conflicts during the Cold War.
"The CIA hired us secretly without the public ever knowing about it," Kevin Yang said of what now is commonly referred to as the "Secret War" of Laos.
"When the Americans left, they targeted us," he said.
"Not a lot of people know about us. It makes me sad what she went through," Kia Mai Vang said, looking at her stoic mother seated in the center of the cavernous art gallery on D Street.
Kevin Yang's grandfather had been an orphan in his village, and exceptionally poor.
"His mom died when he was a baby and he didn't know his dad," Kevin Yang said. "He literally had nothing and no one."
He married, like most in the village, at age 13 or 14. But his first wife died at the start of the civil war, and then he was injured in crossfire while trying to escape.
"What they went through," Kia Mai Vang marveled aloud. "They sacrificed so much for Americans — sacrificed so much to get to the free world."
CONTACT Nancy Pasternack at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4781. Find her on Facebook at /ADnpasternack or on Twitter at @ADnpasternack.