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Wednesday , 2007 - Te Micigan D .
"It's kind of hard being both Hmong
and American," Yangsaid.
Yang estimates his parents came to
the United States around 1980. Young
and just out of the refugee camps, the
couple had two children and would go
on to have six more. The family moved
frequently before Yang was born, criss-
crossing from the Midwest to the East
Coast and back. Yang's mother found
work in factories; his father was and is
still on disability from injuries sustained
fighting Laotian communists for the
C.I.A., as many Hmong did during the
And also as many Hmong did, the
Yang family temporarily set aside cer-
tain traditions and attended church
when a Christian group sponsored them
to come to the United States. Catholic,
Mormon and Lutheran service orga-
nizations have "adopted" thousands of
Hmong families since they began immi-
His family has since returned to
Hmong practices, but balancing reli-
gion is one of the most difficult conflicts
of being Hmong in America, Yang said.
"You have to choose which values you
want to keep: whether to convert to
Christianity or to follow the old ways."
These "old ways" include burn-
ing incense for ancestors and hu plig
- or soul-calling - ceremonies for
the Hmong New Year, said Maykao
Lytongpao, a Hmong bilingual teach-
er at Detroit's Fleming Elementary
School. An active figure in the metro
Detroit Hmong community, Lytongpao
is the pageant and competition coordi-
nator for the statewide Hmong New
Year- Festival, held annually in Lan-
sing. She is one of the co-chairs for the
Hmong National Development Confer-
ence, which celebrates its seventh year
this spring with its first Detroit-hosted
But events like the Michigan New
Year Festival aren't readily available in
cities and states with fewer Hmong.
Maipa Vang, who graduated from the
University in 2002, lived in mostly white
Muncie, Ind. while her father attended
Ball State University. Sponsored by a
Lutheran organization, Vang and her
siblings attended church regularly and
went to private school.
"My father felt he should do as (the
Americans) are doing - they followed
the ways of the Americans," Vang said.
"Essentially it was something he wasn't
really happy doing."
Before fighting for the C.I.A's secret
army, or Armee Clandestine, during the
Vietnam War, Vang's father graduated
from a university in Laos. He became
one of the few Hmong immigrants at the
time to earn a college degree in the Unit-
ed States, Vang said. Post-Ball State, he
secured a position as a bilingual teacher
at Von Steuben Elementary School in
Detroit, a move that sparked the Vang
family's return to its roots.
"When my dad got his job in Detroit,
we automatically switched to doing
Hmong traditional stuff," Vang said.
"Detroit was a big shock for us - - (from)
all white people to all Hmong people.
We were really Americanized. The
Hmong kids in Detroit thought we talk-
More comfortable in Detroit's larger
Hmong community, the Vangs celebrat-
can be rather heavy.
"I have an opinion on things," Lytong-
pao admitted. "Because we're the minor-
ity of the minority, and of the minority, -
too, (admissions officers) should look at
it in different ways." But first, it is nec-
essary for them to look "not just at the
status of the Hmong but as students
with academic backgrounds," Lytong-
Xiong, for one, doesn'thave a problem
with the University's policy.
"I've never even though about some-
thing likethat," Xiong replied via e-mail.
"Now that you mention it, beinga minor-
ity withinthe Asian group does make me
question whether we should be lumped
in the Asian minority category. But then
again we can say the same thing for the
Sindhis, the Parsis or the Seraikis."
Most students who make it to the
University were academic stars in high
school. Hmong are no exception: Xiong
was one of three students in his graduat-
ing class to come to the University, and
Yang excelled at Cass Technical High
Cass Tech emphasizes the need for
college education, and it remains one of
the top feeder schools for the University.
But other Hmong teenagers do not have
such a leg up.
Osborn High School rises out of the
center of the Northeast side, where the
majority of the city's Hmong popula-
tion resides. At the corner of 7 Mile
and Hoover, the building's roof slopes
upward like the shallow bow of a ship.
Inside, banners trumpet "Osborn stu-
dents make the best ofthe tests." The air
bows fecund with the smell of hot lunch
(about half of the students are eligible
for subsidized lunches according to the
National Center for Educational Statis-
tics' most recent reports). It smells of
old building and damp concrete, like the
resigned wetness of winter.
Although the high school is part of the
same public school system as Cass Tech,
there seems to be a startling disparity in
Bring up Project Lighthouse and
Claudia Ng, a co-chair for the student
group, burbles with the earnestness of
a teenager at her first job interview. The
organization visits the Hmong students
at Osborn during winter semester and
invites them to campus several times a
"It's actually really neat - the kids
teach us a lot, too," Ng said. Her attitude
toward the administration is decidedly
"I guess if there were administrators
they'd be all for (the program)," she said.
"The scholars always tell us that the
guidance counselors are not very good."
The students aren't explicit about it.
Neither are the teachers. But there are
hints at racial tension or a sense of frus-
tration between the Hmong students
nd the Osborn administration, illus-
trated by a casual shrug of shoulders or
an offhand comment.
Maichu Lor, an Osborn senior, spoke
at a United Asian American Organiza-
tions meeting in December. "Coun-
selors at Osborn don't really assist in
going to college - you're turned away
if you're Asian American, or sometimes
they're not even there," she said.
See HMONG, page 6B
ed the Hmong New Year. They burned
incense fortheir ancestors and sacrificed
chickens. After sacrificing the chickens,
"you made it for everyone to eat," said
Vang, now a costume production assis-
tant in Los Angeles.
"It was a big deal - my father made it
a big deal," she said.
Today, with both of her parents
deceased, Vang finds it harder to main-
tain Hmong practices.
"I try to keep with traditions," said
her older sister, Maikue, a graduate
student at Wayne State University. "It's
kind of difficult because my parents are
gone - I don't necessarily follow it, but I
It's understandably more difficult to
preserve a culture identity the longer
you live in a place that pushes McDon-
ald's and Nike sneakers for all, or know
exactly why it needs to be preserved if
you've never been to your mother coun-
LSA freshman Mon Xiongsaid young-
er generations of Hmong are "throwing
cultural traditions away" while the older
generation emphasizes the importance
of such practices.
"With the older community, it's very
close," Xiong said. "As the generations
die down it becomes very loose."
Xiong's childhood and how he got to
Michigan could be the basis for a dime
novel, if Horatio Alger wrote for Asian
interests: young man makes good, excels
in school and rises above his background
(his mother supported nine children as a
factory worker after Xiong's father died).
He has adapted to - or, one could argue,
assimilated into - American society.
Personally, Xiong claims he is not
tied to his ethnicity, and as a result, the
dynamic between him and other Hmong
students at his high school was some-
times awkward. In the past two years,
the Hmong population at Xiong's alma
mater, Warren Woods Tower, has risen
from 50 to 150, Xiong said. Increasingly
Hmong families are leaving Detroit
for the blue-collar security of Warren.
Schools like Osborn and Warren Woods
Tower with relatively large Hmong
populations will also have a handful
of newly immigrated Hmong students.
Three years ago, the U.S. government
allowed clearance into the country for
15,000 more Hmong refugees.
"I think it'd be easier not to be
Hmong - it's very complicated, grow-
ing up in the house I was raised in," said
Xiong, who moved to Michigan with
his mother and eight siblings when his
father died 11 years ago. "(It's hard) try-
ing to balance everything when you're
Aside from juggling cultural challeng-
es, Hmong in Detroit who want to attend
college also face economic obstacles.
It is unclear exactly how many Hmong
students currently attend the University.
Xiong, a first-year student, wasn't aware
that there were other Hmong students
on campus until this interview.
"There were just a handful of Hmong
kids at Michigan (when I attended),"
said Maipa Vang. However, when Vang
attended, there was a Michigan chapter
of the Hmong American Student Asso-
The chapter was disbanded two years
ago for lack of membership.
Although the University group Proj-
ect Lighthouse works with Hmong-
American students at Detroit's Osborn
High School, encouraging them to go to
college, the organization does not keep
tabs on how many of its scholars actually
end up inAnn Arbor.
According to LSA junior C.C. Song,
Asian American Association efficacy
chair, there are currently eight Hmong
students on campus. But the Registrar's
office doesn't track student identity
to that level of detail, said University
spokesman Joel Seguine.
Proposal 2 eliminated affirmative
action programs in Michigan, but even
when admissions decisions factored in
race, the Hmong were not given special
Asking someone whether or not her
ethnic group deserves an extra step up