At this point, Fadiman focuses on the concept of immigration and assimilation. She explains that Foua and Nao Kao, like many older Hmongs, didn’t speak any English after 17 years of living in the United States. They also still celebrated only Hmong holidays, only practiced Hmong religion, and only ate Hmong food. “It would be hard to imagine anything further from the vaunted American ideal of assimilation, in which immigrants are expected to submerge their cultural differences in order to embrace a shared national identity,” she writes.
The fact that Nao Kao and Foua remained entrenched in their own culture without taking on many aspects of American life is in line with Blia Yao Moua’s statement that the Hmong can’t be assimilated. It is also in keeping with the history of Hmong resilience Fadiman outlines in the chapters War and Flight.
Fadiman suggests several reasons why Hmongs did not assimilate into American culture (other than the fact that doing so went against their propensity to resist cultural change). First and foremost, the Hmong—unlike other immigrant populations—didn’t come to the United States to enjoy Americanized lifestyles, they came to escape violence and persecution in their own country. Furthermore, the possibility of integration wasn’t helped by the fact that many clans were divided in the process of settling in the United States, essentially estranging them and making them feel alone. Isolated from their families and “traditional supports,” these Hmong populations were extra susceptible to anxiety and depression and less likely to adopt new modes of living. To make matters worse, American culture required the Hmong to act in so many seemingly peculiar ways that many of the new immigrants were overwhelmed.
In this section, Fadiman continues to explore Hmong resilience while also demonstrating just how arduous it was for them to arrive in a country they didn’t want to be in and that didn’t want to accept them in the first place. Isolation and cultural displacement seem to have only made it less likely that the Hmong would give up their values in exchange for American lifestyles utterly unfamiliar—and, in fact, undesirable—to them.
Just as Hmongs found Americans hard to understand, many US citizens were bewildered by this onslaught of foreigners whose cultural values were so different than their own. Simply put, many Americans did not graciously accept the Hmong. Rather, they lampooned them in nationwide publications as “the most primitive refugee group in America” and refused to acknowledge their involvement in the Quiet War—a war about which most American citizens had never even heard. Americans also showed frustration at the Hmong unwillingness to integrate and assimilate. Rumors abounded, hate crimes rose in frequency, and anti-Asian bigotry proliferated amongst students and adults alike. Fadiman quotes an anthropologist who wrote that, when asked why “his people did not ‘fight back’ when attacked” in America, a Hmong man replied, “because nothing here is worth defending to us.” Many Hmong also chose to run away from local violence by moving to different cities.
Although the Hmong fell back on their old habit of fleeing when met with oppression, they did not leave the United States, nor did they—on the whole—fight back. This only goes to show the extent to which their options had been depleted; forced to leave Laos and unwelcome anywhere else, they had little choice but to assume an apathetic stance, as shown by the statement that nothing in the United States was “worth defending.”
Because California was a good place for farming, the Hmong began migrating west, which strained the welfare system. The Central Valley of California suddenly gained 20,000 Hmong residents in just seven years, residents who ended up having to compete with unemployed non-Hmong Americans for low-paying jobs. Because most Hmongs had begun staying with their own families, though, the government resettlement programs had no control over where they went. As such, towns like Merced suddenly overflowed with unemployed new residents.
By detailing the economic burden that the Hmong suffered from and exacerbated in certain high unemployment areas, Fadiman illustrates that the United States government was structurally unprepared to accommodate the Hmong refugees it admitted, an oversight that inevitably led to xenophobic animosity from unemployed non-Hmong Americans who saw the sudden influx of job-seeking Hmongs as a threat to their own chances of employment.
The Hmong slowly proved themselves to be good, diligent workers in the American workforce. For the most part, they filled low-paying positions. However, those living in areas with high unemployment rates found themselves without work and relying on government assistance. With the threat of the 1996 welfare reform bill—which, if passed, would deny immigrants welfare benefits—many Hmong tried to apply for legal citizenship. Even if this worked, though, most Hmong still resented the fact that the US shamed them for accepting welfare, for many of them claimed that these benefits had been promised to them by the CIA when they or their family members fought communism in Laos.
It is not surprising that the Hmong who risked their lives for the United States would be incensed to find that the majority of their new countrymen weren’t even aware of the Laotian Civil War or the role the Hmong played in fighting for America. It is obvious that this initial misunderstanding made for a strained relationship between two populations that appeared to have little interest in accepting one another in the first place.
Fadiman notes that most Hmong liked to believe they would someday return to Laos. However, the country they had in mind was a pre-war Laos that no longer existed. Still, it was no wonder they wanted to leave the United States, a country that effectively subverted their hierarchies. Fadiman considers something a psychologist pointed out to her at a conference on Southeast Asian mental health: in Laos, the eldest male was the most powerful and respected member of a Hmong family, but in America young teenage daughters fluent in English often held the most cultural and social currency, a fact that turned family structures upside down in a process known to sociologists as “role loss.” Worse, Hmong parents were made to watch as their children grew up without their traditional tastes and customs, requesting American food for dinner and leading lives as individuals immersed in a different culture.
Given the importance of social and familial hierarchies—and given the clear unsettling of these hierarchies in the United States—it’s no wonder that doctors at MCMC experienced difficulties when dealing with their Hmong patients, since they often had to communicate with the youngest family member instead of the non-English-speaking head of the household. By considering this, Fadiman gives a more comprehensive story of Hmong immigrants, thus achieving what Lia’s doctors found impossible: the ability to use a certain accepted practice as a way of invigorating—rather than diminishing—her subjects’ humanity.
Sukey Waller told Fadiman a story in which an old Hmong man asked, “Why, when what we did worked so well for two hundred years, is everything breaking down?” Fadiman notes that she understands the sentiment, but disagrees with this man’s idea that “everything is breaking down.” “I can think of no other group of immigrants whose culture, in its most essential aspects, has been so little eroded by assimilation,” she writes. Still, she understands that the Hmong had little to be optimistic about, telling a story about one of the Lees’ relatives who confided that, though he was confident that his children would prosper in America, he had “no hope” for himself.
Fadiman’s optimism regarding the continued strength of Hmong culture is simultaneously well-founded and overzealous. Though she herself has provided mountains of evidence that the Hmong remain resilient, her viewpoint as a non-Hmong American puts her perhaps not in the best position to disagree outright with a Hmong man who has actually experienced the hardships of retaining his cultural identity in a foreign land. Of course, she is correct that the Hmong’s resistance to integration and assimilation proves the staying-power of their culture, but if this man feels as if his culture is breaking down, then that is a clear indication that—in all likelihood—it is.