Fadiman continues to examine the arrival of the Hmong in California, rehashing some of her earlier ideas about xenophobia and welfare. Answering a question posed to her by a bigoted gas station clerk, she determines (in retrospect) that the reason the Hmong chose to settle in Merced has to do with Dang Moua, a local Hmong entrepreneur and businessman who was at one time a clerk-typist at the American Embassy in Vientiane, Laos. When Dang was living in Virginia and tirelessly working, he heard a rumor that General Vang Pao was going to buy a fruit ranch near Merced. His brother also told him that the weather in southern California was nice and that there were many different ethnic groups. Saving up his money, he bought a car and drove cross-country, leaving behind his American sponsors (who were angry to see him leave) and his unsatisfactory life. Having heard the rumor about Vang Pao, many other Hmong started arriving in Merced.
Although Fadiman attributes the Hmong migration to Merced to Dang Moua, it seems that the rumor about Vang Pao’s fruit ranch was the larger impetus for this mass migration. Because of his role as the general of the Armée Clandestine, Vang Pao was the most famous Hmong individual and therefore had an outsize influence on Hmongs living in America, many of whom had served under him during the war. Nonetheless, Fadiman is clearly interested in highlighting the importance of influential and successful local Hmongs like Dang Moua, who worked hard to sustain Hmong culture and who had a direct impact on the community.
Many Merced taxpayers were rankled by the fact that so many welfare-dependent refugees had suddenly shown up in their town. Indeed, many Hmong were on welfare assistance—by 1995, Merced County had the highest fraction of its population on welfare of any county in California. Unfortunately, the non-Hmong citizens of Merced blamed the Hmong; Dang told Fadiman a story about a man who pulled up to him on the street and asked, “Shit man, why you come to this country? Why didn’t you die in Vietnam?” Keeping his cool, Dang responded by inviting the man over for dinner so that he could experience Hmong food and culture, but the racist sped off.
The tactic that Dang Moua employed when the racist man yelled at him is exactly the kind of empathetic cross-cultural response that Lia’s doctors could have adopted in their navigation of the family’s values. This is not to compare the doctors’ treatment of the Lee family with this blatant act of racism, but rather to suggest that the most effective way of communicating across cultural divides is by offering to engage in back-and-forth dialogues about the very barrier itself.
Fadiman discusses Blia Yao Moua and Jonas Vangay, two other successful Hmong leaders in Merced. Blia was the executive director of Lao Family Community, which provided practical assistance to the Hmong population of Merced. Jonas also provided services to other Hmongs by translating, mediating, and counseling. Both of these men worked extremely hard for the people they represented. Much to Fadiman’s surprise, though, Blia Yao Moua ended up burning out and quitting the Lao Family Community, eventually moving to Minneapolis. Jonas, on the other hand, remained in Merced, but told Fadiman one night after a dinner at an American restaurant that he constantly felt like a chameleon; “You can place me anyplace, and I will survive, but I will not belong. I must tell you that I do not really belong anywhere,” he confided.
Fadiman’s stories about Blia and Jonas show just how exhausting it is to live in a country that does little to accommodate foreign cultures. Given that these successful community leaders felt the strain of integration and assimilation, one can only imagine how Nao Kao and Foua must have felt trying to not only navigate the social obstacle course of a new country plus the inscrutable world of Western medicine.