Kao Kalia Yang
Music Excerpt: “Renewal,” composed and performed by Doug and Judy Smith
Kao Kalia Yang: My dad said, "If you dream in the right direction, the dream never dies. You never wake up. It always only grows bigger." So it was important for me to write the book to tell the world that a woman who never learned how to read or write had lived, and that she not only lived, she'd walked through history.
Jo Reed: That’s Kao Kalia Yang. She’s author of The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer is the first published memoir by a Hmong-American writer. Hmongs are an ethnic Asian group with a rich culture and roots in China and Laos. The Hmong’s history is little known in the West, although it’s been deeply entwined with the United States for the past half-century. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. recruited some 30,000 Hmong people in Laos to fight against forces from North Vietnam and the Lao Communist insurgents. This became known as the Secret War. It was a disaster for the Hmongs: One third died in the war. And after the Americans left in 1975, another third were systematically slaughtered. Thousands of Hmong refugees fled to Thailand seeking political asylum where they remained in refugee camps for years. The lucky ones were allowed to emigrate to the West—among them, the Yang clan.
Kao Kalia Yang tells this story in The Latehomecomer which is a deeply personal memoir, the story of a family, and the larger story of the Hmong people. The Latehomercomer also gives great insight into the day-to-day uncertainties of refugees, both in the camps of Thailand and then in the United States. And as we’re reminded by June 20th‘s World Refugee Day or by tonight’s evening news, this is a story we continue to see played out with different peoples throughout the world. In telling her own story, Kao Kalia Yang found she speaks for many.
Kao Kalia Yang: That is correct. Every time I have a reading and there's a Hmong person in the audience, they inevitably get up and they say, "That's my story, too." And not just Hmong people. A lot of Somali students tell me the same thing and their elders tell me the same thing, and now, the new incoming current Karen refugees tell me the same thing-- that it is their story, too.
Jo Reed: Yes. And you begin the story before your birth, with the meeting of your father and mother. Where do they meet, and what were the circumstances?
Kao Kalia Yang: My mother and father met in the jungles of Laos in 1978. Both their families were fleeing from the genocide of the Hmong people. After the Americans left in 1975, May of 1975, Khaosan Pathet Lao, the leading paper in the country, announced an agenda to exterminate down to the root the Hmong minority for having helped the Americans in the war, and so my family and thousands of others fled into the jungles, and that's where my mom and dad met. She was 16 and he was 19 at the time.
Jo Reed: And they were married in the jungle?
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes. My mom said they went for a walk, with no end in sight, and that she left her mother behind, on the road to being with my father.
Jo Reed: They ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where you were born. How did they arrange that?
Kao Kalia Yang: So my mom and my aunts and my grandma were captured in the jungles of Laos, and they were held as enemies in a village. But my father and my uncles freed them, just a few days after my older sister Dawb was born, and they made a 10-day trek to the Mekong River, crossed the Mekong River to the other side where there were United Nations camps set up for refugees that had been crossing the river, and my family was sent to Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, where I would be born.
Jo Reed: What do you remember about the refugee camp?
Kao Kalia Yang: I remember so much. All I have to do is close my eyes and it all comes back to me, and I know refugee camps the world over aren't meant to stand to the test of time. It doesn't exist anymore. You know, in 2001, I went back to Thailand and I saw that the trees are much taller than I was, and that the river of my youth was nothing but a dried up sewage canal. But all I have to do is close my eyes, and I see the dry, dry grass surrounding the camp. I see all of the houses and all of the little children playing in the dirt, hungry dogs, you know, licking at the base of trees hoping that children would pee or poop. I see young men and women laughing with their hands over their mouths because the dust flew so high. I see my mom and my dad, young like they were then, waiting in the dust for some future to begin. And I see myself on top of my father's shoulders, you know, in the hold of my mom's skirt, her sarong. I used to swing in her open sarongs. So I remember these things.
Jo Reed: And even though day-to-day survival was an issue, your mother, your father, your grandmother, all tried to have you and your sister see the possibilities the world had to offer and what you had to offer the world. And you talk about you being on your father's shoulders. You actually-- you write about him climbing to the top of a tree with you on his shoulders.
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes. The camp was 400 acres wide, less than a square mile in radius. There was like 40,000 Hmong people there at the time. You know, we ran out of room, and so my dad used to take me to the tops of the trees, hold me up to see a bigger world. He said that one day my hand and my feet will walk on the horizons he's never seen. My grandma always told me stories of all of the things beyond the camp. She told me all these stories about the tiger, and of course, there was no way a tiger could enter into the camp where we lived. And I had no idea what a tiger looked like because I didn't own any books or anything. And it wouldn't be until we came to St. Paul, Minnesota and I went to the Como Zoo that I saw my first tiger.
Jo Reed: Even though tiger lore was so much a part of your childhood.
Kao Kalia Yang: Oh, so much a part of my childhood and my consciousness.
Jo Reed: Did your family ever talk about home? What was your sense of home while you were there in the camp?
Kao Kalia Yang: I used to ask all the adults in my life where home was. ‘Cause they kept on telling me that Ban Vinai Refugee Camp wasn't my home, and for my grandma and my dad and my mom, my aunts and my uncles, home was some story in Laos. Home was some future imagined in America. And the only thing they could ever tell me about the home in America was that maybe one day I would become an educated person. Course I didn't know what that was.
Jo Reed: And you were six when you came to America?
Kao Kalia Yang: Six and a half, yes.
Jo Reed: Six and a half...
Kao Kalia Yang: Almost to the date, yep.
Jo Reed: What was your sense of America like, of Minnesota? Because that's where you went, St. Paul.
Kao Kalia Yang: Yep. July 27, 1987 my family came to America. We had these government issued clothing, and so they were preparing us for winter. We were wearing sweatshirts and long pants and just preparing for this cold place, and we got here and it was super warm. I remember the first night, you know, walking out to my cousin's car and there wasn't enough space. So they told me I could sit in front in my cousin-in-law's lap, and I sat in her lap without my seatbelt on. The window was open because it was super hot in the car, and I thought, I could take the wind inside of me, just keep on swallowing wind, and follow the lights on the highway, and it would be enough that that would be all of life in America. Because it was beautiful coming from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport to the McDonough Housing Project, because we passed through downtown St. Paul and the lights on the highway made the river gleam. That first night was magical. I remember being on the second floor and thinking I was floating on air, sleeping on air, and nobody knew it. I was in the sky again.
Jo Reed: Because that was your first experience in a multi-storied building?
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes.
Jo Reed: Were you given any preparation, you or your family, in the refugee camp, for coming to America?
Kao Kalia Yang: So after Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, we were sent to a transitional camp, Phanat Nikhom, six months to prepare for life in America. My mom and my dad took classes in like, how to put on your seatbelt. They had ropes and they'd pretend seat belted. My mom came home one day, I remember, with sandwiches, you know, with mayo, bread, mayo, chicken, and green onion and cilantro, so American foods. They learned how to say, "Hello, how are you?" "I am fine, thank you." My sister and I were sent to school, to pretend school, but I kept on falling asleep. So I got kicked out of the pretend school, and I went to the daycare with the kids, where I could nap during the day. Dawb learned that every color was yellow, and she learned that if you put an "S" behind your every word that you didn't have an accent in English.
Jo Reed: What about learning English? When you came to the United States and St. Paul, were you sent to a special school? Was it a special classroom? How did that work?
Kao Kalia Yang: We were sent to North End Elementary School which had a TESOL program, a special program for English as a Second Language Learners, I suppose, and we were in a classroom with kids our sizes and far older. I was in the TESOL classroom until my third year, until I was a third grader. But after that first year, Dawb left because she won the North End Elementary School Spelling Bee. So she was taken to regular classes.
Jo Reed: You write in your memoir that speaking English in the classroom was very difficult for you. You felt very shy about your English, and you made it a point to use the bare minimum of words.
Kao Kalia Yang: Definitely. Even now, even today, in English, I feel breathless in the language. Hmong is a tonal language. So every breath I carry into the world carries meaning. In English, I feel like I have rocks in my throat and I have to sculpt them into shape for a bigger world. <speaking Hmong> But in English, I never sound as beautiful. But I have this very clear memory of going to K-Mart with my mom, and my mom trying to ask for lightbulbs. Except, she didn't know the word, so she pointed to the ceiling and said, "I'm looking for the thing that makes the world shiny." And the clerk listened, but I could feel her impatience because she was tapping her feet on the ground. And when my mom stumbled to the end of her sentence, the clerk walked away, and we waited for her to come back, but she didn't. And I remember looking at my mom, who I thought was the most beautiful woman, she looked at her feet, and I decided that if the world that we lived in did not need to hear my mom and my dad, then surely it didn't need to hear me. So I became a selective mute the next day, and at first, it was a great rebellion. At first, it was me making a decision not to speak. But then, the rebellion got the better of me. It got to a point where my voice in English was so rusty that every time I tried to speak, other kids would look and sometimes laugh, and so the words, they died in my throat before they ever found their way into the world. I got through my public school experience. I graduated from high school with my thumbs up in the air.
Jo Reed: You know, you write that it was so hard for you to see your parents stumble in English, and even though you were uncomfortable in it, you would translate for them if your sister wasn't there?
Kao Kalia Yang: Yeah. When they were there, I stumbled my way through because I wanted to protect them. I knew that they were doing so much for us already and I didn't want them to be in the moment of that indignity that was our initial K-Mart experience with English. And so when my mom and dad needed me to, I tried, I've always tried, to step up to the plate. Because I think, even as a kid, I realized that no matter how weak I thought my voice was, how faulty I felt I was, I knew that I was their best chance going forward. That's what my dad said. He said I was their best chance going forward. So I've always tried for them. Sometimes I've succeeded and sometimes I've failed. But I can honestly say I've never not tried.
Jo Reed: You come from a culture in which family is all-important, to a place that values the individual above everything else.
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes.
Jo Reed: And I'm curious about some of the challenges that that must have presented to you, and yet at the same time, how where you come from gives your life really a more profound meaning, in some ways.
Kao Kalia Yang: I have a very clear memory of being in the third grade. There was a very handsome young man in class, called Mark, and Mark would sometimes open the door for me. One day, Mark asked me how many people was in my family, and I counted all my aunts and my uncles and my grandma, and so I had, like, a hundred something. And I asked him how many people were in his family, and Mark said, "Four." And I said, "I feel so bad for you." You know, and he looked at me and he said, "I feel so bad for you." And I said, "Why?" And he goes, "Think about all of the funerals you have to go to." <laughs> You know, I've always seen my family in this bigger context. I play on a big team. At family gatherings, I know what it is like when lots of hands come together to make a meal, and these things are very special to me. I'm married now and I married a white guy, and so he comes from a family of four, his mom, his dad, his sister, himself. I find it's very lonely. So the life that Aaron and I've built together has been really a mix, you know. There is him and me and our three kids, and then my siblings come in and out of our house. You know, my brother lives with us Monday to Friday, and then the girls, now that they're home from school, they're all home here so they can work, so that they can take care of each other, and take care of our kids and take care of us. I cannot envision of a different way to live, a different way to be. But I'll be very honest. I'm one of the older ones, so there are some responsibilities, right? No matter how much I earn, because my mom and dad both no longer work, I take care of all the younger ones and I take care of them to the best of my abilities. Sometimes I feel the responsibility grow heavy, and I worry and I worry and I worry. But the truth is, the standard I have for myself is high. You know, I can't fail because I can't fail them. The stakes are always high. So every opportunity I get, I have to kill it. I have to do a good job. Every door that opens, I have to make sure that it's open for the next one. I think it's made me a better person. I think my heart, there's so much in it that it's open wide, and at the same time, I'm tremendously cared for in the process. I am tremendously loved. You know, my dad says, "We are poor in money, but we're not poor in love. We're not poor in heart." And I think that is true.
Jo Reed: When you moved to St. Paul, you discovered the public library.
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes.
Jo Reed: Tell me what you discovered.
Kao Kalia Yang: The bookmobile was my first introduction to the library. In the housing project, there'd be a bookmobile that would come every week, and so because we didn't own a VCR, my older sister used to hold my hand and we'd go to the library and we'd check out books and then, she would create elaborate stories for me with the books. Made up stories that would make me cry and weep. I called her the human VCR. That was my first introduction to the library. But I remember coming home with my library card, the purple St. Paul Public Library card, and showing my grandma, and she said, "What is it?" And I tried to explain to her that it was, you know, this card that gave me access to all of these stories in the world, and she said, "Are there stories like mine in it?" And I told her I didn't know, and then I realized there weren't, you know. There weren't stories like my grandma. But I fell in love with the library. It is still one of my favorite places on earth.
Jo Reed: You're a reader and you're a listener of stories, and if you don't mind, help me to think about the differences between those worlds of reading and someone telling you a story, how we apprehend that differently.
Kao Kalia Yang: My Uncle Chu is a wonderful storyteller, and every time he tells me a story, he would stretch out his arm, and every freckle is a lake. Every piece of hair standing up is a person, you know. His knuckles, the rise and fall are the mountain ranges. The rivers are the veins flowing through. That's my first introduction to illustrated, I think, picture book. It was his arms, and it's still his arms that I see when I hear the stories around me. I remember the way my older sister Dawb would use the books. She would open them up and then, somehow, you know, in the pages of Cinderella, she created the great Chinese dramas from her memories of the movie houses in Thailand. You know, so there would be princesses flying on the tops of the trees, you know, magic, magical arcs of water dancing over the sky, which is to say, my first understanding of stories is that they can come together across cultures and exist in the imagination of a child, of a person. All you had to do was be able to see and be willing to go with it. When I started reading, I was reading books like Laura Ingalls, you know, The Little House on the Prairie.
Jo Reed: I love those books.
Kao Kalia Yang: I did too, as a little girl, and I loved them because of the way they depicted life. It was a real depiction of life and people in it, and it was so familiar to me and my own experience of life and the people in my life. But I also have this memory of going to the librarian--and the librarian is still alive, so she remembers it much more clearly than I--asking her in a whisper for books about people like me. She gave me a book about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Vietnamese. But she couldn't give me a book about Hmong kids, and I whispered under my breath, I said, "One day, a little girl is going to come in here and she's going to find a book, about the people who love her, on the shelves." The librarian and my sister both remember, very clearly, that remark. Of course, I didn't think that I would be an author one day, a writer.
Jo Reed: Kao Kalia, what did you want your book, The Latehomecomer to do? What did you want to invoke in or impart to your readers?
Kao Kalia Yang: When I first started writing The Latehomecomer, it began as a love letter to my grandma. My grandma, who was already an old woman, but she promised me that she would never die. We were a few months from my graduation from college. She'd always told me that education was a garden I cultivated in America, and that one day we would reap the harvest together. I started dreaming about my grandma and I being together at my graduation. But my grandma fell, and when I went to her and told her to get up, she told me that she wasn't gonna get up again, and I started crying, and she told me I was selfish-- she told me I was selfish for crying. She told me that there were people who loved her before me, that before me she had a mom and a dad and brothers and sisters and my grandpa. And that when she left me, it would be to return to the people who loved her before me, that to them she would always only be the latehomecomer. You know, she said there was no Hmong land in the map of a bigger world. But she would climb the Hmong mountain in her heart, open the house of her youth, and dinner would be ready and everybody will be there and they'll say, "Where have you been? Why are you crying so long?" I couldn't cry for my grandma to stay. So I started writing, and it was just a long love letter to her. And so this long love letter is what I kept on working on, and my dad said, "What are you doing?" one day, and I said, "I'm writing a long love letter to my grandma." And he said, "If you dream in the right direction, the dream never dies. You never wake up. It always only grows bigger." So it was important for me to write the book to tell the world that a woman who never learned how to read or write had lived, and that she not only lived, she'd walked through history and left all of us behind to miss her. So that was my intention, very personal, very private.
Jo Reed: How did you discover your own writing? That this was something that-- that you had a great talent for doing?
Kao Kalia Yang: In second grade, I wrote a short story about a watermelon seed that would be eaten by a little girl, and afterward, my teacher wrote a comment on it. Because I didn't talk, she said, "Kao's not so bad. She's getting somewhere with the language. She's not so bad, at all, on the page. The problem is she won't speak it." Although I didn't speak, my words had to go somewhere, so they found their way onto the pages before me, and my teachers, first, second, third grade and so on, so forth, they would read it, and every time I made a mistake, they would squiggly line it and put a question mark. And for me, that question mark always, you know, "What do you mean to say?" So you send a little girl chasing after meaning, you create a writer in the process. I think writing has always been my bread and my butter in the classroom. I thought I was good at math and I thought I was good at science because those are the things that my education focused on. But it was always in writing that I could rest, and I've had fortunate beautiful teachers who saw that in me. Mrs. Callatan, ninth grade, who told me I would do well in college because all college came down to in the end was the ability to read and write. I remember Monica Torres, at Carleton College, telling me to keep on writing because-- because the things I was writing, she had never read before.
Jo Reed: Did you think you'd pursue a career in writing, when you were at Carleton?
Kao Kalia Yang: Oh, no. I was on the pre-med track. Like lots of refugee and immigrant children, my mom and dad told us we needed doctors and lawyers; that lawyers can protect the rights that we've never had enough of, that doctors could heal what is so broken in the bodies around us. So Dawb said, my sister who won the spelling bee, said that she would become a lawyer, and it fell upon me, I thought, to become a doctor. So I went to Carleton to become a doctor. It wasn't until my grandma died and I started writing, and I started dreaming big, that I—that the idea of becoming a writer solidified in my head. I remember sitting opposite my mom and dad at our dining table, our little dining table, and telling them I wasn't going to become a doctor, that I was going to become a writer. And my mom looked at me and she said, "It's not a surprise. You've always loved stories." But my dad, he was quiet for a while, and then he said, "If the sky that I live under can fall on me, if the earth that I walk on can throw me off, who am I to stand in your way?" So that's when the gate opened, you know. But I believe in big magic and I believe in my grandma's magic. I would not be here today speaking with you if my grandma hadn't opened up that journey for me. On the day that we buried my grandma, I got two phone calls, when I went back to school. One of them was from Columbia University offering me a place in their program, and giving me their biggest fellowship in writing, that they could pay for half of my tuition. The other was for the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. And they said that they would pay for half of my tuition no matter where I went, and give me a twenty thousand dollar living stipend a year. These things I believe are testament to my grandma’s love that when she went on her journey she unleashed mine.
Jo Reed: Your latest book, The Song Poet, is a memoir about your father.
Kao Kalia Yang: It is. The Song Poet is definitely a memoir about my father and his form, kwv txhiaj, song poetry.
Jo Reed: And can you explain what that is?
Kao Kalia Yang: My father sings. It’s like rap, it rhymes, it’s like jazz, there’s a lot of improvisation, it’s like the blues. It’s from a hard life. In kwv txhiaj your voice is your only instrument so there is no instrumentation, and you sing the songs of your heart to a bigger world. My father has always sang his songs for me. It wasn’t until my grandma died that he stopped singing. He sang it for our community. In 1992 he came up with an album that was a best seller in the Hmong community so he made five thousand dollars. The goal was always that he would use that five thousand to create a second album, but it never happened because it translated to clothing on our back, rice in our bowls. So then when my grandma died my dad stopped singing and he said that he stored the songs in his heart; his heart was broken and the songs had leaked out. I went back to that cassette album, and I kept on listening to it. And then I was interviewed by a local television station and they asked my dad, “How does it feel to give birth to a writer when you’re one yourself?” And my dad looked at his hands and he said, “I can barely write my own name. My daughter writes in English the stories I yearn to read.” Then the idea was born. I would write a book about him. And I asked my dad; I said to him-- on a beautiful summer’s day, actually, I said, “Dad, how does a song poet become?” And he told me that when he was a little kid-- my grandpa died when my dad was just two years old. My grandma had nine kids to feed. There weren’t many people to say beautiful things to him. He used to go from the house of one neighbor to the next collecting the beautiful things that people had to say to each other. One day the words escaped on a sigh and a song was born. That was the answer that he gave me. But he said that nobody wanted to read a book about men like him, why would anybody want to read a book about a poor machinist, a Hmong refugee in the factories of Minnesota. And I know that the world is made up of men like my father. And it’s men like my father who give birth to daughters like me. So I started writing it. And this year it’s out. It’s two months old; it’s a newborn.
Jo Reed: A newborn book. Congratulations.
Kao Kalia Yang: Thank you so much.
Jo Reed: We touched on this earlier, that as specific as your book is, given the current refugee crisis it has such a particular resonance now, and one hopes, gets people to think about refugees in a more humane way.
Kao Kalia Yang: I hope so. We live in a world that-- that’s so keen at creating more and more refugees all the time. So I think that the book is invaluable in an understanding of the American situation and the American circumstance. And I also know that while a lot of people introduce me as Kao Kalia Yang, Hmong writer, outside of Minnesota’s borders people like to say that I’m a Minnesotan author, that I come from the most literary state in the nation. Outside of America’s borders they tell me that I’m an American writer and that I’m contributing to world literature. The ways we see ourselves as a people, as a person changes, and then I think we only change when we get feedback, when we can see ourselves more clearly. So my hope with this book, it’s always been that it would give the American people feedback. The best titles I understand are the ones that hold the biggest possibilities for meaning. Yes, The Latehomecomer is my grandma opening that door to the house of her youth and everybody being there, saying, where’ve you been, why have you-- why have you waited so long. The Latehomecomer is Kao Kalia Yang after forty years in America putting the Hmong experience on the bookshelves for a bigger world. But The Latehomecomer is also America. I feel like we are still coming home to each other. My dad’s always said that the size of my hand and my feet would not dictate my life journey, that I’m not a child of war, poverty, and despair, but that I was hope being born. I want his words to be true so badly.
Jo Reed: Kalia, thank you so much. Thank you for giving me your time and thank you for writing this very important book about your family and about a people.
Kao Kalia Yang: Thank you so much, Josephine for the—for the wisdom of your questions and granting me opportunity and space to think about these things that matter so much to me. Thank you.
Jo Reed: That’s Kao Kalia Yang. We were talking about her book The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
A personal story that speaks to the moment.