By Richard Stone
“The Hidden War” is the U.S.’s intensive campaign waged in Laos and Cambodia during the Viet Nam War era that was never sanctioned by Congress or acknowledged by the Johnson administration. It changed both countries drastically.
Because many Laotians were persuaded to wage war against the Communists–sometimes in self-defense, sometimes because the U.S, promised assistance (not fulfilled), they became refugees when a Communist government took control. The U.S. finally re-located some of these refugees into our country, and many have settled in Fresno
Healing Hope is an agency that provides a full range of counseling and social services primarily to the Hmong community but also to other Southeast Asian refugees. Mor Xiong is its intrepid founder and director. She asked me to relate the stories of some of the agency’s clients as mediated by a translator. Here is the last of a series of four tales of escape and relocation.
FONG CHUE FUE YANG
Fong Chue Fue Yang (age 62) is of middle height and stature, with longish black hair emerging from behind his billed black cap, and a few strands escaping in front as well. It gives a rather dashing appearance, abetted by a simple cord bracelet. He has a slightly bronzed complexion, with high cheekbones and a square chin. He wears an open-neck collared polo shirt of horizontal black and white stripes which, though unpretentious, suits him elegantly. He seems composed, and sometimes laughs broadly, but he carries a cell phone which he plays with when he is talking about topics with emotional import.
Fong grew up in a large town near the Thai border called Long Hai. It was prosperous due mainly to its vast poppy and corn fields. In fact, corn, not rice, was the area’s staple. At the age of five, his father was killed in what was known to them as “The French War”, presumably the war conducted under Ho Chi Minh that drove the French colonials out of South East Asia. An uncle moved the remaining family (mother and two sisters along with Fong) to live with him in Sin Quan. Although this, too, was a prosperous area, the family lived simply in a village-style hut, cooking on an open fire and doing subsistence farming. Fong did not attend school as he was needed at home for chores. He remembers playing marbles, a kind of jacks using pebbles, competitions with rubber bands, and with tops. He says he had little awareness of a larger world. “We were stupid, I thought only about what I was told to do, even if it was no more than ‘Don’t let the pigs come inside!’”
Around 1963, when he was ten, he became aware of political disturbances in the area. As he understood it, there was a traditional Laotian king, but he was threatened by three warring factions: a group Fong called “people in the Middle”, a leftist group, and General Vang Pao’s Hmong army. During this time the Communists pursued Vang Pao into Sin Quan. The people mistrusted the Communists. “They lied to us. They would call town meetings, then arrest our leaders. They would stay with the least educated people and trick them into giving information about who was who.”
At this juncture, Americans entered the scene fighting the Communists. “We saw them as protectors. They would give us food and weapons in exchange for recruits, and they promised they would make sure no harm came to us. They would defend our territory and our way of life.”
Sometime in the mid-1960’s, Vang Pao issued a warning to the Hmong people that they needed to evacuate. They did not experience the war first-hand but could hear gunfire in the distance. Two of Fong’s family went to fight with Vang Pao, and he was now given the important task of taking care of the horses. He remembers the constant fear of being attacked. Nevertheless, “I always did my job.”
At this time, Americans came in support of Vang Pao’s forces. “They saw how poor we were and began providing us with food.” When the town became indefensible, Fong’s family was relocated to Long Quan where he began working as a houseboy for CIA operatives.
In 1974 there was a ceasefire. The King was arrested and a government sympathetic to the Communists came to power. They viewed the Hmong as in league with the American enemy. Vang Pao had accepted money to defend the Mekong Trail, but when he was unable to carry out the mission, the Americans helped the Hmong evacuate to a safer location.
By 1975, the Americans themselves began leaving, and the Communists began large-scale arrest of Hmongs. Fong and an older relative escaped to the jungle, where they lived for three years. “There were hundreds of us. We were always under threat, and every day we would separate into small groups and send patrols out in every direction to warn if Communists were coming. Every day was a struggle to find food and stay alive. We moved every day. We found edible plants with long leaves that we would cut up, dry, pound into powder and make into a kind of paste we could eat. We cooked roots. We used parachute material for everything: for clothes, blankets, shelter.”
Fong recalls this as the worst part of his life. “We were always afraid. We depended a lot on seers who gave us guidance about where the Communists were.” During this period, Fong found a wife, but she was killed by a sniper in front of his eyes. He still has flashbacks of her death, and still carries a picture of her, as a beautiful young girl with her sister, in his wallet.
At this time, the group he lived with began to understand they could not continue to live in Laos and began making plans to escape. Many decided to try to reach Thailand, and Fong’s clan brother was among the first to go, then sent for him. Teams who knew the way were sent back to guide small groups ready to come. The biggest issue was crossing the Mekong. Some tried using inner tubes or bamboo rafts. Fong’s group was able to find a boat. “We crossed safely, but it was just luck. We never knew when or where the Communists would show up and attack us.”
Fong lived in a couple of different refugee camps in Thailand. He met his second wife in one of them. They were fortunate to have relatives who had come to the U.S. in 1975 and could sponsor their immigration. The young couple was given some monetary assistance by a support group but depended on their sponsors for a place to live.
While working for the Americans, Fong had been on many airplane and helicopters, so he managed the long trip to the U.S. easily. His wife, though, was scared throughout the flight. One thing did perturb Fong: when they made a stop in Honolulu, he saw the sun on “the wrong side” of the sky. Then when they landed in Los Angeles, he felt disoriented and clueless. “How can it be so far?” he wondered when they were taken long distances to get a connecting flight to San Diego.
After arriving in May 1980, Fong and his wife lived in San Diego for two years and had their first son. They were unused to what they felt was a cold climate, and when his wife’s parents in Fresno offered to take them in, they gladly accepted.
For the first eighteen months in the States they received welfare, but afterward, Fong had to find simple labor jobs to support his family. A few years ago, he and his wife divorced and he now lives with his 19-year old son. He says he didn’t worry about learning the language and how to survive in the new culture, but he felt very lonely without a large Hmong community to live among, and “it’s been hard to get used to American food.”
Throughout his stay here he has suffered flashbacks of life in the jungle during the war. Loud noises can bring on panic attacks and sometimes he feels in a surreal dream. He still hears the voice of his first wife calling for help.
Fong is glad that he now lives among a group that enables him to maintain Hmong traditions, especially funeral rites. “Some like me value our old way of life, but others ‘go to church’ and become Americanized.”
Fong has nephews still in Laos but he knows he cannot afford to go there. He is saddened that he cannot help them though they live in poverty. Despite difficulties in his life in the U.S., he says, “The best thing was coming to America.”
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and Community Alliance and author of the book Hidden in Plain Sight. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.