Editor’s note: The following is a continuing series of excerpts from “Come to the Edge: Arrival and Survival in Del Norte County” by College of the Redwoods English Professor Ruth Rhodes.
A Hmong refugee from genocide in Laos, Pang Hona Xiong went from teen bride to mother to community leader. In her essay, she describes the joys and challenges of integrating into Del Norte County:
I came to the United States in 1991 when I was seven years old. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand call Ban Vinai.
My father was a solider during the Vietnam War. He fought communists in the “secret war” in Laos on the behalf of the Americans.
After the war, he escaped to Ban Vinai. They arrested him fornot having legal documents to enter the camp. But with luck on his side, one of his cousins just happened to be in the camp, and she heard that someone named Xiong had just arrived and was in the jail. She went to see if it was a relative, and she saved him by identifying him.
I remember a lot about the camps I lived in. In Ban Vinai, I remember attending church with my parents every weekend. The Catholic Church was beautiful and breathtaking. So were the green fields filled with mango trees, rose bushes, daisies, and lantanan camara flowers. I remember walking the path up a hill, past a cemetery, past farm fields, and down the hill to get there. The best memory was playing with my siblings and friends. I remember there was a little hilltop filled with clay. Every day after school, we would all get together to see who could make the best art out of clay. The camp was beautiful in a way. We were surrounded by mountains and jungle on one side, rice paddies on the other owned by local Thai families. It was a lot like Crescent City, where there are Redwoods on one side and the blue Pacific Ocean on the other side.
In Ban Vinai, many families didn’t have access to the outside world. The closest city was 24 hours away. It was quiet and peaceful.
Although farming was very limited, we had a tiny parcel where my dad could plant some pineapples, banana trees, and yams. But for the most part, we depended on outside assistance. The United Nations provided food once a month, which didn’t last long. We got rice and a small amount of meat—maybe fish, pork, or chicken every month.
Some families depended on their families from overseas to send them money. Some found ways to sell things at the market so that they had money to buy clothes, shoes, household items, or to send their children to school.
In the camp, my dad was a blacksmith. He had a shop left to him from his cousin when he and his family left for America. We were not rich by any standard, but we were better off than some because of that income.
After living in Ban Vinai for thirteen years, my father decided to bring his wife and children to America for a better life, so we could better ourselves.
My family was sent to another camp called Phanat Nikhom, the one everyone must go through in order to come to America. It was a terrible place, nothing like Ban Vinai. It was loud and frightening.
There were watchtowers and barbed wire. Anyone who went near the fence got shot. We heard screaming and gunshots every night.
The camp was filthy. Now, whenever I walk past the sewage treatment facility on Front Street, it always makes me think of the camp and how it smelled. We were there for about a year. In Phanat Nikhom, there’s not much for families to do to earn a living. For many families, the women and young girls would do embroidery (called Paj Ntaub) and send them to their families overseas to sell them. Everyone in this camp depended on outside assistance.
One of my worst experiences in the camp was when my siblings and I walked to the well to fetch water. We met a group of young officers on their day off, going to play volleyball and Seepak Takraw.
One of them had a huge husky dog with him, and he let it go, and it attacked me. I was on the ground struggling to get up. He was screaming at it, shouting for the dog to kill me. He was screaming at me, too, shouting “Go back to where you came from.” A group of young men and women surrounded us and finally made the guard take pity on me and pull his dog off.
When we first arrived, we came to Fresno. My biggest challenge was learning the language. I struggled until I was in middle school.
There was little support in the schools, and although my parents were usually involved in my education—they attended every Parent-
Teacher conference and all school activities. Even though they had trouble understanding the language and what was being said at these functions, they felt they needed to support us to give us a future, so we wouldn’t have to suffer like they did. Being present was important to them.
Every day I tried hard to fit in, but the language barrier kept me out of activities and from making friends. Most of the other Hmong kids in Fresno could speak English, so even among them I sometimes felt like an outsider. As far as the school was concerned,
I was not allowed to do what other students were doing because I couldn’t speak English. I was not even allowed to participate in school activities like sports or dancing.
In 2000 as young newlyweds, my husband and I moved to Crescent City. I enrolled at Del Norte High School. During my junior and senior years, I encountered bullying because I was so different.
My junior year, I was pregnant with my daughter, Angelina Khou Vue who is now in high school herself. Some students did not want me to stay at the high school because I was pregnant. I had students come up to me during lunch time, threatening to hurt me if I didn’t transfer to Sunset High School. They said I was going to put a bad reputation on the high school if I didn’t leave. Some students even threatened to have their parents bring lawsuits if the school let me stay.
But that didn’t stop me. I saw graduation as very important to my future, and I didn’t want to go to Sunset. I thought the education would be better at the main high school. During that year, there were five Del Norte High students who were pregnant, including me. The other four left for Sunset or dropped out. But I told my bullies, “I have the right to stay. I have the right to have the same educational opportunities, just like everyone else.”
Not only did I stay, but I brought my daughter to school with me the next year almost every day. My mother-in-law said she would understand if I wanted to drop out, but dropping out was the last thing on my mind. My husband would remind me to be positive about my schooling. His words of courage and support, along with the thought of setting a good example for my daughter, helped keep me going. Also, the administration and teachers were very supportive. I am grateful for that. I’ve been told I was the first young mother to graduate from Del Norte High.
What are the shortfalls for Crescent City? What we lack are decent paying jobs, a four-year university, and a shopping mall. In Crescent City, not many young folks stay after graduating from high school. For example, in the Hmong community many students leave to the cities where there are more job opportunities and four-year colleges. For those like myself with a family to support,
I would have to commute to Humboldt State University to get a degree. But commuting is not easy for many because it’s very time consuming and expensive.
A decent-paying job is hard to find in Crescent City if you don’t have a four-year college degree. If a person has a big family, working at a fast food restaurant is not enough to provide for their family. In Crescent City, we either work for the Del Norte Unified School District, the city, the county, the Pelican Bay Prison, or law enforcement. I know many families where the adults have to work two jobs to bring in a decent income.
Finally, it would be wonderful if we could have a shopping mall in town. My kids and I enjoy going shopping, but the long drive makes it difficult during the winter and raining season due to rock slides, and icy or flooded roads. But if we could have a shopping mall that would help our local families and small businesses generate income, it could be a valuable asset to our community.
What are some of the positive things about Crescent City?
Right away this place reminded me of home, of Ban Vinai Camp, surrounded by mountains and forest. Crescent City has a lot of great places to see within a short driving distance, too. We have the beaches and restaurants, hiking and walking trails, the Smith River, the piers, the jetty, and beautiful Battery Point Light House.
My family enjoys outdoor activities. Every summer we would spend our summer fishing and crabbing out in the harbor or on the pier. We also enjoy going hiking, camping, and swimming in the majestic Smith River. My family also enjoys going hunting during the hunting season.
Another highlight in Crescent City is having youth sports available to our children year-round. The youth sports bring families and children together. Allowing our children to participate in the youth sports is a fantastic way for them to explore and develop lifelong skills. These sports are available to our children because of the great community members and local businesses donating their time and money to make it possible.
One more positive thing about Crescent City is our high school. Every year the Del Norte High School Scholarship Foundation Committee hands out hundreds and thousands of dollars of scholarships to our high school graduates. These scholarships are made by our generous local families and local businesses. It’s wonderful to see that our community appreciates, values, and cares about our children’s education and their future.
—January 25, 2018