Volunteer helps Anchorage's growing Hmong population integrate
BREDDY YANG: He focuses on keeping youths out of gangs.
Breddy Yang's story is a reflection of his people's journey from Asia to America.
During the Vietnam War, he was part of the CIA-sponsored Hmong resistance in Laos. Later, he hopped among refugee camps in Thailand. Seventeen years ago, he emigrated to Minnesota, and in 2001, Yang came to Alaska, lured north by the state's mild summers, similar to those he remembered from the mountains of Laos.
Named to the city's Equal Rights Commission by former Mayor George Wuerch, Yang is one of a growing number of Hmong in Anchorage. In 2003, roughly 600 of the 6,000 students in the Anchorage School District for whom English is a second language were Hmong. So many attended Mountain View Elementary School that the district hired a Hmong-speaking bilingual tutor to work there.
According to the Wisconsin-based Lao Human Rights Council, about 300,000 Hmong lived in the United States in 2001, most in Wisconsin, Minnesota and California. So many, in fact, that Wells Fargo installed instructions in the Hmong language on its automated teller machines; you can find them in Anchorage too.
Yang is disabled as a result of a traffic accident several years ago. In Anchorage, he has focused his energies on trying to help the Hmong integrate into the larger community. He is particularly concerned about ganglike behavior among some young Hmong and the difficulties Hmong elders are having as they try to assimilate into a new culture.
Hmong youths are more successful at mastering a new language; their parents and grandparents often find English difficult. The combination can work to create a wedge between generations, Yang said.
"When I got here, I told the Hmong people (to) come together, (that) we have to solve the problems together," he said.
Yang is trying to accomplish that with little steps, gathering parents together to talk about problems and encouraging them to attend community meetings such as the one on gangs and gun violence organized by school and police officials late last year. He also is trying to serve as a bridge between his culture and a broader community that has little experience with or understanding of Hmong traditions.
The Hmong New Year, for example, is the culture's most important holiday. But it traditionally takes place in November, coinciding with the end of harvest time, and is marked by food, dancing and weddings. At Yang's first Hmong New Year in Anchorage, many Hmong families gathered to celebrate in the traditional way, by sacrificing a rooster. A neighbor called police.
"She said it's torture of the rooster and it's not fair," Yang recalled. "She's a very good old lady. She told the people she (had) never seen our culture ... and she misunderstood. ... We told the police that we were just doing our culture."
For the Hmong, Yang said, such sacrifices are symbolic attempts to change bad luck to good or assist the passing of a loved one.
"We're going from the old year. We tell the rooster ... to take up the unlucky things like an accident or something (that) is not good for the people. The new year, everybody should be lucky, get what he wish (for) ... and to be a good person."
Barbara Jones, executive director of the Equal Rights Commission, said she is impressed by Yang's efforts. He invited her and other local leaders, including School District Superintendent Carol Comeau, to a Hmong New Year celebration in December. They spoke at the event where more than 200 Hmong were gathered in traditional costume.
"He's doing an intriguing type of outreach in his role, and I think it's very effective," Jones said. "He's letting his people know who to contact if you have a question about schools or equal rights. He's bringing (us) to his people."
In a series of interviews, Yang discussed the growth of the Hmong community in Alaska. Excerpts from those interviews follow, edited for length.
Q. Why is the Hmong community in Anchorage growing so quickly? What causes that?
A. I think (many are) moving from a different state. Some are from North Carolina, mostly from California, and some are from Minnesota. Some are from Michigan, some are from Rhode Island and many different states.
Q. Why do they come here?
A. This state, the weather is much like our country -- not too much people, and fresh air. In this country, in this state, (we have) mountains, fresh water, everything.
Q. But in Laos, they don't have snow.
A. We don't have snow. But the nature and the weather is like here in summer. It's cool. Very cool in summers. The other states, very hot in the summer, very cold in the winter. ... That's what they don't like.
Q. In Minnesota, were there the same problems as in Anchorage?
A. At the beginning, it's the same. But there's no problem (there) now. There's a big Hmong community. The neighbors, they see it very often.
Q. Could you describe the community in Alaska a little bit?
A. (In Laos), we start learning, started writing in Lao language, but we never (knew) English. The old people, they couldn't catch it, they could not speak English. But the children, they have more education, they can speak English. ... But they ... have too much fun, and they are mixed up (about) the way they want to go. The youth get involved with drugs. Some have guns. And some people make trouble.
Q. You think there are cultural reasons?
A. I think it's (because) the parent cannot control ... their children because the children speak English and we don't speak English. We talk to children, (tell them to) go to school, follow the rules, obey the government's rules and go to church. The children said, 'I don't like parents to instruct ... too much.' The parent doesn't know how to speak with the police and children can speak English; the children explain a different way to them.
Q. Are you saying the children are interpreting Hmong for the parents?
A. Yes, they ... make the police misunderstand with the parents, so the parents (are) just scared about that. Because they scared of the rules, they scared of the law, they don't speak English. That's the problem in the Hmong community. They need their children to be a good population, to be good people, to survive in this country, but they cannot control their children. Lack of education, lack of English. ... We don't have the organization to reach out to groups, to communicate to each other, and we don't have the authority.
Q. Do you think the police, for example, need a Hmong liaison? At Mountain View Elementary, they have interpreters now because there are so many Hmong children. Do you feel government agencies need more?
A.The city should (have) one of (the) Hmong people working there to represent and help the Hmong people. Like the courts should have a Hmong in there. ... (and) the hospital, school and police department.