He’s upward bound

Chico State administrator Alex Vue bridges two generations of Hmong immigrants

Alex Vue and his wife, Bao Thao, are raising their children to respect Hmong traditions, even as they plan for a future in the West.

Alex Vue and his wife, Bao Thao, are raising their children to respect Hmong traditions, even as they plan for a future in the West.

Courtesy Of Alex Vue

Alex Vue is a man of two worlds. An American citizen, Vue has spent most of his life in California, but before he was born his father, a Hmong soldier who fought on behalf of the United States during the Vietnam War, had to lead the family out of a poor village in Laos with the enemy at their heels.

As one of many Hmong in America with similar stories, Vue is actively trying to honor the elders in his community by teaching the youth to respect them and their sacrifices. At the same time, he’s leading high school students toward a Western education.

In a small administrative office on the Chico State University campus decorated with pictures of his own children, the 30-year-old Vue actively recruits Hmong and other East Asian students as a coordinator for Chico State Upward Bound, a program supporting first-generation college students from low-income families.

Vue’s own path to Chico began with a terrifying ordeal for his parents, who were living with their three daughters in a village near the Thailand-Laos border in the 1970s.

“The Hmong didn’t know about the West until the war,” said Vue. “Most everyone who came to the U.S. has family members who fought.”

When the family’s village was sacked, Vue’s parents fled, heading through the jungle to the Mekong River in order to pass secretly into Thailand.

Of the three daughters, only one was old enough to travel quietly, without alerting the communist soldiers. The two others were very young, said Vue. They cried, and his parents were forced to leave them behind. To this day, no one knows what happened to the girls.

The family traveled at night with other villagers carrying their dishes and pots and children through the jungle. When the small clan bumped into a couple of Lao hunters in the late night hours, Vue said, they scrambled across a road in fear but were stopped by barbed wire. Trapped there, they found that one of the two hunters spoke Hmong. The pair helped the whole group toward the Mekong River, Vue explained.

At the final step of their journey, said Vue, the Hmong had to pay the boatmen whatever they had to cross the deep and wide river into Thailand. Many people lost family members when rafts capsized or were deliberately overturned by boatmen who could swim but knew that their charges could not.

A family photograph shows Vue’s grandparents on his mother’s side. Vue’s family lived near the Laos-Thailand border during the Vietnam War

Courtesy Of Alex Vue

In December 1976, after the family had settled into a Thai refugee camp, Vue was born, the first son in his family.

The Vues traveled to a sponsor’s home in Hawaii and then followed family members to California, where Vue’s parents divorced.

Word got out that Vue’s mother, Zer Her, was on her own with young children.

“In the Hmong community,” said Vue, “we say our voice is faster than the telephone, faster than light.”

Chia Xang Lee, who had been orphaned at a young age and had helped U.S. pilots survive in the jungle during the war, became Vue’s stepfather. Vue gave all four of his children the middle name “Lee” in his honor.

Like many Hmong, Vue’s family came to the U.S. because they were promised a new life for their service to the U.S. military.

As part of a program that prepares immigrant youth for college, Vue acts as a bridge for some of these families, leading their children toward a successful life in the West, even as the parents still pine for Laos.

The 2000 census reports that there are 2,887 Hmong in Butte County, 1,950 of whom are foreign born, 2,347 of whom speak a language other than English at home.

Vue works with a number of cultural groups that recently helped resettle a new influx of 15,000 Hmong immigrants. There are now an estimated 5,000 Hmong living in Butte County, said Vue.

For these communities, the challenges of assimilation are very real. For instance, there is still very little language support for Northstate Hmong who must navigate Western health care systems. Khammany Mathavongsy of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center said that switching from Medi-Cal to Medicare for prescription drugs has been extremely difficult. “There are not a lot of bilingual materials to help them understand the complex federal program,” said Mathavongsy.

Vue’s daughters attend traditional celebrations wearing Hmong costumes handmade by their grandmother.

Courtesy Of Alex Vue

The Hmong elders also have difficulty with Western doctors and hospitals, and they don’t necessarily trust their English-speaking children, who lack cultural sensitivity, to guide them through the process. The misunderstandings have led to medical misfortune. For instance, Mathavongsy mentioned the case of one Lao woman in Fresno who was in jail for 10 months for not complying with the treatment regimen for tuberculosis, which is highly contagious. The woman didn’t understand the directions.

To help ease the continuing confusion, Vue recently participated in the first annual Southeast Asian American Healthy Aging Leadership & Advocacy Training, joining other community leaders, elders and health care providers in a two-day conference on how to work within the legislative system. The conference took Vue and others to various legislative offices, where they argued for language support services.

“The problem is the state doesn’t have the money to help,” said Mathavongsy.

While taking a tentative step toward political activism, Vue is also trying to improve communication between the traditional Hmong elders who still miss Laos and their young, Westernized kids.

According to Vue, many members of the younger generation won’t speak Hmong or answer to it. “My brothers and sisters,” he said, “are kind of ashamed of the culture.” He says they feel as if the East hasn’t advanced as far as the West.

“I try to educate them to value our own culture and admire our own culture,” Vue said.

Vue’s family has maintained many of the Hmong traditions. While many in the community have converted to Christianity and let their Hmong language skills lapse, Vue speaks Hmong at home and follows a community shaman—Vue’s stepfather, Lee.

“He became a healer for those with losses in their souls,” Vue explained.

But the older generation is aging, and Vue believes that within the next 10 to 20 years his community will be completely assimilated.

“We don’t speak the [Hmong] language. We don’t go out and work the crops. We dress in Westernized clothing. … I try to open the connections,” said Vue. “We need to keep educating the young.”

Though Vue dresses in slacks and button-down shirts and looks like a young Westerner, he says he still feels culturally affiliated with his elders.

“I’m between generations,” he said.