The Hmong: arriving again, with Yee Leng Xiong.
“The torch has been passed to a new generation…”
I had an interesting experience Saturday and it was a very big deal – but let me start at the beginning.
Last year, one of our University of Wisconsin-Marathon County students told me he wanted to run for the D.C. Everest School Board. At 19 years old, Yee Leng Xiong had an unusual combination of intelligence, humility and a desire to make a difference by serving. We went through the paperwork required to get on the ballot and he put together a campaign committee. I told him that almost everyone who ran for local offices such as city council, village board, county board, school board or township offices in our area ran “exempt” campaigns, meaning that they would spend less than $1,000 annually on getting elected. It was pretty much about dropping literature, knocking on doors and getting the word out.
If anything, I thought that a low-cost candidacy would be all the more likely for a college student, but I was wrong. Yee’s candidacy quickly gained legs within the Hmong community and soon, he needed to file campaign finance reports. Literature was printed and passed. He made a television ad:
To make a long story short, Yee won a seat on the school board, edging out a 27-year incumbent by 81 votes. Many more than just Hmong people voted for him to make that happen. Of nearly 31,000 people living in the D.C. Everest District, only around 1,500 are Hmong.
The Hmong are a people and a culture, but they are not a nationality. They began arriving in the Wausau area in the late 1970s as refugees. Hmong had aided the U.S. in Southeast Asia during what is known as “The Secret War,” which was conducted in Laos and involved some 30,000 Hmong fighters under the command of Royal Lao Army General Vang Pao. The Hmong essentially faced extermination in Laos after the war for their collaboration with the U.S.; communists took over there at almost the exact same time as the fall of Saigon. A few were evacuated, but many more made a long and dangerous trek to Thailand on their own, often spending time in refugee camps until eventually being granted status to immigrate.
Adjusting to life in the U.S. took some time and there were growing pains for everyone involved. In April 1994, an article titled “The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau” in the Atlantic magazine by Roy Beck – who would become executive director of the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA just a few years later in 1997 – put the Wausau area’s struggles into the national spotlight:
It was followed by a segment on the CBS news magazine program 60 Minutes. About the time all of this was going on, Yee Leng Xiong was born.
Today, 20 years after the turmoil described in The Atlantic and on 60 Minutes, things are much different. There had been a Hmong member of the Wausau City Council a few years back, but it had been a while. Yee is from a different generation that comprises primarily Hmong young people who have spent their entire lives in the United States. Getting started so young, he has plenty of time to grow into a larger role in the future, but it’s bigger than Yee. He is a paving a path not only for himself, but for others in the Hmong community going forward – and it’s something that was not lost on the people in attendance at Saturday’s celebration. A number of them had been refugees themselves. They long for their children and grandchildren to be successful and to flourish in the land that they suffered so many challenges and personal hardships to come to and make a life. Yee’s election is a powerful symbol of these deeply-held aspirations and because of that, he might as well have been elected governor. As his accomplishment was feted Saturday, hundreds showed up at the Wausau Labor Temple to mark the occasion, from elderly to children.
I can tell you two things that apply to the Hmong celebrations that I am familiar with: they are long and it is not possible to overdress.
The doors opened at 1 p.m. and the event began an hour later. There were speakers, including Sen. Jerry Petrowski, County Administrator Brad Karger, D.C. Everest School Superintendent Dr. Kristine Gilmore and Phil Salamone, a fellow who had filed to run for school board, but then met Yee and told people they should vote for Yee – literally getting out of the way to help make Yee’s election more likely. There were leaders of the Hmong community. There were performers and gifts. Tears of joy were shed. Yee was given an honorary membership in the United States Special Guerilla Unit by Major General Charle Hang, complete with a commemorative medal.
As dinner approached, it was time for the Basi Khe Tes ceremony; the tying of the hands. Led by a shaman, the ritual included white strings which were part of large centerpiece of fruits, eggs and flowers. People took these and one by one, they tied them on to Yee’s wrists as they gave him their personal well wishes, blessings and advice. We ate some fruit kabobs and an elaborately prepared pig was removed from the head table following the ceremony so that it could be served for dinner, which had been carefully prepared and brought to the event. The night party followed.
In all, it was more than 10 hours of celebration and ceremony, effectively forming a profound and poignant bridge between the past and the future. I’m not sure if anyone winning a seat on a school board has ever experienced a greater show of support and honor than Yee Leng Xiong did on Saturday, but it was bigger than politics and Yee or anyone else who was there. After beginning to arrive here more than three decades ago, the Hmong were beginning to arrive here in another way. The Hmong community’s decision to underline the significance of this and mark its historic nature was something that I was happy to be able to take in and to be a small part of. In the context of all that has preceded it, it was a very good idea to make a big deal out of it; good for them, good for Yee and good for all of us.