Tradition, Change and a Hmong Family: A Photo Essay

FRESNO, Calif. — Leenee Vue, 24, tosses her backpack in her dusty Toyota Corolla and drives to class on this particular day late last year. She’s a junior at Fresno State University. She’s studying business.Dirt from her mother’s garden plot remains under her fingernails and stalks of sugarcane and lemongrass sit piled in the back of her car.

FRESNO, Calif. — Leenee Vue, 24, tosses her backpack in her dusty Toyota Corolla and drives to class on this particular day late last year. She’s a junior at Fresno State University. She’s studying business.

Dirt from her mother’s garden plot remains under her fingernails and stalks of sugarcane and lemongrass sit piled in the back of her car.

She is thriving in class. But until the age of 15, she didn’t speak a word of English. She had never experienced formal education.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, Hmong people throughout the world have lived in exile. Fearing retribution from Communists following the U.S. withdrawal from Asia, many fled their native lands in Laos and Vietnam and filled refugee camps in Thailand. From there, the Hmong diaspora grew to include Australia, Europe and the United States.

Her family came to the United States in 2004 after living in a string of Southeast Asian refugee camps, including a Buddhist monastery that did not provide education for girls. They are part of the changing face of the United States.

Now, living together in a two-bedroom duplex in Fresno, she and her family walk the line between preserving their past and embracing, what can be at times, a disorienting future.

“When I first came here, I didn’t want to go outside, I was afraid of interacting with people,” she says. “For two years, I just went to school and came home.”

At home, her mom, Yia Vang, helps care for the grandchildren. She also harvests sugarcane at a community garden. In the Hmong community in this city in Central California, many traditions have changed. Young people have more autonomy over what they become as adults.

For many Hmong in the United States, the old depend on the young, as they understand that young people will learn the culture faster. Despite change, Hmong culture remains quite strong.

“We believe that if we expose our traditions to our children (they will continue),” she says.

Vue wants to become an independent businesswoman when she graduates and plans on opening an import-export business. In many ways, her story is becoming a familiar one in her new home country.

“But I will always live with my (extended) family,” she said. “I think I should stay with them, because we might still need each other.”

This essay and these images are from Mike Kane, a Seattle-based photojournalist. This essay was revised on Jan. 16 to give the correct spelling for Yia Vang.

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