Porge Xiong family five years later

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The tears start for Mai Vang Yang when her husband Porge Xiong describes a language barrier as their biggest struggle as they attempt to make Oshkosh their home..

As refugees from Laos, this obstacle is certainly the most difficult part of making a good life in the city.

"The language is not too bad for me but for her it is bad," Xiong said.

Yang takes English as a Second Language classes through Fox Valley Technical College and she has had one-on-one tutoring, but still she finds it difficult to grasp a new language. Her children, who attend Oshkosh public schools, have mastered English. They accompany her when she goes on appointments but they are busy with school and homework and have little time to practice language skills with their mother, Xiong said.

Xiong, whose job is stacking large slabs of wax at Blended Waxes Inc., works all week with people who speak English. Due to interaction with co-workers Xiong's skills are advanced beyond those of his wife. But he, too, has a ways to go before he can be considered fluent.

Xiong spoke to a reporter Friday through Phang Xiong, an interpreter who works for Advocap as a refugee specialist, at the family's Murdock Avenue apartment. His wife occupied the couple's two youngest children, Leah Xiong, a 4-year-old daughter, and John Xiong, a 2-year-old son, who played and rode on small plastic bicycles.

Yang dabbed at her eyes and spoke in her native tongue in a tremulous voice when her husband uttered the words about her difficulty with the language barrier.

Later in a phone interview, the couple's 16-year-old son Cha Lee Xiong, a student at Oshkosh North High School, agreed that language is the most difficult part of assimilating into a new culture and a new country. But it's not enough to make him yearn for the refugee camp. "It's OK here," the boy said.

Xiong and Yang, both 42, came to the United States in 2004 from Wat Tham Krabok, a refugee camp in Thailand. They were sponsored by Catholic Charities of Green Bay, an agency that helped them get on their feet financially. They moved to Oshkosh in 2006 for Xiong to take a job after first settling in Manitowoc for two years. They are among the more than 300 Hmong who arrived in the Fox Cities from 2004 to 2006 as part of what likely will be the last major resettlement of Hmong refugees in this country.

hey were among 3,258 refugees flown to Wisconsin from Thailand after the U.S. government agreed to absorb one more wave of the Lao people who secretly helped the CIA and military fight communists during the Vietnam War.

Apartment life in Oshkosh is a far cry from the life Xiong remembers in Laos where existence centered around a simple agrarian lifestyle and not getting into a car and driving to a job miles from home. He felt more independent in Laos where he was free to raise his own animals and crops. He was self-sufficient. He was his own boss.

"I didn't have to worry about bills, paying rent. I didn't have a supervisor," Xiong said, smiling.

In Laos Xiong operated a small food store in addition to his farming work. He made sticky rice, noodles, chicken and sauces. He has been able to put those old skills to use here from time to time as a food vendor at soccer tournaments and other events. He continues gardening too, raising peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuces for the family kitchen.

Some things remain the same, but so much has changed for Xiong. He traded a bamboo hut for a two-story apartment close to a street busy with traffic. Though the family has had to make many adjustments Xiong knows the move was a good one for him, his wife and their eight children. If he can save the money Xiong would like to go back to visit his homeland but he is not interested in living there anymore, he said.

"Here we find more education for the children. This is the most important thing for the future," Xiong said.

Their children – five daughters and three sons - range in age from 19 to 2. Their two oldest daughters are married and live in their own homes. Mai Kauo Xiong, 19, already is the mother of three children. Some of the younger children are planning to go to college.

Xiong and Yang were on a waiting list to come to the United States for a long time. They eagerly anticipated the opportunity to come but admit it has been a struggle. Life in the United States is so different from life in the Thai refugee camp. Hmong families value close relationships with extended family. A typical Hmong family in Laos consists of a family made up of multiple generations. Not here. Xiong and Yang feel a sense of loss about this. Many of her relatives live nearby but some of Xiong's relatives are in California.

"In the camp we lived with relatives together. Here we are separated. It is difficult to see relatives," Xiong said.

Each year the struggle to fit in eases a bit. "It was hardest at first, but it gets easier," Xiong said.

Xiong and his wife look forward to the day when they become U.S. citizens. But even that poses a hardship because the application requires a $675 fee for each one.

"If you have eight kids that's a lot of money," said Phang Xiong.


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