Ue and Pha Vang (back) sit with their son Ethan, left, and grandkids Preston and Fina at their home in Onalaska. (Rory O'Driscoll/La Crosse Tribune)
Pha and Ue Vang maintain brave faces, smiling occasionally, as they talk about the challenges of raising three orphaned grandchildren.
But sporadically, pain peeks through their eyes as they chronicle their lives since their son-in-law, Dang Xiong, killed their daughter, Pahoua, and then committed suicide in La Crosse in May 2009.
“Our life was turned upside-down,” Ue said. “The first year was really hard.”
Making that year tougher was the birth of their own son Ethan just two months later. He had heart problems that eventually required surgery and was diagnosed with Down syndrome.
“We have been through a lot,” Pha said.
In the Vangs’ Hmong culture, the father’s side of the family normally would be responsible for the orphaned children. But after a battle, the Vangs won custody of the two boys — Anthony, now 8, and Fue, 7 — and Ariel, 5.
The children can visit the father’s relatives, Pha said, adding, “So far, we don’t have any objections to them spending days or nights with them.”
Pha, 50, and Ue, 43, are among the roughly 1,500 La Crosse County residents who live in the same house as their grandchildren, and among about 400 who are responsible for raising their grandchildren.
Originally from Laos, the Vangs came to the United States in 1985. They moved to La Crosse in 2002 and to their modest, three-bedroom home in Onalaska in 2005.
In addition to Pahoua’s children, the Vang household includes their other son, Pao, his wife, Panhia, and their two children, 2-year-old Fina and 5-month-old Preston. Pha and Ue take care of Fina and Preston during the day while their parents work. When the Vangs aren’t working themselves, that is. Pha is a teacher’s assistant from 8:30 a.m. to noon, when he goes home so Ue can get an hour’s sleep before she goes to her nurse’s assistant job from 2 to 11 p.m.
Juggling work and caregiving is the biggest challenge, Pha said.
“In our culture, usually the elders stay home and watch the kids,” he said. “In our case, we are still working and watching the kids, too. We have to arrange our schedules to take the kids to the doctor, too.”
For example, Pha takes Anthony to counseling sessions for depression and anxiety related to his parents’ stormy relationship and ultimate deaths.
“He feels bad about himself,” Pha said. “I am trying to get help for him. He’s on a waiting list for a Big Brother.”
With all of the caregiving, Pha said, “I don’t have time for myself. But there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re hoping that, when the kids grow bigger, we will have time for ourselves.
“Every day, we hope someday everything will be fine and we will be a happy family again,” he said.
When the stress seems like too much, he said, “Friends come and talk to us and calm us down.”
The Vangs also get help from agencies such as the La Crosse County Birth-to-3 Program. The program provided services for Ethan, who moved on to preschool Friday.
Susan Fossen, who works at the Parenting Place and is service coordinator for the B-3 program, said she will miss the little guy and the Vangs.
“I’ve been completely impressed with them from the first time I met them,” Fossen said. “They have such unwavering love and support for their children and their grandchildren.
“There is no difference in the love they give to their son and to their grandchildren,” Fossen said. “They are thoughtful, calm and loving.”
Pha’s advice for other grandparents tasked with raising their grandchildren: “You should have a lot of fun with your grandkids. Sometimes, you love them more than your own. They’re adorable, and you should get to know and love them.”
Hmong traditions buoy the Vangs’ hope for the future.
“American culture is different,” Pha said. “In our culture, family is the most important thing. Together, we solve problems, with more people, more ideas and more hands.
“In the old country, there was no Social Security, but caring for each other replaced it,” Pha said.
Ue added with a smile: “In our culture, when we get older, they will take care of us and not send us to a nursing home.”
Most of the stuff on this blog are Internet sites, with the sources reference to back to the articles. Even though I am Hmong, myself, I still am learning about my culture every day.
Usually when people ask my ethnicity, I used to hesitate to tell them what my ethnicity is because most people do not know what the heck Hmong is! As I grew older, I learn to appreciate my culture. True, there is not much written in books about Hmong people. However, over time, thanks to the Internet, more sources are available. In the end, I've educated others about the Hmong culture.
I've been criticized of not being Hmong enough. Why? My husband is not Hmong. Sometimes in life, we don't pick and choose who we fall in love with. I'm more Hmong than some Hmong people who claim to have Hmong pride. Just because my husband isn't Hmong or I don't attend Hmong events doesn't make me less Hmong. Doing all that doesn't mean you're more Hmong. I educate myself in the Hmong culture and teach others about it. I can not shelter myself from others and expect others to know who Hmong people are.
The purpose of this blog is for me to blog about anything about the Hmong culture, language, clothing, events, whatever. I wanted a place to come back to share with friends. Before I used to send out emails about my findings. Now I can blog about it.