I recently did a research via interviews in Oakand, CA. I wanted to learn more about Iu-Mien families and how they were either torn, or brought together during and after the war. This is my report:
A Research on the Effects of Migration on Iu-Mien Refugee Families
Asian American Studies 126
November 30, 2010
With the Vietnam War ending just over three decades ago, hundreds and thousands of displaced individuals and families find themselves in various parts of Southeast Asia and western countries; far from their region of origin. As forced and unexpected migration and relocation leaves little room for preparation, Southeast Asian families can become separated in the fleeing to refuge. To attain a better understanding of the effect of this family separation and migration, this research will focus meticulously on one group from Southeast Asia: the Iu-Mien. This research paper will explore and examine the first generation Iu-Mien refugee families found in Oakland, CA and their stories of their migration within Southeast Asia to their final destination in Oakland, CA. Interviews consist of ten different individuals ranging from the ages of 53-70 years old, and arrival to the states at varying years.
A Research on the Effects of Migration on Iu-Mien Refugee Families
While the Vietnam War devastated Southeast Asia over three decades ago, its effects on refugee families reverberate throughout the generations, having the greatest impact on first generation refugee families. With the unexpected departure from their homeland in highland Laos during the Vietnam War, a majority of Iu-Mien families find themselves encased in a series of forced migration and relocation—their final destination for the most part unknown. In these unexpected flights to safety, Iu-Mien families are disallowed from any preparation and assurance of one another’s safety. As a result, the flight to safety of individual Iu-Mien families during the Vietnam War separated many families in its entirety. Very little is known about how the separation of these families has impacted the Iu-Mien families who are here in the United States now. Whether these effects are adverse or helpful, it may provide a spectrum of understanding to the current statuses of many Iu-Mien refugee families today. This research is to look into the forced migration of Iu-Mien families and the effects of this migration and family separation (if any) on the first generation Iu-Mien American families. Questions to be considered consist of:
- What family members, if any, are still in Southeast Asia? If so, what led to them staying behind?
- Do families maintain transnational ties with those left behind? If so, how and why? Has distance altered those relationships?
- How has family separation impacted the Iu-Mien families here?
- Have there been attempts to re-unifying with family members still in Southeast Asia? If so, how?
As the research delves into exploring the effects on first generation refugee families, the Iu-Mien Community Center found in Oakland, CA provides many subjects from the first generation refugee group that can potentially be interviewed. Due to the availability of the subjects for interviewing and the number of subjects present, all interviews have been conducted at this location. Subjects vary in occupation, education level, time of arrival to the United States, and refugee camp experience. While the community center offers ample subjects to be interviewed, the research is bounded by only the experiences of those who frequent the community center. Some of the interviewees are also not residents of Oakland, CA. A lot of the interviewees come daily to the community center to work but their homes reside in Sacramento, CA. The research is also restricted by the subjects’ affiliation to a religious group. Nine out of ten interviewees are Buddhists, but the effects of religious affiliation to family ties and connection appears minimal.
What family members, if any, are still in Southeast Asia? If so, what led to them staying behind?
There is a series of migration that occurred in Southeast Asia alone. While the largest migration may appear to be the departure from Southeast Asia to the United States, the most significant and impacting migration for most of the interviewees occurred from highland Laos, to the refugee camps in Thailand. Such is the case for Fam Yaang (personal interview, November 14, 2010), who was separated from her four siblings when her family was forced to flee to Thailand. Due to her location, she and her family were able to make it out of Laos and arrive at the refugee camps in Thailand. Her four siblings and parents were too far deep in the hills of highland Laos; the geography making them incapable of trekking the arduous journey to Thailand. They are currently residing in Laos. In contrast, family members were not always deprived of the decision to enter the refugee camps. Other family members made conscious decisions to stay. Kuay Seng Chao’s (personal interview, November 21, 2010) relatives made the decision not to come to the United States, in fear that the Americans would “eat up their people”, a popular myth circulating among refugees who feared entering a different country and loss of their culture and language. Many of his cousins currently reside in both Laos and Thailand. In other cases, family members were not eligible to enter the refugee camps, making them ineligible to be sponsored to the United States or other receiving countries. Fay Kuon (personal interview, November 14, 2010) and Lai Jien(personal interview, November 14, 2010) parallel one another as they both individually have one older sister who married Thai citizens, becoming naturalized in Thailand which is where they now both reside. Chan Sio (personal interview, November 14, 2010) had a similar experience with her brother, who during the flight to the refugee camps abandoned his family and married a Thai woman citizen. Fong Saeng Kouay (personal interview, November 21, 2010) has one older sister in Southern China who was married to a Chinese citizen. She still resides there with her family. Mey Kuang Saefong (personal interview, November 21, 2010) has a brother, a sister and a father still in Laos. Her brother was ineligible to come into the refugee camps because of his opium addiction, as anyone who wanted to enter the refugee camps must meet with the drug-free criteria. Mey Kuang Saefong (personal interview, November 21, 2010) did not indicate as to why her sister and father were unable to come but she mentioned that she did enter the refugee camps with her step mother and that her family was very poor. Wuon Kuay (personal interview, November 21, 2010) also has nieces and nephews residing in Laos but does not hear from them often.
For the individuals who have all their family members in the United States, it came as a result of a smaller number of family members. In the case of Chan Saechao (personal interview, November 14, 2010), she had only one surviving sister with her as her older brother had passed away serving in the war and both of her parents passed away from illness. Muong Linh (personal interview, November 21, 2010) had only one surviving older brother who sponsored her over to the United States under family reunification.
For most of these individuals who have family members still in Southeast Asia, the reasons for their absence in the United States varied from geographic disadvantages to ineligibility to enter the camps. These varying reasons become significant later on in understanding the effects of the absences of these family members. Whether one lives a stable life in Thailand or China, or lives under poor conditions in Laos has a significant impact on the Iu-Mien families here both mentally and economically.
Do families maintain transnational ties with those left behind?
If so, how and why?
For many of the family members left behind, the only form of communication occurs via telephone using prepaid calling cards. But before phones were available for use in countries of Laos and Thailand, family members had to record cassette tapes and send them as packages to family members in the United States. Most of these phone calls circulated around the necessity of additional funds to be sent over to Southeast Asia from their American siblings. Mey Kuang Saefong(personal interview, November 21, 2010) tells of her younger sister and father who call to ask for money to build their home. She responded with sending them money using international money transfer such as Western Union or money grams. Her brother who recently dropped his opium addiction also phones her to ask for monetary aid but she can no longer give him any as she herself is very poor. Fam Yaang’s (personal interview, November 14, 2010) four siblings speak to her on a weekly basis. Her mother also sent a recorded cassette tape to ask for money as she was ill and needed monetary aid for care.
The more financially stable Iu-Mien families including Fong Saeng Kouay (personal interview, November 21, 2010) who works for the non-profit organization, Lao Family, retain transnational ties with his sister in China by actually visiting her. Since their separation, he has visited her twice in China but maintains communication via telephone.
Many of these Iu-Mien individuals assuredly retain ties to their family members in Southeast Asia; achieved through telephone conversations with international prepaid calling cards. For those that do not communicate frequently, it is said by the interviewees that the family members in Southeast Asia are doing “well” as the reason why most of their family members back in Laos or Thailand contact them is normally for monetary aid. Transnational ties are not achieved in three of the interviewees’ cases as the reason for the lack of communication is because of their family members doing “well” on their own, which is discovered from asking friends back in Southeast Asia instead of directly asking their family members.
There is also an absence of using letters for communication. The likelihood of a family member in Laos or Thailand that is educated enough to write letters in Thai, Laos, or Romanized Mien and send them to the United States is very low. Many of the Iu-Mien refugees who were unable to get sponsorship continue their lives under very poor conditions with little to no education.
How has family separation impacted the Iu-Mien families here?
Family separation has impacted the Iu-Mien refugee families in various ways. One of the most common effects of family separation from the interviews is the dependency of the family members in Southeast Asia on the family members in the United States. Economic dependency on Iu-Mien families here has become very straining as a majority of the individuals interviewed are not financially stable themselves. Many of the Iu-Mien refugee families in the United States have their own dependency on government assistance and must take care of their immediate family first. It is the scenario in which the poor attempt to help the poor by making themselves poorer. Fam Yaang (personal interview, November 14, 2010) recalls her inability to send funds to help her siblings back in Laos and says that it leaves her with the feeling of “having a debt that doesn’t exist”. Mey Kuang Saefong (personal interview, November 21, 2010) also relates as she tells of her inability to help her family members with monetary aid which leaves her with “a heavy heart” and a continuing burden over her head that she “can’t shake off”. For others whose family members are more financially stable, there is still pressure to help relieve monetary assistance. Fong Saeng Kouay (personal interview, November 21, 2010) is sent herbs or plants from his sister in China to sell to the community in Oakland.
While economic dependency is a very significant effect on the Iu-Mien refugee families here, so is the mental strain from the inability to help family members in need. As noted earlier, family members who tend to have been ineligible to enter the refugee camps due to their marriage with a citizen of Thailand or China, fare far better than those who were too poor or unable to make it to the refugee camps. Those who have siblings that are wedded with citizens do not have as great of a mental or economic burden as those who do not. For the Iu-Mien refugee families here, the call for monetary aid is equivalent to putting their family members’ life on the line. To not assist means an uncertainty of their family members’ survival back in Southeast Asia; a resounding message of helplessness.
The absence of family members here in the United States has also left Iu-Mien refugee families here feeling incomplete. The uncertainty of their family members’ well-being leaves much room for anxiety for first generation Iu-Mien refugees. Fam Yaang (personal interview, November 14, 2010) reveals her longing to see her family again as the separation has caused her to miss her family dearly. Every time she speaks to them over the phone, she cries because of their absence and her lack of funds to help them. This anxiety along with pressures of surviving in the United States can create immense stress and depression for refugee families who come out of the war with recurring trauma. The added stress factors and trauma may explain the large numbers of Iu-Mien refugees in mental health programs here in the United States.
There are many other effects that weren’t noted or observed in this group of interviews but one must remember that all these impacts are still affecting the Iu-Mien refugee families today and those effects can be inherited throughout the generations, such as economic burden and dependency.
Have there been attempts to re-unifying with family members still in Southeast Asia? If so, how?
For all the interviewees who have family members in Southeast Asia, there has been talk but no attempts in trying to reunify their family. This is a result of lack of knowledge on how to reunify with their family members as documentation to legitimize their family tree has become increasingly difficult to attain. Even for the interviewees that were well-educated about the American system of immigration and policies, they too have not successfully reunified with any of their family members. Muong Linh (personal interview, November 21, 2010) who spent more than ten years in the refugee camps was brought over by her brother under family reunification in the early 80s. Family reunification seemed to occur only more frequently during the initial waves of refugees to the United States but as wave after wave came, the influx of refugees made limitations greater. Families that came in the late 70s, the very first families, were able to bring all their immediate families in greater numbers. Such an example would be Fong Saeng Kouay (personal interview, November 21, 2010) who arrived in Oakland in 1979 with his five siblings and three children, and Kuay Seng Chao (personal interview, November 21, 2010) who arrived in 1978 with his eight siblings and five children. Both Fong Saeng Kouay and Kuay Seng Chao were the second and third Iu-Mien refugee families to arrive in the United States.
There is still yet much more information to be researched about the Iu-Mien refugee families and the complications involving family separation and family reunification. While the research consisted of only ten interviews, it gives a resounding message to the effects of Southeast Asian migration during the Vietnam War on families from all spectrums of Southeast Asia. The experiences from these individuals give a brief outlook on the effects of forced relocation and migration of refugees during and after the Vietnam War.