Young, Female and Ethnic

Mien Girls Straddle Two Worlds

January 24, 1999


RICHMOND -- Look at them and they could be Japanese or Filipino. Hear them speak and it sounds like a Chinese dialect.

But they belong to none of those groups, Fam Linh Saechao wants the world to know. When kids tease her - put their fingers to their eyes, make ching-chong noises, call her a "Chinese bitch," as they've done for as long as she remembers - it's not the hostility that bothers her as much as the assumption about her ethnicity.

"What I usually say is, "Hey, I'm not Chinese. Before you start calling me names, get to know who I really am,' " says the petite but feisty 17-year-old.

Fam is Mien American. She was born in a Thai refugee camp to Laotian parents who in the early 1970s had to flee the destruction wrought by American and Vietnamese bombs.

In her 11 years in the United States, Fam has learned how to function in two vastly disparate worlds - the gritty streets of urban America, where society is largely ignorant of her culture, and at home, where her role as a daughter is to cook, clean and obey.

The conflicts of young Mien American women such as Fam are captured vividly and honestly in "Quietly Torn," a journal of essays, poems, fiction and photography that debuts this month and is the first publication of its kind to document the Mien experience.

Produced by Pacific News Service, an alternative news agency in San Francisco, and subsidized largely by the Three Guineas Fund, an organization in The City dedicated to helping young women, the one-time journal brings attention to a group that has long existed in this country's darkest corners.

From fighting America's CIA-backed secret war in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and '70s, to eking out a living in the decay of American inner cities, the Iu Mien, as they call themselves, have been virtually invisible.

Since the project began last summer, 15 Richmond girls ages 14 to 17 have written about being torn between the old culture, with its traditional gender roles, and their new culture, where worries about violence are ever-present and immediate. Expressing themselves did not come naturally at first, said project editor Katherine Cowy Kim.

"They're used to being shut down in the community or their family, their words and opinions being negated. They weren't comfortable talking about some issues," Kim said. "Definitely towards the end is when the more difficult stories came out - arranged marriage, domestic violence, eating disorders."

Fam says she started learning how to cook and care for her four younger siblings when she was 5. Her cousin, Yien Wang Saechao, learned how to kill a chicken when she was 12. She usually holds its wings while her mother slits its neck, then lets the blood drain out.

"Sometimes it's sad, just looking at it and killing it, but it's our food," said Yien, whose family, like many Mien, has chickens and a vegetable garden in its back yard.

Fam complains that her younger brother has few chores and looser curfews, but what really bothers her is why Mien girls must learn tasks such as sewing and cooking - to please their husbands and in-laws, with whom custom dictates they will live. The pressure to date and marry only Mien boys is overwhelming.

"If you marry someone outside your ethnic group, it's kind of like saying you're better than them," she said.

Nonetheless, she hopes to marry a non-Mien because, "I don't like the way (Mien) treat women."

In an essay, Cassidy Muey Saeteurn, 16, writes about her parents interfering with her interest in people from different backgrounds.

"My parents are the main reason why all of my relationships with other races do not work out," she said. "They say things that make me feel guilty and it results in me dumping him."

Religion is a central element of Mien family life. For those whose families were converted to Christianity - roughly one-quarter of the local Mien population - both adults and children are dedicated churchgoers.

Fam is learning to read the Bible in the written form of Mien - which uses the Roman alphabet and was invented by Christian missionaries in the late 1960s.

"That way I can feel at least a sense of belonging," she said.

For those whose families practice the traditional animist religion, the superstitions and ceremonies are a mysterious but accepted part of life. For example, their parents will kill a chicken or pig and perform a rite for occasions such as births and weddings, sickness, or if "a bird poops on your head."

"They'll be reading this thing from a book, and I don't understand a word they're saying," said Cassidy.

Once they leave the house, though, the girls say they shed the dutiful daughter persona and are freer to be themselves.

Fam describes herself as "loud, obnoxious and weird." Linda Saelee, 16, says she's the class clown. Mouangwa Saeliew, 16, is a cheerleader. They speak in the vernacular of the hip-hop generation and talk about people they know "doing a drive-by" as though that person is going to a movie.

Mien Americans make up about 10 percent of the 1,560 students at Richmond High School, where being an ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged puts you in the majority. The Mien have the highest GPA at the school, according to Assistant Dean Kal Phan, who said he was the first person of Mien descent in the United States to become a teacher.

Yet they say there's still something missing - acknowledgement by society that they exist.

"We feel left out," said Linda, who has an easy smile and straight black hair that reaches her thighs. "You never see Mien on TV. I would feel better if we had a Mien TV show. Everybody's got their own shows, even Indians."

For some, that void is the beginning of the road that leads to violence.

"I think a lot of them are in gangs because it gives them a sense of identity," said Kim. "They're so alienated from their family because of society and so alienated from society because of their family."

Many have friends or cousins who have been shot or arrested. They know to walk quickly by the corner video store where gang members hang out and avoid the park where drug dealers do their business.

Yien, 15, is so afraid of the streets that she comes straight home from school. Fam worries about what the constant exposure to a violent society will do to her psyche.

"What if I've kept all this anger inside me and one day I lash out and become America's most wanted?" she said. "I worry about my younger siblings. What if they accept this violence as normal and don't say anything if their husband hits them?"

Violence claimed an 18-year-old Mien boy in early January. He was shot in his front yard while working on a car.

"It's really shocking for us," said Phan. "It's hard to comprehend we can survive bullets and bombs falling from airplanes, and this can happen just in the front of your house."

Some Mien teens were born in California but most spent their early years in Thai refugee camps. Few know much about the reasons for their parents' migrations. During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited men from the hill tribes of Laos for their familiarity with the terrain and ability to speak local languages. Families were required to send a son to help fight America's war against communism.

The hill tribes - of which the Hmong are the largest and the Iu Mien the second largest - were farmers with little education. They helped break codes and rescue downed American pilots. At the end of the war, they were essentially abandoned.

"During the war, the CIA made all sorts of promises. "Don't worry,' they said. "If we should lose, we'll take care of you,' " said Phan. "They were all lies."

The soldiers and their families fled to Thailand, crossing the broad Mekong River and praying they would avoid mines and Vietnamese troops.

Many lived in refugee camps for years waiting for refuge in the United States. Families arrived with few job skills and settled in disparate cities such as Portland and in Montgomery, Ala., as well as throughout California. Local community leaders estimate that about 7,000 Mien now live in the Bay Area and 35,000 in the United States.

"Sae," which means surname in Chinese, was added to their last names by the Thais at the refugee camps. Phan, like a small but growing number of Mien Americans, has dropped it from his surname. To Fam, it represents alienation.

"That's how we were labeled as outsiders," she said.

On her living room wall hang three posters, side by side, that exemplify the cultural dissonance.

On the left is a Mien woman in a traditional embroidered costume and silver-laden headdress, put up by Fam's mother. On the right is a smiling Thai actress - Fam's contribution. In the middle is an American calendar put up by Fam's 16-year-old brother showing a buxom, leather-clad blonde straddling a motorcycle.

A photo of the wall is one of many in "Quietly Torn" that captures the complexities of the Mien community. With little photographic experience, four Mien teens, with access that professional photographers can only dream of, documented their friends and family at church, home and school.

"People with good cameras and support and funding will go to communities, and after they've done their work, they'll leave," said Oakland photographer Rick Rocamora who, with grants from the California Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts, coached the teens.

"I've known people who've become famous for that. But they haven't looked back and done something for the community."

The "Quietly Torn" writers say the experience has inspired them to become a voice for their community.

Mouangwa hopes to become a lawyer. Fam wants to go to UC-Davis and major in ethnic studies and political science. Cassidy dreams of heading a company.

"I want to major in international relations and hopefully one day become a CEO of a major, big, rich corporation and travel around the world," Cassidy said. "I want to give back to my community, Richmond, because people be down on it."

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