Two Hmong-Americans discuss life in Tulsa three decades after they immigrated to the U.S.
In 1979, Charles Ck Thao fled his home in Laos. Today, he says his life in Tulsa is “100 percent different” from what it could have been. The father of six children is pastor of Tulsa’s Hmong Baptist Church and has worked for NORDAM for 28 years.
The Vietnam War has recently ended. Two children from different remote villages in the highlands of Laos eye the enormous metal “birds” that will take them more than 7,000 miles from home.
The commercial airplanes will carry them and their refugee families on separate journeys to new lives in the United States. One child is suspicious; the other excited about the possibilities that await.
However different their outlooks about the long trips before them, both are eager to escape the fear that has followed them in their homeland for far too long.
Fear of death at the hands of the North Vietnamese Army drove their families to flee Laos for refugee camps in neighboring Thailand.
Fear of starvation also threatened the subsistence farmers for years. Over and over, war forced them to abandon their fields — which contained precious rice, their dietary staple — just before harvest.
Thirty years later, the children are Hmong-Americans living in Tulsa with children of their own.
Here are their stories.
WHO ARE THE HMONG?
Hmong is an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
The origins of the Hmong are disputed, but they can be traced to China, according to the Lao Family Community of Minnesota Inc. (LFCM). U.S. Census data indicates Minnesota is home to the greatest concentration of Hmong-Americans — more than 66,000 in 2010.
Historically, some Chinese dynasties tried to enslave the Hmong, who sought to preserve their freedom and culture, according to the LFCM. Hmong means “free people.”
Charles Ck Thao
Charles Ck Thao is raising the second generation of Hmong-Americans — six of them.
Large families are common among the Hmong, who have a dominant family hierarchy.
“We believe that the father and mother are always the heads of the family, and every child needs to obey their parents,” says Thao, whose children range from ages 14-27.
Family is especially important to 49-year-old Thao, who fled Laos as an orphan in 1979. Thao’s grandmother and aunt raised him and his three siblings after his father died and his mother remarried.
War overshadows Thao’s only memories of Laos, where he lived until he was 14.
“We used to work in the field 8-10 hours a day, all our life,” he recalls.
Hmong families in Laos cultivated crops year-round, he explains. Most raised rice to eat throughout the year, corn to feed their livestock and to supplement the family’s diet, and opium, which was a cash crop used to buy clothing and other products.
The Communist invasion forced residents of his village into Thai refugee camps, where Thao taught himself rudimentary English. He and his family eventually immigrated to Kankakee, Ill.
In 1982, Thao relocated to Tulsa with his uncle, who found a job as a stairway polisher.
“He wanted me to come with him to translate for him,” he says. “I also wanted to start a life — to go to school and find a job.”
Thao graduated from Central High School, where he met his future wife, Bea Moua, another Hmong refugee. Tulsa’s First Lutheran Church sponsored her family’s move from Thailand to Tulsa in 1976.
After earning his associate’s degree from OSU Institute of Technology, Thao found a job at NORDAM through a connection at Tulsa Baptist Temple. He repairs and assembles fan reversers for Boeing and Airbus jets and celebrated 28 years at NORDAM on Oct. 27.
“I built my precious life through this company,” he says.
Indeed, Thao’s life in Tulsa is “100 percent different” than if he had remained in his native country, he says. Thousands of Hmong did stay in Laos, either by choice or because they missed the window of opportunity for political asylum.
“If I didn’t come over here, I might have passed away already,” he says. “I think the Lord had the American people get involved in the war so that we could have a chance to come over here.”
Thao attributes other life events to a divine hand, as well.
During childhood, Thao “was able to do things I didn’t really know how to do,” he says, such as learn English more quickly than his relatives and help his grandmother raise his siblings. “I realized that it wasn’t on my own. It was the Lord who helped me step by step all this time.”
It was that understanding that led Thao to become a Christian in 1986 and eventually minister to other Hmong-Americans.
“We went to church, and I learned about the Lord, who has almighty miracles and love and helps us,” he says. “Then I realized that since he served me, it was time for me to serve him.”
Ten Christian families, including Thao’s, founded the Hmong Alliance Church in 1988. It’s the largest Hmong congregation in the Tulsa metro area, he says.
In 1996, his family and four others helped start an Owasso congregation. Thao’s family later helped start a third church, the Hmong Baptist Church, which he now leads as pastor.
Today the local Hmong-American community has seven Christian churches comprising approximately 1,000 members in four denominations, Thao says.
Shamanism remains the predominant religion among Hmong-Americans, according to various sources. The practice involves the worship of ancestors and belief in supernatural healing by shamans, Thao says.
Though he has veered from Hmong tradition in the religious sense, Thao remains connected to other cultural practices, including celebration of the Hmong New Year each fall.
“The New Year is very important for our people because we celebrate the harvest and everything we’ve done all year,” he says. “It’s also a time to visit relatives.”
The multi-day festival also is “the only time I can take my son to look for a wife,” he says.
It is rare for Hmong-American parents to arrange their children’s marriages — a common practice in Laos — but some take the opportunity during Hmong New Year to point out potential spouses their children should consider.
Marriage is a cornerstone of Hmong culture, Thao says.
“A man or woman does not have any chance to serve the community if they are not married,” he says.
The Thaos urge their children to marry Hmong Christians, he says, but the choice is ultimately theirs. Thao’s eldest daughter married a non-Hmong Vietnamese man. His family is Buddhist and does not speak much English.
“When we come together, we don’t have much to say,” he laughs. “We still love them as our children.”
As president of the Hmong American Association of Oklahoma, Linda Lor is a bit of an anomaly. The state employee says her position in the community reflects a cultural shift in gender roles among the traditionally patriarchal Hmong.
“We are changing as we blend into the Western culture,” says Lor, who has five children. “Now, husbands and wives have an equal partnership where both have to work and share duties.”
Still, Hmong-American women must respect and follow the lead of their husbands, Lor says.
“If you respect your husband, then the community respects your husband and your family earns respect from the whole community,” she says.
Lor and her Hmong-American husband, Vachain, have lived in Oklahoma since 2008, when they relocated from St. Paul, Minn.
“My husband chose to come here because he was tired of the cold,” she says.
Frigid temperatures were one of many shocks Lor received when she arrived in Minnesota from Laos in 1981. The little girl had never seen snow, which was plentiful the December her family arrived.
“The ground was white and Christmas lights were up,” she recalls. “It was like nothing I’d seen before. I thought, ‘We are in heaven.’”
Tears still wet Lor’s cheeks when she recalls her family’s harrowing escape through the jungle to Thailand. She estimates the journey took at least three weeks, during which they survived on leaves, roots and uncooked rice. Her youngest brother, an infant at the time, nearly died.
“He was hungry and wet and was crying, so my mom had to dose him with opium to put him to sleep,” she says. “We couldn’t make any noise.
“I saw people die right in front of me. Those memories have haunted me for a long time.”
In her new home, Lor was surprised to find electricity, indoor plumbing and Western clothing.
“I had never been exposed to pants,” she laughs. People in Laos wore traditional Hmong dress, which is handmade with pleated fabrics.
At school, Lor felt out of place. She found her teacher’s brightly lipsticked mouth — and unrecognizable words — mesmerizing.
“I was terrified but trying to blend in, too,” she says of the experience.
Eventually, Lor mastered English and translated for her parents. She graduated high school and earned her bachelor’s degree in business. After moving to Tulsa, she obtained her master’s degree.
Lor blazed her own path in leadership because of a passion for her community. She describes her position as a key role. As the first woman in this position, she hopes to influence the next generation of Hmong-American women.
“It took 30 years for a female to step up, and I was like the icon to the community,” she says. “My whole goal is to inspire other females — to say, ‘Step out of your shell. Yes, you can be in a leadership role.’”
Hmong immigration to the U.S. and Oklahoma
During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited about 30,000 Hmong in Laos to fight Communist forces under Gen. Vang Pao of the Royal Lao Army, according to the Lao Family Community of Minnesota Inc. (LFCM). This classified operation became known decades later as the Secret War.
In return for their military service, the Hmong received a promise of protection by the U.S. government.
The LFCM reports that hundreds of thousands of Hmong were killed in the conflict, and about 100,000 fled to Thai refugee camps in 1980. Most ultimately resettled in Western countries, including the U.S., where they were granted citizenship.
American churches sponsored the resettlement of thousands of Hmong to Minnesota, Wisconsin, California and other states, according to various sources.
Some Hmong eventually relocated to northeastern Oklahoma. Many were drawn to the climate, which is similar to Laos and conducive to farming, says Linda Lor, president of the Hmong American Association of Oklahoma. Others were sponsored by Tulsa churches or followed relatives to the area.
Lor says 10 clans comprising an estimated 5,000 Hmong live in Oklahoma today. Most are concentrated in the Tulsa metro area — largely in east Tulsa — and work in the manufacturing industry, although many own businesses, according to Lor.
Hmong American Association of Oklahoma
A group of Hmong-American elders founded the Hmong American Association of Oklahoma Inc. (HMAAO) in 1979 to help Oklahoma’s Hmong community maintain its culture and language, says HMAAO President Linda Lor.
The association is headquartered in Tulsa because of the metro area’s large concentration of Hmong-Americans. It operates from the Green Country Event Center at East 31st Street and South Garnett Road.
The volunteer-run nonprofit provides services such as English translation, job interview preparation and other social services.
The HMAAO also organizes Hmong social events and cultural activities, the largest of which is Hmong New Year. The community-wide New Year celebration is hosted annually in October or November at the Green Country Event Center. The venue sold this year to Union Public Schools and will be the site of a new elementary school.
The association must vacate the center by Feb. 28, and a search is underway for a new place to host Hmong events, which can draw thousands of people. The association welcomes public donations to help purchase a facility for the community. For more information, visit www.hmaao.org.
Hmong-American vendors a staple at Tulsa farmers’ markets
As the number of Hmong-American vendors at the Cherry Street Farmers’ Market grew in the late 2000s, so did some shoppers’ concerns about the vendors’ produce.
Former CSFM board president Mike Appel of Three Springs Farm says market organizers and shoppers were amazed at the size and quality of the Hmong-American farmers’ produce. Some shoppers questioned whether it was grown out of state.
The market’s standard farm inspections confirmed the stunning crops were Oklahoma-grown using techniques and seed varieties brought from the farmers’ homelands.
Now, approximately half of the produce vendors at the Saturday market are Hmong-American, Appel says, and shoppers seem to have warmed up to the farmers.
“People are realizing the Hmong vendors are legitimate growers,” he says. “They trust them and are forming relationships with them.”
Several local restaurants and grocery stores are doing the same.
Nancy Bruce, owner of Lambrusco’z to Go, frequents the Brookside market on Wednesdays because of its convenient location across the street from her restaurant. Bruce buys squash, tomatoes and cucumbers, but her favorite item is kale from the Vinita, Okla., farm of Tria Yang.
“The kale is beautiful, clean and perfect, and it’s just as perfect a week later,” she says. “If you buy it from a regular supplier, it’s wilty and dirty in just a few days.”
She also enjoys working more unique produce into the “farmers’ market selections” available Wednesdays and Thursdays in the Lambrusco’z dinner case.
Eloté, The Vault, Smoke, Palace Café and Juniper also regularly buy produce from Hmong-American vendors at the Cherry Street and Brookside markets, says Penni Shelton, market administrator. She says farmer Neng Thao also sells to Reasor’s.
“Without the Hmong vendors, there really wouldn’t be much of a farmers’ market,” Appel says. “They add a rich diversity to the market and local food scene.”
The Tulsa Hmong community and its members own and operate a number of businesses in Tulsa and the surrounding area.
3 Asian grocery stores
(Owasso and Tulsa) Asian Mart International Food Market, 12919 E. 31st St., is the largest Hmong-owned Asian grocery in Tulsa.
(Tulsa, Owasso, Broken Arrow)
2 auto service shops
1 auto glass repair shop (Tulsa)
(Tulsa, Owasso, Collinsville)
3 life, home and auto insurance offices
3 real estate offices
2 tailor shops
1 floral, cakes and
1 small machining technology business
5 or more poultry farms
Source: Linda Lor