Who Are the Lao Iu Mien?
By Michael Goldberg
The journal has been a long one. Far from their former mountain homes in landlocked Laos, an estimated 20,000 Iu Mien have resettled in the United States including 3,000 in Oakland, California.
The Iu Mien are no strangers to conflict. Those remaining in Laos are there as a result of conflicts a century earlier that pushed them from their homelands in China. Living in mountainous terrain in small communities of up to 200 people, the Iu Mien practiced subsistence farming. Although they lived in remote areas, peaceful existence was disrupted by the French colonial powers in the 1950s and then shattered by their participation on the American side during the "secret war" in Laos, the United States' largest covert operation during the Vietnam War. Viewed by the U.S. Air Force as an "efficient friendly force," the Iu Mien became targets for retribution by the establishment of the Pathet Lao communist government in 1975.
Escaping from Laos was a journey fraught with danger. The Iu Mien walked for days across difficult terrain in order to reach the safety of Thailand. Often traveling at night in order to elude government soldiers, families then had to cross the mighty Mekong River separating Laos and Thailand before placement in the border camps set up for the fleeing Iu Mien, Hmong, and Lahu. While placement in a border camp offered temporary relief from the most serious threat to life, living conditions were extremely difficult. Families often had to construct their own housing, food was inadequate, and people suffered health problems exacerbated by poor sanitation. Barbed wire fencing encircled the camps. Armed Thai soldiers guaranteed that the population remain immobile. It is from these camps that the Iu Mien started the long process of obtaining refugee status, evaluating their options, and for some, making a leap into the unknown: application for admission to the United States.
The first Mien began arriving in the United States in 1980. Like many refugees and immigrants who arrived before them, they faced the immediate challenges brought on by the new language and cultural norms. Unlike the Lao, Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who resettled during the same period, the Iu Mien arrived with no written language, no exposure to formal education, and little experience with wage labor. Though their former self-sufficiency has been tested in the technically advanced economy of urban America, the Iu Mien have retained and nurtured an important aspect of their culture: collective or group-oriented action. Major events including births, weddings, funerals and New Year's celebrations provide opportunity for those in Oakland's Iu Mien community to meet. The growing of herbs and vegetables is important for the older generation of Iu Mien seeking to utilize their skills and knowledge in a land that emphasizes youth and modernity.
The Iu Mien have overcome many hardships in their transition from self-sufficient farmer to refugee to American citizen. As they construct their future in the United States, perhaps the most difficult challenge lies ahead that of retaining, making relevant and passing down beliefs in a larger society that encourages assimilation.