December 8, 2011


How To Become An American: In the west Arkansas town of Magazine, one sure way for boys from the immigrant Hmong community to assimilate is to put on helmets, cleats and shoulder pads (CHARLES P. PIERCE, 12/10/11, Sports Illustrated)

Forty years ago Moua was a soldier in a war that few people knew about at the time, and even fewer remember today. He was one of the Hmong (pronounced mung) people in the mountains of Laos when the CIA came and enlisted them to fight against the North Vietnamese in a conflict that had embroiled most of Southeast Asia. Calling it the Vietnam War leaves you two countries short; one of them is Laos. Perhaps the Vietnamese have the right of it: They call it the American War. In any case, what remains true is that there are no mysteries about the U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. There are just truths we choose to ignore. The Hmong are one of those.

Now, on this scalded morning in western Arkansas, Moua waited for the return of his 16-year-old son, Charly. He was down the hill, on a football field. Practice had started at six that morning, because the school system wouldn't let the kids on the field any later in the day. The heat came down out of the mountains far ahead of the sun.

Charly rocked a kid in a pass rushing drill, and all of his teammates cheered. "It's fun," Charly would say later. "I like football because I can knock over bigger kids."

Thong Moua's son is a backup quarterback, a defensive back and a 2010 Arkansas state champion. He also is, against considerable odds, an American, and if it all seems like the settling of an ancient debt, that's because it is. [...]

One day in 1972, government troops came to Thong Moua's village, Long Tieng, and told him he was a soldier. He was 13. He fought for three years in a stubborn, brave guerrilla action for which his people paid an almost unimaginable price. Some 35,000 Hmong soldiers died in battle, according to Keith Quincy, whose book Harvesting Pa Chay's Wheat is the best account of the war the Hmong waged on behalf of the U.S. That toll, Quincy points out, would be "comparable to America's having lost 16.5 million men in combat."

In 1975, when their forces were finally routed by the North Vietnamese, the Hmong fled into the hills and jungles, where almost a third of them died of starvation and disease. One of those refugees was Thong Moua, who spent nearly four years on the run until finally crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. "You stay in the jungle," he recalls, "because if they know you're a soldier, they kill you. If you go back home, they kill you."

Moua lived for a year in a refugee camp in Thailand. The Hmong fighters had been promised that if the war went sour, they'd be repatriated to the U.S. Like so many things about that time, that promise had a sell-by date. Only a few thousand Hmong were repatriated. The rest stayed in the camps, and life in the camps was nightmarish, in part because the Thai government didn't want the Hmong there, but also because some Hmong leaders involved themselves in the drug trade. Fortunately, charitable organizations, especially church groups, stepped in and sponsored the movement of thousands of other Hmong to the U.S.

A church group placed Moua in Rhode Island, and then he moved to Massachusetts, where he worked factory jobs and where Charly was born. Moua stayed there until he heard from his uncle that Tyson was offering land and farms for the Hmong to work in Arkansas. The Hmong were farmers, and chickens had a special place in their culture dating back through the millennia. (An ancient Hmong legend credits a rooster with having saved the world.) Moua moved his family to Magazine six years ago and set up his chicken houses. His sons enrolled in school, and they began to play football, the way other Hmong children had before them.

What Jones and Powell were seeing in Magazine was the impact of the second wave of Hmong immigrants to Arkansas. The first had come in the early '80s, when nearly 300 Hmong were resettled in and around Fort Smith. Most of them found low-paying manufacturing jobs, including work in chicken-processing plants. They were vehemently opposed to the concept of welfare; according to a 1984 report sponsored by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Hmong phrase for welfare was "no arms, no legs." Consequently, when word got around Hmong communities in the U.S. in 2004 that Tyson was offering them the opportunity to run their own poultry farms in Arkansas, many jumped at the chance to live their own lives on their own land in a place where many of them already had relatives living for more than 20 years.

This second wave of Hmong residents was more visible than the first. They were also more easily integrated into the community; their English was better than that of their predecessors, and most of their children had been born in the U.S. To some extent they were already Americanized. Among other things, they knew what football was.

"I started noticing them in about fifth grade," says Ryan Chambers, Magazine's quarterback and the MVP in last year's state championship game. "I noticed Long and Chang [Yang] then. What I noticed first was that they were really fast. Then I noticed that they were really good."

As the Hmong players came up through the system, Jones and Powell, to say nothing of the rest of the community, adapted to them as much as the Hmong students adapted to the high school. "They were typically quiet, and they were intensely respectful," says Randy Bryan, the principal. "One of the big adjustments we had to make is that in their culture, it's considered very disrespectful to make eye contact. You'd be talking to a kid, and he'd be looking down, and your instinct is that he was being disrespectful, but it's just the opposite."

Andy Moua, Charly's eldest brother, was the first Hmong player on the Magazine varsity, a three-year starter and a versatile athlete who played a number of positions. His cousin Jay Moua came next. He especially delighted in tormenting Powell. "One time he had everybody here convinced that he was moving to Tulsa," Powell recalls. "He didn't even show up the first two weeks of practice. Someone finally said to me, 'Coach, he's not in Tulsa. I saw him downtown last night.' I called him and said, 'Hey, get to practice.' They brought fun, is what they did."

Jones says, "They'd get on each other. If one of them screwed up, they'd Hmong him pretty good. I don't think they ever did it to an official, though. They're pretty respectful that way."

Posted by at December 8, 2011 5:28 AM

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