Bree's Reviews > The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir

The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang
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Apr 10, 2012

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Kao Kalia Yang’s personal history began long before her birth. As traced in The Latehomecomer, her history begins with her Grandmother Youa Lee as a young woman, harvesting bamboo shoots in Laos, and continues into the Vietnam War. Before and after her birth, Kalia’s life and the life of those around her was married by tragedy but also filled with love and hope.

The Yang clan originated from the wild and beautiful Laos. When the Vietnam War began in 1963, it didn’t take long for the U.S. to co-opt the manpower of the Hmong in Laos to fight on their side against the Vietnamese. Largely due to this cooperation, the Hmong were seen as an enemy to the Vietnamese troops, and were routinely hunted down and enslaved or murdered during, and even after, the war. Yang’s family at the time of the conflict consisted of her father and her mother, newly married, and her older sister Dawb - Yang herself was not yet born. Yang’s father had 8 brothers and sisters that also had families, including their grandmother – the matriarch of the family. For years the family hid from the violence of the war in the jungle, living hand-to-mouth with no home to call their own. They could not stay hidden forever, and eventually many of them were taken by the combatants. Yang’s mother, grandmother, and older sister gave themselves up to the soldiers in an attempt to save all of their lives. It was by the dark of night that the family was rescued from the camp and they carefully swam their way across the treacherous Mekong River to Thailand.

In Thailand, the family lived briefly in So Kow Toe in Nan Province before being transported to Ban Vinai Refugee Camp where the author was born in 1980. Ban Vinai Refugee Camp was a place of both renewed hope and despair. Yang’s family was blessed with many new lives during their years in the camp, but the family was also destitute. Living in a dirty camp area that was shared with thousands of other refugees, no family owned much and no one still had a real place to call home. For years family members talked of leaving, of going to America or France, but their Grandmother kept them all together for as long as possible. By the time rumors spread that the camp would eventually be closed, the family knew they had to leave and registered to move to America.

The journey to America for Yang’s family was not short. Before they could cross the ocean, the family had to spend six months in Phanat Nikhom Transition Camp to America. The transition camp was just as dirty as Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, but the children were introduced to schooling, the adults learned basic information they required to get by in America and all of them received medical attention and checks to make sure they were physically prepared for the trip. A feeling of dread hung over the family the closer the time came to leave. Not all members of the family were going to the same place. Some were registered to go to Minnesota, some to California, and a few cousins ended up going to France. The emotional heartbreak of separation for the family is one that had happened before, and this would definitely not be the last time.

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