To Inherit the Moving Mountains: The Displacement of Iu-Mien Culture and Identity in Refugee America

Catalina Chao
Writer’s Comment: Rarely is a writer given such a humbling opportunity to explore her own lost heritage and cultural background while concurrently completing a challenging course assignment. Such was the case that I experienced in Dr. Poonam Sachdev’s UWP 101 course that led to the conception of “the border” research paper. How is the concept of “the border” renegotiated or forged as a site of identity in everyday life? she asked. Knowing that I was uniquely placed as a potential voice for my unsung community, I seized this opportunity to embrace a distant history that I had long forgotten. With their turbulent history as displaced refugees in Laos, Thailand and America, the Iu-Mien illustrate the cultural and geographical shifts that have determined the limits of their border. Serving as an introduction to the bittersweet plight of my people, this essay illuminates a mystical world lost to the mainstream.
—Catalina Chao
Instuctor’s Comment: To engage students from across the disciplines this Advanced Composition class was thematically organized to consider the notion of “borders” in its many manifestations: political, social, cultural, economic, ideological and/or metaphorical. For their final paper my students were invited to frame their understanding of the “border” into a thesis-driven, research-based term paper that illuminated a complex or controversial aspect of the subject. Catalina chose to write about the “border” experiences of her community, the Iu-Mein; she successfully combined scholarly research with her story-telling voice, to write a historically grounded term paper that described the border as a zone of cultural contact and site for forging identity. Catalina’s paper demonstrates her ability to grasp theoretical contexts, comprehend complex material and apply it to her work in an insightful and pertinent way; her thoughtful questions often deepened the level of class discussions, and I feel privileged to have shared in the exploration of her communal history.
—Poonam Sachdev, University Writing Program

Oh children, remember me:
I am calling from the mountains.
—Iu-Mien folk song

The Iu-Mien, a peaceful Laotian hill tribe, believe that “moving mountains is easier than moving one’s mind.” This declaration is particularly unique to the Iu-Mien, a minority of the minorities, the smallest refugee ethnic group of three enveloped in the greater Laotian community. The Iu-Mien, like the better-known Hmong hill tribe, carved their serene home in the mountains of Laos but found themselves displaced soon after the Secret War of 1963 to 1975. Patricia Moore-Howard, author of Iu-Mien: Tradition and Change, describes the Iu-Mien’s forced evacuation to the refugee camps in Thailand after the Secret War as yet another “residence . . . [that] became another segment in a history dotted by war and flight.” Indeed, the Iu-Mien’s history of movement informed by conflict dates back as far as their origins in China and is still very much alive today, especially in the late seventies and eighties when floods of Iu-Mien refugees poured into America. The Iu-Mien, who have been displaced from China, Laos, and Thailand—all within a couple of centuries—remain refugees still in the more foreign land of the United States, but their existence here is unique because unlike in the past, they have migrated for the first time from the mountains to the flatlands. Yet even in America, an ocean far away from the guns and fire of war and even further away from bamboo jungles and rice fields, the Iu-Mien still cannot rest. They continue to move en masse as they now struggle to recreate their culture and communities in a nation whose customs are absolutely alien to them: Judeo-Christian beliefs forbid their animism and ancestor worship, children are raised without the benefits of farming and shamanism, and older generations are lost to the home. As a consequence of the Secret War, the lives of the Iu-Mien have been exceptionally disrupted to the degree that even decades after their initial resettlement, they still cannot sufficiently negotiate their refugee identities in this new world. For the Iu-Mien, moving mountains may be easier than moving one’s mind, but the challenge of defining their new cultural and identity borders in America is so severe that it may prove the mountains are more like pebbles. 

Gazing back into the past of the Iu-Mien, it becomes painfully clear that the Iu-Mien culture and identity has always relied on movement, migration, and resettlement as a tool and a valuable resource in times of conflict. The Iu-Mien made their first step toward the mountains in response to taxation and forced labor by the Han Dynasty. According to Asian-American Studies Professor Richard Kim, migration is a “strategy of survival and maintenance . . . in response to adversity . . . it is a strategy of resistance.” The Iu-Mien implemented migration as a form of revolt during their residence in China; by settling deeper into the mountains, they could escape the oppression of the Han Dynasty. However, accommodating to the mountain-dwelling lifestyle included the adoption of a slash-and-burn farming technique in their new agricultural environment. In Transnational Aspects of Iu-Mien Refugee Identity, Jeffrey MacDonald explains that slashing and burning soil for mountain crops diminished the fertility of the soil over the years and thus required mountain-dwellers, like the Iu-Mien, to continually move entire villages and fields to more fertile lands. Ultimately, what began as a response and a resistance to political subjugation led the Iu-Mien to employ migration as a necessary economic tool. Long before the Iu-Mien had to move mountains, they first had to move themselves on bare feet from mountain crop to mountain crop. Hence, the Iu-Mien established their history of movement in China and sustained this migratory way of life when they sought a new residence in Laos, away from the Qing Dynasty’s suppression of Iu-Mien opium poppy farming, during the eighteenth century. Laos, which is often recognized as the true home of the Iu-Mien, was in reality only a temporary occupancy for a little more than a hundred years before the eruption of the Secret War in 1963. Until then, the Iu-Mien claimed their history of movement for economic and agricultural needs, but after the Secret War, movement was motivated purely on the terms of life or death.

The Secret War, a United States CIA covert operation that utilized thousands of Hmong and Iu-Mien against the Pathet Lao Communists within the larger Vietnam War of 1959–1975, was an act directly in violation of America’s neutrality agreement reached in the Geneva Conference of 1962—hence its secrecy. The Secret War, officially acknowledged by the U.S. government some two decades after the war’s official close in 1975, converted the Iu-Mien from historically migrant people into refugees for the first time. The motives for movement distinguish an immigrant from a refugee; in general, immigrants choose to move in order to find better economic opportunities that will hopefully improve their lives. While this may be a side effect of movement for refugees, it is certainly not the impetus for the initial migration. Essentially, choice accentuates the difference between immigrants and refugees, like the Iu-Mien, who come because they cannot stay in their “country of origin.” Forced to either remain and face certain death in Laos or move and risk death during the journey in exchange for life in Thailand, Iu-Mien refugees arrived at the camps seeking sanctuary from the Laotian government who considered their involvement with the U.S. betrayal. In the 1989 documentary, Moving Mountains, Ay Choy Saelee, a prominent figure in the Iu-Mien Portland community, further illustrates this substantial difference between immigrant and refugee status: “Americans don’t understand why we are here. They need to understand that refugees come to this country because they have no choice . . . Refugees only come here for survival.” But before the Iu-Mien had even caught their breaths after the dangerous trek through the jungles and the Mekong River at night—a terrifying experience tantamount to the Secret War—the U.S. took responsibility for their involvement in the Secret War by allowing and sponsoring thousands of Iu-Mien into America. This was their first migration out of Asia and into a third country. Kim observes that while this final geographic migration for the Iu-Mien “produces displacement,” it also helps to “alleviate adverse effects of trauma.” Indeed, the trauma that the Iu-Mien faced shortly after the Secret War was temporarily offset by moving into a new country renowned for its freedoms. 

The Iu-Mien could feel safe in America, but ultimately, dislocating their simple farming culture into an industrialized western culture forced a potentially traumatic rearranging of identity. For all their history of movement, the Iu-Mien have yet to confront the significant implications of their most recent displacement in this chapter of their lives. Outdated and old world religious beliefs and rapidly changing traditions that swell into generational gaps mark the surface of yet another mountain the Iu-Mien must move.

The transition of religious beliefs, from old world animism and ancestor worship to new world Judeo-Christianity, is perhaps the most glaring manifestation of yet another movement in the Iu-Mien culture as they grapple with rebuilding their refugee identities. Iu-Mien rituals are visually arresting, with shamans draped in black and red cloth chanting with bamboo oracles and burning golden paper money to appease the ancestor spirits. Thirty-five percent of Iu-Mien, since their arrival in America, have converted from the use of ancient scrolls and pig’s blood in rituals to attending church on Sundays and carrying Bibles in simple English. This recent influx of Christian conversion is a direct consequence of the Secret War, in which Christian missionary sponsors specifically came to Thailand’s refugee camps to aid Iu-Mien families in migrating to the U.S. Saelee attributes purely logistical reasons to the Iu-Mien conversion to Christianity; he recognizes the challenges of maintaining Iu-Mien religious practices in the U.S., where most families own small apartments with limited space, making it difficult for shamans to conduct their elaborate ceremonies. Furthermore, the indoor sacrifice of animals such as pigs and chickens does not fit with the cultural norms of American society and is therefore frowned upon, if not altogether illegal. 

Moore-Howard adds that Iu-Mien families assumed that converting to Christianity would lead to “faster resettlement,” and since these Iu-Mien tend to believe that America is a place for “the old ways to pass,” exercising conversion functions as a tool similar to migration. Still, this abrupt shift in religions remains problematic when the Iu-Mien attempt to recreate their culture and identities in the U.S. Sarn Kouei Saechao, a younger Iu-Mien refugee, believes that “once you drop your religion, more than half of your culture is completely gone.” This is best characterized by the dichotomous alleviation and apprehension that the oldest generation of Iu-Mien refugees feel towards their migrating religious beliefs. Sarn Lo Saeturn describes the peace he feels since leaving behind the spirits of ancestor worship and welcoming Christ into his life: “Before, many of my family died and we never [had] peace . . . now, I have a healthy body, even my stomach is bigger than before.” In contrast, Fou Choy Saelee, Ay Choy’s father, expresses fear at leaving behind the ancestor spirits: “My children will eventually become Christian and because my children do not know anything about our own religion, so I will be lost in the spirit world. No one will worship me. No one will care about me.” Fou Choy’s striking sadness reminds the Iu-Mien that in their recent displacement from the war, their shifting religious beliefs and rapidly changing traditions have created generational gaps that may be impossible to bridge.

While the younger generations feel it appropriate and sometimes even necessary to assimilate and become more Americanized, the older generation interprets this as losing the Iu-Mien identity and culture, marking yet another forcible movement in a new, uncertain direction. Saechao acknowledges his “Americanization” as a strategy for survival, asserting that “the way we used to live would not benefit the way we live today.” Examples of incompatible Iu-Mien/American traditions include changing gender roles, higher divorce rates, and the perception that Iu-Mien youth are learning to rebel like American teenagers, a notion that does not sit well with the obligatory filial nature of Iu-Mien families.

In the mountains of Laos, before their relocation to Thailand’s refugee camps, Lai Poo Saelee, Ay Choy’s mother, remembers that children were always taught by their parents that “a woman must never have more power than the man. It is just the natural way of life . . . [having] nothing to do with the man being smarter.” Saelee adds that in Laos, his wife—Farm Yoon—would have never been able to sit at the same dinner table as his father, but in America, “relationships with our family have changed.” In the mountains of Laos, before their relocation to Thailand’s refugee camps, Lai Poo Saelee, Ay Choy’s mother, remembers that children were always taught by their parents that “a woman must never have more power than the man. It is just the natural way of life . . . [having] nothing to do with the man being smarter.” Saelee adds that in Laos, his wife—Farm Yoon—would have never been able to sit at the same dinner table as his father, but in America, “relationships with our family have changed.” Changing gender roles exacerbates the conventional Iu-Mien family dynamics because the basic structure of the American economy suggests that dual-income households typically pave the way to financial stability. This causes wives, like Farm Yoon, to leave the house and find work, which causes friction between people in marital relationships. Even Saelee admits that his wife’s independence (via going out and working) is happening too fast for him to accept at times, though some Iu-Mien women declare the dual-breadwinner role to be liberating because “[they too] work and bring in money, just like a man does.” Yet with changing gender roles comes a crop of divorces that had not been seen (except for a reported one percent rate) until migrating to the U.S. Fou Chou states that “in three generations [of our family], we did not have to deal with one case of divorce,” while his son, Ay Choy Saelee, acknowledges that divorce has become more common among the Iu-Mien since arriving to America simply because “it is easier to get a divorce here.” While this “middle generation” (the generation of middle-aged parents) try to reconcile changing gender roles and the greater possibility of divorce, the youngest generation, their children, endeavor to define their own identities in between two cultures that have suspended them somewhere in the middle. Kelly Saeteum, whose post-high school life is chronicled in Kelly Loves Tony, represents the accumulation of changing gender roles, Americanization, and a clash between rebellion and filial duty.

Saeteum is a 17-year-old high school student graduating with honors, but she falls in love with Tony Saelio, a rumored gang member and the owner of a criminal record that includes armed robbery. Shortly after meeting, she becomes pregnant at 17 with his child, and her decision to keep the baby and eventually marry Saelio triggers a chain of events that compels Saeteum to mediate her duties as a daughter-in-law, a wife, a mother, and a student, with some undesirable results in the end. At the beginning of the film, after discovering she is pregnant, Saeteum remarks that “growing up, I always thought my life would be different than my mom’s,” who also married and became pregnant around 17. All too soon, though, Saeteum realizes the hardship of raising a child, being a suitable daughter-in-law and wife, and achieving a higher education. She resists falling into the absolutely traditional role of Iu-Mien women, preserving the American dream to obtain an education, but at the same time, she feels obligated to help her family in daily life at the expense of her academic goals. Saeteum’s life story reflects a cultural turning point for the youngest generation of the Iu-Mien, who do not entirely reject either Iu-Mien or American traditions, yet they cannot help but feel torn between being one or the other or stretched thin trying to be both.

As the youngest generation ventures out to establish their identity amidst Iu-Mien and American cultures, the oldest generation of Iu-Mien face more movement and change than they have in their entire history, more than they can perhaps endure. The oldest generation is immobilized by their inability to adapt to the westernized style of living, which requires cars for transportation, jobs for food and cars, and the understanding of verbal and written English to do all of the above. Saelee profoundly demonstrates that “the U.S. is a dream for the young . . . but it is a cage for the older people.” The oldest generation of Iu-Mien are usually restricted to sitting at home all day, often in their traditional garments. This occasionally comes as a shock to the oldest Iu-Mien because, as Lai Poo explains, “when [she] was in Laos, [she] could go anywhere [she] wanted to,” and this held true for the Iu-Mien population in general. In the mountains, they traveled barefoot from place to place, across steep hills and mountaintops; as a result of having their children follow them around, even the smallest child grew accustomed to walking great distances barefoot. Money and gas prices could not hold them back, but America has changed the ability of the oldest Iu-Mien to do what they perhaps know best: to move. Lai Poo believes that if she were to return to Laos, she would “probably not have the same endurance to live like that,” a tragic conclusion to reach for a culture whose history of movement and “complex migration patterns” has informed so much of their identity that, even in America, they are restless. 

The Secret War marked what could arguably be the most significant migration for the Iu-Mien in their entire history of movement, but as generation upon generation of Iu-Mien entered and established themselves in the United States, they are still in the midst of reconciling issues they would have never dreamed of encountering in Thailand or Laos. The Iu-Mien now embrace their trademark of migration in less physical and geographic terms than in the past, but now they must also renegotiate their identity and culture within the spaces of transitioning religious beliefs, shifting gender roles, and deep generational gaps. The youngest Iu-Mien, those born in the U.S., are forming their new identities free from the refugee status of their parents and grandparents, and they are reshaping the culture they were born into with the culture they feel they ought to be a part of. This may come at the expense of losing the traditions of the older Iu-Mien and, indeed, grandparents suffer anxiety about the fate of their people as their own lives draw to a close. Yet all three generations—grandparents, parents, and children—share the same unique struggle to carve their own identity in a country that has hardly heard of their name. Having inherited this history of movement as a unique aspect of their culture and as part of their identity, they continue onward, barefoot or shoed, facing the uncertain future with a lingering question relevant to all generations of Iu-Mien: we have moved mountains, now can we move the mind?
I strain my Americanized ears to listen
for the voices of my ancestors, calling me from the mountains.
Their bones and hearts are buried in—
the whistle of spirit winds,
combing the poppy leaves—
the chime of silver bells
dripping like rain from our heavy dresses—

Oh Grandfather, Grandmother, do not forget me:
Do you recognize my face
seeking you from below?

Kelly Loves Tony. Directed by Spencer Nakasako. Performers Tony Saelio and Kelly Saeteum. Public Broadcasting Service, 1998.
Kim, Richard. E-mail interview with the author. University of California, Davis. August 29, 2008.
MacDonald, Jeffrey L. Transnational Aspects of Iu-Mien Refugee Identity. Garland Publishing, 1997.
Moore-Howard, Patricia. The Iu Mien: Tradition and Change. Halinka Luangpraseut, 1987.
Moving Mountains: The Story of the Yiu-Mien. Directed by Elaine Velazquez. Feather & Fin Productions, 1989., 149.