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The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir

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In search of a place to call home, thousands of Hmong families made the journey from the war-torn jungles of Laos to the overcrowded refugee camps of Thailand and onward to America. But lacking a written language of their own, the Hmong experience has been primarily recorded by others. Driven to tell her family’s story after her grandmother’s death, The Latehomecomer is Kao Kalia Yang’s tribute to the remarkable woman whose spirit held them all together. It is also an eloquent, firsthand account of a people who have worked hard to make their voices heard.

Beginning in the 1970s, as the Hmong were being massacred for their collaboration with the United States during the Vietnam War, Yang recounts the harrowing story of her family’s captivity, the daring rescue undertaken by her father and uncles, and their narrow escape into Thailand where Yang was born in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp.

When she was six years old, Yang’s family immigrated to America, and she evocatively captures the challenges of adapting to a new place and a new language. Through her words, the dreams, wisdom, and traditions passed down from her grandmother and shared by an entire community have finally found a voice.

277 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2008

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About the author

Kao Kalia Yang

23 books380 followers
Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning Hmong-American writer. She is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University. Yang is the author of the memoirs The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and The Song Poet. The Latehomecomer is the first Asian American authored and centered book to be added to the roster of the Literature to Life Program and a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read title. The Song Poet has been commissioned as a youth opera by the Minnesota Opera and will premiere in the spring of 2021. Yang is also the author of the children’s books, A Map Into the World, The Shared Room, and The Most Beautiful Thing. She co-edited the ground-breaking collection What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Indigenous Women and Women of Color. Her newest title is Somewhere in the Unknown World, a collective memoir of refugee experiences. Yang’s literary nonfiction work has been recognized by the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA literary awards, the Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize, and garnered three Minnesota Book awards. Her children’s books have been listed as an American Library Association Notable Book, a Zolotow Honor, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, a finalist for the Midwest Independent Bookseller’s Award, and winner of a Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature. Kao Kalia Yang is a recipient of the International Institute of Minnesota’s Olga Zoltai Award for her community leadership and service to New Americans and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ 2019 Sally Award for Social Impact.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 980 reviews
Profile Image for Amy.
139 reviews4 followers
September 12, 2010
This book hit home for me, literally. Yang and her family move to Minnesota and settle into a housing project very near where I lived when I was in elementary school. Due to the high Hmong population in St. Paul, I went to school with a handful of Hmong kids and reading this memoir makes me realize that although I was in classes with these kids, even had desks adjacent to some of them, I definitely did not appreciate who they were and what some of them were going through at the time. I have no doubt in my mind that many of their stories are similar to Yang's. They, like her, tended to be the quiet ones, the ones more apt to listen first and only speak when necessary.
Her story also helps me appreciate my present situation that much more. The school I currently teach at has quite a few dorm students, most from Asia, with English being a second language. We recently went through a session discussing how to accommodate these students, and her story aligns with the tidbits learned in my session. For one, being afraid to speak because misspeaking is far more humiliating than not speaking at all. These kids are sent far from home for an opportunity, but they are sent alone. The pressure that must be on their shoulders to succeed! And although many of them come from money, others' parents scraped up all they had to give this chosen child the chance to gain an education, and therefore the key to a successful future.
I greatly appreciate books like these:ones that help me expand my all too limited view of life, especially life in America.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,459 followers
May 25, 2020
I loved this book because it emotionally moved me. I want to feel connection with those I read about, and I certainly did that here.

The book tells about the Hmong people - their traditions, their culture and the role their people played in the Vietnam War. In what is called The Secret War Hmong boys from Laos were recruited to fight against communist forces. After the Vietnam and Laotian Wars, hundreds of thousands of Hmong refugees fled to Thailand seeking political asylum.

We follow these events through the author’s family. We are told personal tales, the dramatic crossing into Thailand and of tigers, ghosts and spirits of the dead. In Laos the author’s grandmother was a shaman. We learn of the parents’ marriage. We learn of how the author’s mother, father and infant sister, Dawb, tied together in one bundle, crossed the Mekong River into Thailand. The Hmong were people of the mountains and knew not how to swim. In Thailand the three were joined by the paternal grandmother and others of the family. The author was born in 1980 in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, where they had come to live. This camp was followed by six months in a transition camp when it was decided they would immigrate to the US. Six miscarriages had followed the birth of Dawb and Kalia; pressure was placed on her father to take a second wife since no male heir had been born. America was the solution, a future for the children and escape from family and cultural pressure. In the summer of 1987 they arrived in St Paul, Minnesota. You can go to Wiki and read about this, but there you will not glimpse the personal stories behind the events. It is the personal that makes what we are told engaging.

We learn of life in Laos before emigration, life in the refugee and transition camps and life in America as an immigrant. All is movingly told. We read of the author’s coming of age story, the family’s struggle to survive, as well as the death of her beloved grandmother. I am giving you the outline, but I am not giving you the details and it is details that engage.

Watching grow the love between granddaughter and grandmother is what makes the death of the grandmother, when it comes, all the more poignant.

Many perhaps take education for granted. When you see how the author’s parents struggled to give their children a better life and the value they placed on education, well, you think twice.

Part of the reason I loved the book is that the story is told simply. The grandmother said, “Tell it the way it is!” The author does. Simple language captures what family members reallysay to each. This comes through so wonderfully because English is not the author’s native tongue. She struggled to make it her own. We watch here the struggle to find a home.

The author reads her own audiobook. Her emotions are vivid and they come through with intensity. Her voice quavers. You hear she is close to tears. Sometimes I had a hard time grasping a word, and sometimes I had to rewind. I always did rewind because I didn’t want to miss one single word. I found myself sitting with my ear close to the loudspeaker. Her voice is not loud; it is thin, treble and meek, yet no one but her should read this book! Personally, I think her telling me of her life is better captured this way than through written lines. If you can’t deal with a story that will tear you apart and involve you emotionally, maybe then just read the paper book. Listening to this is an emotional experience you will not forget.

I also listened to the author’s second book: The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father. That focuses on the author’s father. It is better to read The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir first; it will then be easier to understand the second. The second book skims over that found in the first book. They are not repeats. I have given both five stars. I can also recommend The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, but in fact I think Kao Kalia Yang’s are better.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,113 followers
November 27, 2019
After reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, I was curious to learn more about the Hmong people and "The Secret War." This memoir chronicles the Yang family's escape from Laos into a refugee camp in Thailand (where the author was born) to resettlement in Minnesota. The contrast in cultures and values was stark as the parents as the family tried to make the United States home, even if it's not where the ancestors are buried.

The pace of this memoir is at times a bit too slow for me, which was magnified as I listened to the audio. She sometimes gives too much information about consecutive days while also covering her entire life and the life of her family before she was born. There is also a level of what some have called sentimentality, especially when it comes to her grandmother, that I tried to understand from her perspective but at times felt like a bit much. Still, it is an inside view of the refugee experience that is well worth the read.

This is the 10th memoir I've read during Nonfiction November.
Profile Image for Rock.
429 reviews4 followers
February 6, 2009
I've been flagellating trying to write a review of this story, I think because I want so badly to relate it to the multitude of political cultural historical events that it skirts, always affected by them but rarely addressing them. That is a credit to Ms. Yang, who establishes herself here as a powerfully lyrical writer, with both feet firm in what I (as an ignoramus) imagine to be the Hmong oral tradition. Though these pages together are a memoir, the Latehomecomer is not Ms. Yang but rather her grandmother, whose stories pepper the larger narrative of this book, adding flavor to the saga of a refugee family, already a spicy broth. So we read not just the tale of a young family escaping through jungles thick with danger to starve in the squalor of a refugee camp and eventually transmogrify timidly into Minnesotans, but we delight in the legends of a pre-literate culture and weep with its brutal reality as experienced by this latehomecomer. And of course the veneration the author has for her grandmother reminded me of my own elders, who may not have raised their siblings or crossed oceans, but went through tribulations specific to their time and our place but I guess due to their age relative to mine are reminiscent of the titular character of this book. Hmmm, maybe the tortured prose of this review is indicative of all that flagellation. Well damn it was a good book and I don't want to quit talking about it.

Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,777 reviews14.2k followers
July 31, 2013
When the United States withdrew from Vietnam, they left the Hmong people in dire straits. One third of them were killed during the war, one third were the victims of genocide by the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao soldiers. Those that were alive fled to the jungles and tried to hide and eke out a sort of life.

This is the story of Kao and her family, written and narrated by her and the characterization are very vivid and poignant. She herself, was born in Thailand, in a refugee camp, after her parents had to flee the jungles and try to get Thailand. Unbelievable the will and the strength these people showed again and again. After many years, many different camps, they were relocated to the states, the camps in Thailand were shut down. This was the last time her whole family would be together.

The adjustment period, trying to hold on to a culture, only wanting a home, a place they could call home. So much of their culture had been lost, it made it even more important to hold on to what was left. The cultural references were many, in Laos, a child did not go to school until they could raise their right hand over their head and touch their left ear. One must always have something of the mother, so that she could be found after death.

I came to admire these people, their culture, the love they have for family and their tenacity in the face of so many tragedies and difficulties. I am so glad this young woman, chose to write her story so that we would read and understand. I loved the pictures that were included in the book, it always seems more personal when one can see the faces of those one is reading about.
Profile Image for Debbie Zapata.
1,832 reviews44 followers
December 16, 2019
A beautifully written, extremely moving story of a family and a culture determined to survive.

I knew nothing about the Hmong people, and was enchanted by some of their beliefs and customs.

I am otherwise speechless here, I'm sorry.

Just read the book and see the quality for yourself.
Profile Image for Shomeret.
1,061 reviews208 followers
May 18, 2016
The only book I'd read about the Hmong previously was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Culturesby Anne Fadiman. I felt that Fadiman was portraying the Hmong as a mysterious puzzle to be solved. This is the first book I have read from a Hmong perspective. It humanizes the Hmong and gives them more of a context. I place the Hmong in the context of other independent spirited mountain peoples with distinctive cultures such as the 18th century Scottish Highlanders or the Kurds.

The style of the author is closer to spoken English. As a result, the grammar is not completely correct. The library copy that I read contained corrections in pencil from a reader of the painfully correct school of grammar. Yes, it's true that the author was using "her" when she should have utilized "she" on many occasions, but "her" is more comfortable. As I listened to the corrected version of the sentence in my head, it sounded awkward. For better or for worse, common usage has changed.
52 reviews1 follower
November 19, 2009
Halfway through this book I decided that it should be required reading for any non-Hmong person who lives in the Twin Cities/western Wisconsin or in California's central valley--any place where the large numbers of Hmong families have resettled. I later found out it is required reading this year for the incoming class at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. I learned a lot about the incredible struggles faced by the Hmong during and after the Secret War in Laos. The writer's voice is clear and lyrical. She is able to capture her experience as a child, born in a refugee camp, whose parents and grandparent underwent immense suffering while trying to find safety and stability for their children. She also beautifully conveys her childhood experience in the Thai refugee camps and her family's resettlement in St Paul, Minnesota--how necessary her family bonds were for their survival and, as many immigrants know, how incredibly hard they worked to provide for their families. I couldn't put this book down and highly recommend it.
Profile Image for NILTON TEIXEIRA.
889 reviews304 followers
April 10, 2021
4 stars for the concept.
As for the execution, rounded to 3 stars.
This book was recommended to me.
When that happens, it pains me to be negative about it. I feel that my name will go directly to that black list or that I will be blocked for life. But I can’t and I won’t lie.
I rarely read non-fiction (especially biographies), but I found this memoir somewhat compelling and worthwhile, mostly for the opportunity of learning about a community that I’ve never heard of.
Regardless, it’s not a book that I could recommend.
While reading, I was trying to find a word to describe the writing, then it hit me: joyless.
I don’t mind sadness (and there is a lot of sadness here), but I need more substance.
Also, I found that most of the sentences were too short (which gave me an impression of lack of confidence) and the writing, besides repetitive, was not very engaging. I did struggle with the writing style.
We don’t learn enough about the author’s life. It’s all about her family.
Perhaps something got lost in the retelling. I’m not sure. But this was definitely not for me.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,190 reviews1,127 followers
May 21, 2018
I am parking this one until I can locate a hard copy of the book as the audio version is very difficult to listen to and just doesn't work for me and think I need a hard copy of this one to get the best out of the book.
Profile Image for Smitha Murthy.
Author 2 books281 followers
November 25, 2021
If I meet Kao, I want to ask her one important thing: How did you remember so much of your childhood, in such astonishing detail?

I can’t remember what I ate for lunch yesterday, let alone what dress I wore when I was six. So, Kao, help me out here.

It’s hard to rate memoirs. It almost seems insulting. Memoirs are deeply personal and a writer has had the courage to put their lives on screen, on paper for us, and I don’t like assigning these silly stars to such an act of courage.

And courage is what Yang has. I have been to Laos. I had stood at the same Mekong River in Thailand and crossed over to Laos. I did it easily. With freedom. Not like Kao who had to cross under a rain of bullets. And having lived in China, I know exactly how badly the Hmong have been treated there, reduced now to being tourist puppets in select regions.

This is such an important book - the Hmong and the pain inflicted on them needs to reach our consciousness.
45 reviews6 followers
April 19, 2019
This is the memoir of Kao Kalia Yang and of the impact of the Vietnam War on her Hmong family and their journey from Laos to the United States. It is an interesting and true story of struggle and survival, and it is a real addition to the pantheon of American immigrant stories.

The Hmong are a tribal people living in Southeast Asia – primarily Laos and Vietnam. They were famous for their fighting skills during the Vietnam War where they were important allies of the United States. However, they had to pay serious consequences for that allegiance after America lost the war and left the country. The Hmong were left without aid, and the Vietnamese hunted them down and exacted revenge on them. Many were killed. Many were imprisoned. In fear for their lives, many escaped to neighboring Thailand.

The author’s family is one that was just able to get out of the country. Her parents, older sister, grandmother and extended family made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they had to live in squalor and filth awaiting passage to a host country. It was here that the author was born.

After years in the refugee camps, her family is accepted into the U. S. They are relocated to Minnesota, where they try to establish a life for themselves. Kao and her sister are the first to attend school in America, and her parents struggle finding work and housing while trying to adapt to a new language, country, customs and climate. It is inspiring to read of the parent’s efforts to hold their family together while overcoming these obstacles. The parents push their daughters hard to excel in school, for they identify that as the best way to improve the entire family’s situation. The reader can’t help but root for the family to succeed.

Unlike most nonfiction works, Yang’s writing is nearly poetic in places. This is the author’s first book, and the writing is a little rough at the beginning of the book. However, you can see her writing improve as the book progresses.

I think this is a great American refugee story. It shows the suffering, and the struggle to survive and thrive, that so many American immigrants have had to experience. It shows how hard work and persistence and family bonds can pay huge dividends in this country. My hat is off to Yang and her family for overcoming enormous obstacles and for reaching a level of success.

One can ask themselves, what good is immigration for America? The story told in this book is one answer.
Profile Image for Mark.
1,107 reviews139 followers
August 6, 2014

As part of an immigration project I'm working on, I recently spent a lot of time interviewing members of the Hmong community in Minneapolis-St. Paul. For those who don't know, the Hmong are an ancient Chinese tribe that centuries ago moved mostly to Laos, where they fought for the Americans during the Vietnam War.

This of course put them in great jeopardy after the war ended, and thousands of Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand and then to the U.S., where the largest single concentration now lives in St. Paul.

Kao Kalia Yang tells about this journey through her own family, particularly the role of her grandmother, who by the time she died a few years ago had 300 direct descendants living in the U.S.

The memoir is fascinating and generally well done, although there were times when I felt Yang's English as a second language was evident -- small grammatical or syntactical anomalies. But she does a good job of evoking the people in her story, the deep-forested jungle of Laos, the barren crowding of the refugee camps, and the adjustment to a cold, foreign landscape in the Twin Cities.

Probably most winning for me, though, were the stories told by various Hmong family members, both traditional ones and the way they expressed their own journeys through life. Captured in this book is the common aspiration of many immigrants, to find a new home, to do better for their children, and in the Hmong's case, to escape a history full of death and fear. The Hmong traditionally believe that when someone dies, a spirit guide leads her back to her homeland, and the three day funeral has a ceremony in which her path is traced backwards through all the places she lived, as she journeys back to the bamboo platform on which she was born, where she "fell from the clouds" as a baby, as the Hmong believe, before reuniting with those who preceded her in death.

This was the most moving and powerful part of the book, but as a whole, The Late Homecomer gives voice and heart to a people still little known to many Americans.
Profile Image for Shana.
274 reviews
February 19, 2009
Kao Kalia Yang tells her family's story from the jungles of Laos to the projects of St. Paul and beyond with grace, humor, compassion and wonder. She retells her grandmother's stories with a respect that leads one to truly appreciate the ease of our lives.

Yang struggled as a child with English, school, and double expectations. She has overcome obstacles most of us couldn't and has become a gifted storyteller, just like her grandmother.

As I drive around St. Paul after finishing the book, I find myself looking at University Ave differently, thinking about her grandmother's funeral as I drive by the Hmong Funeral Home, watching the Hmong kids at school -- how much their lives have changed from their parents/grandparents.

Thank you for such a personal glimpse into a story that lives all around me.
Profile Image for Rachel.
884 reviews
May 17, 2014
I really enjoyed this book. Growing up around several Hmong people, I was shocked that I did not know the Hmong story. I read this book and it whetted my appetite to learn more about the Hmong people. Next, I read "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down." This book explains the Hmong plight very well, and helped me understand The Late Homecomer more. My favorite part in this book was when the family came to the United States and she writes how they took a bath with a strange smelling soap and didn't smell like Thailand anymore. It is such a bittersweet picture.
Profile Image for Kay.
402 reviews4 followers
March 15, 2012
My introduction to Hmong people was when I first visited my daughter's family who had just moved to Wisconsin. There was a large, happy group of Asian people at the park. She told me they were Hmong. "What is Hmong?" I asked. She said they were from Viet Nam. She was sort of right. They did live in Viet Nam, but really they are a race, a culture, a community without a country. My daughter has since made many friends with Hmong, one of whom recommended she read this book. She did and recommended it to me. It is the true story of an Hmong family who are hunted in the jungles of Viet Nam (after they assisted us in the Vietnamese war) until they escape to Thailand by swimming the Mekong River (with a baby strapped to the mother and a small scrap of embroidery her mother had made tucked between she and the baby.) They live in a refuge camp there for six years, then a transition camp for a few months, then come to America. Hmong families were sent to California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. This large family was split- some sent to Minnesota, some to California. They struggle to survive, but express gratitude every day for the opportunity to live in America. This is their story, as told by the second daughter of the youngest son of this large family. Her purpose is to preserve the history of the race and the culture, and specifically, her family's history- mostly her beloved grandmother's life story. The author's ( Kalia) father instructs her on what to write when he learns she is writing the book with this powerful statement. He says,"It is very important that you tell this part of our story: the Hmong came to America without a homeland. Even in the very beginning, we knew that we were looking for a home. Other people, in moments of sadness and despair, can look to a place in the world: where they might belong. We are not like that. I knew that our chance was here [America]. Our chance to share in a new place and a new home. This is so important to our story. You must think about it, and tell it the way it is."
I am amazed that all of this happened in my lifetime and I knew nothing about it. In fact, I read the book in a very personal way, as Kalia's parents started their family about the same time we started ours. As they were being married in a jungle, hoping they would survive and the ceremony would not be interrupted by the Vietnamese soldiers hunting them, mine was performed in a beautiful temple with a large gathering of friends and family. A few months after they had their first baby girl in a dirty hut, after being captured and held prisoner(they were later able to escape.) I was having mine in a sterile hospital. My second daughter was born in the same month(December 1980) as their second daughter- the author of the book. She was born in a filthy refuge camp in Thailand, delivered by her grandmother. My daughter was delivered by a doctor and was brought home in a large Christmas stocking to celebrate Christmas around a beautifully decorated tree. It was impossible to read this book without feeling gratitude for my blessings.
I enjoyed being immersed in a culture very different from mine. I learned a lot. Though there are many differences, I can't help but see the many similarities as well. The love of family, the desire to preserve one's personal and family history, and the desire to succeed and make a difference in the world are all so much a part of all. I conclude that we are more alike than different. We are all part of the human family, and though they don't understand it yet, children of the same God. I wish I could share that message with these remarkable people. Thank you, Ms. Yang, for so beautifully sharing and preserving your important story.
Profile Image for Zen Cho.
Author 56 books2,420 followers
January 11, 2013
Strikingly beautiful memoir by Kao Kalia Yang, whom I heard of through the Radiolab controversy last year -- lovely, sad and loving.

Though perhaps it's not for me to say, not being As-Am, I think it's a very valuable representation of an Asian-American experience not often described -- one that's on the opposite end of the spectrum from your Tiger Mothers. The things Yang talks about -- the vulnerability of her parents and grandmother, the role reversal when kids have the skills to navigate a new country and the elders don't, how hard it is to maintain dignity when people look down on you -- they feel familiar, though of course I've had a much more privileged upbringing and background.

The bit about her grandmother's death is AGONY -- it goes on for pages and pages and you feel so sad, but not in a bad way because her grandmother is obviously so loved, and it's so lovely that there is this tribute written for her.

I thought it was a very brave book -- less because of the awful hard things she and her family have survived, including war and racism and having to live on welfare and learn how to live in a totally different country, though of course they were brave for surviving that, and more because Yang is willing to be vulnerable. And the book is founded in love. I admire it tremendously.
Profile Image for Claudia.
3 reviews
February 13, 2009
Kao Kalia Yang's written words read just like her spoken words sound - eloquent, sparse, and powerful in their own quiet, poetic way. Kalia's book is the first novel published by a Hmong American woman, and as a creative non-fiction memoir of her family's migration from the hills of Laos to refugee camps in Thailand to the cities of Minnesota, it makes a beautiful addition to the long history of Hmong storytelling as well as a promising start to what is likely to be an incredible career for Kalia and a long future for Hmong American writing. Having had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Kao Kalia several times, I can only say that this book more than meets my expectations, and I wish her the best of luck with it, although is is not really needed.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,160 reviews1,254 followers
March 14, 2018
This is an interesting memoir by a Hmong-American writer, about the experiences of a community that is opaque to many Americans. The Hmong are an ethnic minority who moved from China to Laos centuries ago; the Chinese outlawing their written language is apparently the reason they lack one even today. Many Hmong assisted the Americans in the Vietnam War, in which about a third of their population died; another third was killed in the persecution after the American army’s departure. The author’s parents and extended family, like many others, fled into the jungles of Laos and later to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived for several years before relocating to Minnesota.

Though a memoir, this book is more about the author’s family than about Kao Kalia Yang herself. It begins by detailing her family’s travails in Laos and Thailand before her birth in the refugee camp, and the bulk of the book focuses on the camp and the family’s immigration to America when she was seven. It goes on to describe the difficulties of their adjustment, for her (being too shy to speak English in school even once she learned it), but mostly for the family: part of the extended family winds up in another state; money is tight, and her parents are forced to take exhausting night shifts at a factory to support the family, while Yang and her older sister are responsible for caring for their younger siblings and sometimes serving as interpreters for their parents. There is little sense of the author’s life after elementary school, though; while she is a student at Carlton College by the end (and later went on to Columbia University), the later chapters focus exclusively on the last years of her grandmother’s life and the grandmother’s death and elaborate funeral. I would have liked to see more of the author’s life and how she has related to Americans and American culture – her educational choices indicate that she has her own stories to tell – but the focus of the book does make clear how extremely family-oriented both she and her community are.

It is an incredible story, and especially given that the Yangs’ experiences were evidently common among the Hmong after the Vietnam War, it’s an important one to tell for the sake of awareness. The writing is fairly good, though it doesn’t always flow in the clearest way. Here’s a sample:

“My mother and father told us not to look at the Americans. If we saw them, they would see us. For the first year and a half, we wanted to be invisible. Everywhere we went beyond the McDonough Housing Project, we were looked at, and we felt exposed. We were dealing with a widespread realization that all Hmong people must do one of two things to survive in America: grow up or grow old. In the case of the noticeably young, the decision was made for us. For those who were older, the case was also easy to figure. Those marred by the war, impaired by the years of fighting, social security and disability were options. [sic] For my mother and father, already adults who had waited on life long before it was their time, the government stepped in and told them: the welfare clock was ticking. She was twenty-five. He was twenty-eight. They knew they wanted a chance to work, but they did not know how to keep that chance safe, so on the streets, before the slanted brows of mostly white men, they held us close for security.”

The gist of the passage makes sense: the family feels insecure, they don’t want to attract attention, and the parents are under pressure to find work. But the notion that there is pressure on “all Hmong people” to “grow up or grow old,” and how this is meant to apply to the author’s parents, is unclear to me even after taking the time to re-read it carefully. And perhaps because of the author’s cultural and linguistic background, she has a distinct way of expressing ideas that may not make a lot of sense to American readers if read quickly or with less than full attention.

Overall then, I found this memoir worthwhile, mostly for the opportunity to learn more about a community that was unfamiliar to me. However, it’s not the first one I would recommend for literary reading.
Profile Image for Colleen .
388 reviews187 followers
September 28, 2020
I heard her heartbeat answer my hug.

Love, for me, is the reason why we remember our lives in stories, with characters and places, vivid and true. It is easy to talk of the contents of a book. It is far harder to forget the love on encounters between the pages of lives. - the author
Profile Image for chinda.
243 reviews2 followers
July 1, 2019
”A silence grew inside of me because I couldn’t say, that it was sometimes sad to be Hmong, even in America.”

This is how I sometimes feel being Hmong, living in America.

Most of how much I enjoyed this book had to do with the writing. It was beautiful and highly detailed which made this memoir captivating. You could see that Kao Kalia Yang really put time, thought, feelings, and compassion into writing this. (She also did a great job of narrating this on audiobook, FYI.)

This book emotionally resonated with me. It opened my mind, helping me really realize how close the Hmong community is and how much I take for granted. I was born and grew up in America (and am still growing up btw). Before this I did not think about my Hmong heritage or try to learn anything about it.

”Grandma said, They look at me old and wrinkled and not much. They do not know the reaches of an old tree. The high branches that goes up into the sky.”

I am Hmong. Reading this helped me see all the things my Grandma and parents have gone through. It helped me see how strong my people are, the strength and potential. This is a story about the survival of Hmong people; my people. It makes me proud of my people and where I am today.

I was also experiencing the feeling of déjà vu throughout this book as I watched Kao Kalia’s life in Minnesota unfold.
This not only showed me the Hmong’s past, my people’s past, a similar childhood to mine, but a possibility of my future.

This was a truly a moving read for me. The author takes you on a journey of the three generations in her family, taking in the topic of loss, love, life, and patience as well as so much more. To say this simply, it was a beautiful read, but that doesn’t sum up my experience while reading this book. I loved it and truly appreciated it.

”Once we are, we will always be.”
Profile Image for Jenny.
1 review
June 5, 2012
My mom gave me this book after meeting Kao Kalia Yang at an in-person event. I had heard of the Hmong people but knew nothing of their story. I found the account of the author's family's struggle during the Vietnam War to be so sad and heart-wrenching... no one should have to endure the fear and danger that they lived through. There is a quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." In this book, I traveled with Yang's family to Laos, then to Thailand and finally to America. Walking in her shoes has made me see the world in a bigger and more colorful way. The biggest surprise for me was reading about her transition to America. I expected Yang and her family to be in love with the American life and have a positive experience in the U.S. from day one. Why did I think that?! It was very, very difficult for them both financially and culturally. Finally, the ending of the book was a tear-jerker for a straight 20 or 30 pages! What a beautiful book that first opened my mind learning about a place that is so different from my own, and then opened my heart with a story about family that is no different from my own love for my family and their love for me. I recommend this book to anyone, especially Americans who will finish this book smarter and much more compassionate than when they began.
Profile Image for Catherine.
354 reviews
July 11, 2009
This is a beautiful memoir, deftly written, and the arc of three generations of women's lives gives a wonderful resiliency to the text. There are repeated images - walking; typing; struggling to speak - but within the disparate worlds of Laos, Thailand, and the United States each theme takes on a different resonance. The author's focus on words - spoken, then written, and the relationship between the two in more than one language - is haunting, and I got chills when she wrote an essay in high school, typing with her index fingers through the night, the act recalling her mother's dream of marrying an educated man and learning to type with quick, agile fingers.

I suspect this is a book that I'll be thinking of for a long time - it feels as if it's slipped slowly into my bloodstream and there's more within the pages than I understand right now. But I'm grateful that it exists, that Kao Kalia Yang was able to capture the stories that so many Hmong lost in the jungles of war-torn Laos, and that her words challenge us to think about the precious stories we lose among the textbooks and history classes and newspaper headlines of a cheerfully amnesiac United States.
Profile Image for Tim.
198 reviews12 followers
January 3, 2016
I worked with a Hmong guy for about a year and he told some stories about the fighting in Laos. He had a lot of kids. It is easy to imagine him as one of this woman's uncles. He had a similar history in St. Paul as her family.

It was really interesting to read about her introduction to America, Minnesota and especially the St. Paul Public School system.

The way she explains her grandmother, the central character of the story, is so slow, showing and not telling, leaving out over-wrought psychological theories and family drama around this or that cousin who was screwing up.

What is left is a beautiful account of her grandmother's life and Hmong culture from someone who grew up Hmong and got the ability to see it from enough of a distance to be able to write about it without ceasing to be a part of it.
Profile Image for Lauree.
215 reviews
November 18, 2013
It is good to know about the struggles of the Hmong people. The author is about four years younger than me, so all of her family's efforts to survive have taken place while I was living a parallel comfortable life. It is healthy to make this comparison and see that they have the same needs and desires and capabilities as my family. They just haven't been as fortunate. This book is beautifully written. What talent!
Profile Image for Heidi Burkhart.
2,130 reviews32 followers
June 26, 2021
A beautiful, sensitive and pretty much heartbreaking story about the pain of a Hmong family relocating to the US after escaping Laos, living in Thailand as refugees, until the family finally comes as immigrants to the US. The American Dream isn't a part of their relocation experience, but despite all, they survive and succeed.

Beautifully written.

Yang is a writer to follow.
902 reviews5 followers
November 14, 2018
What a gorgeous, lyrical, important story. I'm ashamed to know so little about the Hmong experience as there is such a large community here in Minnesota. This book does a beautiful job of telling both the high level group commonalities and history of the Hmong, and making the struggle of Hmong people very personal through the poignant memoir about Yang's family's refugee journey. I knew a lot of vague high points of this story but this really hit home for me how scary it was to be Hmong in Southeast Asia over the last 50 years, and how much of a struggle it is to acclimate to life in America after such an experience. I love Yang's narrative style and I hope she writes more books after this one, particularly if it involves collating some of the Hmong fairy tales she mentions throughout the book. I think this is something that all Minnesotans should read to better understand our Hmong neighbors, but it also could be a good pick for anyone wanting to learn more about the refugee experience away from all the noise of the news media. And if neither of those elements appeal to you, this is just a compelling story with melodic prose that you will not regret reading. Pick it up, you'll love it.
Profile Image for Sophia Thompson.
27 reviews
September 1, 2023
Wow, a beautiful memoir. I initially had no desire to read this book; my dad had just brought it home from work, told me how good the writing was, and suggested I read it. As with most memoirs, it took me a little bit to get into it. But, Yang has an incredible life story that is developed through her remarkable writing. Her relationships with her mother and grandmother are beautiful. I personally thought the ending was a little drawn out, but think it portrayed the impact her grandmother had on her. I wish she had expanded on her college years a little more (bc she went to Carleton!) but realize it’s not what the memoir is based on. I knew very little about the Hmong struggles before reading this book, but I feel much more educated now. Definitely recommend this book to all.
3 reviews1 follower
April 22, 2022
Kao Kalia Yang's writing voice is so beautiful as she honors the story of her family and many others. A humbling, emotional, and eye-opening read for me.
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