My name is Tou Ger and I was born in Laos in 1973. My family left our country in 1975 when I was only two years old. I had a baby sister who was just nine days old when we fled. Like many other Hmong families, we had to silently make our escape in the middle of the night.
The night that we fled Laos, there were two groups of us. We pretty much had to pay our entire life savings to these fishermen who had access to the Mekong river separating Laos from Thailand. We heard about families who had made it across the border, as well as many families who died along the way. We knew there were soldiers waiting to shoot people who were trying to escape, but we didn’t have a choice. My father fought in the Secret War alongside Americans and other Hmong men and boys, some as young as 10 or 11, hired and armed by the CIA. He was public enemy #1 and would be persecuted if we didn’t leave.
We got on a little boat and they took us across the river. It was about a 45-minute ride during a thunderstorm in total darkness, save for the flashes of lightning. When we made it to safety, the fishermen who we paid to take us across assured our family that they were going back to the Laotian side to pick up our 23 neighbors waiting on the shore. However, as we waited on the banks of the river on the other side, my mother said that she heard screams amidst the thunder and lightning. She heard shouting and knew that there was some kind of struggle; the boat was only halfway across the river. We didn’t find out what had happened until the next morning. The survivors told us that the same fishermen who had helped us, turned their guns onto our neighbors, robbed them of everything they possessed, and threw them into the water. Of those 23 people, 18 died and only 5 were able to swim to shore. My mother saw dead bodies being washed ashore the next morning when we reconnected with our friends who had lived.
We found our way to a local police station and they processed our paperwork. My family was placed in a Thai refugee camp where we stayed for four years before immigrating to America in 1979. When we first came to the United States, it was my five brothers, three of my sisters, our mom, and our dad. Our oldest sister had already been living in America with her husband’s family for a few years. They completed the paperwork to sponsor us so that we could come straight to Minnesota, a vastly different land than the tropical jungles of Laos. We’ve been here ever since, almost four decades.
Our family all has vivid memories of our journey here. My first memories were in the refugee camp. We didn’t have shoes and we had minimal food, but I never truly realized how poor we were until we came to America. The technology was way more advanced (we had never even flushed a toilet before) and the experience was unlike any we had in our lives prior. It was comforting that my parents were also experiencing this at the same time as myself and my siblings; we knew we were in it together. I am thankful every day for the churches, nonprofits, and schools who came into our lives to help us adapt to this new society. They would come to our house and, even though we didn’t really understand one another’s language, they befriended our family and would bring old clothes over and other things to help us feel more comfortable.
A really tough aspect of growing up in America as a refugee was identity. Nobody knew the difference between Chinese, Japanese, Laotian, or any other ethnicities. I remember going to school and being labeled solely as “Asians”. I couldn’t explain where we were from since Hmong people don’t have a specific country to point to on a map. This all led to a lot of insecurities about myself and if I belonged, especially because we were not only misunderstood by our peers but tormented with racist gestures and derogatory slurs. I see so many of these anti-refugee sentiments, things I haven’t heard for 30 years, resurfacing from folks who have been emboldened by our current political climate.
Unfortunately, we didn’t find much support after experiencing such poor treatment at school. Our parents weren’t educated, so they couldn’t explain what was happening to us or why, not to mention what we should do about it. We didn’t even have the word “bully” at that time. My mom and dad would tell us to just be thankful we were able to sit in a classroom and get a good public education. They didn’t know about the emotional and psychological support we needed to process our situation. We were told to just be glad we weren’t in the refugee camps anymore and had a roof over our heads.
Instead of looking to our parents for insight, we coped in other ways. One way we found to fit in better was to perfect our English. We tried anything and everything. It got to the point where some Asian children would pinch each other’s noses and try to stretch them out, so the other kids wouldn’t call us “flat-nose”. Regardless, many of the students still regarded as dirty, poor refugees who would forever be outsiders. In addition, these narratives were amplified and perpetuated in the media, with elected officials calling Hmong people backwards and telling the world we didn’t have what it took to survive in the 21st century. We all had illegal alien cards. Being called an alien causes some serious hurt for a young child. This bred a lot of shame, self-doubt, and other deep trauma because we didn’t understand our predicament.
Success is really about following your passion and doing what you love- getting paid for it is even cooler. When I decided I didn’t want to get a PhD, I was scared to tell my parents. Higher education is so important in immigrant and refugee families. My parents didn’t understand the idea of an artist. They risked everything, they saw their friends die, they hid in the jungle from armed soldiers; they couldn’t fathom that they did all this for me to go on stage and tell jokes. One of my biggest accomplishments was to convince myself and my parents that it’s okay to follow your dreams. I don’t work 9-5, but that doesn’t mean I’m not putting in the work to pursue my dreams. I’ve been doing activism, art, and storytelling for 22 years, working for myself since college. I get to tell the Hmong narrative from my perspective. I’m not reading from a Hmong book written by a white English professor. I get to do it in the form of rap and comedy. I don’t have to, I get to. In the process of laughing, my audience is listening and hopefully learning about the Hmong refugee story. I hope they walk away with lessons they can implement in their own lives, and with a new sense of understanding, empathy, and responsibility to their neighbors and friends coming to America for the first time.
Success equates with happiness and a sense of purpose. In a way, I’m glad that I went through what I went through. I know what it’s like not to have a pair of shoes. I know what it’s like to have to share a jacket with your sibling. I know what it’s like to live in a cramped bedroom with three brothers in a public housing project. I know what it’s like to wait for the food stamp check every month, so your family can eat. Because of these experiences, it gives me motivation to strive for more and live my life by example. More importantly, it gives me a sense of humility and appreciation for the abundance of good things that I am blessed to have now in life.
I try not to take anything for granted because so many people have died and sacrificed to get to the point where I’m at today. I always think about the families who drowned in the river; I think about our relatives still living in refugee camps; I think about cousins still living in our mountain village of Laos, which I’ve gone back to visit twice with my mom and dad. We live in one of the wealthiest countries on earth, but we are one of the poorest in terms of our respect for and acceptance of our fellow human beings. Refugees are America’s best kept secret. We make this country great. We contribute so much to this kaleidoscope of culture.
My advice to new Americans is this: learn your story. Collect and record your story. Once you do that, tell your story in any way, fashion, or form that you can. Sing it, write it, paint it, act it out. If we don’t share our narrative, we cease to exist. If someone else tells our story, they’re going to exploit it. Additionally, make sure you learn America’s often untold history. Learn about Frederick Douglas and other people of color whose stories, much like ours as refugees, are also forgotten by the mainstream. Learn about LGBTQ folks and the systems of oppression that affect our society. We are part of a larger struggle for equality, dignity, and justice for all people. When you see movements like #metoo or #BlackLivesMatter, empathize with those who are stripped of their voice and take action. If nothing else, we have the power of grassroots organizing. We have the power of community