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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 256-258

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Book Review

I Begin My Life All Over: The Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience

I Begin My Life All Over: The Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience by Lillian Faderman with Ghia Xiong. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. 262 pages, cloth $25.

In I Begin My Life All Over: The Hmong and the American Immigrant Experience, thirty-six people speak of their hopes and sorrows as they struggle to adjust to life in America, straddling the border between Hmong and American cultures, past and future, traditional and modern worlds. The speakers range from an eleven-year-old girl who calls herself "an American kid" to a sixty-five-year-old musician, an expert player of the qeej (bamboo pipes), who now needs his children to help him negotiate the streets of Fresno. "I always find myself lost in this world," he says, echoing the disorientation felt by many of the older generation.

Here are the words of Hmong shamans and elders alongside those of young gang members. Here, too, are the voices of mothers and fathers who carried their children through the jungle and across the Mekong Delta; children who lost parents along this difficult journey; and children who were born in America, speaking little Hmong and learning English from tv sitcoms.

Lillian Faderman's I Begin My Life All Over presents a compelling diversity of voices speaking on the Hmong immigrant experience. The book chronicles the difficulties many immigrants face: barriers of language and experience, prejudice of race and religion, the challenge of preserving one's culture while becoming part of a new one. But it also describes the unique history and culture of the Hmong, many of whom fled persecution in China in the early 1800s and settled in the remote mountains of Laos. Beginning in the 1950s, the CIA secretly recruited the Hmong to fight the Communists; about one-third of the Hmong population was killed in this clandestine war. In 1975, the CIA withdrew, abandoning promises it had made to take care of the Hmong. Those who had survived the conflict now feared for their lives. Many fled to the jungles and then across the Mekong Delta to Thai relocation camps, finally immigrating to America.

In part one, "The End of a Way of Life," the narrators describe life in rural Hmong villages, the loss of those villages and family members to the war, the years spent hiding in the jungles, the treacherous crossing of the Mekong, and life in the Thailand camps. [End Page 256]

The much longer and more detailed part two, "Becoming American," focuses on life in the United States and covers such topics as arriving in America; conflicts between the generations; shamanism, Christianity, and modern medicine; and the changing roles of women and men. The stories include those of a mother resigned to her role as a third wife, a young woman who has succeeded in escaping an arranged marriage, a husband confused and troubled by his wife's increasing independence, and a father who finally acknowledges his daughter's worth after a lifetime of wishing she had been a boy. "At this time and age it makes no difference whether she's a girl," he says at last. "Here in America there is no difference."

Woven in among these stories is Faderman's personal one of life with her immigrant mother, a Latvian Jew who came to America in the 1930s. As Faderman introduces each section of the book, she points out the similarities between the Hmong immigrant experience and her own. She recalls her mother working in the sweatshops of the garment industry, the loneliness and guilt she experienced when her brothers and sisters died in the Holocaust. Faderman's story culminates in her return to Preili, the home of her mother. "The disappointment and pain I heard in the voices of many of the adult Hmong immigrants who were my narrators often reminded me of her," Faderman writes. "Their children reminded me of me."

Kia Voua, like many of...


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