Transcript: Disk #1 of 2
Farm Yoon (Susan) Lee (Mien)
Interview by Anne Morin
July 18, 2005
FARM YOON (SUSAN) LEE
1 I was born in Laos. We have 6 of us – so we have 3 girls. I am the fifth youngest one. I have younger sister. So I am number 5. My mom and dad now they live in France. They’re not here. They live in France. So I have only one sister here with me. The rest of my brothers and sisters live in France.
In Laos I remember that I was really young, and then we always seems like moving place to place.
Why? Because the Communists. Because every time when we move to some new place then Communists come then we have to start moving again. I remember that I was maybe 3 years old and I was walking, escaping, and mom and dad carry things and blankets and foods and my brothers and sisters carry. I was walking, once around my dad put me in his shoulder when I can not walk. So after we moved to a place next to Thailand called PhnomPing, and we stayed there about 16 some years, and then we have to move again. The last time we escaped is 1975 from Laos to Thailand in the camp.
Why did you leave at that point? Do you remember?
Yeah, the Communists come again, so they took over the whole country. So we cannot live there any more. We have to escape. If not, my dad was Army; he was in the military, so if he doesn’t escape then if they capture him, they going to put him in the re-education? camp
Or maybe he might get killed. At that time, I was married, so my husband was in the Army, too. So we have to escape, you know, because otherwise. First time, they be nice to you but soon as they got you and then they take you away either you get killed or you in the camp for a long time, and pressure?, if you in the camp and if you can handle you might be survive; if not, then you die. They don’t give you no food. And they make you work very hard. So we escaped 1975 to Thailand. In the camp, we stayed in the camp three years.
What was the camp like?
Oh, it was just barbed wire across the camp. You cannot go out. You stay in the camp. They give you food once a week. Very little. Not much you can survive. If you bring some money from Laos you might have some, you can go out. The people come from outside of the camp, they just come to the camp where the gate is. Sell some vegetables, some foods so you can buy some. Otherwise, you just have to eat what you have and you just have to try manage so not to eat too much in one day and next day you don’t have enough to eat.
At this point did you have children?
No, I don’t have no children. At that time, I just got married and I was very young. I was 16 years old. So we don’t have no kids yet.
2 Now at this point, some of your family went to France and some of your family went to the United States.
At the time when I was in Thailand in the camp , nobody go anywhere yet. We all stay in the camp. My family, my husband’s family. We all in the camp together.
At some point
In 1977, and my brother went to France, then after that ‘78 I came to the US.
And why did you separate at that point?
I don’t know. Somehow my brother he want to go to France. I don’t know why. When he went to France and then I came over here and when I get here I try to sponsor my mom and dad to come here. But somehow my older brother, he has four kids at that time. They said in France, when you have a lot of children they can help you, they support you very good. So he heard somebody tell him that send some cassette tape and tell them how good it was in France. And then my other brother went to France. Then I have another brother lived with my mom and younger sister live with my dad. So they all went to France after that. So I tried to sponsor them, but somehow they want to follow their sons, so they went to France. In the Mien culture, they don’t follow the girl; they only follow the sons. So that’s why they all went to France. And I end up over here. And I sponsor my older sister. She was married. So I sponsor her. I tell her I’m the only one here, why don’t you come here and be with me. So finally she came over here. She also got approval to come to France, too, but she decided to come here. I have one sister, but I have a lot of uncles in California.
3 Can you tell me a little about, let’s go back a little bit? What it was like to live in the village on, near the Mekong? What was it like to grow up there?
Oh, you know, when we grow up that time the Communists far away, not in there yet. Not a part of the country. So it was peaceful. Don’t have too much pressure. My dad is not really poor, but he’s not rich, but kind of in the middle class. We have our village and we also have the ?, he has a convenience store. He sells all the farmers’ supplies and things like that. So he’s in the little town, and we’re in the village in the farm. So we also have another house there. Mostly I lived there with my older brother. They are farming there. So I helped them baby sit the children, the kids. So it was peaceful. You don’t have too much electricity. You just grow what you eat. Just farm. You grow this year; you eat next year. And you keep doing that. There’s no pressure, no ? No nothing. It’s just like, you live happy. Everything’s natural. Not too much chemical. You grow what you eat. You want to eat chicken, you raise the chicken with the farm with the rice and corns. You want to eat meat you have to kill chickens. People go fish and hunt and stuff like that.
It sounds like a happy life.
It is a happy life. You know, we don’t have pressure. Today you might have everything, you know: Big house and cars and everything, but it’s very stressful. It’s just like a depression, you know? Just stress. Always try to get something. Too many peer pressure. So I feel like this country is very good to us. The people in the US, they very friendly, very open their heart for our refugee people to come here. I mean, it’s opportunity to come live in this country. And they are so nice and have a good heart for us to come to this country, and we have a lot of things to learn, and I’m just grateful for the US government. I mean sponsor us to come to this country.
But. . .
We have a good life here. But we still have pressure. Like depress. Stress. And all these violent things going on. You hear on the news, on TVs, and stuff like that. But in our country, we have no news, no tv, no radios, nothing. So you pretty much see what hits you right there. Otherwise you don’t see anything come ahead of you, or in the past. You have to prepare for the future. You don’t have all that things to worry about that. It’s peaceful if the Communists doesn’t come. I think even we live not rich, poorly, but we live peaceful life.
6 Let’s go back a little to the refugee camp and just tell me a little bit about what you did while you were there and how you learned that you were coming here to the United States, and how did you prepare to come here?
I think it was 1975 no 1977 and UN ? and then to ask people that, when my husband, Ay Choy, was in the Army and so they take those people first there. They have more chance to come here, percentagewise. So then he apply for it and then we both approved to come here in 1978. So we waiting to come. I was really, I want to come, but I’m so sad. I’m missing my family.
Where were they?
No. They are in Laos. No, in the camp. (Holding back tears.) I have to leave my family behind, you know? And come here. And so I came here with Ay Choy, that time 1978, and March 10, so we left from the camp.
Did you leave before your parents left?
So tell me a little bit about what you were doing in the camp. Did you work there as a nurse?
Yeah, actually we have a little clinic in the camp, so you know we give like medicines and like shot for flu shots or for different kind. And when people get sick they go there to get medicine to take. And we give like milk to the young kids, like under 5 years old. We give each week, we give them a bag of those paper, powder milk, and we give them one soap, and some vitamins.
Where did these things come from?
From World Vision. From UN. Yeah, World Vision. Yeah, they give that to the camp so every week we give to the kids. So they can go home and wash themselves and get some nutrition and baby foods. So I worked in the clinic with another friend and that time Ay Choy was interpreter for this doctor from Australia.
We’re waiting for the mower. And they’re paying him to do it so no way he’s going to stop. But now he’s leaving.
So I worked there for maybe two years before when I came here.
Were there a lot of sick people there at the camps?
Yeah, they have some sick people but not that many. Just like everyday things. But when we just escape from Laos to Thailand, when we were in this place that there is no camp. And the water was so terrible and because every time there’s rain, and there’s no toilet or anything like that, there’s no outhouse so we drink this water are really dirty, so at that time people die a lot. Almost every day you see people die because not enough food and the living environment, living situation is very dirty.
How long did you live in that situation?
In there for maybe, let me see, about 6 months, and then after they get this camp done, they call Chankham camp, so after they build this buildings all that done, when we moved to another place, so this place is not too bad. They make the bathroom they make an outhouse; they dig in the ground very deep and they also dig out a well, so we have that. So it’s like a more clean environment. And we live in the big buildings, we live in the buildings big place, so it’s a little bit nicer place to live and when we get there, we also have a little clinic in the camp. So when they get sick, they can get some help. If they cannot do anything for them, they take them to this city called Chankham. So they have a hospital there. People go there if they need surgery, or like more major things then they send them there. So this time people live a little bit better. And they have some gardens in the camp, so they plant some gardens. And outside the camp, the Thai government give them a little place that they can plant some vegetables and plant some rice. So they lived a little better over there in the Chankham camp. And this is the camp that I live in so it’s a little bit better.
When you learned that you were going to the United States, how much notice did you have to get ready to go?
No, actually we have like two days only. They just announce in the speaker, said Okay, we get this name, this name, and you are going get prepared for next day to the bus that’s going to come to the camp to pick you up. That’s it. You don’t have no time. So all you do is you pack little things and you don’t have that much to pack anyway. You just bring some clothes and that’s it and you pack it. And then when the bus arrive, you get in the bus and go.
So it was you and your husband?
And the two children?
No! I don’t have children at that time.
7 Just the two of us and other people that have approval to come to this country. Ay Choy and I, we was the third family to come to the US, Mien family. We’re the third family in the US.
And did you come to Portland?
Yeah, we come straight to Portland, that time Kaochiem Chau was our sponsor, so that was one of my husband’s best friends. So he sponsored his and we came straight to Portland, and we lived with them.
And so you got off the plane, and what did you think?
When I get off the plane, when we get here it was March 31, 1978. It was cloudy and don’t have sun, and I say, “Is this the way it supposed to look like this?” And then Ay Choy was joking with me and say, “Yeah. This is the way it supposed to look like this. We won’t never have any sun.” Laughs. So I was thinking about really? In those days, when we was in Laos, they said that in America, they have no sun. Say, they use the moon to dry things, not the sun. So I really think that we have no sun here. You know, when I get here it was cloudy. Laughs.
You know how when I was in the camps, they take those Ten Commandments to show in the camp. The Christian movie. Right? And all the people they dress like all those clothes? I really thought when I come to America, everybody dress like that! Nobody dresses regular. I was so scared. I look at that, I said, “Well, if I go there everybody dress like that, how can I go? I will be so scared.” When I come to this country, I was very scared. I was not prepared for anything. I was prepared for people will dress like that. You know? All those heavy blankets, or heavy sheets and stuff like that, you know. I didn’t know.
Laugh. I’ve never heard that story!
Yeah. And then . . .
Was that the only American movie you ever saw before you came here?
So, of course that’s how you’d think we’d dress.
Yeah, I saw a few Americans they go to the camp but they dress like normal, but that’s how I see it – everybody’s dressed like that. So I didn’t ask anybody.
So, you looked out at the airport and, thank goodness, everybody looks kind of normal.
Yeah, I looked at the newsperson. Phil Donahue. I always thought he was a knock-out gorgeous guy. Laughs. Wow, I didn’t know that. You have a handsome guy over here, too, you know! Laughs.
Phil Donahue on television, you mean?
Yeah. On Channel 6. He’s been in there forever. Right?
Yeah, long time. Right.
I agree, he is a very handsome man.
8 Lawn mower
9 Did you have any connection whatever to the war when you were there? I mean, did you see any shooting, did you hear any shooting? You didn’t have any of that?
No. We were far away. We heard some gun fighting, but it’s far away. We are not close to the war.
So now we’re in the United States and tell me if somebody said to you, if . . .
Are we on now?
Yes, we are on.
10 If I’m a little kid and I don’t know what the word “refugee” means, how would you define that for me? What would you say a refugee was?
Well, refugee is people that someone come over and take over your homelands, and you have no place to go. You have to escape for your life. You have to go somewhere that is safe for you to be able to survive. And safe for your life and your family. You have no house. You have nothing anymore. No place to live and that’s all you have to do is refugee. It’s that way. You have no home.
So do you know any new refugees in this country now?
I know a lot of Russian people coming. And also now they have more Hmong people. They sponsor more Hmong people coming over here. About 16,000, altogether. They said they have about 46,000 Hmong people still in Thailand. So since last year, they start bringing more people come over here. So they have some new Hmong refugees come to the US. Yeah, they just have new opening. Because in the camp in Thailand and Thai people don’t want them to live there any more, and Lao people don’t want them to go back, so they have no place to go. So they open that door for them to come, so been approved since last year. So they start coming.
Actually, I heard that there are two Mien people that are right in North Carolina. So two families are right in there already. So there are two new Mien family are right in North Carolina.
Here in America, when you first came, you were a refugee. How did you feel about that description of you as a person? As a refugee?
At that time, I don’t know anything about that. All I know is that I’m here and try to get my life to start in this . . . in the US. Try to go to school and learn some language. When I get here, I don’t know any English at all. So when I go to anywhere, when people talk, I cannot pick up any words. What I heard is there’s no word broken – just go Dhahuhuhu – that’s all! Laughs. So I have no idea. As refugee people and then since we get here they send us to school to learn some basic English.
Where did you go to school?
PCC. Ross Island PCC.
And how long did you go there.
Maybe for five months, two hours a day. Two and a half hours a day.
What was that like?
Oh, it was not that easy. It’s hard. They’re teaching us just like kindergarten kids, you know. They basically teach you how to go to store and buy the vegetables, and what the name of the vegetables and name stuff. Things. Like tables and chickens, and porks and carrots and stuff like that.
Did you like going to school?
There were other Mien women.
Yeah, there were other Mien women, there’s other Hmong women and Laotian women. We all go there to learn how to speak English.
So it was a way for you to connect, maybe, with people.
And where did you live when you first came here?
I lived in Halsey Square apartments. There’s NE 66 and Halsey.
Tell us about Halsey Square. What kind of a place was that to live in those days?
Oh, you know, it’s a good place. There’s a lot of Asian people live in that area. So Vietnamese, some Lao. Different people. Cambodian. Different people live in that area there. It’s a good place to live. It’s okay. Peaceful. At that time, there was not that many people and the apartment was not that expensive. So when I came here, I lived with Kaochiem and with their family for about 9 months, and then we get when I get work and Ay Choy was working and we get our own apartment.
Now, Ay Choy got a job with the schools right away?
He worked at Anzen, Japanese grocery story. He worked there for awhile and then when there were more people come in they keep going to school and they have no English knowledge so Ay Choy knows English, so he worked for as a teacher aid or interpreter or something in the school district.
Where did he learn English?
He learned it while he was in Laos. He went to college in Thailand in Oudon. So that’s why he went there for either nine months or a year, to go, and he learned English there.
I remember that he was the most articulate, well-spoken of all the people of all the bilinguals at the, with Portland Public Schools at the time. When we really wanted to be understood, and to make sure that they understood us, we always called him becaue his English was very good.
Which was very, very good. Still. I mean, early on, he was very good.
So you were here in ’78. So that’s when I first started teaching ESL.
So that time, when I come here, I’m overage already, so I couldn’t go to high school any more. So I go to ESL at community college and learn my English and later on I got a job.
You got a job.
So at first you were just at home.
Yeah. I just go to school.
And who else was with you at your house, with you and Ay Choy?
The first nine months, we lived with Kaochiem, and them. It was Kaochiem and his three kids, and his mom.
A lot of people.
So after I got a job and Ay Choy worked for awhile, then we can afford to move out and get our own two-bedroom apartment.
And what was your first job?
I work still my first job today! I work for Tektronics. I’ve been there since 1978, so I’ve been there for twenty-some years now.
And what do you do for them?
Assembly. Yeah, we build occiloscope, assembly.
And do you like the job? You like the people you work with?
Tell me about the job. What’s it like?
Oh, you know, when I first come here, I don’t know English at all. But when I apply for a job, and they hire me right away because maybe they like my attitude. So I anything I do. But anyway, even though I don’t know English that well, I don’t know how to read that well, but I learn really quick. So when they teach me to do things, I can work on my hands, you know, do things really easy. So people are nice. I pick it up pretty quick, pretty fast. So I’m doing that, and I really enjoy it. I work with nice people; they treat you well. And ever since that, it’s my first job, so I’ve been there since then.
Are there a lot of other refugee people there who work with you?
Yeah. There’s a whole bunch. They hire a lot of Asians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laos and Hmong and Mien. Most people.
So you feel very much at home there – you must?
Actually, the area I work there’s no one speak my language. I want to speak English because no Mien people work in the same area as I do. So I don’t feel at home at all. I don’t know anybody. It’s a big company, so everybody work in different area. So I hardly see any Mien people that work in the same area as I do.
11 And so when was your first child born.
And what was that like?
Actually, my both daughters were adopted. So I never had my own kids.
And how did they come to your life?
Oh, I have a friend that live in Seattle. And then she has four, five kids already. And when she was pregnant, she wanted to give this baby away. And I have some girlfriends that went to Seattle to visit somebody, and she heard them tell somebody that this lady want to give the baby away. So I find out the phone number and I call them, and I tell them I don’t have kids, and if they want to give away, I would really like to adopt the baby. So later on I give them my phone number and later on they decide and said Okay, so we want to give to you. Okay. So we start do paperwork and when the baby born, we went to bring the baby home.
And you did it twice!
Yeah, I did it twice. And my younger daughter is actually my sister-in-law’s kid, Ay Choy’s older sister’s daughter. So it come as surprise. And like my daughter’s um, when she was pregnant, the whole time I take her to the doctor every single week because she have to go for checkup, I take her every week, she didn’t tell me a thing that she want to give baby away – to me. I didn’t know that, so I take her all the time. Okay, so on the day that she go for labor, on Saturday, I was not home, I was working. And she called me up to take her to the doctor, and I was not home and so my husband, David (Ay Choy) take her to a doctor, and on the way to the hospital she tell Ay Choy, “Here I am going – doesn’t matter, a girl or boy, when this baby born, I’m going to give it to you.” And it was shock to him and to me. And we was grateful that she wanted to give baby to us and later on the baby was born and it was a girl, 8 pounds and 7 ounces. Big baby. So I was at work and he called me at work and tell me the baby was born. And it was a girl. And I was so anxious to come home from work! Laughs.
Then did you stay home for a couple of weeks with the baby?
No. I just stayed a week only. Yeah. I have that time, my mother-in-law was living with me. And then she was taking care of my daughter. And I was still can go to work. And she was a good baby, so she doesn’t cry at all. So I was still going to work.
Now do your girls have contact with their biological mothers at all?
Yeah. I have. When they both graduate, their natural parent come. They come celebrate with us.
That’s, what a wonderful story.
Yes. It is. In Mien community, for Mien people, we always have open adoption; we don’t hide from the kids that you are adopted and you don’t know your parents. We usually see each other all the time and still have close relationship with them, anything. We all combine together take care of them and take care of each other. We don’t have anything like that that we don’t tell them anything like that.
That’s a wonderful thing about Mien culture, isn’t it. Tell me some other things about Mien culture that you think have helped you get along better in this country.
Um, in the Mien community we are all really close. We don’t have that many people, but we all really close. We help each other. Like someone’s losing family member we all the whole community combine and they all pitch in the money to give donation to this family, to help them. To help them with their funeral expense, and all that – they buy them foods, a lot of things, and to help them for their grief. So it’s really a strong community. That’s how to help our community to stay strong because we are close and we helping each other.
12 Tell me about your New Year’s celebration.
Yeah, New Year’s celebration usually we all getting together from people Seattle, California, combine and we all celebrate to New Year. We just have cultural performance and like music. People can dance together and visit each other. They haven’t seen each other for a long time. Just like events, so people can combine and to celebration and also to visit each other.
Is it also a way to make sure that your children stay connected to the Mien culture? So they won’t forget?
Yeah, it is. So the children can see what’s going on and, hopefully, they can carry that cultures through the generation to generation. But today I am worried about the younger generation now. They have too many things to learn about American culture, and I’m afraid that the culture is going away. I’m afraid that in the future maybe the children doesn’t know where they come from or where the ancestors and what kind of background they’re coming from.
Why do you think that’s important?
I think it’s important to know what your values are and what your ancestors and what your from and not to forget about that. It’s important for them to carry that on so they can tell their children and great children and the children and have the books around so they can don’t forget where you’re from.
13 I agree it’s really important, etc. There’s so much out here to keep them distracted. Have you gone back to Thailand to see family back there?
No, actually since I come here in 1978, I have never been back.
Do you want to go back?
Yeah, some day. When Ay Choy was going back, about that time my kids still young and my mother-in-law home, so I don’t want to leave them alone. Stay here. So he went back already many time already, but I still haven’t go back.
Do you have family still in Thailand?
Not close family in Laos, not close family, relatives, but not that close.
What do you hear Laos is like now, for the people that are there?
I think they are okay. Not too bad now. Getting better. But people still poor and they just don’t have enough money to go buy medicine in case they are sick and stuff like that.
You know Tou Meksavanh?
Yeah, Tou Meksavanh. She’s one of the really good friends to me. She was my teacher in Mt. Hood Community College that time.
Etc. She was talking about going back to Laos, etc.
Maybe some day when I retire, I want to go and live in Thailand for awhile. Maybe vacation home or something. But I don’t want to live there because too far away from a hospital.
In Laos. Also in Thailand, too. They might have it, but I don’t know. I just think. I like the life over here. I do pretty much what I want and go places and things like that. And if you want to live a good life, if you have a house back in Laos, I think it’s nice. Or in Thailand, especially, I think Thailand’s nice because if you have good retirement home, you go there, you live like a king. You have maid, you have servants to serve you and all that. Over here, not barely survive. But I wouldn’t like to go back and live over there. I like it here. I’m happy here.
14 Now you taught girls how to do the Mien dances? Would you tell me how you got into that and when was that and how long did you do it? And do you still do it?
Oh, no, I’m not doing that any more. Actually, I don’t teach them to do it. There is someone else train them how to do it. I just bring the girls over there. I just involved if they need transportation, like that. So I take all the young girl over to the place. Someone else home. They have some. The girls pretty much taught themselves how to dance. Not the old people. So they look at it and they want to do it and they just follow the music and learn how to do that. So I did that for two years and after that now someone else turn.
Here comes the lawnmower again.
17 When you first came here, you were poor. How did you manage?
I was living with my sponsor so they pay everything. We get food stamps for a month and then Ay Choy get a job so we didn’t get anything anymore.
So you felt like his paycheck was enough to live on and you weren’t hurting for money.
Because at that time the apartment was only a hundred some dollars a month and the Kaochiem was working fulltime and his wife was not work but later on his wife was working and Ay Choy was working and later on I was working so.
So Kaochiem was really a good friend.
Really good friend.
Kaochiem and his wife Chua, they were really good friends and sponsor and good community leader. Because of them, a lot of people follow them. They are not afraid to come here. They’re the ones who come here first. But a lot of people tell them that they’ll be eaten by American people already so no one alive!
Say that again?
They was telling us the story about Kaochiem come here and was get eaten by the cannibals.
There were cannibals in America? That would eat you?
They say that Kaochiem’s mother was eaten already by the cannibal also his wife too. So they afraid that kind of story to come to this country. Because Kaochiem was not afraid. He come in 1976. So he was get eaten already so no one alive any more.
So no wonder you were afraid to come here!
Exactly! You know?
You were afraid that the cannibal was gonna getcha!
Laugh. I’m glad it didn’t!
Yeah. So later on when Kaochiem write letter back and tell us that he’s still alive and he will be our sponsor. So we come here, and later on everybody come. We still talk about that story today.
Yeah, the cannibals.
Laugh. I wonder where that story came from.
Yeah. He was a good leader; he was not afraid. He come here first. Okay. So that’s why he bring all these people along, follow him. So really good friend, good community leader.
18 Tell me about your mom. When’s the last time you saw her?
I saw her 1998 when she was I went there to visit her in France. But the last time I saw her I went to bury her, last year, 2004, January 26. So I went there. That’s all.
Was she sick for a long time?