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American History-Born

By virtue of me standing up here, you know that I’m a refugee.
But if you saw me out on the street, what would you see?
Would you see an immigrant or a refugee?
If I told you they weren’t the same,
Would the difference make a difference?
Would you be able to name
The war, the country, and forgotten place from where I came?
Would you see me as part of American history?

The last of my family to be born in Laos in 1984,
I am the generation of Hmong children born long after the Secret War,
We have no memory of all that happened years before.

The Hmong’s journey to America began before 1954,
When the French left in defeat but America stayed,
Afraid that Laos would be a portal, a door
For Communism to spread in the region like a spore.
With two Geneva Agreements declaring Laos a neutral country,
Not to be meddled, occupied, or influenced by foreign military.
The United States remained to defend democracy but in secrecy,
All the while Kennedy insisting on Laotian neutrality and peace publicly.
To spare American boots, the CIA recruited mountain tribes as troops,
Attracted to the possibility of political sovereignty,
And the legitimacy granted with victory,
The Hmong sided with the Americans and the communists,
Bleeding on both sides for other people’s political hegemony.

At the end of the war, Saigon rose, and America fell,
40,000 Hmong dead and no one to tell.
The Hmong were left to fend for themselves.
On the trek to Thailand, many more would fall,
The U.S. government knew but would not recall.
In the refugee camps, the Hmong lived stilted lives with empty eyes,
Waiting for resettlement, and the chance to revive.

I am the sixth child of my mother and father,
We arrived in the United States in 1989.
And within a few years, seven children turned into nine.
A family of seven girls and only two boys,
There was no such thing as a toy that was solely mine.
If it wasn’t for welfare, we wouldn’t have been well-cared for.
I remember a time when I hated Section 8,
Because the house we rented belonged to a volleyball teammate.
In the summers, we picked strawberries in their endless rows,
So in the next school year, I could have a new pair of shoes to show.

When I was in high school, I saw that the Hmong had no place
Even in AP U.S. History
Which was supposed to teach me, how the country came to be.
In college, I was told that the Hmong had no history,
Because we didn’t write it down—and hadn’t done so in centuries.
So, I stand before you, the child refugee of refugees,
Literate, articulate, on the brink of a PhD,
To bridge the gap between the truths,
And fill the silence of history books,
Writing on pages names not etched on any American wall
Least of all the black one in Washington DC’s monuments mall.

I am a refugee.
I carry with me a forgotten history within America’s memory.
I speak with no accent because my parents came to America before one could form on my tongue.
I grew up on the perforated edges of food stamps,
Bones and body fortified by the calcium and Vitamin D of WIC milk and cheese. 
I am a refugee.
With a PhD, I will write my own—I will write American history.
I am a refugee.
I am war-formed, war-torn, war-scorned, and American history-born. 

—Chong A. Moua, PhD Candidate, History Department, UW-Madison