Can you tell us about your early life in Laos?
Where I was born was very high in the mountains, away from civilization. Our life was almost like in the Stone Age. We practiced slash-and-burn farming to plant rice as our main food. We had no bikes, no cars, but walked to our farm or rode on horseback from place to place. We never had a car. We didn’t know there were airplanes that could fly. We were under the old colonial government of France, and school was done in French. After I received the Lao government scholarship, I left Laos in 1971 to (go to) France for higher study. I was supposed to finish my study in 1979 with a Ph.D. in education and go back to Laos to teach at the School of Medicine. The fall of Laos into the communist control in 1975 did put an end to my educational plan.
How did you end up in Sheboygan?
I remember the date: Feb. 11, 1981. We came to Sheboygan for vacation to see my parents, who were refugees; they came to Sheboygan in August 1976. They were sponsored by a local church here. At that time, the Hmong refugees (in Sheboygan) had a lot of problems in adapting, and my father asked me to stay and help with the association that he was setting up.
How did you and your father work to help the community adapt to their new life here?
We set up self-help associations (Hmong Mutual Assistance Association of Sheboygan and Wisconsin United Coalition of Mutual Assistance Association). We also worked on communications. When I came here, I did a lot of talking at schools to explain to teachers how the Hmong children behave. I did a lot of talks to healthcare people, to teachers, to local officials, quite a few times to police officers.
You converted to Catholicism in 1983 — how did that come about?
My family has a very long tradition in Hmong culture, in Hmong belief — 10 generations that we know of. Also, the oldest of the family is the holder of the traditions, so I was the holder of the family traditions, like my father and grandfather. When I married Pa, her family was already Catholic in Laos. She never pushed me to join her religion. For many times, I dropped her at church and went back home. Later, I thought, as husband and wife, I have to do something in order for us to have a common life, especially when we would have more children. So, I went to church with her and sat quietly with her. In doing so, something began kind of working on me, secretly behind my mind.
What finally motivated you to convert?
For several times, when we were in church, at Communion time, she got up and walked along with others to receive communion. I would stay sitting, alone in the pew. I didn’t feel good about it. I said, “Well, I cannot go like this forever.” So, I asked myself, “What should I do to become a Catholic?” Six months after, I was baptized, confirmed and I became a Catholic. Fr. Dave Brown was my mentor, teacher and priest who taught me and baptized me.
Do you feel like, through your charitable work, you ultimately lived up to that role as the tradition keeper?
There’s an analogy about Hmong culture — before, we did not have a writing system, so our story has been folklore for storytelling from generation to generation for thousands of years. But I think what happened now in the 21st century, children are not willing to listen to adults’ verbal stories anymore. They are not sitting at the fireplace and listening to the old people to tell stories; they are learning from books, social media, newspapers or school. I think what I’m trying to do is to take that analogy and transfer it to the type of learning and type of technology that we have right now, so that the next generations still have the ability to remember and to know what happened.