In the Spotlight

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Portrait: Yee Chang
By Lynette Nyman
March 11, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0 28.8
Part of This Is Home: The Hmong in Minnesota

Like other refugee immigrants, Yee Chang's family had a sponsor who promised to support them, if necessary, while they gained a foothold in a new land. Their sponsor lived in Hawaii. Chang was 11-years old when he left a refugee camp for the United States.

Chang: The majority of the population of the people in Hawaii are Japanese-Americans. So when we got there, we were like "is this the United States?" We were supposed to see a lot of blond people. And here we are in Hawaii, right? Are we in America? Are we in the United States? And people told us "you're on a little island. You're not really in the United States." So we felt like we weren't really there yet.

I went to school. I went to fourth grade. I remember the first week. Every morning we would say the Pledge of Allegiance, and I didn't know what they were doing. My first impression was that they were talking about me, that they were glad I was there. That's why they all got up and say something together. I really thought they were talking about me that first time. Then later I learned it's something that everybody does.

I remember hating the food so much. I didn't eat. Because I remember getting a piece of pizza and I just thought it was the nastiest thing. I still remember to today the smell of the tomato sauce on pizza and I hated tomatoes. The tomato sauce. I didn't like pizza for the longest time.

There were a lot of things that were scary. I mean, I was scared of just going in the bathroom. You know, like, do I know how to ask a teacher if I want to go to the bathroom? You know, little things like that. Or, how am I going to get home after school? Who's going to take me home? Will I be able to find my way back home?

But it was very exciting too because everything was new. We had a house with electricity. We had television. Television was, like, the thing. You get excited going home because when you get to watch TV. And we didn't have a TV. But our neighbor upstairs had a TV. And all the kids would go up and watch TV. You had to pay to watch TV in Thailand, in the camps, because there were only a couple of TVs
Chang's family left Hawaii in 1982. They moved to Minnesota where Chang joined Boy Scout Troop 100 for Hmong boys.
Chang: Almost every weekend we went camping with the scout troop. We couldn't wait until Friday because after school on Friday we went directly to the church, packed, and we went camping. And I'm still involved with scouting and how it's changed with Hmong kids today. But I remember then when we said we were going camping you didn't need to tell people what to bring and when you got there everybody knew exactly what to do. Everybody knew how to start a fire. Everybody knew how to cook. Everybody helped out. It was a lot of fun. Today it's not the same. I mean, camping is totally different with Hmong kids today. Part of it is they grew up here not knowing the basics of living in a village and having to do things yourself.

I don't think I felt like I was Hmong-American until later until I was in high school. I always felt like I was a refugee. You know you have the refugee mindset. So we were always refugee kids, ESL kids; English as a Second Language- student. I lived there for a long, long time and I didn't want to be that. It wasn't until the seventh grade I got out of being an ESL student.
In time, Chang went from being an ESL kid to a journalist with the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Today, he's a financial consultant; spending his evenings working with Hmong families as they prepare for their future in the U.S.