Refugee, Green Alien and American

Feb 28, 2017

APMG's Ka Vang describes the long journey that led her from a refugee camp in Thailand in 1975 to welcoming new citizens to America four decades later.

As part of our 50th anniversary, we want to acknowledge and celebrate the many people who make MPR happen every day. Throughout the year, we'll be sharing the stories of MPR Members, staff and volunteers here and on our social media channels. We also want to hear from listeners. Tell us what MPR means to you.

Refugee, Green Alien and American

By Ka Vang, Director of Impact and Community Engagement

1975, Thailand (The Refugee)

In the dingy and overcrowded refugee camp called Ban Vanai, there were two people I admired the most. The first person was Tou, my best friend who collected rubber bands for us to play with, since there were no toys in the camp. The second person, Mai, was the most beautiful girl in the camp. At the time, while most of our hair were covered with lice or falling off because of malnutrition, Mai's long black hair cascaded like an ebony waterfall down her back.

Our families had fled Laos. We were in the Thai refugee camp because the Hmong were being killed by the Communist Lao and Vietcong for helping the United States in the Vietnam and Secret Wars. We were waiting to come to America. In our American education classes in the camp -- a mandatory requirement for entering America -- we were shown golden arches and told to eat at McDonalds, we learned to sing "Old MacDonald" and watched endless videos featuring the Rocky Mountains with "America the Beautiful" as the soundtrack. Tou, Mai and I dreamed about coming to America. But only one of us made it. Tou died when he was six. He seemed fine to my five-year-old eye even though his belly appeared to be a tight balloon and he had sores all over his body. He looked just like me -- a normal refugee kid. I went to his shack for a playdate when I was told by his parents he died during the night. Mai with her shimmering black hair was raped and murdered. Her death was never solved. To this day, I never allow myself to think being beautiful is an asset, instead beautiful girls are killed in the middle of the night. After living in a refugee camp for 5 years, in 1980 my family arrived in Chicago during a blizzard. At the airport I saw a familiar symbol -- golden arches. I told my parents I wanted a Big Mac, not knowing exactly what I was asking for. We were lucky to have gotten out of the refugee camp in 5 years; some Hmong waited 15 years to get to America.

1995, Minnesota State Fair, St. Paul, MN (The Green Alien)

I was embarrassed to show my "green card" or "alien resident card" to prospective employers. I told myself that being an alien was not a bad thing; after all, Superman was an alien from a different planet and he is an American hero while I was just an alien from another country.

I had just turned 20 and it had taken 15 years to become a citizen. I had been vetted and had followed all the procedures to become a citizen including a combative interview with an immigration official who was mad that I had read Marx and Lenin's writings. On a blistering August day, I went to the Minnesota State Fair with hundreds of other "aliens" to be sworn in and become "Americans". The event was touted as the largest Naturalization ceremony in Minnesota history.

Between the smell of pork-on-a-stick and dung from the barns, we were greeted with a pre-recorded message from Bill Clinton, telling us to do our duty to defend America. Everyone had their families with them except for me and a man from Liberia whose wife and children had been killed by a government-sanctioned death squad. We found each other in the crowd because we were the only two people alone. I wanted Tou and Mai's ghosts to be my companions. When I raised my right hand for my citizen oath I felt that Tou and Mai were with me.

Ka Vang, Director of Impact and Community Engagement
Ka Vang, Director of Impact and Community Engagement

2016, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, MN (The American)

Last year I performed the welcome on behalf of MPR/ APM for a naturalization ceremony being held at the Fitzgerald Theater. It had been a little over 20 years since I became a citizen. I was honored to be given that responsibility. My life had come full circle.

I wrote a poem called Extraordinary Citizen for the event. I wrote it for myself, Tou, Mai, the Liberian man, and anyone else who would die or died to become an American citizen. I nervously handed it the presiding Judge to get his approval to read the poem during the welcome. He put on his reading glasses, scanned my paper and told me he loved it. As I read the poem in front of the new citizens, I thought of the long process to become an American citizen: learning English, learning America history, families pooling money together to pay expensive application fees, waiting hours in long lines at various government offices to be vetted and, for some people, separation from family. MPR/APM will host two Naturalization ceremonies on Feb 28, first at 10 am and the second at 2 pm. If you are in St. Paul, I would encourage you to attend and even talk to some of the new Americans being sworn in. You will be amazed by their stories and how extraordinary they are.

Extraordinary Citizen

You are the extraordinary citizen
Star-spangle-stripes eyes
mouth-full-open-filled-with hope
hair-long-black like the Mekong river
skin-sandy-brown like the Sahara
Eyes-blue-like Valhalla skies
You walked,
Carried your children
Past machete monsters
napalm rainfalls
the ghost of your ancestors riding on your back to America
waves of doubt-breaking your spine-
sinking your spirit
But the song of, "O say can you see,"
Rises you up
You are not a number
A green card
A nameless face at the border
You belong in country clubs,
in corporations,
IN Minnesota Public Radio
Driving down University Avenue your
future coming through the rearview
it says
You are the Extraordinary Citizen
--Ka Vang