The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir

By Kao Kalia Yang
Publisher:Coffee House Press, (4/1/2008)

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In search of a place to call home, thousands of Hmong families made the journey from the war-torn jungles of Laos to the overcrowded refugee camps of Thailand and onward to America. But lacking a written language of their own, the Hmong experience has been primarily recorded by others. Driven to tell her family's story after her grandmother's death, The Latehomecomer is Kao Kalia Yang's tribute to the remarkable woman whose spirit held them all together. It is also an eloquent, firsthand account of a people who have worked hard to make their voices heard.

Beginning in the 1970s, as the Hmong were being massacred for their collaboration with the United States during the Vietnam War, Yang recounts the harrowing story of her family's captivity, the daring rescue undertaken by her father and uncles, and their narrow escape into Thailand where Yang was born in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp.

When she was six years old, Yang's family immigrated to America, and she evocatively captures the challenges of adapting to a new place and a new language. Through her words, the dreams, wisdom, and traditions passed down from her grandmother and shared by an entire community have finally found a voice.

Together with her sister, Kao Kalia Yang is the founder of a company dedicated to helping immigrants with writing, translating, and business services. A graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University, Yang has recently screened The Place Where We Were Born, a film documenting the experiences of Hmong American refugees. Visit her website at

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"The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir"
By Kao Kalia Yang

Average Rating:

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 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.

1. According to Hmong folklore, babies live in the sky, flying among the clouds until they see a family that they would like to be born into and decide to come down to earth: “They teach us that we have chosen our lives. That the people who we would become we had inside of us from the beginning, and the people whose worlds we share, whose memories we hold strong inside of us, we have always known.” (p. xiii). How does this story shape Yang’s perspective on life? Is there a story from your childhood that continues to affect how you see your place in the world?

2. From a very young age, Yang’s parents teach her about what it means to be Hmong: “As a baby learning to talk, her mother and father often asked, ‘What are you?’ and the right answer was always, ‘I am Hmong.’ It wasn’t a name or a gender, it was a people.” (p. 1). Why is it so important to Yang’s parents that they teach their children about identity? How would you answer the question, “What are you?”

3. Yang’s parents, Chue Moua and Bee Yang, meet in the jungles of Laos as the Hmong are fleeing the communist soldiers. Chue Moua makes the difficult decision to marry, even though it means leaving her family behind: “Did I love him? Did he love me? It is the kind of decision that only young people can make in a war of no tomorrows. At that moment, I think neither of us saw the future.” (p. 15). What do their experiences teach Yang’s parents about love, and how does their relationship change after they are separated by the war?

4. In a dangerous and harrowing escape, Yang’s family swims across the Mekong River into Thailand as the Pathet Lao soldiers pursue them. Chue Moua is heartbroken that she has to bury her family photos beside the river before attempting the crossing. She carries two gifts from her mother: an embroidered story cloth and a heavy silver necklace that she loses in the rapids. Why are these objects so important to Chue Moua? If you were forced to leave your home, what would you carry with you?

5. Growing up in Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, Yang enjoys her childhood, but is also aware of the sadness and desperation felt by her fellow Hmong refugees: “The Hmong were people who had just escaped death; we were fenced in and the thoughts of adults could only run out to the past. There was no work to do in the present, no land to wander over, nowhere to run. We were stuck in a country that did not want us.” (p. 65). As a small child, how does Yang experience and react to the hardships of daily life in the camp? How do parents determine how much to share with their children and how much to shield from them?

6. Yang’s grandmother, a respected healer and shaman in the camp, becomes upset when Bee Yang decides to move his family to America: “For my father or any of her sons to leave her, she said, was to tell her that her life had been useless. She said she would rather die.” (p. 79). Why does Yang’s grandmother resist her son’s decision to leave the camp? What is at stake for each of them? How does immigrating to America change the role Yang’s grandmother plays in her family and community?

7. After arriving in Minnesota, Yang’s family struggles to adjust to life in a new and unfamiliar culture: “On the streets, sometimes people yelled for us to go home. Next to waves of hello, we received the middle finger.” (p. 133). How does Yang’s family react to this hostility? What role should Americans play in helping the Hmong—and other refugees, including Iraqis, Afghanis, and Kurds—who have been our steadfast allies in overseas conflicts, but find themselves unable to return to their countries?

8. Although Yang fell in love with writing from almost the moment she came to the United States, she was too shy to speak English at school. Even so, she quickly realized that speaking English was essential to her family’s survival in St. Paul. At the grocery store with her father, Yang summons the courage to ask a clerk for help in finding diapers: “I shook my head to support my words. I couldn’t trust myself in English; my mother and father could barely trust me.” (p. 169). Have you ever needed to communicate with someone, but did not know how? What role can literature play in increasing understanding between people?

9. Yang describes her grandmother’s funeral, a three-day-long ceremony in which a guide teaches her grandmother’s soul how to journey over oceans, rivers, and mountains back to Laos: “I didn’t want to hold my grandmother in place; it was her time to go, and I would wish her a fine journey. But I felt her leaving in the air I swallowed, big gulps, hopeless attempts to fill the empty space.” (p. 253). What spiritual journeys do we all attempt in life and in death? How do our rites of celebration and mourning help us on these journeys?

10. What did you know about Hmong culture and history before you read this book? Did the book change your understanding of the Hmong experience, or the experience of other immigrant groups living in your community? Did it change your understanding of “home?”

Discussion questions provided by Coffee House Press

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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Yang, cofounder of the immigrant-services company Words Wanted, was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. Her grandmother had wanted to stay in the camp, to make it easier for her spirit to find its way back to her birthplace when she died, but people knew it would soon be liquidated. America looked promising, so Yang and her family, along with scores of other Hmong, left the jungles of Thailand to fly to California, then settle in St. Paul, Minn. In many ways, these hardworking refugees followed the classic immigrant arc, with the adults working double jobs so the children could get an education and be a credit to the community. But the Hmong immigrants were also unique—coming from a non-Christian, rain forest culture, with no homeland to imagine returning to, with hardly anyone in America knowing anything about them. As Yang wryly notes, they studied the Vietnam War at school, without their lessons ever mentioning that the Hmong had been fighting for the Americans. Yang tells her family's story with grace; she narrates their struggles, beautifully weaving in Hmong folklore and culture. By the end of this moving, unforgettable book, when Yang describes the death of her beloved grandmother, readers will delight at how intimately they have become part of this formerly strange culture. (Apr.) 
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From Booklist
Most Americans are relatively ignorant of Hmong history and culture. In fact, many have a negative perception of this immigrant group. For example, few are aware of the fact that the Hmong fought on the American side during the Vietnam War. In this beautiful memoir, Yang recounts the harrowing journey of her family from Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand to the U.S. Eventually settling in St. Paul, Minnesota, their struggle was not over. Adapting to a new community that often did not understand nor want them was difficult. This difficulty was compounded by the fact that the Hmong, despite possessing a rich folkloric tradition, have no written language of their own. Determined to tell the story of both her family and her people, Yang intimately chronicles the immigrant experience from the Hmong perspective, providing a long-overdue contribution to the history and literature of ethnic America. --Margaret Flanagan 
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Born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980, Kao Kalia Yang immigrated to Minnesota when she was six. Together with her sister, she founded Words Wanted, a company dedicated to helping immigrants with writing, translating, and business services. A graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University, Yang has also recently completed a short film on the Hmong American refugee experience.

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