April 3, 2011

USA: Hmong adapt their traditions to life in U.S.

WAUSAU, Wisconsin / Wausau Daily Herald / News / April 3, 2011

Older generation care by youngest is expected but not always possible

By Keith Uhlig, Wausau Daily Herald

Sai Xiong, 24, of Wausau gives his grandmother Zer Thao some water Friday to go with the breakfast he prepared at their home in Wausau.  Xai Kha / Wausau Daily Herald

There never was a doubt that Nou and Chue Xiong would be the primary caregivers for Nou's 86-year-old grandmother, Zer Thao.

Thanks to young couples like the Xiongs, the tradition remains nearly intact in the Wausau area, 35 years after the first Hmong moved here in the wake of their fight against communism in Laos. But the Xiongs and others say the devotion to personal care of older family members could erode as more westernized values and lifestyles take hold.
"Growing up in a modern society like America, it's kind of difficult," said Nou Xiong, 25. "If we have to follow our careers, it's harder to meet the parents' and grandparents' expectations."

The numbersAccording to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 250 out of more than 7,000 people of Southeast Asian descent in Marathon County -- mostly Hmong -- are age 65 or older. The numbers are based on 2009 estimates, the most current statistics available.

Nearly all of the elderly Hmong are either living on their own or being cared for by younger family members, said Peter Yang, executive director of the Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association.

In addition to tradition, older Hmong are hesitant to move into care facilities because they fear being isolated by language, and most of the food served in facilities is American -- not to their tastes.

Yang foresees a day when a care facility catering specifically to Hmong needs could open in the Wausau area. "I have heard about this kind of facility in the Twin Cities already, where Hmong elders come together, live together," he said. "But we don't have it in Wausau yet. The numbers (of Hmong) in the Twin Cities is much higher."

But there is movement in that direction. Last July, Hmong Quality Home Care opened for business. Owned by 26-year-old Chue Neng Lee, the business provides in-home services designed to help busy families care for their elderly relatives. Workers can cook, bathe or otherwise offer care to older people.
It's hard for Hmong families trying to make ends meet also to provide care for their parents or grandparents, Lee said.

"You have to work, you have bills to pay," he said. "The hardest part is they still have those expectations. ... We help (older people) to stay home and receive care."

Evolving tradition Talking about the issue is "almost a taboo subject," said Houa Vang, 28, of Wausau, a financial services representative for MetLife insurance company. He works with Hmong families to make long-term financial and care decisions, and it's often a tough sell, especially among older Hmong who are more accustomed to living in the moment. The older Hmong naturally expect they'll live with children, and will be cared for physically and financially in their declining years.

Vang supports and believes in that notion, but he said he also wants Hmong families to begin planning for their futures, including the long-term care of the elderly.

"We've been in the states for about 35 to 40 years," Vang said. "We are changing at a quicker pace than individuals like."

For Zer Thao, 86, Nou Xiong's grandmother, living with her grandson and his wife is the natural order of things. She took care of her elderly relatives back in Laos, and now she's the one being helped, she said in Hmong, interpreted by her grandson and his wife.

Nou and Chue Xiong have three children of their own. They live in Nou's parents' home with his parents and Zer Thao, four generations together.

Meanwhile, Chue Xiong works at Marshfield Clinic in the health information management department, and Nou is pursuing a computer science degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

They're stretched thin, but other family members help. Nou and Chue Xiong traveled to North Carolina for a funeral this week, so Zer Thao stayed with Nou's stepbrother, Sai Xiong, 24, of Wausau.

"We try to fill in the gaps when they (Nou and Chue Xiong) are not around," Sai Xiong said.

Through it all, Nou and Chue Xiong remain committed to caring for Zer and ultimately, Nou's parents.

"I think it's the values that are basically instilled in us," Chue Xiong said. "I guess it's just knowing they are at the end of their lives, and knowing they're happy. That means a lot."

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