When I left the overseas working scene, I feared getting bogged down in sameness.
I needn’t have worried, for I chose to live in Lompoc. From a little town formed by a group of primarily western Europeans bound together by two desires, land and an alcohol-free lifestyle, Lompoc has become a microcosm of the universe.
Lompocans are people whose roots go back to England, Switzerland, Germany, France, the Scandinavian countries, Italy, Portugal, the Basque area of Spain, Africa, Japan, Okinawa, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Thailand, among others.
And one more: Laos.
On Saturday, Dec. 5, at the Clarence Ruth Elementary School, an event took place that made the richness of our ethnic diversity leap from a statistic to life.
I was invited to speak at the Hmong’s New Year celebration. It was a gray day; weather was roiling up to deliver a soaker. As I walked to the school auditorium, the scene changed from gray to bright, gleaming, glittering color. I was suddenly in the midst of a scene so colorful, so foreign, that I wondered if Jonathan Livingston Seagull and his buddies had transported me to another realm.
Streaming toward the auditorium were women, children, and men dressed in costumes of richly embossed, shiny material decorated with silver necklaces hung with rows of dangling silver coins. Heavy cloth panels, densely embroidered with glittering beads, hung from bright silk sashes. Little kids’ outfits were miniatures of their parents’.
Crowning the women’s costumes were headdresses which alone would have inspired awe. In the Hmong communities in Laos, each subclan would have had its own design.
Men’s clan-designators were baggy trousers with a bright sash. Several men had two pouches on long straps criss-crossed over their chests. Formerly, these pouches displayed silver, indicating wealth.
Later, in the auditorium, their haunting music revealed another aspect of Hmong culture. A beautiful young woman in complete traditional regalia sang a song utterly foreign in melody and rhythm to my western ear. A man’s song utilized five tones with a heavy Ping-Pong beat. Performing with no instrumental accompaniment, the singers were perfectly at home, evidencing long familiarity with the music.
These people were the Hmong people from the mountains of Laos. They came to Lompoc in three waves, the first of which was in 1975, just after the withdrawal of U. S. forces from Vietnam and the Secret War in Laos. They did not come here by choice, as many of our forebears did. They came here because to stay in Laos was to perish.
Some of the men in this assemblage had fought with the Hmong hero, Gen. Vang Pao, in Laos against encroaching communist elements, first from their own country and later from North Vietnam. Hmong soldiers were valiant in their efforts to rescue American pilots shot down while trying to interrupt communist supply lines along the Ho Chi Min Trail into South Vietnam. In the aftermath of the war, the Hmong still in Laos, their evacuation thwarted, were, and still are, hunted by the communists, targeted for elimination because of their alliance with Americans 35 years ago.
Here in my home town, on this gray December day, they gathered to celebrate their culture’s most important observance, adorned in the costumes of their heritage to remind themselves of their lives in Laos and to show their children what it is to be Hmong.
Surrounded by the sights and sounds of Hmong traditions, I thought again how rich and diverse life is in Lompoc. These people are our neighbors. How fortunate we are to have them. I hope the teen-agers busy texting with their iPhones were absorbing Hmong culture equally as much as they evidently have absorbed American ways.
In Wisconsin, the state with the third largest Hmong population, there is a bill before the Legislature that would encourage public schools to teach the recent history of Hmong-Americans. It seems like a great idea to me.
Allie Kay Spaulding is a retired schoolteacher and freelance writer. Her column “Looking Around” is published on the Record’s Sunday Lifestyles page.