Xiong Yang | Oshkosh, WI
The only way to get food was to send my dad back to their village and dig up food that my mom had buried. It would take him two days—one day to get back to the village and one day to get back to the group—as he only traveled by foot and had to hide along the way, in fear of being seen by the enemy.
Being first generation-born in the United States, my siblings helped me navigate the tough roads of going to college. My parents fled Thailand in 1989 and settled in Oshkosh with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Most Hmong families were in similar situations during that time. When U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam during the war, hundreds of thousands of Hmong families were displaced from their homes. Many were in danger and escaped from the enemy, the Viet Cong, who were killing the Hmong for assisting American troops in the war. Many Hmong families fled on foot for months to seek asylum in Ban Vinai, Thailand’s refugee camps, because of the country’s military ties to America. With a family of eight kids, my parents relied on government programs and assistance to help the family start a new life in the United States. Even then, it was hard for my parents to make a living in a new country, learn a new language and grow accustomed to a new lifestyle that was foreign to them.
My parents tried their hardest to provide a good life for my siblings and me. Not having a lot pushed me to want more for myself and to do something that was bigger than myself. During my senior year in high school, the standard for Hmong students was either to enroll in the military or work in a factory full time. I knew my parents didn’t come all the way to America for me not to pursue the possibilities in the land of opportunity. Having seen my family struggle with poverty and food insecurity pushed me to do more for my future. The monthly food share, or what we used to call, “paper money,” could only be stretched so far for our family of ten. So, we turned to the St. Joseph Food Pantry in Menasha when our paper money ran out. The pantry helped my family through the years.
In the Hmong language, there is no singular word for “firefighter.” When I first told my parents I wanted to pursue firefighting, they did not know what that was until I described the duties of the profession. In 2011, I graduated from the Fox Valley Technical College with my associate’s degree in firefighting, and today I am a firefighter with the Neenah-Menasha Fire Rescue. A few years ago, I was doing a fire inspection at a local food pantry and did not realize until later that this was the same pantry that had served my family years ago. Who would have thought twenty years later I’d be back helping an organization that helped my family so much—this was an incredible feeling.”
People rarely see a Hmong firefighter on the force. I was first introduced to the idea of pursuing a career in this field when I was in middle school. Thinking it was a movie day in class, my seventh-grade teacher rolled a TV into the room and turned on the news. The day would become an unforgettable one that shook the nation to its core—September 11, 2001. The class could see the Twin Towers falling down. I saw the ambulances, fire trucks, police officers, they were all running toward the scene. I thought this was a courageous act, seeing how these brave men and women put their lives on the line to help people they didn’t even know. This inspired me to want to pursue a career in public service.
While I attended Fox Valley Technical College to get my associate’s degree in firefighting, I started an internship with the Neenah-Menasha Fire Rescue. This really solidified and reaffirmed my decision in this field. Shortly after, I took a full-time firefighter position with the La Crosse Fire Department and worked there for four years before returning back with the Neenah-Menasha Fire Rescue where I’m currently at. The hardest part about my job is when I am unable to save or revive a child back to life. It’s an awful feeling not being able to change the situation to make it better. Firefighting is a tough job—physically, mentally, and emotionally. To be able to do good for somebody on one of the worst days of their lives means a great deal to me.
There are times where I assist Hmong families at the scene with translation services. It’s very beneficial, both for the agency and the person or families, to have someone who speaks their language so they can receive the help that they need. There are some Hmong families who practice Shamanic rituals and will burn spirit money, or paper, inside their homes, usually causing smoke and sprinkler systems, in apartment rentals, to go off. When an emergency crew arrives on the scene, they may not be aware of the situation or understand why this practice took place. This is an opportunity for me to educate them about Hmong cultural and spiritual practices so they can understand and better respond to future situations.
I am one of the few Hmong firefighters in Wisconsin. The fact that I am in this role alongside other Hmong firefighters is definitely cool. It is important that the job industry has working professionals who are reflective of the people in their communities. A lot of people they’ve never seen a Hmong firefighter before. We are part of changing that narrative. In life, you’re always going to have doubters. There were a lot of people that doubted me. But I was determined to prove them wrong, to show them that you can do whatever you put your mind to. Recently, my wife’s cousin’s son wanted to become a firefighter. His dad wasn’t sure because he didn’t think there are any Hmong people that do it. The son was able to say, “No, that’s not right. Xiong Yang is a firefighter.” His dad said, “Oh really? Well, I guess you can do it too.” I think if young people see Hmong firefighters, they might think, “Hey, this guy is just like me. If he can do it, I can do it too.”
Xiong’s story was produced by Jesse Yang.