I grew up in Del Paso Heights, a mixed-race inner city of Sacramento, Calif. -- the kind of neighborhood that had just two grocery stores between endless fast-food and liquor shops, and where we all paid for our groceries with food stamps. It was where we grew organic food and raised chickens in our backyards to survive. And where we did it in secrecy.
Like most Hmong in the United States, our community was from Laos, transplanted here after an alliance with the CIA turned our isolated tribe of farmers into mercenaries -- a failed secret war against the Communist Vietnamese that left Hmong as the targets of ethnic cleansing. Lifelong farmers-turned-international refugees, the older generation was ill-prepared to thrive in modern America. They settled into inner cities where many turned to social services as safety nets.
I remember watching grown-ups lose their identities and self-worth, slip into depression and cycles of poverty, illness and suicide. These were clan leaders who once commanded the respect of entire villages, tough guerrilla soldiers trained by the CIA -- like my father -- and proud providers who had, without writing, committed to memory centuries of the best farming practices. And they were humbled, receiving welfare and food stamps because there was no opportunity then in urban America for their main skill. Still, they farmed in the city for two necessities: food and a wistful connection to the old way of life.