MERCED, Calif. — They thought about their mom and dad a lot.
When they wanted to hit the "snooze" button and roll back to sleep. When they walked down dark alleys late at night to a basement apartment. When they were always asked, how did you get here? When they went to classes 8-5, then went home and studied till 2 or 3 a.m.
They thought about Jouachao Blong Xiong, 49, their dad. And about Youa Xiong, 46, their mom.
Both were back in Merced.
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Their daughters were spread across America. Lesley, 28, now Dr. Lesley Xiong, Georgetown University Medical School. Dr. Lasley Xiong, 27, doctor of osteopathic medicine from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Pennsylvania. Nancy Xiong, 26, with a pharmacy doctorate from Creighton University School of Pharmacy. Sandy Xiong, 22, with a B.S. in science microbiology from UC Davis. And Zong Xiong, a special education diploma last night from Merced High School.
(Their family name is pronounced ZHONG.)
All five graduated this spring. Their parents attended each and every ceremony; it took a year of planning and saving. On Sunday at 10:40 a.m., at the Merced County Fairgrounds Pavilion, a celebration of their achievements — "A new country, a new beginning, a dream come true" — will be held in their honor.
All of them grew up in Merced and went to Merced public schools, preschool through their senior years. The four oldest, motivated by what they learned from their parents by watching them work and listening to their life stories, decided that the way to give back to their Hmong culture and community here would be to study medicine and science.
They all intend to return here, after more specialized schooling in family medicine and other fields. They want to help their people and the broader Mercedian community.
Here’s one image that kept them going through the long days, lonely nights, different cultures and academic regimens that taxed their fellow students who had grown up in wealth and privilege.
After walking for 14 days and nights through the jungle, 11 Hmong refugees came to the banks of the Mekong River that divides Laos from Thailand. They were fleeing the Pathet Lao communist forces who were seeking anybody who had helped the Americans in the CIA-sponsored secret war in Laos in the late '60s and '70s.
Jouachao, his wife left behind in their village for safety, strapped empty army canteens around his chest and waist. Together, the group waded into the swirling khaki-colored current of Indochina’s longest waterway. The improvised flotation devices helped him and the others make it to Thai territory, where they entered a refugee camp. A year later, Youa joined him.
Through a U.S. government resettlement program, they traveled to Anaheim, mainly because Jouachao's brother Henry was already there. (Henry is now employment program coordinator of Merced Lao Family Community Inc., which provides interpreting and job services for Hmong residents of the county. He's one of the most influential, and modest Hmong Mercedians. Besides his brother, he sponsored five other Hmong families' entry into the U.S.)
That image of their father floating across a river — told around the supper table when they were girls — became an iconic touchstone throughout the trials of their childhood. They conjured it during the duress of becoming 4.0-plus high school students and then their Spartan lives in college and med and grad school.
Another image, another family memory: their mother, Youa, rising long before dawn to make their breakfasts and lunches before the school bus came. The calluses on her fingers from working at Foster Farms, then her own "garden," where she raised cucumbers, sugar cane, even a rice paddy on a plot of land outside Merced. It reminded her of her country, she says, with one of her daughters interpreting.
That's what led them down the path of medicine and science. They went with their father, as grade-schoolers, to his job as a medical assistant at Golden Valley Health Center, where he's worked 20 years. He got his GED and then an A.A. degree at Merced College. The girls had to explain the medical and health words for the Hmong patients who came there, overcoming a historical and cultural anxiety about Western medicine.
Their bilingual talent also was used for their brother, born with Down Syndrome, who died at 13. Four daughters remain at home: Xong, 18; Pong, 16; Caroline, 10; and Madeline, 6.
"That’s when it all began," Lesley recalls, "at 9 or 10 years old, helping people who didn't understand what the doctors were saying." Adds Lasley, "Whoever was available — not just one of our family, but all of our relatives."
Two of them volunteered as candy-stripers at local hospitals. Lasley did 4-H and Leo Club, associated with the Lions Club.
For Lesley, med school held "a lot of dark days — I was out there (in Washington, D.C.) without my family and friends."
For Nancy, in freezing Nebraska winters and humid summers, "nobody else but us knew what we were going through."
Lesley lived in a basement apartment in Georgetown, a five- to seven-minute walk from campus. Nancy didn't have a car, so she hiked through snow to class, fell, got up, and trudged on. She got there on time because she left 30 minutes early. Sandy thought about giving up because her classes were so hard, but she decided she'd come so far, she couldn't switch majors.
The four college and med school students all came back to Merced for rotations and internships, lasting five weeks to two months. Here they met the people and the problems head-on. Now they spoke not only Hmong, but the medical words that could help their community members who showed up confused and sick.
They'd gotten academic scholarships to college and some financial help for their advanced studies. But all owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in school loans.
Here was another motive to get out of bed after four hours sleep. Pay back what you owe. "Our dad was our cheerleader," says Lesley. "He gave me my thick skin" when legacy students would look at her Asian features and learn that her dad was a med tech, her mom a housewife.
When Creighton kids asked Nancy what her parents did, she told them. They told her their parents were doctors and lawyers and such. "So we have a blank canvas to paint on together," she replied.
Sandy thought about how far her folks had come to get to America, how they'd raised them to be "strong and independent."
They became their own best friends. Through an AT&T family plan, they'd phone one another at all hours.
"What are you eating?"
“How was volleyball?”
“Listen to the name of this new drug (pharmaceutical, not recreational).”
“What’d you sing in karaoke?”
“What was your bowling score?”
Lesley took one day a week for herself — cooking for the next week, cleaning, organizing. Nancy took an hour a day of “me time.” Lasley set aside time to cook full meals for herself and a few friends.
They all knew their way around a kitchen early on. Youa explains, “When we were all at home, they helped out a lot.”
She also cried a lot. First, when the four of them left Merced for college. Then, after they came back and went away again to graduate school. “Now we get to see her smiling,” says Lasley. “I was sad when they left,” says Mom, “But now I’m happy they’re back.”
Where did they get such drive, such discipline? Youa looks down at the kitchen table, a plate of cherries and tangerines on it. “My father was a general,” she says softly. “He was very determined to help our country.”
A fifth-generation Xiong clan, they are the first to get graduate and medical degrees. Jouachao’s and Henry’s grandfather had nine sons. Their father had six boys and four girls.
“We’re all sisters,” says Sandy. “It was important for us to prove that even though we’re all girls, we’re as strong as a son — we can go as far as a man. That takes a lot of guts.”
Was it hard for Jouachao to shrug off centuries of Hmong cultural customs and let his daughters spread their feminine wings far and wide in academia? Most Hmong women have to be chaperoned when they leave home. They need supervision. Dad reflects a moment. “I always had a vision of them to be physicians or professionals. And they all know how to iron clothes,” he says, a twinkle in his eyes. “Survival skills,” adds Uncle Henry.
In just a few years, Merced County will be the home again for five women who have gone out in the world, took the toughest tests the world could throw at them, triumphed and come home as heroines.
How can we all not be proud?
How can we not honor that commitment and achievement that will benefit us all?
The conversation lulls. Jouachao’s Errol Flynn mustache rises above a smile. Uncle Henry bites into a cherry and nods. Youa has moved to the kitchen. She cuts what she has grown. The family supper is almost ready. The young women sit around the table.
They thought about their mom and dad a lot.