Death In The Family

First Khoua Her asked the clans for help. Then she went to the courts. By the time police found her six children dead, she'd run out of places to turn.

Mee says Her told her that when she was 8, she accompanied three other girls on a visit to another camp. When the trip took longer than anticipated, they rented a room and spent the night. They also ran into neighbors from their own camp, and news about their trip quickly spread back home. "It was unheard of for a girl to go out on her own," Mee notes. "You had to stay with your parents until you married, and then you went directly to your husband's. Only prostitutes rented rooms."

The rumors didn't improve relations between Her and her stepmother, says Phoua, a mental-health worker who has met with Her several times since the children's deaths (and who also requested that her real name not be used). Phoua says Her rebelled at the domestic chores assigned to her, and that the older woman lashed out at her physically and verbally. One night when she was 12, Her told Phoua, her stepmother locked her out of their unit, and Tou Hang, a 17-year-old who was smitten with her, came by and took her home with him.

In news accounts, Hang and his mother Pang Yang have characterized the beginning of their relationship as a traditional Hmong courtship, saying the pair were "teenagers in love." But Mee says Her told her a different story: Once she had gone home with a man, "Her reputation was ruined and her family didn't want her. She had no choice but to marry." (Despite numerous requests from City Pages, Tou Hang declined to comment for this story, as did most members of his clan.)

Janet Hamline

The couple married in 1986. In June 1987 Her gave birth to their first child, Koua Eai. Fifteen months later she had another son, Samson, and within another year the first girl, Nali, was born.

In accord with Hmong custom, the couple lived with the husband's parents--a setup Her found less than ideal. "She told me her mother-in-law would beat her, and her husband was out all the time," Mee says. "She had to stay home and take care of his mother and siblings." (Hang and his mother have said the opposite was true: Her refused to touch her firstborn for the first year of his life, Yang told the Pioneer Press, and left her husband with most child-rearing responsibilities.)

It took eight years for the Hang family to get permission to leave Ban Vinai and emigrate to the U.S.--much longer than usual, according St. Paul School Board member and longtime community activist Neal Thao. Most refugees spent only about three years in camps, Thao says, adding that "When somebody stays for too long, it changes them. You're totally dependent on others, have no sense of self-worth, and there aren't the roles to guide you like life in the traditional village. People play soccer all day, party all the time. You never know what's going to happen from day to day."

Hmong immigrants have been coming to Minnesota steadily since the late 1970s; the state is now home to the largest Hmong population in the nation. Many families spend their first years in America at the McDonough public-housing complex in St. Paul, where 62 percent of residents are Southeast Asian. The Hangs settled into one of McDonough's beige stucco townhomes in 1990.

Like many of the families around them, they were battling culture shock. "Being new immigrants, you have to struggle with so much," says Kou Som, a cousin of Tou Hang and spokesman for his clan. "It's difficult learning a new language and adapting to a new society. It either has a positive impact on the family or serves as a bond-breaker."

Adding to the stress is the impact of American culture on gender roles, notes Gaoly Yang, one of the first Hmong immigrants in Minnesota and a co-founder of the Women's Association of Hmong and Lao. "In Laos the man is the head of household," Yang says. "Here you have women entering the workforce and making decisions. And when they carry that into the home and she starts questioning the decisions the husband makes about things like the discipline of a child or the family's finances, it becomes a problem. Any time you see unequal progress within a family, you'll see problems."

By all accounts Khoua Her picked up on the new language and culture faster than her husband. So it was she who pursued her education, enrolling at Johnson High School while Hang stayed home with the kids.

Her drew little notice from either administrators or students. "I don't remember her at all," says Tom Farrell, the counselor assigned to her. Another counselor, Cherzong Vang, says that although Her wasn't one of the teens he worked with, she'd sometimes accompany her friends to his office. "She seemed to be very hot-tempered," Vang recalls. "She thought she was more right than the other person and seemed to me arrogant, like she was better than the other person." Vang also says Her had a lot of friends, including his daughter. (Vang's daughter refused to be interviewed for this article, as did several other young women who knew Her. Relatives of Khoua Her also declined to comment for this article.)

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