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.

Aside from Vang, none of a dozen teachers and fellow students contacted by City Pages remembered Her--not surprising, says Farrell, when you consider that she was either pregnant or caring for a newborn during most of her school years and had little time for extracurricular activities. When Her graduated in 1992, the only marks she left besides the tiny junior-year picture were mentions of her name in the "camera-shy" sections of her senior yearbook.

After graduation Her got a job assembling computers with an Eden Prairie firm. (Officials at that company and others where Her worked did not return calls seeking comment for this story.) "She was very ambitious," says Mee. "She liked to work and one day hoped to obtain her real estate license." But her career goals were hampered by the need to care for her growing family. According to Mee, Her had wanted to go on birth control after the third child, but her husband forbade it. Their sixth child was born in 1994, when Her was 20.

Kou Som saw the Hangs about once a month, mostly for extended-family functions and church events, and says that outwardly the family appeared to be doing well. He describes Khoua as a "traditional wife," despite the fact that she dressed Western-style and was the family breadwinner. "They seemed like a loving family," he says. "The children were happy, and they were both pretty quiet people. There was no evidence of tempers on either side."

Janet Hamline

According to Som, the couple did meet twice with clan leaders to resolve problems--the kind of routine arguments that plague most marriages. "The disputes were about each of them causing trouble for the other," he asserts. "Just minimal stuff like communication problems. You know, he or she isn't listening to me, those kinds of things."

Her's mother-in-law told the Pioneer Press that some of the tensions stemmed from the young woman's bucking of Hmong tradition: She dressed "nice, like she's single," Pang Yang said, and "would always tell us that she didn't need the grandmother, the grandfather, the husband or anyone." Another relative told reporters that "in the last couple of years [Her] was not acting right... She began acting like a runaway teenager."

In the spring of 1997, Her and Hang announced to the clans that their relationship was irreparably damaged. They were separated in a traditional divorce.

Once rare in Hmong culture, divorce is becoming more common in the West, says Yang Dao, cultural specialist and assistant director of the St. Paul Public Schools' English Language Learner Programs (ELL). The reasons have to do with the new expectations families face, he says: "In Laos everyone has to work. But unlike here, we only work in the daytime. And in Laos we work together--the children go with the parents to work each day. Here, while both parents may still work, they don't work together or at the same time. They don't have time to meet together and discuss issues.

"It may also be that Khoua was disappointed with her husband," Dao adds. "Wives all over the world want their husbands to be successful, and she could have felt frustrated with him and their life."

Neal Thao agrees--up to a point. "Role distribution is different now, and it's creating a lot of confusion and chaos," he says. "I know that she had married early, had a lot of kids, and she wasn't getting enough support. But she wasn't behaving responsibly. She was trying to be an American kid."

Gaoly Yang believes that what most troubled Khoua Her and Tou Hang was a phenomenon common in many cultures: One spouse outgrew the other. "The main problem here is that you have two individuals, and he doesn't have the appropriate education," says Yang. "He can't help the family on the same level that she can, and this negatively impacts his self-esteem.

"When someone is making rapid progress, they'll change rapidly," she goes on. "And one partner takes this to mean that the other is trying to dominate or is being Americanized too fast. To the one that trails behind, it means less power and less control. And when it's the woman who's changing, there's a lot more tension and a much greater struggle."

It's unclear precisely when the problems in the Hang household came to the attention of local authorities. St. Paul police say they were called to the Hang residence at least 17 times, but refuse to release most records relating to the incidents, citing privacy laws in cases involving child protection. What information has been made public indicates that the couple's domestic disputes took a turn for the worse last year.

On June 2, 1997, St. Paul police took a report from Hang alleging that two months earlier Her had "without any reasons...used a shotgun (20 gauge) pointed at him, his children and their friends...and told them to stay put or she will shoot." One of his friends, Hang told police, "got on his knees and begged Khoua to let go of the shotgun. Khoua then lowered the shotgun and took off with it in her vehicle." Mee says Her told her about pulling a gun on her husband and his friends but said she did so in self-defense. "Tou had come home with three men and demanded $3,000 from Khoua, saying he wanted to go to Laos and marry another woman," she recounts. "Khoua told him that even if she had it, she wouldn't give it to him. Tou then told her to give him the money or all of them were going to beat her up. And that's when she pulled out the gun."

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