Leng Wong, 59, is a dark-haired man with a receding hairline. He's about average height with a stocky build, with a gentle and pleasant presence. He's a soft-spoken man who looks comfortable in a suit jacket and button-down shirt. He doesn't look like a soldier who fought for the United States in a secret war in Laos. He doesn't look like a pioneer either, but he is.
After the war, Wong was the first among thousands of Southeast Asian refugees who would resettle here. Wong knew very little about Minnesota before he arrived in 1976. But the one thing he did know was that it was in a cold climate. And when he stepped off the plane in February of that year, he experienced the frigid weather firsthand.
"When we got out of the airport into the car, we could hardly breath because of the sub-zero temperature that we have never been exposed to. And so it was quite a shock for us," he said.
"Us" includes Wong's wife and their two toddlers, his brother, his mother-in-law and four of his wife's siblings, 10 people in all. They were sponsored by two churches, including the Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, which is celebrating the family's 30 years in Minnesota on Sunday.
Wong says he was glad to come to the United States, but his family had big, but basic, concerns on their minds as they tried to settle into the Twin Cities.
"We worried a lot about just how to survive, whether there would be a job we could take and have some income to support our family," he said.
Wong possessed an advantage that many Hmong who would follow him to Minnesota did not. He had very good English skills. Because of that, he developed a reputation as someone who could communicate with both the Hmong and the English-speaking communities and as someone who would help other new arrivals get their footing in their new country.
In those first years, when the number of Hmong could be counted in dozens, instead of thousands, he and a few of the other families used to get together for a picnic every year on the Fourth of July. That gathering has morphed into the annual Hmong soccer tournament that now attracts tens of thousand of people to St. Paul every year.
Today Wong writes policy manuals for the state of Minnesota. He says the 30 years have flown by, but he also says there were challenges along the way.
"It has not been easy for us. We are able to retain some of our tradition and culture, but at the same time, we're also adapting to the new way of life," he said.
In the 30 years since the first Hmong resettled in Minnesota, they've come a long way. They're homeowners, business owners, and even elected officials. And because of their successes, they've helped ease the transition for the new wave of Hmong refugees who've resettled in Minnesota over the last few years. Wong says he's glad to see his community doing well.
"We are very proud of our community. We are very proud of the progress our community has made and the contribution that we made," he said.
And even with all of those contributions, Wong says he expects the Hmong community to work even harder to do even better over the next 30 years.