When Lee Pao Xiong wants to reconnect with his culture, he heads for the Hmong market near the state Capitol, the center of Hmong commerce in Minnesota.
Visitors can buy the latest fashions, music and, of course, food. But they'll also get an idea of how much life has change for Minnesota's estimated 52,000 Hmong residents, who arrived over the past three decades as refugees.
The Hmong fought for the United States during the Vietnam war. To escape Communist retribution, they left their homeland in the mountains of Laos often with little more than the clothing they wore. Some 30 years later, Hmong poverty is still an issue, but rates are down sharply, and life for many is improving.
"I brought 30 of my families from California to Minnesota, I told them this is the place to be," said Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul. "Whether you are educated or whether you're uneducated you are able to survive here."
Born in Laos, Xiong, 43, came to the United States 30 years ago. He was among the first wave of Hmong refugees to settle in Minnesota.
Thousands more have arrived since then. The most recent, and likely the last, of three waves of Hmong settlement in Minnesota was earlier this decade, when 8,000 arrived seeking a better life.
Today, Minnesota has the second largest population of Hmong in the country, behind California. But the community is faring better than it was in the 90's, when more than 60 percent of the Hmong were on welfare, Xiong said.
“The Hmong culture particularly and the story will probably just die out, because we don't really have a homeland.”Michaela Ly
Many were illiterate and had no money, a holdover from their existence as subsistence farmers in the mountains of Laos.
Three decades later, the Hmong poverty rate is still relatively high.
But Xiong said it's been cut in half.
The U.S. Census doesn't measure Hmong poverty directly, but its most recent data shows median family income is up sharply, a clue that poverty has declined substantially.
Nou Yang, director of a youth leadership program at the Wilder Center in St. Paul, said several other factors are contributing to the decline.
"The rate of educational attainment is rising, family sizes are getting smaller," said Yang. "I think people are realizing we value children but we can't afford to do this. It used to be that Hmong families are an average size of six, now they are down to five."
Yang, 35, said a strong work ethic also contributes to rising Hmong economic status.
Her mother was also part of that first wave of Hmong refugees who came to the United States three decades ago.
Yang said her mother made certain her daughter and other children would learn how to work.
"I was working the fields. That's what we did, every summer," Yang said. "I've done cucumber picking, corn detasseling, picking tomatoes -- everything you can think of in terms of migrant labor."
Yang went on to get her master's degree and moved to Minnesota.
More Hmong women are following her example, delaying marriage to finish their education and start careers.
That's Michaela Ly's plan.
Ly, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, lives with her family in Woodbury. She is interested in a career in medicine.
Marriage and children are not part of the picture at the moment.
"Our family is not leaning that way," Ly said. "We want the women to go to school and not get married and have that be the last thing. They want you to be independent."
Ly is bilingual and speaks Hmong with her grandmother.
But the language is not offered at her high school, and she believes the story of her refugee parents and grandmother who escaped Laos is fading away.
"The Hmong culture particularly and the story will probably just die out, because we don't really have a homeland. We're, as my mom calls it, mountain people," laughs Ly.
Ly's homeland is Minnesota, where she was born and raised.
It's also the homeland for Lee Pao Xiong's three children.
Xiong said the responsibility of his generation of refugees, the people who escaped Laos, is to help their children understand their roots.
That view appears to be shared by others, and has spurred a filmmaking boom by Hmong who return to Laos to document how they lived.
Xiong buys the films for his Center for Hmong Studies.
"When we watch people harvesting rice, we understood what it was like back then to harvest rice," he said. "I'm glad to see many of the documentaries. Some of the film makers are putting subtitles in their movies so the younger generation can understand it."