Lor Xiong-Roby owns Veritas Hmong Interpreting Services in Fresno. Photo by Ram Reyes.
It’s easy to imagine Lor Xiong-Roby was born and raised here in California.
But the 42-year-old Hmong interpreter’s childhood wasn’t nearly that idyllic. She was born in Laos, the daughter of Hmong farmers.
Her father, Cher Chai Xiong, was also a soldier, part of the Special Guerrilla Units developed by the CIA to provide armed support to U.S. troops and intelligence officers in the “Secret War” in Laos during the Vietnam War.
In the years after US forces pulled out of the region, Xiong-Roby’s parents and other family members went on the run in the early 1980s, fleeing for their lives from the Laotian and Vietnamese military still looking to punish those who had aided the Americans.
“Run” isn’t quite accurate, said Xiong-Roby, noting that the month-long journey to a refugee camp in Thailand was done slowly and at night, to avoid the forces after her family.
Not that she remembers much.
“I was probably only 2 or 3. I was carried on the back of my uncle, He would carry me piggyback, and they would drug us kids with opium so we wouldn’t cry, so I don’t remember much of that, just that my dad told me it was a pretty treacherous, difficult journey, and they could not carry anything except their children and whatever clothes they had.”
After two years in the Thai camp, Xiong-Roby, her parents and three siblings finally came to the US, ending up in Fresno, where lived an uncle who sponsored the family.
But being here was its own often-harrowing adventure for the family of six that had never seen metropolitan cities and didn’t speak English.
Even simple things like showers and beds and using toilets were so alien to the family that had lived a remote existence in a hut that “we would sleep on the floor, or we wouldn’t use the stove because we didn’t know how to turn it on, or we wouldn’t use the toilet. We would go in the backyard and pee in the backyard because we were afraid of the loud flush,” said Xiong-Roby, recounting that it took her about six months before finally sleeping on a bed.
With so much already working against her family’s efforts to acclimate to their new home, things got worse, as her father, who initially worked as a vegetable farmer and then as a janitor, had to stop working to stay home and care for his children — who had grown in number to 10 — after his wife, Va Lee, fell victim to a mental health disorder stemming from a childhood illness that left her unable to take care of her family.
But that dark cloud had a silver lining in that Xiong-Roby said that her father didn’t treat her and her sisters in the manner traditional in Hmong households, “in which the girls aren’t valued or they’re not worth as much as the sons. We have to cook and clean, and the sons don’t have to do anything.”
In her home, all the children had to carry their weight to care for each other, as they couldn’t fully count on their mother’s help, so the boys and girls were pretty much treated equally by their parents, she said.
Cher Chai Xiong even learned to sew so he could make clothes for the family, as living on welfare didn’t leave them money for buying department store clothes.
A way forward
Her father was a strong believer in the importance of education.
“He said education is the way for success, that he didn’t want us to repeat his life in Laos in the US,” Xiong-Roby said.
“So he really pushed us in school,” along with annoying school officials to start an after-school program to teach Hmong children to read and write in their native language — similar to a Spanish-language program that already existed — until a grant to start the Hmong program was obtained.
“As a result of my father’s advocacy work, all of us kids — all 10 brothers and sisters — know how to read and write in Hmong.”
Head of the class
The efforts of Xiong-Roby’s father also paid off in that she graduated from McLane High School as a valedictorian, a far cry from the little girl who wouldn’t use a shower because she and her family couldn’t understand how the water got into the house.
As for college, her father’s relatively progressive attitude came into play when she decided to move away to attend the University of California, Irvine, and members of Fresno’s tight-knit Hmong community urged her father to not let her leave, lest she get pregnant and bring shame upon the family.
Good and the bad
Xiong-Roby said she sees the benefits of holding on to aspects of a native culture, particularly in preserving morals and values, “and I also see the bad,” which came into play in spades after she graduated college and introduced her family to her future husband, who’s white.
“My mom just dropped to the floor, crying,” said Xiong-Roby, adding that she became an outcast in the local Hmong community for shaming her family, though she later reconciled with her parents.
Today, she’s still married, the mother of two boys and owner of Veritas Hmong Interpreting Services in Fresno, a job that takes her across California and to other states, because there are so few certified Hmong interpreters.
In fact, there are only 10 in California, and half of them work for courts, leaving it to Xiong-Roby and four others to do freelance interpreting work.
Being an interpreter and especially owning a business weren’t in her plans after graduating college in 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in public and community service, with a minor in psychology. But Xiong-Roby said she kind of fell into the trade when her husband, who was a Fresno police officer, would call her to translate when he dealt with people who only spoke Hmong.
A view to the future
Though her business is small, Xiong-Roby says it and her life have been highly successful, and a bid for local political office may be in her future.
Much of that success she owes to the decisions of her parents, including to flee Laos, and her father’s counter-culture methods of raising his daughters.
But the most important decision may have occurred in the Thai refugee camp, when the family was given the option to immigrate to Canada, the US, Guam and other places.
“We just got lucky that my father chose the United States.”
This is one of the stories that can be found in our supplement Diversity in Business.