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Rice Sacks and Blessings 

Hmong and Lao volunteers feed their communities

click to enlarge Bao Syphanthong, Pang Lo and Yuhmong Lo load a truck with rice sacks to be distributed to Hmong and Lao families in need.

Photo courtesy of Thavisak Syphanthong

Bao Syphanthong, Pang Lo and Yuhmong Lo load a truck with rice sacks to be distributed to Hmong and Lao families in need.

Every April the Humboldt Grange fills with music, prayer, the chanting of Buddhist monks and Lao food — tables laden with aluminum trays of fried fish, spring rolls, rice cakes and pungent salads — some of which families bring up in silver chalices as New Year's offerings to their ancestors. But this year, under the threat of COVID-19 and the restrictions of the resulting shelter-in-place order, there would be no feast, no families and friends gathered on mats, praying shoulder to shoulder to mark the lunar new year. But that doesn't mean they're not coming together.

Instead, a group of local Lao and Hmong folks joined to help bring much needed food and emergency supplies to families in both communities. On May 2, with $8,000 in funds from the Humboldt Area Foundation's COVID-19 Regional Response Fund, volunteers distributed Southeast Asian food staples, first aid kits, school supplies and health information related to COVID-19 translated into Hmong and Lao to some 70 families.

When Pata Vang, a Hmong American who works as a clinical social worker, heard about potential grant money from HAF, she reached out to "people I knew were willing to put in the work," some of whom were old classmates from Humboldt State University, like Ampha Mannorind and Thavisak "Lucky" Syphanthong. The two are, respectively, the president and vice president of the NorCal Lao Foundation, a nonprofit that grew out of a traditional dance group to support and sustain Lao culture in the area. Once the budget was secured, members, friends and relatives got their assigned tasks.

Over the phone last month, Malina Syvoravong, who was working on the logistics of supply lists and sourcing, explained that while the idea of Asian Americans as a "model minority" is still prevalent in mainstream culture, many in Lao and Hmong communities are low income. Elders and others with language barriers find it difficult to access resources. In some cases, existing need is exacerbated by the economic fallout of the pandemic. "Families might be losing business, losing income. And a lot of households are multigenerational, and that's a lot of mouths to feed," said Syvoravong.

Even if Lao and Hmong families are able to access supplies from Food for People, which Vang noted is a great source of fresh vegetables, the concept of stocking up on staples varies from culture to culture.

"The needs of Lao and Hmong families, their diet is just so different from the average American person," said Syvoravong. "During this time you should never buy food you're not going to eat [to avoid food waste]. Most Lao and Hmong families eat a lot of rice, not a lot of dairy, a lot of fresh greens. Beans don't do well with the stomachs of a lot of Asian Americans." Elders especially might have trouble with a sudden change in diet in an already stressful time. Citing the drop in business Asian markets and Chinatowns all over the country have suffered since the pandemic reignited anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, she said, "We hope to purchase a lot of these foods from a lot of the smaller Asian American stores. We want to use this money to help those businesses thrive."

Once they had their respective shopping lists, volunteers arranged to pick up noodles, rice — some by special order, as everything from Basmati to sushi rice was vanishing from store shelves at the start of shelter in place — and other food items from Asia's Best, Lao Oriental Market, Oriental Foods and Spices, Vang Chang Market and Little Japan, as well as Crescent City Oriental Market. After assembling the food and kits at Syphanthong's Eureka Skate Shop and making deliveries to some families on Friday, on Saturday the team donned masks and gloves to hand out supplies to families who pulled up to the curb at the Davis House on Harris Street. The plan was to go from noon to 2 p.m. but cars were waiting at 11:30 a.m., and by 12:45, everything was gone.

Vang said along with the food, it's important to get translated information about COVID-19 related health and safety guidelines to people, particularly "elders who live by themselves and don't have young people living with them. ... In larger cities in the Midwest, and in Fresno and Merced, they do have sources for information," along with international news in their native languages. In Humboldt County, there is one Hmong speaker on staff and Lao translation available at the Department of Health and Human Services information line (441-5000). But, Vang pointed out, vital information is often spread word of mouth. "Like, 'I gotta tell my auntie, I gotta go tell this other family' — it's really about how we communicate with each other in a small town."

"This is kind of the first time for our generation for the Hmong and Lao community to work together," said Syphanthong, who helped out with a similar effort through the Hmong Community Center in Crescent City. It's a sentiment echoed by Vang, who said there hasn't been an opportunity to come together like this before, though she hopes for more collaborations on both aid and events in the future. She also hopes to reach other small communities, like Pacific Islanders in the area.

Syphanthong, whose refugee parents told him they gave him a sleeping pill as an infant in order to flee Laos in silence under gunfire, said he and other local first- and second-generation Southeast Asians who grew up in the U.S. and were able to gain further education and stability feel a pull to give back to elders and other families.

Mannorind echoes the sentiment, adding that hers was one of the first families to cross from Laos into Thailand after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam. "We're kind of the lucky ones," she said, in that their parents shared their stories. Knowing their sacrifice, she said, makes her want to help her community.

"With this whole shelter in place and COVID, there's no New Year celebration," she said, which means missing paying tribute to ancestors and the blessing to cleanse one's sins. "A lot of things we look forward to we're not able to do. Being able to do this — passing out food and helping families — it's a blessing."

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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