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Interview with Foung Heu




  • MN State Senator – District 67
  • Founder/Owner – Digital Motion, LLC




World Region



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• MN State Senator – District 67
• Founder/Owner – Digital Motion, LLC

I was born in Long Cheng. You know, if you see the Long Cheng photo I can tell where my house is. So, I have pretty vivid memory growing up in Long Cheng, playing around with rocket shells, canon launchers, and getting up on the T-28 planes. Sometimes soldiers would chase you away and said, don’t come here it’s dangerous. So, I’m pretty much surrounded by the Long Cheng operation; with guns and artilleries, bodies of soldiers that came back, you know, to the point where it became normal to see a dead body, lots of dead bodies. It’s pretty much normal to see a plane crash. And, you know, when you’re younger it actually thrills you to see rockets launched at night, gun fighting, and when you see the sparks as a kid it thrills you. So, that was part of my early childhood until I was five. Then my dad got relocated to Vientiane.
My dad relocated us to Vientiane and at the same time he also relocated my grandfather to a small mountain side village called, Phu Kham Hua. That translates, itchy head. So, my grandfather lived in that vicinity closed to Muang Cha. Then I went to school in Vientiane. So, I learned how to speak Lao very early on. So, it’s hard for me to forget Lao. I was quite fluent in Lao and accent was still base on that Vientiane dialect. Even though I don’t encounter a Lao person for every couple of years, when I speak my accent is still from the Vientiane dialect. Sometimes I can disguised not being Hmong, you know, I can be a Lao person. So, I went to school and was in the third grade and then we left the country. I’m one year short of becoming a child soldier because a child soldier was the age of 11. I don’t know, because I was taken away from the Long Cheng atmosphere. My father was promoted to a Major and we were away from the danger zone. So, I took that for granted.

I always enjoyed going to my grandfather’s home town, Phu Kham Hua. Every summer I would beg my father not to let me go to Vientiane to study because I missed my grandfather and I missed being around with Hmong people because when we go to Vientiane me and brother were the only Hmong people and we were being bullied a lot by Lao low landers. So, it was being bullied from kindergarten to third grade. But it helped me to be comfortable with the low landers and city dwellers. You know, every summer before the school start I would beg my father, please let me stay in Na Su and Ban Son where you guys work or send me to Long Cheng or let me stay with my grandfather in Phu Kham Hua. I was pleading but my dad said, no you have to go to Vientiane for better schooling. My parents were actually never home. They were in Long Cheng, Na Su, and my dad was a Liaison and he was sent to different places as a diplomat. They were never home, so we were taken care of by uncles who used our place in Vientiane as temporary housing to go to High School or College. So they took care of us.

Yes. My dad was very fortunate. When I was born, he met General Vang Pao. My dad was a teacher and also spoke some English and that was a major need for that operation by General Vang Pao and my dad worked very hard. He mentioned some misfortune before I was born. One of them was that, he got into an accident and he lost some of the money that was supposed to be delivered to the soldiers. So, he didn’t know what to do and started crying. So, he went and asked the General to give him extra money so he could cover that loss. That’s the first time they met. The General said, if you can speak English come and work for me. So, the beginning of my dad’s connection with the General was from that point on. That’s the story before I was born.

My dad came and took us out of school. He wrote a letter for permission to take us out of school for two weeks. He already had a plan. I guess Long Cheng had already began the evacuation process. It was promised that, mainly the Colonels and their families, were going to be evacuated. But the plan changed and somehow it got a little chaotic and then it became the Colonels and their extended families. So, my dad went to Long Cheng and saw that all the leaders have left and he was in tears. Then he came back and took us out of school and planned a way for us to cross the Mekong.

We made two attempts to cross the Mekong River. The thing is, a lot of Hmong people were panicking and they started moving too. The first attempt started, when we were just about to leave, then we have about six or seven families came and also wanted to leave too. And they ended up in Vientiane with us. At that time, Hmong were very distinguishable mainly because they didn’t wear modern clothing. They wore Hmong clothing. So, if we don’t lead them out, they’re going to be in Vientiane and they may face persecution. So, my dad decided to let those people go first, in our place. It’s better that my father stay because he knew the city better than those folks. Then we had to hide in one of the local family’s house near the border for a day while my dad went back and get the car. He got a car by midnight to picked us up. Two days later we made another attempt. Both attempts were not easy. The first one we had to run and hide in a ditch. We were always afraid and when you see anyone in uniform you run and hide. So, the first day we did the run and hide. The second day, we also ran and hide because the taxi driver decided to turn us in. The taxi changed his mind. Instead of taking our bribe money, he wanted more money. So, he called two of his friends to hold us there because they were going to get some military folks. And then my dad and two uncles were negotiating and it got a little hostile. They were threatening my father and my father was threatening them and said, we are three strong men standing here! So, you know, we were hiding in the bushes and I looked over and there were hostile gestures toward each other. The taxi driver made up a story saying that the whole river was surrounded by soldiers so we can’t go yet.

I remember sitting in the bush and glancing toward my dad, about 50 yards away, and exchanging harsh words with him. But, it was hard to be hiding in the woods for a couple of hours with thorns poking you. I remember I was mad at my mom because at that time, my mom knuckled me but she knuckled me to be safe and to be careful. But at that time I was mad because that was the first time my mom hit me. But it was to protect me because I was running a little slow so she knuckled me to go faster and take my sibling to hide because we were in possible danger. Then about 30 minutes later, two boats arrive and we squeezed into two boats and we barely got across because there were 20 of us again on the second day. So my dad said, if we don’t cross this time we won’t have a chance. So, we ended up squeezing in two boats that goes back and forth a couple of times and I remember the boat’s edge was just an inch above the water. Those boats were almost like canoes, you know, like those flat boats you see in Thailand that used the long propeller. That’s the boat we got across and I the boat was cracking and water was gushing in. So, I carried several bags of photos that my dad took. My dad liked to take a lot of pictures. So, I sorted through and looked at the essential ones that have more of my dad and more of American counterparts. And I said, oh this is not much of my family, so I threw a whole bunch of them away in the river. Because they were saying, the boat is going to sink so let’s throw everything away. People were throwing clothes and everything. So, I took the photos and threw them away. That was the most valuable thing I threw away that I still regret today. I wished I could have kept those pictures.

I didn’t know that we were leaving Laos but the adults probably planned it all. And I heard some discussions; some talk but I didn’t know how serious it was. Suddenly, two weeks before we left the adults started whispering to each other. You know, they usually talk to each other loud but all of a sudden I started looking up at my grandfather, my dad, and my uncles and they were whispering. When I watched the movie, “Schindler’s List” and the Jews were whispering to each other I said, I can relate to that.

Once we’ve crossed over to Thailand, Thai Military Police got us together. At that time I think they get bonus if they rescue folks with rank. My dad was a person with rank. What got me teary was that it was the first time I saw my dad lost his power. He was not highly rank. He was a Major and a military diplomat. He was popular because he was sent on missions all over the places. He worked for Air America, like that movie with Mel Gibson. So, he had been to many places, He was well liked; very popular. And at the border, I saw his authority dissipate right there. They just grabbed him and… and that’s what hit me. Then they took us to Namphong. Actually we stayed in Nong Khai for a little bit. That was a make-shift refugee camp and we stayed there for a little bit. We had different worries but you know, kids will always be kids playing around. Some kids had no concern. They probably don’t know what’s going on.
Then my parents started whispering instead of talking loudly. The situation was chaotic. You can’t trust the military. Actually you trust the Thai Military more than you trust your own Hmong person because they could betray you and they could turn you in for other things. So, we were in a situation where you don’t know who to trust. I knew that was what the adults felt like. I remember wearing a green military belt and I was actually afraid that they might accuse me of being on the other side. Out of naive, I actually threw that belt away. Then they send us to Namphong Refugee camp. That was the first Hmong refugee camp ever and they divided us into 5 quadrants and the quadrants were almost like divided family clan system too. The Yang and the Her Clan lived in quadrant number four and those who were very close to the General lived in quadrant umber five. I noticed that it became a burial ground for our people; that refugee camp. I don’t know why, you know, we didn’t eat that bad. Not plenty of food but enough food nut I don’t know why. A lot of our people suffered from illness, diseases, babies, young men, old men, you know, they all died. They cemetery actually got as big as the quad. It just became a burial ground.

Then it was decided that we should have a different location. Some leaders chose to move down close to Savanakhet and some decided we should have another camp near the Pak Chom area. Maybe you should talk to my father about this too but he sided with Colonel Sai Dang Xiong and so we were the first group to move to Ban Vinai. Actually this hand chopped some bamboos and woods to clear Ban Vinai. That was when Ban Vinai was still a forest. So, the little streams, we actually fished up there. We cleared Ban Vinai for the Hmong community. You know, for the Hmong people. We had the upper edge because we cleared Ban Vinai and built the first home and my family lived in Quadrant 1.

We stayed there for about a year, not quite a year; and my parents were looking for other places too. My mom wanted to come to the United States but my dad had connected with some of our relatives in Chiangmai and Nan province. He really liked those areas. While my dad went and scout for those areas my mom actually applied for us to come to the United States. That’s why my last name was originally spelled H, E, U. Laos was a French colony at one point. So, our surnames were written in French.

I would say Ban Vinai was more of happy times. At some point, we actually forgot that we are refugees. This was before we were restricted. You know, everyone would be going to Pak Chom and abused that. So, the law kicked in. After we left, there was an outburst of people so it became like a big town. At one time there were no guards at the gate but people abused crossing too often so they put a guard there.
The stream was clear. I remember going fishing and hunting. I learned trapping the Hmong way. I was a little upset with my mom but she only taught me well. You know, I grew up in the city. Five years of my life was in the city and I was brought up with a bunch of uncles so they do all the work. At one time my mom made a bamboo stick and I didn’t know what it was for but she put two buckets on it and said, now you carry (water). I said, what? I don’t need to carry that! Where are the uncles? Have the uncles carry it! My mom said, you’re big now; you have to carry it. It hurts hear; it hurts the back. I was a little spoiled. So, I carry it and it hurts. I didn’t like it the first time. The second time I didn’t like it but a week goes by and it gets easier. I could run with it. Almost like the kung fu movies where you learned the kung fu. You started running with two buckets. So, I’m glad that I did that. I know how to balance it so well. That was something I learned from Ban Vinai besides hunting and trapping.

It was late summer, 1976 that we came to America. The Zion Lutheran church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota sponsored us. Our host friend who goes by the name John Miller and a few of his friends attended to us. I recalled a number of times after they concluded the worship service there would be a special announcement saying, any of the members, if you happen to travel to Minneapolis make sure you pick up a bottle of the soy sauce for the Heu family. So, they accommodated us very well. I have them to thank for that but we didn’t. A few months later a number of my relatives arrived in Houston, Texas and my dad was eager to meet them. He made a quick decision and took us down to Houston, Texas.

I felt a little strange and at the same time you’re also trying to interpret the language too. The transition to a culture wasn’t that odd for me because being a Hmong kid going to school in Vientiane with the Laotian kids, the Chinese, and seeing Caucasian kids before. Plus my dad’s boss was a White American. So, it’s just a matter of trying to interpret what they’re trying to say. I know a little bit of French so when they said something to me, I tried to see how it relates to French and I tried to connect.

The school was just across the street from us. So, it was a very, very friendly atmosphere. My dad had to walk 30 minutes to a plant; a big company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I think it was a meat processing plant and he had to walk in the snow to go to work.
In 1991 I came up here because there were opportunities. I was a computer programmer before I moved up here but I always have a passion of helping people. You know, volunteering outside of work. At that time, TPT was hiring a Hmong producer. I was double major in Media Arts and that’s TV productions. So I said, hey I always have a yearning to serve the Hmong community and also have a TV production background. I knew that I had to take a pay cut but it’s something that I have passion in. So, I put in an application and they hired me. Yeah, I produced the first Hmong TV program nationally; it was broadcast nationally too. I was honored that it was at a professional production place and so it was a professionally made video program.
I graduate from High School in Kansas. I went to this school called J. C. Harmon. The neighborhood was pretty much predominantly Hispanic. The early wave of Hispanic; not the current wave of Hispanic. And so, I graduated from J.C. Harmon High School. Then I got accepted into Kansas University in Lawrence. It’s about 45 minutes away from Kansas City, Kansas. So, I went there and stayed there for a little over four years. I graduate with the Media Arts degree.

My parents started working right away. They put my dad in a meat processing plant in Sioux Falls right away and he worked there. My mom wanted to work but our sponsor said she should take advantage of the English learner program at my school. So, she took advantage of that.
We didn’t see public assistance at all. At that time the concept of public assistance didn’t really connect with us at all until more of our relatives came here to Texas and they have better program there. So, my father decided that we should join them and move there to Houston, Texas. He was looking for a job and we were in public housing; then we were in public assistance for some time until he found himself a job and we moved out of public housing. Then he got into an accident at the company that torn up his right arm very badly. It shattered his bones. That was a tough time for our family. For the first time, my mom had to work to support the family. My dad cannot work anymore and my mom not being able to read and write, or even speak Lao to begin with. She had to work and learn how to ride the metro bus. Yeah, that was a tough time for my family when my mom had to work. It’s been like that until we decided to move to Kansas. So, with the lawsuit and my father’s arm, it took a while. I would say it was three years that my father was not capable of working. So, when we moved to Kansas City we lived public housing; subsidized housing until I graduated from high school.

I would say I credit the church for my upbringing. The church always has extra activities for you to be involved in. When we were here in the United States, my dad also took part in the church. As for helping people, it started when I was twelve when my dad sent me to help this young man with Polio. I remember his name was Bobby Sylvester and I didn’t like it because other Hmong and Lao kids were playing basketball and soccer. They all have so much fun playing and my dad would sent me every day to take care of Bobby Sylvester. I said, why do I have to do this? But now that I thought about it, Bobby taught me English. We can’t communicate. I only speak Hmong and Bobby speaks English. So, that helped me to learn English through Bobby Sylvester. Bobby’s mom bought some properties and we rented a property from his mom. He has polio so I’m Bobby’s care taker for about a year and a half while we were in Houston, Texas. So, it helps. If I have to compare with Hmong kids at my age during that time of transition and war, I excel better because I have that connection outside of my community with Bobby Sylvester and other folks. And that kind of build my character of helping other people; shaping my character. Not just helping from church but getting involved with school activities, playing sports, and even in college I became a youth counselor. I was active in minority programs. My roommates and friends at the dorm would ask me, why are you doing all this? But it’s just something that I have to be involved and helping other people.

We live in a democratic society, you know, republic of America and representation is important. And sometimes representation doesn’t include different layers down. So, I always fight for representation. Even in high school I joined the Arc club, math club; part of it was being represented at the table making decisions. Because if you are at the table you can make decisions. So, when I moved here in ’91; and “93, ’94 I’ve already started to engage in mainstream political arena and I haven’t figure out which political affiliation (to go with) but I’m helping out and in St. Paul, it pretty much DFL. Myself and a few others, we founded the Hmong DFL caucus and just went on from there. Then in 1998 I encourage my friend Cy Thao to run for State Rep. He didn’t win the first time but we tried again; second time he won. And then Mee Moua ran for her office. The Senate seat that I’m running now. I even followed her and tried to record that history.

I never thought that I would be a State Senator here. That’s why I studied computer science. I thought, okay I like to help people but sometimes bureaucracy is chaotic. So, I rather be straight to the point; this is what you need, in video production, this is what you need, I developed for you. You know, computer science is the same thing. If you say you want a program like this, I do that for you. It’s a service so you could care less about what’s around you. But when I moved to Minnesota I felt, okay my yearning to be at the table actually open quite larger and I should be more engage into the DFL party. So, for me it’s not so much about politics but just helping the community and the surrounding that I live in; and if that is politics and it is politics. And it is politics too. So, I’m helping my neighbor, helping my larger community, and add on and on then it connects to politics. But yeah, originally I never I would be in politic.
The interesting thing that someone like me who already have some memories of the old country, set foot here, and be elected as a state senator makes the Hmong community even prouder. It felt like they’ve made the right choice. Anyone who is over 40 felt that they’ve won the seat too. So, that’s one big difference that I would say made the Hmong community felt. Yeah, it never came across. We thought we were just going to be in the work force and that will be just fine and you know, making more money.

I have help people a lot along the way. I’ve served in many organizations. So in 2010 I said, okay let me see how the fruit of my labor comes into play. So, I put that into the test and learned a lot from that. Then I ran again in 2012 and it came into fruition; the fruit of my labor. My contribution to the community; I helped so many people (get) elected, fundraised for so many people. I even helped people going back to Thailand and service those people and bring those people over. So I said, okay let me put this into test and see where this will take me.
You know, I always have this little doubt of my career path. Just before I graduated from high school, my father suggest that I should become a minister because my dad love ministry. Perhaps if I’ve chosen ministry I would have better structured my speech skill. But I chose computer science, away from speaking. And now, when I’m an elected official I have to retrain myself and when I did broadcasting I have to retrain myself to be a public person. Which is interesting. I kind of thought if I chose ministry as a career, where would I be? Maybe I will be more eloquent in delivering my presentations because you exercised more. But then, if I’ve gone that route perhaps I would not be in touch with the diverse spectrum of people. You know, the gay and lesbian community, artists, the Unions, the labor, and other ethnic groups. Perhaps I may do this through ministry but it might limit me.

I don’t know if I would become elected or electable in the State of Kansas where I graduate from high school and where most of my family members live. Perhaps if I try hard enough; there are a lot of kind people there. I remember when I was in high school I was sent to Boys State for a week and Boys State is an organization that tries to engage young people in civic engagements. What they did is they design the group that you’re with; they break it down to City and County and you’re elect to serve your City and County. It’s a fictitious environment. At that time my English was limited but a few kids point at me and said, Foung you should be City Council. You know, so they got me to be the city council member of the fictitious City. It’s a game that we learned about politics. So, perhaps I might have a chance at City Council or some office but probably not State Senate. And even when you run for office, people whom you consider good friends may not vote for you. And maybe your Hmong friends don’t even want to vote for you too. Which is interesting; that part. But I would say the major factor that got me elected here are the minority populations and the “have not” population that put me into this office. That’s a major factor.

If we have a large Hmong population here and we have no representation, it won’t be fair. It won’t be fair; but we have to reach out to other people too. You know, we can’t just get a Hmong person elected because we have a large Hmong base. We have to educate that Hmong base; to soften that Hmong base to reach out to other people to empower our community. So, yes the Hmong base is a major factor. And there will be a time where certain part of our city or state where more Hmong people live together. So, we might run for the same position. Like New Ulm, Minnesota which the majority of people down there are German descent. So, there are German people running against each other. So, there will be times when that will come into play. Maybe not now but soon.

Well, elected officials don’t make a lot of money. That’s one thing for sure. But if you have the passion to change society; helping people in different manner then getting involved in politics is the place to be. Not necessarily being elected officials but being involved in civics in certain degree. At the very least, come out and vote. You don’t want other people to vote instead of you. You know, in other country, different places in the world, some people sacrifice their lives so that other people can vote. So, get involve in someone’s campaign is important. Getting involved in your community is important. If you want a healthy community that where would you rather be? In your community. So, it’s important that we have civic engagement in many areas and at different levels. So, I would not only encourage people to serve even though you’re not interested in politics at all. Care about your neighborhood. You know, how safe it is; how friendly it is; how accessible it is; how clean it is, and are you breathing the air that is clean enough for you and your children. Are you drinking the water that are drinkable and safe for your children? Safe for family, safe for your neighbor? So, everything comes into play and that in itself is dictated by policies and it’s also connected to politics too.

I think we should be more engaged than we are now. I mean, having me as one legislator, we short change ourselves. At one time we have two legislators and in some ways, that legislator have to reach out to other people. Let’s say even that legislator or even myself; an elected official only focusing on building the Hmong community, even that, there’s nothing wrong with that. The thing is, like there was a saying, “high tides raise our ship”. We’re all interconnected. If you improve the lowest community of all time, everybody will grow along with it. But if you improve only the wealthy and the well to do, it will only go up and the ones below will fall further down. So, at this point the Hmong communities are the ones below. So, if you improve that level you will improve everybody else. So, I think we’re short in numbers, as far as representation goes in the legislature here.

Get involved civically. There’s position in the City Council. Positions in the Senate office. There’re positions in the housing development. So, get involved in that. Then when the position comes to run for office then I would encourage someone to run. We should have more of that.
I see that more Hmong people are involved than ever. If you have to divide communities into sectors, I think the Hmong deliver more results that different communities, different city. You know I think if you just clump the Hmong community as a whole, we turned out in greater number than anyone else. If someone missed looking at that, then it’s their loss.

We cannot just open for hand out all the time. We have to take charge and be part of it. Minnesota is not, them. Minnesota is, us. It’s you. So, we have to come together and make Minnesota a better place to live. In asking whether Minnesota has treat us well, we ask ourselves whether we’ve treat Minnesota well. And I think generally it’s, yes; if I compare Minnesota with other states. I mean, we could do better.

It’s time for us to also give back to society. For me, I see my serving in the Senate as part of giving back to the community in a larger scale. And so, yeah, Minnesota has been good to us.

Transcription completed by: Moua Lee

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