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Menomonie grad draws strength from Hmong history, overcomes challenges, honors late mother

MENOMONIE — Around Vue Vang’s neck hangs a necklace with the photo of General Vang Pao, who led Hmong soldiers as they aided U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.

The Menomonie High School student carries the picture with him at all times, drawing inspiration from the Hmong leader’s teachings.

“He helped us as much as he could,” Vue said.

Born in Thailand in 2001, Vue came to America with his family in 2005 as they sought education and opportunity like many Hmong people had done before them.

“They’ve been running for a really long time to cross over the Mekong River to get over to Thailand to get to America for education,” Vue said.

His parents were insistent that he get a good education and his mother would not tolerate him skipping classes.

“She always yelled at me if I didn’t go to school,” Vue said of his mother, Blia Lor.

A couple years ago his mother suffered a debilitating stroke, requiring his father, Sai Dang Vang, to quit working so he could care for Blia with other family members helping out as well. On the early morning of April 16, Blia died at the family’s rural Elk Mound home.

“It’s still been really rough for us,” Vue said.

In the two months leading to graduation, Vue had several excused absences to spend time with his mother and then attend her three-day funeral, completing his coursework while also grieving alongside his family.

“I wanted to make my mom proud of me,” he said. “Even though she passed away, I 100 percent know she’s still with me and will help me get through stressful times.”

He’ll be thinking of her as he gets his high school diploma on Sunday afternoon along with other Menomonie High School students.

Principal David Munoz said he’s impressed at how well Vue has handled the recent passing of his mother — better than many adults would take a close family member’s death, he added.

As a second-generation immigrant, Munoz said he feels some kinship with Vue and talks with him pretty much every day at school.

“He’s so positive,” Munoz said.

Vue credits his mother with his positive outlook and he learned perseverance from his dad.

“I don’t give up on things I like to do,” he said.

Ever since he could walk, Vue has had a limp, which he said is from nurses damaging his right leg when they were trying to administer medication with a needle when he was a newborn. A surgery during his sophomore year failed to correct his limp, but he’s chosen to adapt to it and not let it hold him back.

“I was like, you know what, forget it,” he said.

During his junior and senior years, he’s played on the school’s junior varsity soccer team as a striker and midfield player — positions that cover a large part of the playing field and require a lot of running.

Before arriving in Menomonie in 2015, Vue’s family had lived in California, Minneapolis and Iowa, usually moving to be closer to relatives.

In elementary and middle school, Vue Vang recalls classmates asking but also sometimes teasing him about his ethnicity.

“People would always ask who am I?” he said.

Fellow students asked if he was Japanese, Chinese or from another Asian country. When he’d reply that he’s Hmong, they had more questions and he didn’t have all the answers when he was younger.

“There was a day I came home and asked my dad, ‘who is Hmong?’” Vue recalls.

In search of more about his people’s past than what his family knew, Vue did his own research. He learned how the Hmong lived in the mountains of Laos and were proficient at farming, but had faced persecution in their homeland, which led many to travel across the border to Thailand. He also saw videos of General Pao’s speeches, which struck a deep chord in Vue.

“To me, it’s really important, all of his speeches,” Vue said.

Vue quotes Pao’s teachings about caring for fellow Hmong people and gaining respect through diligence.

“Just do what you do and one day they’ll know who we are,” Vue said.

Vue did see the general at two Hmong celebrations while the family lived in California, but didn’t have the chance to speak with him. When Pao died in 2011, Vue’s father flew out to attend the funeral, but Vue couldn’t go because the price of an extra airplane ticket wasn’t in the family’s budget.

Prior to coming to Menomonie High School, Vue hadn’t gotten much formal help with his English skills at his previous schools. At Menomonie, he’s been in the school’s English-as-a-second-language program and is fluent, though he says he still has a hard time reading and saying some of the more difficult words.

He might just be modest.

“He’s got some serious language skills,” Principal Munoz said of the student.

In addition to Hmong and English, Vue also speaks some Thai.

Vue’s father, now a painter, previously worked as an auto mechanic, which Vue is planning to go to school for now.

Last year he took an auto shop class at Menomonie High, giving him a head start on the courses he intends to pursue in the fall at Chippewa Valley Technical College.

A plea for trees

Father’s Day is a few weeks away and for many dads this particular holiday conjures an acute fear of the cliched present: new socks, a tie, or the well-intentioned-but-almost-always-disastrous-breakfast-in-bed, delivered by smiling toddlers utterly lacking in culinary prowess. Look, everyone needs a pair of socks, but ultimately, this logic might as well extend to toilet paper, or a new toothbrush.

Allow me to make a Father’s Day gift suggestion: instead of buying the father(s) in your life a can of cashews or a set of cuff-links, consider buying him a tree. Make a production out of it. When he wakes in the morning, hand him a cup of coffee and lead him outside to where his unplanted tree awaits. Then, plant the tree together. Take your time, enjoy the moment. Think about where the tree should be sited. Take turns digging. Have someone hold the tree’s trunk while dad centers its root ball in the hole. Then stand back and admire your handiwork. You’ve bettered your spot of the planet.

My children (amongst other people) think that I’m crazy. In some part this is because every year, I collect the hundreds of pine cones that fall off a gargantuan white pine on our property and wheelbarrowing them out into an old horse pasture, I broadcast the cones in every direction. To a passing motorist, I’m sure I’d look at the very least, extremely eccentric, but probably loco. The thing is, every spring, I take immense pleasure in walking through those low grasses, peering at the saplings that each year seem to leap up toward the sun.

In the past six years, I’ve planted nine nursery-grown trees (six apple, two flowering crabs and one hemlock) but I’ve also begun a budding pinery; I really can’t count the number of new pines that are springing up from those hand-flung pine cones. I don’t know what the great Aldo Leopold would think of my actions, but I’d like to think he’d nod approvingly.

Maybe because I’m a novelist by trade, I tend to think in years, rather than days. When I sit down to work on one of my books, I know I won’t see it as a finished product for at best, a couple years, never mind the years I put into a project, thinking about it, typing it, erasing it, arguing about it, editing it … From beginning to end, a book might take me 20 years to write. Think about that. I basically move at the speed of a tree putting on rings.

Growing up in Eau Claire’s Putnam Heights neighborhood, I never experienced the great canopies of elms that once shadowed our streets and made grand our boulevards. By the time I was biking around Grant Street with Jim Ivory and Joe Walker, youngish maples filled our lawn with autumnal leaves and summer shade. But now and again you’d hear some older person talk about those elms with genuine love and reverence, as if they were people, bygone neighbors. I remember a few of the last remaining elm stumps down towards State Street and MacArthur, so monumental they seemed like gravestones.

The elm trees are gone, yes, but we’re facing a new extinction or extirpation: ash trees. Here is a worthwhile challenge — learn how to identify an ash tree, and then step outside, and imagine a future where all those ash trees you now see, are gone. Think about the void that will leave on our landscape, our streetscapes; think of the spaces they’ll leave in the sky. The tree you plant now will help mitigate any future losses.

The tree you plant with your dad is so much more than a gesture, perhaps given annually. It is more than a t-shirt or watch. It is a sign of hope, a legacy, if you will. I believe our world is warming, our weather becoming more erratic. A simple solution is frankly to plant more trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide while giving off the oxygen we breathe. They provide habitat for birds and wildlife. They help cool our cities and conserve water. And if you don’t believe the science, don’t believe the maps of rapidly receding glaciers, I still advise planting a tree. Think of it as hedging your bets. Think of it simply as a memory of a Father’s Day gone by, or Father’s Days in the future — a marker to measure your own life. Plant a tree for a dad you can spend Father’s Day, or a dad who is gone.

A nursery-grown tree can be expensive, but the Arbor Day Foundation makes saplings extremely affordable. Also, I believe that the things we care about are the things we invest in. Sometimes that means money, but it can also mean love or time. Planting a tree is an investment; think of it that way if you must. An investment in your family, in your home, and in your city, whose very history is defined by the trees once floated atop our downtown rivers.

Next Saturday: B.J. Hollars searches for the best seat in the ballpark.

Amid report of N. Korea purge, there are reasons for caution

SEOUL, South Korea — A South Korean newspaper reported Friday that North Korea executed a senior envoy involved in nuclear negotiations with the U.S. as well as four other high-level officials. But as ever with North Korea, a country that closely guards its secrets, there are reasons to be cautious about the purported purge.

While North Korea hasn’t used its propaganda services to comment, the report in the conservative Chosun Ilbo daily could be true. North Korea has previously executed scapegoats to atone for high-profile political flops, and the most recent summit between leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump ended in failure, leaving Kim embarrassed on the world stage.

But it’s important to note that both South Korean media and the government in Seoul have a history of reporting scoops about the inner workings of North Korea that turn out to be wrong.

Supposedly executed officials have later appeared trotting alongside Kim on state TV.

Friday’s report is based on a single, unidentified “source who knows about North Korea” — with no details about where that source got its information. The report so far hasn’t been matched by any major media in Seoul or confirmed by government officials, even anonymously.

The newspaper’s source said that senior envoy Kim Hyok Chol was executed at the Mirim airfield with four other officials from the North’s Foreign Ministry for betraying Kim Jong Un after being won over by the U.S. Kim Hyok Chol led working-level negotiations as North Korea’s special representative for U.S. affairs ahead of February’s summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The source also said that Kim Yong Chol, who had worked as North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator and met with Trump at the White House while setting up the summits, was sentenced to hard labor and ideological re-education.

That the report has been snapped up by global media reflects the hunger for any details about what’s going on in North Korea as diplomatic efforts falter between Washington and Pyongyang, which tightly controls its media and both local and foreign access to information.

Negotiations have hit a stalemate because North Korea wants an end to crippling sanctions, but Washington says Pyongyang is not providing enough disarmament to allow that to happen.

There is now growing concern that the diplomacy that has blossomed since early 2018 could be replaced by a return to the animosity that in 2017 caused some of the most realistic fears of war in years as North Korea staged a string of increasingly powerful weapons and Kim and Trump traded intensely personal threats and insults.

Since the Hanoi nuclear summit ended in failure, North Korea has again tested weapons and boosted its belligerent rhetoric toward American and South Korean officials. Analysts believe this indicates Pyongyang is trying to show displeasure for the current impasse without destroying the diplomacy.

Seoul’s spy service said it could not confirm Friday’s report, while the presidential Blue House said that “it’s inappropriate to make hasty judgments or comments.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Berlin that he had seen the report and the U.S. was “doing our best to check it out.”

In Washington, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to comment on intelligence “one way or another.”

“We’re monitoring the situation and continuing to stay focused on our ultimate goal, which is denuclearizaton,” she said.

North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Thursday called out unspecified “betrayers, turncoats who demonstrate their loyalty to (the supreme leadership) only in words, and, even worse, change their colors by the flow of trends” and said they would come under the “stern judgment of the revolution.”

“To pretend to serve the suryong while dreaming different dreams when turning around is to commit anti-party and anti-revolutionary actions that abandon the moral loyalty for the suryong,” the newspaper said, referring to a revered title reserved for North Korean leaders.

If Friday’s report is wrong, it would not be the first time for South Korean media and officials.

South Korean intelligence officials in 2016 said that Kim Jong Un had Ri Yong Gil, a former North Korean military chief, executed for corruption and other charges. North Korea’s state media months later showed that Ri was alive and in possession of several new senior posts.

In 2013, the Chosun Ilbo reported that Hyon Song Wol, a famous North Korean artist the newspaper described as Kim’s “ex-girlfriend,” was executed in public along with several other performers over accusations that they filmed themselves having sex and selling the videos.

Hyon, the leader of Kim’s hand-picked Moranbong all-female band, was very much alive and later emerged as a key member of Kim’s government, accompanying him in his meetings with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

South Korea does sometimes get it right.

While many questioned the competence of the South Korean spy service after it failed to learn of the 2011 death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, before Pyongyang’s state TV announced it, the intelligence agency saved face in 2013 by releasing its finding that Kim’s powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was purged, days before North Korea announced his execution.