Cheng Leng Thao spent the first 11 years of his life in a refugee camp in Thailand. There, he couldn't have imagined earning a merit badge for bird-watching. Five years later he has, as a member of Boy Scout Troop 100, Minnesota's oldest all-Hmong scout troop.
"At first, I was very nervous," said 16-year-old Thao, taking a break from a pickup ballgame with fellow troop members. "But I met a lot of friends. I learned fun new games. And how to tie some good knots."
He also has learned a more attractive meaning for "camp," one that isn't preceded by "refugee." As the Boy Scouts of America celebrate their 100th anniversary this year, they can count among their ranks more than 1,000 boys, including 86 Eagle Scouts, who belonged to this groundbreaking troop. Many more metro-area Hmong scouting programs (for both boys and girls) now thrive as well, overseen by Silver Maple District, an umbrella organization that serves Asian scouts in the Twin Cities.
Thao's background is unusual among his fellow scouts; most of them were born here as second- or third-generation citizens. But many of their immigrant parents and grandparents came to this country fresh from horrific experiences, their Southeast Asian homelands and families ravaged by the Vietnam War.
More than 60,000 Hmong live in Minnesota, more than half of them in St. Paul. Their median age is only 16, compared with 35 for the state as a whole.
When the first Hmong refugees arrived in the Twin Cities, their children were plunked down into a bewildering school system, knowing little English and less about how to fit in. Dave Moore, who still leads Troop 100 after founding it in 1981, recalls the first gathering of silent Hmong boys in the gym of Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis.
"It was difficult because they didn't know what I was saying," said Moore, then a social-studies teacher at Edison. "With help from one kid who could speak English, I taught them the Pledge of Allegiance and how to fold the flag. Then we played prisoner's base, a kind of tag game. It was the first time I'd seen these kids smile in the few months they'd been here."
Chicken with rice -- again
The story of Troop 100 is a story of cross-cultural connections -- and a few cross-cultural misunderstandings. Moore, 73, recalls telling his first group of boys that they could choose the menu for a camping trip.
"They wanted chicken with rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner," he said. "I kept trying to explain they should plan different meals, until their Hmong adviser laughed and told me, 'That's the way we eat.'"
Even though it was a concept as foreign as most everything else about American culture, scouting had a strong pull on the first groups of refugee boys. Most of them came from rural areas in Laos, so camping brought them back to the natural world they were used to, albeit in a different climate.
But parental suspicion was a stumbling block at first, he said. Volunteerism, an important part of scouting, was not a part of traditional Hmong culture.
"The parents had no clue what we were about," Moore said. "Some thought it was some sort of military thing. In Hmong culture you are expected to spend all your time helping your family, not people outside of it. We had to persuade the parents that their boys were learning skills, learning about America. By focusing on the teaching, we slowly gained their confidence."
Coaching future leaders
Cheng Leng Thao's uncle, Yee Chang, was also a member of Troop 100. Today he is a Hmong leader, active in DFL politics and married to Minnesota Sen. Mee Moua, the highest ranking Hmong politician in the country. He still volunteers occasionally with his former troop, along with his wife, who assumed cooking duties on a recent winter camping trip. While scouting isn't the only part of his background that Chang credits with his success, it's a big one. Many scouts have grown up to become leaders in the Hmong community.
"There are too many guys who have gone on to achieve a lot for it to be just a coincidence," said former troop member and Eagle Scout Cy Thao. "It's leadership training. You learn to see your role as bigger than just doing things for yourself, that you have an obligation to make the community better."
As a member of the State Legislature representing St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood since 2002, Thao can count himself among them. Others include 24-year-old NASA aeronautical engineer Bee Vue, the first Hmong graduate of MIT, and 29-year-old Yimeem Vu, who works in Washington, D.C., teaching immigrants how to organize self-help groups. Long Thao will enter the University of Minnesota's dental school this fall. Thao Vang, who lost his whole family except his father while they were fleeing Laos on the Mekong River, has served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army.
Troop 184, started in St. Paul not long after Moore's group, was the second Hmong troop in Minnesota. Today the Silver Maple District numbers 11 Cub Scout troops, 16 Boy Scout troops and 23 Venturing troops (co-ed high-school scouting programs), said Vong Thor, an executive with the district and former Troop 184 member. Leader Scot Howe was "like a second father to me," Thor said.
Polite, to boot
Moore's current troop, comprising seven patrols and involving boys from all over the metro area, ranging in age from 11 to 17, meets Friday evenings at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis.
At one recent meeting, more than 30 of them milled about the church's small gymnasium, waiting to board a bus for a trip to Camp Ajawah in Wyoming, Minn., to practice skills for an upcoming competition. One boy stuck out a tongue that had clearly been in recent contact with some neon-blue candy. Another pounded out a tune on an old upright piano. But most were running around the gym in a loose circle like a human whirlpool, sailing a football back and forth, windmilling arms, dissolving into laughter as they skidded into walls.
David Vang, 16, has been a Scout for five years. He got into it because his cousins and some of his friends were involved, he said: "It does keep us out of trouble. Everybody really gets along and works together."
Moore, now 73 and retired (but not from scouting), said there is a natural spirit of cooperation among the boys that is remarkable, given their age.
"A lot of them are in junior high, the hardest age to discipline," he said. "But everywhere we go as a group I get complimented on how well-behaved they are."
John Andrews, who leads the Boy Scouts' regional Northern Star Council, thinks the addition of Hmong troops strengthens the entire scout program.
"It's better for everyone, because particularly in a state like Minnesota, a lot of kids are insulated from kids different from themselves," he said.
Last Monday, the boys competed in a "waligazhu," an occasional contest bringing together several troops. Six of Troop 100's seven patrols won an Honor Patrol designation for their prowess in Lashing, Nature Identification, Knots, and Map and Compass.
Moore's voice fills with decidedly nonobjective pride when he talks of his latest batch of future upstanding citizens. Asked to sum up their potential, he paraphrases a dictum from the Official Boy Scout Handbook: "They are trustworthy. They are loyal. They are brave."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046