Megan Khang accepts that there will always be gaps in her family story. Survivors of war often paint their experiences with a roller instead of a delicate brush. Like many survivors, the Khangs, who saw their relatives and friends brutalized, imprisoned and murdered in the late stages of the CIA’s secret war in their home country of Laos, never shared a lot of details. All that 23-year-old Megan, who was born in Massachusetts, knows is that “My parents at a young age, there was the war going on, and the Hmong people had helped the Americans, so they were offered asylum. My parents were lucky enough to be a part of that. They had different journeys getting to Thailand, because that was how they got to the United States, through Thailand.”
The story is a good deal more dramatic than that. The Hmong are a mountain people, an ethnic minority in the southern region of China around the Yunnan province. Today, in the largely homogenous and racially insensitive parts of China, they are a tourist attraction, complete with a “Minority Village” theme park and rows of sidewalk restaurants and shops where you can get buy everything from an ornate headdress to a hand-sewn papoose for the babies. But in the 1960s and early ‘70s the CIA recognized the Hmong as fierce warriors with instinctive mountain skills. Thousands were recruited to fight the North Vietnamese in a war the U.S. denied was taking place and the United Nations passed a resolution prohibiting.
Lee Khang, Megan’s dad, was a child at the time, born sometime in the spring of 1967 (villagers didn’t keep up with birthdates). And while he doesn’t speak about the bombings that killed his relatives, he does remember fleeing the communists. When Lee was seven, his older brothers arranged to have the family boated across the Mikong River into Thailand, a river with no bridges at the time, which was the DMV between oppression and freedom for many of the Hmong.
The family piled into the back of an enclosed truck and survived one checkpoint where guards had to be bribed to allow them to pass. Then, at midnight, the Khangs slipped across the river, 12 family members in a boat built for no more than six people.
Within a year, and after living in tents in several refugee camps, the Khangs were sponsored by a group of Americans and resettled in Brookline, Mass.
“I’ll never understand,” Megan said. “It’s hard for me to grasp what they went through, what they saw. They were only like seven and eight years old. If they hadn’t gone through that, I wouldn’t be here.
“When I was younger, I had no concept of what they had experienced, what they had risked in coming to America. Now that I’m older, it’s eye-opening to see how far they’ve come.
“My mom worked at 16. My dad worked from the time he was in the 8th grade. I’ve never had a job other than being a golfer. The sacrifices they’ve made; the things they’ve done. They had it so much harder growing up.”
Lee worked as an automotive mechanic and did not pick up a golf club until he was in his 20s. Megan’s mother, Nou, was a schoolteacher, three years younger than Lee. They met in Boston where Lee was repairing cars and Nou was going to college. Middleclass but lightyears away from the lifestyle associated with places like The Country Club in Brookline or Myopia Hunt Club in nearby South Hamilton, the Khangs realized their daughter’s talent for golf and Lee quit his job to teach Megan. The family lived off of Nou’s teaching income.
“It was different growing up,” Megan said. “I had my cousins and there were two other Asian kids in my high school class (in Massachusetts). That was really it. When I’d go to a Hmong New Year party, it was overwhelming because I wasn’t used to being among Hmong people who were not my family. They are a very proud, very traditional people. They have these beautiful outfits and these traditional dances. It’s super cool to be around it. It makes me appreciate (the culture) and want to know more.
“I didn’t have a ton of Hmong communities around me. Almost all the Hmong people around me were relatives. So, there was never really a moment when my (Eastern and Western) cultures collided. Although, I do wish my parents had taught me (to speak) Hmong. They didn’t want to hurt me in learning English and being American. So, I lost a little bit about my culture and heritage in that way. But they pushed me to fit in and wanted it to be easier for me to live (as an American).”
Knowledge of her family history and the maturity to appreciate what they went through has reshaped the goals Megan has a daughter, a golfer and a person.
“If I can do what I love to help them not have to worry about anything ever again, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make that happen,” she said. “My Asian American dream is to give my parents everything they didn’t have.
“I want to win tournaments; I want to win majors; I want to win the career grand slam. But not for me. I want to do it to give my parents everything they ever wanted, and more.”