They thought about their mom and dad a lot.
When they wanted to hit the "snooze" button and roll back to sleep. When they walked down dark alleys late at night to a basement apartment. When they were always asked, how did you get here? When they went to classes 8-5, then went home and studied till 2 or 3 a.m.
They thought about Jouachao Blong Xiong, 49, their dad. And about Youa Xiong, 46, their mom.
Both were back in Merced.
Their daughters were spread across America. Lesley, 28, now Dr. Lesley Xiong, Georgetown University Medical School. Dr. Lasley Xiong, 27, doctor of osteopathic medicine from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Pennsylvania. Nancy Xiong, 26, with a pharmacy doctorate from Creighton University School of Pharmacy. Sandy Xiong, 22, with a B.S. in science microbiology from UC Davis. And Zong Xiong, a special education diploma last night from Merced High School.
(Their family name is pronounced ZHONG.)
All five graduated this spring. Their parents attended each and every ceremony; it took a year of planning and saving. On Sunday at 10:40 a.m., at the Merced County Fairgrounds Pavilion, a celebration of their achievements -- "A new country, a new beginning, a dream come true..." -- will be held in their honor.
All of them grew up in Merced and went to Merced public schools, preschool through their senior years. The four oldest, motivated by what they learned from their parents by watching them work and listening to their life stories, decided that the way to give back to their Hmong culture and community here would be to study medicine and science.
They all intend to return here, after more specialized schooling in family medicine, optometry and other fields. They want to help their people and the broader Merced community.
Here's one image that kept them going through the long days, lonely nights, different cultures and academic regimens that taxed their fellow students who had grown up in wealth and privilege.
After walking for 14 days and nights through the jungle, 11 Hmong refugees came to the banks of the Mekong River that divides Laos from Thailand. They were fleeing the Pathet Lao communist forces who were seeking anybody who had helped the Americans in the CIA-sponsored secret war in Laos in the late '60s and early '70s.
Jouachao, his wife left behind in their village for safety, strapped empty army canteens around his chest and waist. Together, the group waded into the swirling khaki-colored current of Indochina's longest waterway. The improvised flotation devices helped him and the others make it to Thai territory, where they entered a refugee camp. A year later, Youa joined him.
Through a U.S. government resettlement program, they traveled to Anaheim, mainly because Jouachao's brother Henry was already there. (Henry is now employment program coordinator of Merced Lao Family Community Inc., which provides interpreting and job services for Hmong residents of the county. He's one of the most influential, and modest Hmong Mercedians. Besides his brother, he sponsored five other Hmong families' entry into the U.S.)
That image of their father floating across a river -- told around the supper table when they were girls -- became an iconic touchstone throughout the trials of their childhood. They conjured it during the duress of becoming 4.0-plus high school students and then their Spartan lives in college and med and grad school.
Another image, another family memory: their mother, Youa, rising long before dawn to make their breakfasts and lunches before the school bus came. The calluses on her fingers from working at Foster Farms, then her own "garden," where she raised cucumbers, sugar cane, even a rice paddy on a plot of land outside Merced. It reminded her of her country, she says, with one of her daughters interpreting.