MERCED -- They thought about their mom and dad a lot. When they wanted to hit the snooze button. When they walked down dark alleys to a basement apartment. When they were asked, "How did you get here?" When they went to classes all day, then studied until 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, a graduate of Georgetown University Medical School; Dr. Lasley Xiong, 27, who earned her degree in osteopathic medicine from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Pennsylvania; Nancy Xiong, 26, who has a doctoral degree in pharmacy from Creighton University; Sandy Xiong, 22, who has a bachelor of science degree in microbiology from the University of California at Davis; and Zong Xiong, who last week received a special education diploma from Merced High School.
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All five graduated this spring. Their parents attended every ceremony; it took a year of planning and saving. A celebration for them took place Sunday at the Merced County Fairgrounds.
All grew up in Merced and went to Merced public schools. The four oldest, motivated by what they learned from their parents, decided to give back to their Hmong culture and community here by studying medicine and science.
They all intend to return after more specialized schooling. They want to help their people and the broader Merced community.
Crossing the river
Here's one image that kept them going:
After walking for 14 days and nights through the jungle, 11 Hmong refugees came to the banks of the Mekong River, which divides Laos from Thailand. They were running from communist forces seeking anybody who had helped the Americans in the CIA-sponsored secret war in Laos in the late 1960s 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. The improvised flotation devices helped them make it to Thailand, 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 was there.
That story of their father floating across a river -- told around the dinner table when they were girls -- became an iconic touchstone throughout the trials of their childhood. They conjured it in high school and then in college.
Another image: their mother, Youa, rising long before dawn to make their breakfasts and lunches before the school bus came. The calluses from working at Foster Farms, then her own "garden" on a plot outside Merced. It reminded her of her country, she said, with one of her daughters interpreting.
They went with their father as grade-schoolers to his job as a medical assistant at Golden Valley Health Center. The girls explained the medical words to the Hmong patients who came there.
Their bilingual skills also were used for their brother, born with Down syndrome, who died at 13. Four daughters remain at home: Xong, 18; Pong, 16; Caroline, 10; and Madeline, 6.
"That's when it all began," Lesley said, "at 9 or 10 years old, helping people who didn't understand what the doctors were saying."
Added Lasley: "Whoever was available -- not just one of our family, but all of our relatives."
For Lesley, medical school held "a lot of dark days -- I was out there (in Washington, D.C.) without my family and friends."
For Nancy, in freezing Nebraska winters and humid summers, "nobody else but us knew what we were going through."
Hard work at school
Lesley lived in a basement apartment in Georgetown, a short walk from campus. Nancy didn't have a car, so she hiked through snow to class, fell, got up, and trudged on. She got there on time because she left 30 minutes early.
Sandy thought about giving up because her classes were so hard, but she decided she had come so far, she couldn't switch majors.
The four students all came back to Merced for rotations and internships. They'd gotten scholarships and some financial aid. But all owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.
Where did they get such drive, such discipline?
Youa looked down at the kitchen table, a plate of cherries and tangerines on it.
"My father was a general," she said softly. "He was very determined to help our country."
"Our dad was our cheerleader," Lesley said. "He gave me my thick skin" when other students would look at her Asian features and learn that her dad was a medical technician, her mom a housewife.
A fifth-generation Xiong clan, they are the first to get graduate and medical degrees.
"We're all sisters," Sandy said. "It was important for us to prove that even though we're all girls, we're as strong as a son -- we can go as far as a man. That takes a lot of guts."