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December 12, 2011
In the west Arkansas town of Magazine, one sure way for boys from the immigrant Hmong community to assimilate is to put on helmets, cleats and shoulder pads
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December 12, 2011

How To Become An American

In the west Arkansas town of Magazine, one sure way for boys from the immigrant Hmong community to assimilate is to put on helmets, cleats and shoulder pads

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This second wave of Hmong residents was more visible than the first. They were also more easily integrated into the community; their English was better than that of their predecessors, and most of their children had been born in the U.S. To some extent they were already Americanized. Among other things, they knew what football was.

"I started noticing them in about fifth grade," says Ryan Chambers, Magazine's quarterback and the MVP in last year's state championship game. "I noticed Long and Chang [Yang] then. What I noticed first was that they were really fast. Then I noticed that they were really good."

As the Hmong players came up through the system, Jones and Powell, to say nothing of the rest of the community, adapted to them as much as the Hmong students adapted to the high school. "They were typically quiet, and they were intensely respectful," says Randy Bryan, the principal. "One of the big adjustments we had to make is that in their culture, it's considered very disrespectful to make eye contact. You'd be talking to a kid, and he'd be looking down, and your instinct is that he was being disrespectful, but it's just the opposite."

Andy Moua, Charly's eldest brother, was the first Hmong player on the Magazine varsity, a three-year starter and a versatile athlete who played a number of positions. His cousin Jay Moua came next. He especially delighted in tormenting Powell. "One time he had everybody here convinced that he was moving to Tulsa," Powell recalls. "He didn't even show up the first two weeks of practice. Someone finally said to me, 'Coach, he's not in Tulsa. I saw him downtown last night.' I called him and said, 'Hey, get to practice.' They brought fun, is what they did."

Jones says, "They'd get on each other. If one of them screwed up, they'd Hmong him pretty good. I don't think they ever did it to an official, though. They're pretty respectful that way."

Jones and Powell had to adjust to the fact that, as hard as the Hmong players worked, football did not mean as much to them as it did to the other kids on the team. The Hmong kids seemed just as happy to play soccer in games among teams drawn from their huge extended families. Occasionally this took them to Hmong festivals in Oklahoma or Minnesota for weeks at a time.

"They have a different sort of outlook on what's important," says Powell. "These kids play because they enjoy playing, and that's it. Not only that, but they like to look good." Hmong players favor vivid colors. Last season Jay Moua took the field in chartreuse cleats. "We kept looking out there and thinking that somebody threw a flag," says Jones.

By all accounts Mi Yang, the older sister of Long and Chang, was pivotal in the assimilation of the newer Hmong families into the life of Magazine and its high school. Mi threw herself into high school as though she'd wandered out of a Disney Channel musical. She was elected homecoming queen. She played softball for Powell, although she told him at first that she wanted to be on the team but not play (which briefly baffled him), and she skipped a state playoff game so that she could go to her senior prom (which completely confounded him). Her popularity made her an unofficial ambassador from the Hmong community to the rest of the town.

"I thought it was very important for the Hmong students to get their education and to work hard, because of what our parents had to do to come here from Laos," says Mi, now a senior at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. "When I first got to Magazine people were unfamiliar with our culture and didn't know how to respond to it."

Last year Mi watched in delight as her two brothers became local celebrities. The Rattlers began the season with a game at West Fork. They noticed that someone had written on the Internet that Magazine had to be kidding, trying to win with tiny Asian players—or, as Jones puts it, "words to that effect." That, the coach added, "was the only time I ever saw them all get mad."

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