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The Smelly Neighborhood

In the late eighties people from Southeast Asia started coming to the US by the boatload, earning the nickname Boat People. Among the different groups of Boat People were the Hmong. Hmong refer to an Asian ethnic group in the mountainous regions of southern China. In Laos, a significant number of Hmong people fought against the communist Pathet Lao, who took over the government in 1975 during the Secret War. Hmong people were singled out for retribution, resulting in many fleeing, thousands were resettled in Western countries, including the United States. The government at the time tried to locate people in similar climates so the people from Laos were often located in the Upper Midwest.

The Hmong people are generally known as honest hard working people. This was defiantly the case in La Crosse. The Hmong were very family oriented, and always did their best so their children could go further in education and careers than they had. We had a bunch of cool Hmong kids in our school.

Several of the newly arrived Hmong worked on the golf course, the Greenskeeper always said they were his best employees. Not one of them ever called in sick, was late to work, or did a half-ass job. They always gave a solid day's work for a day's pay.

The Hmong people generally were good people for the city, always striving to fit in. They added virtually no crime, and were model citizens in most cases. There were a few problems due to culture differences, but a little education was all that was ever needed. This is one of those instances when cultures clashed.

Typical Hmong families would rent houses for their large extended families. There starts the problem, as some neighbors started to complain about Hmong living next to them. Some people may have had valid complaints, but many were just showing signs prejudice by not wanting another culture invading their old white neighborhood. In this one particular neighborhood there was a case where some neighbors started to complain about an odor coming from the house rented by a Hmong family.

Simple complaints, like smelly neighbors, were often dismissed as being goofy complaints that go nowhere, and there wasn't much follow-up after simple documentation of the complaint. As more neighbors started complaining the city finally thought it was time to look into the odor problem. Without power to actually do anything even if determined the odor was coming from a house, they sent an inspector to look at the situation, and determine what was going on that generated so many complaints about the smell. Some families brought wildly different cuisine from their homelands to satisfy their appetites. It didn't take much to triangulate and discover the odor was coming from the home with the large Hmong family living inside.

After notes were made, the inspector left. He really didn’t have the power to do much about an odor. Pushing the issue further at his point could be construed as racism and would have had the ACLU going crazy.

Complaints continued, and got more frequent, and from neighbors further away. The city sent another inspector out. After again triangulating the Hmong house as the source of offending odor, they made their notes and left. Again, the inspectors just didn’t have power to do anything. Even going up to the home and accusing the residents of smelling the neighborhood up, could lead to a lawsuit for offending the Hmong people, so nothing was done.

Complaint calls continued, and for a third time the city sent an inspector out to look into it. The inspector went though the same routine. He made absolutely sure the odor was coming from the Hmong home, and took notes. This inspector went up to the house and started a conversation with the occupants. The occupants, renters of the home, welcomed the inspector inside and answered all of his questions. They really just wanted to be good neighbors and citizens and complied with everything asked.

After they let the inspector in it only took a few minutes to tell where the odor was coming from. There was a door leading to the basement.

The inspector asked,

“May I see the basement?”

They granted the inspector access right away. The inspector stepped in, and turned the light on. He was in total shock at what he saw. He had immediately found the source of the bad smells.

There was water up to about the top few steps of the basement, and there were a couple of fish floating on top. Between the water and the smell he figured out what was happening.

The Hmong family, it been discovered had sealed up the drains in the unfinished basement. Then they flooded the basement and stocked it with a bunch of fish, mostly carp! They would harvest fish as needed for eating, and some of the carp had already started to spawn.

The Hmong family had no idea this was going to ruin the house and cost as much as it did. They had just never known homes with basements, and had no idea what to do with one. These are people who historically lived in the mountainous areas of Southeastern Asia.

The stinky stale water had soaked into the basement’s concrete walls and the wood. The houses was ruined, and ended up having to be knocked down and completely dug up and rebuilt.

The owner’s homeowner’s policy took care of much of the costs, and the city came in to help with much of the rest, since it took so long to determine the problem. Before the whole problem was over, one of the Hmong family members ended up with a great job with the city. The city determined the need for a Hmong outreach program to help the new arrivals adjust to the local culture and avoid problem like this in the future.