The Hmong of Australia: Outcomes of 43 Years of Identity Formation

By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.

Presentation at "Overseas Migration and Building a Community of Human Destiny" Conference in Guangzhou, 25 - 26 May 2019

Contents

 

  1. Abstract

  2. Introduction

  3. Who are the Hmong

  4. Identity

  5. Components of Traditional Hmong Culture/ Identity

  6. The Hmong of Australia

  7. Mitigating Factors in the Formation of Hmong Identity in Australia

  8. Outcomes of Identity Formation

  9. Conclusion

  10. Footnotes

Abstract

The Hmong first migrated to Australia in 1976 as refugees from Laos following the end of the Lao civil war. They form part of the larger Hmong population found in southern China, who migrated into Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand in the 19th century. The Australian migration began with seven Hmong students from Laos studying in Australia under the Colombo Plan, and they sponsored their families from the refugee camps in Thailand. After the initial settlement in 1976, other families followed, and by 1984, there were 384 Hmong people living in five of the 7 Australian states. Today, the total Hmong population in Australia is estimated at 3,400 – a small number compared to those in other countries.

The Hmong used to be subsistence farmers in the highlands of Laos with some having been recruited into the army of the non-communist side of the Lao political conflict. Few of the first generation had much education or were skilled in other occupations. They also were without their traditional kinship networks, as family members were left behind or were scattered into different parts of the world. Finding themselves dislocated from their former homeland and now living in a highly urbanised environment with a different economy, culture and language proved rather unsettling for the Hmong – both socially and culturally. They face an identity crisis and have to redefine who they are, not just as Hmong but as Australian Hmong in the process of fitting into their new country.

The presentation will look at Hmong identity formation in Australia through the use of cultural representations with their tangible elements (such as traditional costumes, musical instruments and other artefacts) and in intangible form (such as language, history, myths, rituals, cultural values and social organisation). Identity formation occurs at both the individual and collective or group levels, but I will focus on collective identity that cuts across age, gender, social class, and ethnicity. I will look at the strategies used to forge this new Australian Hmong group identity in its various definitions, and discuss the outcomes with different generations in relation to the concepts of cultural hegemony, resistance, translation and hybridity or “third space”.

 

Introduction

The Hmong first migrated to Australia in 1976 as refugees from Laos following the end of the Lao civil war. They form part of the larger Hmong population found in southern China, who migrated into Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand in the 19th century. The Australian migration began with seven Hmong students from Laos studying in Australia under the Colombo Plan, and they sponsored their families from the refugee camps in Thailand. After the initial settlement in 1976, other families followed, and by 1984, there were 384 Hmong people living in five of the 7 Australian states. Today, the total Hmong population in Australia is estimated at 3,400 – a small number compared to those in other countries.

 

Who are the Hmong

The Hmong used to be subsistence farmers in the highlands of Laos. Their ancestors migrated from southern China where many still live today. From 1953 to 1974, many Hmong men in Laos were recruited into the army of the non-communist side in the Lao political conflict. They had to leave for other countries when the civil war there ended in 1975. Few of the first generation who went to Australia had much education or were skilled in other occupations. They also were without their traditional kinship networks, as family members were left behind or were scattered into different parts of the world. See this video clip “Peb Yog Hmoob” on Facebook: 

https://www.facebook.com/yuephenglxiong/videos/10218342093054537/

Identity

Identity is “what and who” we and other people think we are. It positions us in society, based on some unchanging core characteristics we share with other members of our in-group (essentialist view) and on how we are seen as different from other out-groups and people (non-essentialist view). When it is used with a person it is called “individual or personal identity”. When it is used with a group, it is referred to as “collective or social identity”. It gives us a sense of inclusion (belonging), or exclusion (not belonging), involving our family, community, nation-state, or the world.

Identity is formed during our childhood through our socialisation into our culture. It happens when we absorb and practice the culture into which we are born. It can change through migration and the exposure to the cultures of other people we live with. Culture provides the looks and the beliefs that go to make up who we are.

Culture is all the assets in our society that we value and are passed from one generation to the next. These assets can have a) tangible components - what can be seen or touched. b) intangible components - what cannot be seen.

These elements of culture can become stereotypes for members of an ethnic group which is fast changing, like the Hmong. However, they constitute the core of Hmong culture or myths about them, and so form important parts of their identity.

 

Components of Traditional Hmong Culture/ Identity​

A. Tangible Components

1. Physical Appearance and Hmong Ancestry

Must be born of Hmong parents, and have Asian/Chinese racial features, with black hair [1].​​

 

 

 

 

 

2. Art 

Hmong embroideries and jewellery, for traditional costumes and ornaments

3. Household Utensils, Tools and Musical Instruments

Specific to Hmong people.

4. Houses and Buildings Oriented for Religious Rituals

Animism and shamanism. Houses are designed with a central post (ncej tas) next to the fireplace, a major spiritual symbol.

5. Hmong Traditional Celebrations and Ceremonies 

New Year, funerals and weddings.

6. Physical Environment 

Traditionally, the highlands of China and Southeast Asia are preferred by the Hmong as place of residence and agricultural livelihood, although today many have moved to live in cities in the lowlands.

B. Intangible Components

 

1. Hmong Names, Language/ Dialects

Use clan names as family or surnames to mark one’s sense of belonging to a particular clan and position in Hmong social structure and clan-specific sets of ancestral rituals (the ox ceremony and the door ceremony).

2. Hmong Singing and Music

The Hmong traditionally sing improvised poetry called “kwv txhiaj” or “lus txaj”. They did not have singing set to music like the modern songs they have today.

 

Music is produced with the playing of the reed-pipe (qeej, mostly for funerals), the short flute (raj pum liv) and the long flute (raj nplaim). The Jewish harp is also used. This music and the poetry singing are for entertainment and courting.

 

Poetic chanting is done for funerals (hais xim) and weddings (zaj tshoob). The performance of the reedpipe and other musical instruments for funerals or for entertainment may be seen (tangible), but the actual chants and words are not visible (intangible) because they are hidden in the notes of the music. Only the player and a few people understand what each note says.

3. Lifestyle of Farming, Hunting, and Gathering

In the old days, few Hmong did any trading at markets or worked for a wage – the latter was considered degrading. Today, this attitude has changed.

4. H​mong Myths, Folk Stories and History 

These are learned orally from one generation to the next. Folk stories are only told at night. Today, many stories are recorded for YouTube and people listen to them at any time.

5. Social Values, Customs and Rules of Behaviour (what is right or wrong)

These are taught by parents to their children, using role models, and proverbs (old sayings). Such rules include being filial and hospitable to guests, help others with major events in the family such as a funeral, younger people listening to older ones, observing the pecking order, do not steal or lie, etc.

6. Beliefs and Religion 

The Hmong are animist in that they believe people and inanimate objects have souls, and people have to live in harmony by making offerings to local spirits and ancestors. These components of Hmong culture may vary in the degrees of adoption from one person or group to another but are usually found among the majority of a group’s members. Some components (such as religion and funeral rites) do not change much (essentialist), while others such as clothing do (non-essentialist).

 

The Hmong of Australia

What cultural components are now found in the new country?

 

A. Tangible Components of Hmong Culture in Australia

1. Physical Features

 

 

 

 

 

2. Clothing, Costumes & Fashion

 

 

 

 

 

3. Place of Identity: Environment and Houses

 

 

 

 

 

Like those in the big cities in China, the Australian Hmong no longer live in a Hmong village with only Hmong people around them and talking to them in the Hmong language. In Australia, they now live in big cities in houses which are designed purely for living with no central post and altar to worship household spirits and ancestors. They only have people from other ethnic backgrounds as neighbours and talking to them in English. For those older Hmong who do not speak English, there may not be any communication with neighbours at all. When their children have all gone to work or to school, the grandparents are often left by themselves, imprisoned within the walls of their own home.

 

4. New Dances and Video-Movie Consumption

New modern dances and dancing costumes developed by young girls, but videos are mostly consumed by older Hmong, especially women. In the old days, only the reed-pie (qeej) dance existed. Today, modern dances have been invented all over the world, especially in America where dance competitions take place all through the year. Many of these modern dances can be seen on YouTube.

 

5. Religious Beliefs and Ceremonies

These are still maintained by most of the older generation, but more than 50 families have embraced Christianity, no longer perform animistic rituals, and most rarely mix with the non-Christian Hmong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Adoption of Writing Instead of Relying only on Oral Traditions as in the Past

Instead of relying only on oral traditions as in the past, Hmong culture, folk stories, songs, history and even fiction are now recorded in written form in the Hmong RPA writing system, Lao, Thai, English or French.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B. Intangible Components of Hmong Culture in Australia

 

1. New Music/ Rap

Asian style (Chinese, Indian, Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese) or Western style (pop, rap). These many modern songs, along with old traditional singing, can be enjoyed instantly on YouTube.

2. Stories on Videos, YouTube and Books 

Stories are now available at any time and no longer told orally only at night according to Hmong traditional practice. Few members of the younger generation see the relevance of folk tales to modern life.

3. Ritual Chants

Ritual chanting is still used, but few of the younger generation understand or pay any attention to.

4. Hmong Traditions and Social Values

Rarely taught formally or informally as most children show little interest and most do not listen to their parents. Many parents also no longer speak with “old sayings” or speak in Hmong to their children – by choice.

Mitigating Factors in the Formation of Hmong Identity in Australia​

 

1. Impact of Formal Education System

Schools in Australia are dominated by a Western-oriented culture that uses English as its language of communication, For this reason, many migrant children who speak a language other than English soon forget their mother tongue, due to the fact they spend six hours a day five days a week at school communicating in English, Many if these migrant children may be fluent in their mother tongues before going to school but soon forget their own language. Soon, some parents start to use only English as well, because their children can no longer understand them. In the end, many families lose the language of their former home country. The same applies to Hmong children, so that by high school, few can speak Hmong. Another contributing factor is that there are only very few Hmong students attending the same school, so that Hmong young people have no one to talk in their own language, unlike the situation in the USA where we have many Hmong students in the same school who speak to each other in Hmong, so can retain their native language.

2. Lack of Exposure to and Training in Hmong Language and Culture

Although the country-wide Hmong Australia Society tried to teach Hmong writing and culture to Hmong children for a number of years, some parents actually objected to this training on the ground that too many languages and too much learning confused their young people. Yet, children whose parents supported the training can today speak Hmong fluently and have not suffered any intellectual damage. Some parents also showed little support, because they were too busy working for a living, and have no time to teach their children or to send them to Hmong classes. Thus, the role played by social capital in the form of resources from formal associations and kinship networks has been minimal.

 

3. Lack of Proximity to Other Hmong and Absence of Cultural Representations

Unlike the Hmong in their original homelands of China and Laos, the Hmong in Australia have to buy houses and live next to other non-Hmong people. They cannot just build a Hmong village for all the Hmong to live together: it is too expensive, and it is also not allowed. This life isolated from other Hmong means that the children are not exposed to Hmong language or Hmong ritual performances sufficiently enough to get to know Hmong culture in depth. The Hmong also have very few occasions where they can wear their Hmong costumes, or their Hmong jewellery to show their true identity to themselves and to the Australian people. The only time they can do this is during the New Year celebrations or when they are invited to multicultural events organised by other organisations or the government.

4. Assimilation into Mainstream and Other cultures

Preference is for freedom, English language, foreign customs, or Western and Chinese food. Hmong food is mostly consumed by parents or during special Hmong events. Many young women do not even know how to kill a chicken. Most members of the second generation do not know how to light a fire, and they do not want to eat or cook meat from an animal killed at home. They will eat if the meat is bought from a shop. For girls, this diminishes their sense of being Hmong women who are expected to be a good cook with any kind of meat or ingredients.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Internet Addiction

Everybody peers at his or her mobile phones and iPad tablets or computers, but not always looking at Hmong contents, especially young people. The Internet is a great source of learning. The older Hmong have learned to use the Internet, especially Facebook and YouTube, for keeping in touch with friends and learning Hmong culture, or being entertained by Hmong signing and the latest modern songs. In the process, many have learned how to read and write in the Hmong language. However, from a very early age, the younger people are more interested in playing computer games or listening to Western music, mainly because of their lack of understanding of the Hmong language. This further erodes their interest in knowing Hmong culture, and thus diminish their Hmong identity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outcomes of Identity Formation

Keeping in mind the above factors which negatively affect the formation of social identity by the Hmong in Australia, let us see briefly what the outcomes for this identity are.

In the old days, we have to travel for many hours or days before we can reach another Hmong village, and even then there are not many new things to see because the Hmong are too busy to invent anything new or are not exposed to the cultures of other groups to borrow some desirable features from them. It was therefore easy to remain originally Hmong – not tainted by the influences of other cultures or government policies.

Today, the fast-changing Hmong culture and identity are influenced by modern technologies and the Internet through the wide-spread use of mobile phones and computers. An inventive Hmong person has only to put up his or her fashion and music creation on YouTube. And it will be seen within seconds across the global community.

Members of the first generation in Australia and other Western countries still have Hmong names and looks, speak the Hmong language fluently, and follow most Hmong customs (for funerals, weddings, New Year celebrations). Their Hmong identity is thus clear-cut. However, for the second generation, Hmong identity is more difficult to establish. Many members of this generation may still look Hmong, even when one of their parents may be Chinese or Vietnamese. Some may look different if their parents are in a mixed marriage with a mother or father from a Caucasian or black African background. Many of these young people may not speak Hmong anymore, or know much about Hmong culture. Some may not mix with Hmong people at all. Are they not Hmong? Are they only Australian? The obvious answer would be that they are both Hmong and Australia.

For the third and fourth generations, they may just look Hmong/Asian for those who do not enter into mixed marriage with members of other races, but few will know or adopt Hmong language and traditions. This will be mostly due to their deeper assimilation into Australian society and the lack of elders who can show or teach them Hmong culture.

This identity formation across the first two generations of Hmong people living in Australia has been haphazard as with all human beings, it is not possible to shape anyone’s identity by design. There are too many variables and mitigating factors in life to make this possible. The Hmong seem to have reached what Erikson (1950) [2], calls the “moratorium” stage of identity formation where they are unable to make commitments to their new life, but are struggling to do it and experience an ongoing though unresolved crisis as THEY TRY TO “FIND THEMSELVES”.

Hmong life today in highly urbanised Western society is highly complex. We are no longer living isolated in the highlands of Asia. We are faced with all kinds of social, economic, and cultural influences from the many people we live with. We are expected to integrate and to live in harmony with them. This means that we must be selective in our practice of Hmong culture: we can only use what is not offensive to the new country. For example, we cannot do ceremonies that require the killing of live animals at home. We cannot have buffalo fights during New Year. We cannot be too long or too noisy with our funerals.

 With such diversity in the adoption and practice of Hmong culture, it is hard to decide what or who is Hmong today, except for the fact that they may have a Hmong name, speak some Hmong language, or are born into Hmong parents. Many have adopted other religions. Some do not even have a Hmong name anymore. Thus, nobody has all the features necessary to make for a full Hmong identity, but is still accepted as Hmong by the Hmong community, even if this person may not wish to be known as Hmong.

Thus, the migration to another country means that adjustment has to be made to the original Hmong culture to accommodate other local cultures. As a result, the Hmong culture become a hybrid culture, and Hmong identity become a mixture of Hmong and other non-Hmong features: an often-mixed identity, especially for those whose parents are of different cultural backgrounds.

Does a person have to have all the components (both tangible and intangible) of Hmong culture before he or she can be seen as having a full Hmong identity. Can people who only have some features such as name and look, be said to only be partially Hmong? There are difficult academic questions, because identity is determined by both the individual concerned, by people in his or her community, and by people outside that community. Identity thus changes according to which perspective it is looked at: a person can be a son or daughter, a wife or husband, a teacher or nurse, or a member of a minority.

Changing social relations result in changing senses of identity [3]. Migration to another country with a markedly different culture and language will result in more profound change of social and cultural identities, as the exposure to other cultural groups become more intense in everyday life: at home through the media and at work for adults, and at school for young people. Nostalgia for the old life may make the older Hmong reject new features of their new identity. But the reality is that in Australia, they are no longer just Hmong: they are Australians as well. The Hmong have to move with the times, including those who stay behind in the old homelands of China and Laos. They have to embrace changes, even though some of these changes will destroy part of their old group identity, the old traditional culture. They have to let go what is not suitable for life in a different time and a different place. They have to borrow and adapt for their own needs from other people around them if they are not to be left behind if they are to fit in with other citizens of their respective countries of residence. In another generation, most of the unchanging “essentialist” elements of their culture may have been abandoned to be replaced by new features more relevant to their needs.

Conclusion

 

Does this diversification give the Hmong an identity crisis?

While having few opportunities to display or live their “Hmongness”, the Hmong in Australia are also bombarded with new inventions in storytelling, in fashion and music on the Internet from the global Hmong community. This means that inside their houses, they remain Hmong as long as they can still read and use the Hmong language, while in public they become anonymous Asian Australians like the rest of the population at large.

For the Hmong who now live in Australia, this social identity is fast changing and fluid. They now have a good life, own cars, and houses. But the good life is confusing, culturally without a clear ethnic future. You have not to think too much about the way ahead. The Hmong are now living in a highly urbanised Western environment with a different economy, culture, and language. Like many other migrant groups, they face an identity crisis and have to redefine who they are, not just as Hmong but also as Australian Hmong in order to fit into their new country. Because of their very small number, not many people know them as Hmong: they are seen as just part of the Asian population in Australia.

This does pose some sort of identity crisis (having multiple conflicting identities) that many Hmong, like other migrant groups, have to face. While trying to integrate into the Australian society, the first generation of Hmong still speak Hmong language and maintain Hmong traditions, but outside their homes and the Hmong community, they have to act like Australians, wearing Australian clothes and behaving according to the norms of the general public. It is a life of compromise. For the second generation who are born and raised in Australia, the question is more clear-cut: they may still look Asian, but most no longer speak Hmong and follow Hmong traditions: they are fully assimilated into the culture of the new country, and are almost fully Australian – similar to the situation of other migrant communities.

Will there still be Hmong around the world with a Hmong identity in 22nd Century – 100 years from now? Certainly, yes. So long as people accept each other as Hmong, the finer points of their identity are not so important because life evolves, and identities constantly change ... they will need to be flexible.

Footnotes

  1. The photos used here are for illustration purpose only: a few are taken from the Internet with their sources noted where possible.

  2. Erikson, E. 1956. Cited in Maier, H. 1969. Three Theories of Child Development. New York: Harper and Row.

  3. Russell T. McCutcheon. 21017. Fabricating Identities. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing.

 
 
 

1st Generation

2nd Generation

3rd Generation?

Traditional Costumes

New Fashion

Western Wedding Costume

Big House

Big City

Big Apartment Block

String-Tying Ceremony

Shamanic Trance

Soul-Calling Ritual

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

GARY YIA LEE

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