Eagle Award Acceptance Speech
By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.
First International Hmong Conference, 10 – 11 March 20016
Hmong Studies Center, Concordia University, St. Paul, MN, USA
Dr. Robert Holst, President and Faculty members of Concordia University
Mr. Xa Vang and Cha Vang representing Gen. Vang Pao
Esteemed leaders of the Hmong community
Dr. Yang Dao and members of the Conference Organising Committee
Mr. Lee Pao Xiong, Director and staff of the Hmong Studies Center
Members of the Hmong media
It is a great honour to be invited to present this address to such a distinguished audience. It was also most inspiring to be given such a prestigious award in the history of Hmong studies. I would like to thank Concordia University, its Hmong Studies Center and its conference organising committee for selecting me to receive the Eagle Award for lifetime contributions to Hmong studies tonight. It is very humbling to know that I am the first Hmong scholar to be given such an honour.
I came to Hmong studies almost by accident. I did not come to it with any anthropology background or formal studies on the Hmong. I came to it out of a sense of despair and frustration, a feeling that an insider-view is needed to present a wholesome picture of Hmong society, to supplement the often lop-sided accounts written by outsiders, by people who only look at us from the outside, temporary visitors to our shores who may know something about the Hmong but not with the feelings and concerns we experience as Hmong. Here I refer to the situation 30 years ago, since today researchers and writers on the Hmong are better informed and more sensitive.
As a young boy, I started to be interested in the Hmong during my high school years in Laos. I would copy (in hand-written form) articles I found in books and journals about the Meo people in China and other countries. In those days in the early 1960's, there were no photocopy machines and no Internet to download information, only old books in French, and very few of them at that in Laos. In some of these French colonial travelogue accounts, there was mention of Mongolia as the possible homeland of the Hmong, so I read a fair bit about Mongolian history. But I took everything as the God-given truth and only questioned this information at a much later stage of my life.
In 1973, I was reading Alfred McCoy’s book “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia” (1972) and I started to see for the first time that the Hmong need to research and write about themselves. I was so incensed by McCoy’s allegations about opium trafficking by Gen. Vang Pao and other Lao military chiefs in Laos, that I went on air at the ABC national radio in Sydney, Australia, to discuss my concerns. I also met with McCoy at the University of New South Wales where I was studying and where he was a history lecturer, and offered to go back to Laos with him to be his interpreter so we could confirm his allegations, but he declined my offer since it did not suit his political agenda of denouncing the CIA and those on its side by any means and claims possible.
In 1974 while I was completing my Masters’ thesis in social work on Hmong civilians displaced by the war in Laos, I came across an article by Prof. William Geddes of the Anthropology Department, University of Sydney, Australia. The article, entitled “Opium and the Miao” (1970), was about the Hmong of Northern Thailand and their opium growing. At the time, only Bernazit, the well-known German ethnographer, had written anything substantial about the Hmong which he called Meau in English, apart from a few other publications by French anthropologists like Jacques Lemoine and Guy Morechand.
What rather disturbed me about Prof. Geddes’ article was the fact that he still called the Hmong “Miao” – following the Chinese. He also stated that the Hmong’s commitment to opium made them migrate from one mountain top to another – all the way from China, forever in search of new poppy fields. He further stated that opium gave rise to, and helped maintain, the Hmong institution of polygamy. In all my life, I had met many Hmong men with more than one wife but no one of them was an opium grower. My family had always lived in town and had ever only grown rice, yet my father managed to acquire three wives. Being young and hot-blooded like many other Hmong, I raised up to defend my people. I phoned Prof. Geddes’ secretary and asked for an appointment.
When he saw me, he gave me his usual gentle smile and was most gracious about my concerns. He apologised for calling us Miao. He was surprised to find a young Hmong studying in Australia, as if he was glad I could make my way out of the jungles of Laos into the real world. He showed me a large bundle of papers, the manuscript of his now well-known book “Migrants of the Mountains”. He said the book was about to be published in England but he would like me to read and make comments on it, anyway. I took it home but when I finished it, I was devastated. The statements I was so upset about were now spelt out in chapters, not just paragraphs like in the earlier article. I begged him to delay publication to allow for some changes to be made, but he said it was too late for publisher.
To make amends, he suggested that I write a book on the Hmong myself by doing a Ph.D degree in Anthropology with him. He would find me a scholarship and ask the Australian government to extend my visa for another four years. I could then put down on paper all the things I consider to be correct about the Hmong. Strangely, I re-read Prof. Geddes’ book recently and agreed with most of his arguments. I now see that he had a lot of insights into the Hmong, even though he used a Thai to interpret for him during his research. Thanks to my youthful defensiveness and Prof. Geddes’ generous offer, I am tonight standing here giving you this talk, and I am most grateful to him.
Like my French teachers at the Lycee of Vientiane ten years earlier, Prof. Geddes’ confidence in my abilities had seen me pull through without too much stumbling. That was how I got into Anthropology and came to write about the Hmong during my life time. But after all these years of writing one article after another or becoming involved in one book after another about the Hmong, I still don’t think I’ve got everything right, and I never will but I have tried. My subjects keep shifting focus, keep changing perspectives. They have become more sophisticated. It is difficult to keep up the chase, especially following their global dispersion after the end of the civil war in Laos in 1975. The dispersion is too wide and the changes are too swift. My net is too small, so the search continues, as do the reading and writing.
Firstly, the search for primary information.
As a native speaker and a member of the research subject community, I have been very fortunate along my journey. Many years ago in 1977, I went to Pakia in Ampher Chiangdao, Chiangmai Province, Thailand, to interview Hmong villagers about their expectations of Thai government aid. Knowing that my hosts might be embarrassed sharing their meagre vegetable meals with me, I took some pork and sweets with me – the pork for the women to cook dinner and the sweets to give away to the children. In those days, there were very few educated Hmong in Thailand. The headman was very proud to see a real Hmong working among the Thai officials. He insisted that I stayed the night at his house with the timber planks on the walls full of gaps, letting in the cold wind at night. He did not want me to stay at the well-built and electrified complex of the Thai workers at the nearby agricultural project station. He said “You are Hmong. You will be safer with us.” And during the evenings, he told me all that I needed to know for my report. I was very touched. It brought tears to my eyes. If I was not a Hmong, would they treat me so generously? The night was cold in the mountains, my blanket was flimsy and the pigs outside my bed were smelly and making noise all night. But I did not mind. I was happy to endure. I felt that I really belonged there – in the cold highlands with people who saw me as one of their very own.
I am amazed that there are always new things to be discovered about the Hmong. I am humbled to know that they are just as excited to tell me what they know about any subject, as I am to learn from them. They do not hold back, once they know that I am one of them. They always open their doors to me. They insist on sharing their meals with me just as I an excited to record their memories and knowledge down on tapes or on paper, to taste their kindness and to return their generosity. In my search over the years, I have learned one important lesson: the Hmong never ask for anything in return for the time and the information they share with me, but I also try never to just take from them. I always give as well – whether in words or with small gifts, doing something for them, or writing accurately about them by not being offensive to them, always showing them respect.
In the search for knowledge on the Hmong, often simply recording information from them may not be enough. Raw data has to be obtained, analysed and interpreted, compared with what other researchers and writers have done. This requires a lot of reading of the relevant literature which may include theoretical issues, things about other groups similar to the Hmong, and any other topics of relevance. In keeping up with the literature and for my own writing, I read as many books and articles as I can. But as I only do all this work as a hobby, I may not have consulted the literature as widely as I should.
Yet for those who care to venture into Hmong studies, you will notice that each year, hundreds of new publications are added to the existing ones. The amount of interest and production is just amazing. Two years ago, I had a Lao friend in Australia who was researching Lao weddings for his Ph.D. He was trying to find references on the Internet and came up with only 7 titles on the Lao but found twenty three pages of references listed on the Hmong. “How did you guys do it? How did you attract all this interest from researchers?” he asked me. I said to him: “I don’t know. We must be more exotic. But really, you need to do a lot of the researching and publishing yourselves. It’s not use sitting back and waiting for others to do it for you.”
And I believe that is the point.
During the last ten years, many studies on the Hmong have been done by eager young Hmong in America and elsewhere who want to know about their culture and people, and who want to succeed in higher education by studying issues in their own community. To them and those who will follow them, I want to say: “Good on you. You have made us proud and you have helped to bring better understanding about the Hmong to yourselves and to the world. Keep up the good work”. Three or four theses and academic articles a year by the Hmong on the Hmong, that is excellent. To all our non-Hmong scholars and friends, I want to say “we appreciate your interest in us and your contributions. We are now better known because of your fine work”.
Thanks to the Hmong Culture Centre here in St. Paul, MN, the task of searching for literature on the Hmong on many subjects has been made so much easier today compared to ten years ago. Through the website of its Hmong Studies Internet Resource Centre (http://www.hmongstudies.org), anyone can now consult its vast bibliography, ranging from newspaper articles to academic publications, theses and books. Before this incredible resource became available, one had to go to a library to spend hours looking up its catalogues to find references on the Hmong, and there may not be anything much available.
With the advent of the Internet, however, thousands of documents and resources have been made available for Hmong studies. Much of the information on the Hmong is now at your fingertips, although you still have to get hold of books for some of the more academic or detailed subjects. Unfortunately, many academics are still reluctant to make their writings available freely on the Internet. Perhaps they want to get paid. They do not want to just give back free what they take from the Hmong. They would rather that their publications remain in obscure, expensive books gathering dust in libraries that only the most determined students can access.
Despite this, it is heartening to see that resources for Hmong studies continue to be collected today, not only with the Hmong Culture Centre, but now also by the Hmong Studies Centre at Concordia University – St Paul. I would like to acknowledge the great contributions these two and other institutions have made to Hmong studies. We appreciate your dedication and useful work, and you have all our support.
I want to now touch briefly on one very important aspect of Hmong studies. Having collected your data, you have to write up your report, you have to disseminate your findings through publications in academic journals and books. You have to share your information with the public, and be prepared to accept criticism. This is one of the most difficult tasks in Hmong research.
To be a good writer, you need to be well-read, you have to read widely for vocabulary-building, grammar and style. Merely going through the motions of studying your school or university subjects may be enough to get you a degree, but it may not give you the love, the passion and talent to write. And to write well, you have to do many other things, to be interested in more than what you re given to study, more than what you do for a living or a career. In other words, you need a good foundation. You need to acquire and understand human compassion and feelings. You need to know different approaches and options in life. You need to have an open mind. You need to write and share information, exchange ideas.
It is this vision that makes me write not only articles on the Hmong, but also short stories, novels and poetry in order to explore different ways in which I can share my feelings and information with my readers. Some may find academic articles to be factual and educational, but others may find them dry and boring, thus preferring to be inspired through fiction. Novels and short stories give greater scope for me to write since I can inject more feelings into my writing and I am free to invent. I also do not need to make references to any other writers. My readers can laugh and cry with me while learning something about the Hmong and being entertained at the same time.
I have also tried to help researchers on the Hmong with information, but above all I have assisted many with checking their manuscripts for accuracy, for plausibility of analysis and interpretations. Each year I spend countless hours on this task – not so that I can censor but only so that I can help authors to be as fair and as free of factual errors as possible. I want to make readers feel that they are reading their real selves in these authors’ writings, not about some esoteric creatures from outer space.
Last but not least, I wish to thank Concordia University for having the foresight to set up the Hmong Studies Center. For many of us, this is like a long cherished dream come true. At first, I was worried that its vision to be involved in the Hmong community may jeopardise its academic independence and research activities, but now I understand. It is like what I mentioned earlier when doing research, you have to give and to be involved as well, and not just take from the subject community.
The Center has also given itself a very simple mission “to cultivate the past, interpret the present and enrich the future through research and publication, teaching and curriculum, and conference convening”. This conference is the first major test for the Center to try to achieve this mission. I am sure you will all agree with me that the conference has been a resounding success, attracting many fine scholars from different parts of the world to share with us their ideas, research findings and knowledge. It also brought many challenging questions from a very sophisticated and interested audience. A conference is only as good as the audience it attracts and their contributions to the presentations of the speakers.
As you may have read in this year’s conference booklet, Concordia University aims to offer a minor degree in Hmong studies, to make the Hmong Studies Center the place “to go” to for students, Hmong scholars, researchers, the media, businesses and government institutions on Hmong related issues and topics. It also wants to enrich the lives of each graduating student and expand their knowledge about the Hmong people through the teaching and learning of Hmong history, culture and language. It also plans to organise a conference every other year for scholars to promote and share their research findings on the Hmong people and society, to initiate one scholarly research project a year on topics that would be beneficial and of interest to the Hmong and the community at large. Finally, it wants to conduct one Hmong study tour a year to Asia.
With the support of the wider community and the Hmong in particular, I have every confidence that the Hmong Studies Center will be able to fulfil these goals and succeed in its planned activities. Many of us Hmong out there are happy and waiting to lend a hand, whether in kind or with our money and our intellectual contributions.
Before ending, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the debt I owe to all the people without whose help I would not have been able to achieve what I have achieved. I would like firstly to thank my parents for putting me through school and taking care of me during those tender years of my life. My very old mother who did not read or write, could not understand why people wanted me to come so much to this conference, when I should just stay home to cook for her. My wife and children have too often put up with their in-house absentee father: I was home but it was like I was away most of the time, shutting myself in my study and being “married to my computer” as my wife has sometimes said. My family’s patience and support are most appreciated. I also wish to thank all the readers of my website and publications. Your feedback and challenging questions have taught me a lot about my ideas and writings. Keep your emails and questions coming. I will try to answer as many of you as I can. I also owe a big debt of gratitude to my webmaster and youngest brother, Yeu Lee.
In my search for knowledge on the Hmong, I have travelled far and wide. Now that I have been given this award, I would like to thank all my hosts and Hmong informants over the years. You have all been great to me. From Australia to Laos and Thailand to France, you have been generous with your stories and your hospitality. From Washington DC to Texas, from Michigan to California, from Montana to Colorado – I have been touched and inspired by your acceptance of me and by your generosity. Here in St. Paul, I have always been helped by my sister, Mrs. Xia Lee and her husband Mr. Vue Thao, together with my nieces and nephews. In true Hmong tradition, you put me up in your houses and gave me food. You took me to my interviews in your cars. You have all been great and willing to open your doors, because I am one of you. I want to say “ua tsaug ntau ntau” to all.
Dr. Holst, Gen Vang Pao, Lee Pao and everyone, once again, thank you for having me.