Hmong Dream Talk: What Should Be the Hmong In the Future
4th Annual Hmong National Conference, 16 - 18 April 1998 Denver, Colorado, USA
Closing Keynote Address
First of all, I would like to extend my warmest regards to the organisers of the 4th Annual Hmong National Conference. Thanks to their hard work, we could get together and share ideas about our Hmong future. In particular, I would like thank the Hmong National Development (HND) Inc. for bringing me across the Pacific Ocean from Australia to be with you in Denver for this very important occasion. I did not know much about HND before. I only heard that an organisation had been set up by a group of educated Hmong in the US to help Hmong refugees here. Having listened last Thursday to Ms Mai Zong Vue, its articulate and most capable immediate past President, I am most impressed and inspired. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate all those who have been involved in HND as board members and supporters for the great achievements you have so far brought to HND and to the Hmong in this country. I wish HND and the new Board all the very best for they will do in the future.
Living the Small Dreams Then
Dear Relatives and Friends, like all minority peoples who have lost their own homeland in the diaspora, the Hmong always have dreams. Some dreams have become reality, others remain just that - dreams. When we were in southern China many centuries ago, we dreamed about regaining our own lands and our own country, for they had been taken away by a more powerful and persistent alien group. We dreamed about being left in peace to run our own affairs, to farm and feed our families. We dreamed about our ancestors, mythical kings and leaders, for we were now left scattered without a father to lead us, without a motherland to protect us and to inspire us. We dreamed about freedom from domination and oppression. Those of us who were forced to flee to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, in the second half of last century also had dreams. Our great, great grand-parents of this time dreamed of peace, but also of virgin forests to cut down for farming, of rich opium fields that would bring them wealth so that they could feed and clothe their big families.
They dreamed of having many children, many sons, and a large network of relatives. Rich and powerful men dreamed of having many wives to make a name for themselves, to increase their local influence. For most Hmong, however, they certainly dreamed of more new forests and better lands to move to, to cultivate until exhausted, and then to move on. Later after the French came to Laos in the 1890's, our grand-parents and parents probably dreamed of resisting control by local officials, of avoiding French opium tax and labour conscription. With the Japanese coming during WW II and the subsequent Vietminh independence war against the French, the Hmong in Laos dreamed of protecting their families and villages from enemy attacks, of gaining the upper-hand in their inter-clan conflicts. Much later, some of them dreamed about sending their children to school or to enlist in the Lao army. A small handful of them did get an education, got into the army or the Lao public service - but always at great expenses, for they had to part with their families to go to the city to study. There were no schools in their villages. Then the civil war in Laos in the 1960's engulfed the Hmong dreams. For a while, we were too busy to try and stay alive to have time for dreaming. Being dreamers, however, some of us soon pursued the Big Hmong Dream and went to the city to study or to live, leaving our families to struggle for survival in a deadly war in the hills of northern Laos.
Many of us became teachers, nurses, public servants, and even prominent army officers or politicians in the Lao nation-state. Those left behind were faced with starvation in refugee camps, and with bombs and bullets at the front line in the Special Army. They had their own dream: the dream of peace, peace and peace. A few others (not all Hmong), of course, had a different dream: power, power and more power. These conflicting dreams eventually caused the Hmong of Laos to cross to Thailand in 1975, and to other friendly countries in the West across vast oceans and land masses - leaving many cherished dreams behind forever.
Confronting the Bigger Dreams Now
Today, the Hmong still dream the same dreams of yesterday and more. Many of us, especially those in America, now dream about having a lot of education, doing businesses, getting well-paid jobs, living the good life, getting off welfare dependency and regaining our self-respect. Some are now actually living this dream. Others still dream about going back to power, to the old subsistence life, to the old country, despite all the odds against the realisation of such dreams, despite the fact that they might no longer like it even if these dreams could come true.
These contradictory dreams have made life a painful nightmare: the dreams have become too complex, too hard to realise and to bear. The people have become lost, disoriented, being hit by too many ideas from too many directions in a very complicated, often unseen maze. They were no longer involved in just fighting a war or leading a simple subsistence life in some remote villages in the highlands of Southeast Asia. We face many dreams today in modern Western countries, some are our own, others are forced on us. There is no dispute that the most important dream for us is to get an education and a job, to prosper, to be able to take care of our family, our relatives and friends - just like everyone else. However, for the Hmong, I see other dreams as being equally important for today and for the years ahead if we are to live in harmony with other people and to make a success of our new life. I have shared some of my dreams below at a previous international Hmong conference in 1996 in Minnesota, USA. I hope you will forgive me for wanting to repeat them here. I would like to share these dreams with you again this morning, as I believe that we need to be reminded of them and to hear them many times so that we will be able to make them a reality.
Dreaming and Living the Dream of a Shared Collective Identity
Many features of Hmong identity stem from their cultural symbols such as their national costumes and religious beliefs, their perceptions of themselves in relation to other groups, and their status allocations into superior or inferior social positions. The Hmong like to see themselves as an in-group called "PEB HMOOB" (Us Hmong) in contrast to outsiders who are seen as "Mab Sua" (Strangers). This classification puts the Hmong in clear social category in relation to other groups of people: "Mab Sua" stands for all the things which one should not aspire for, things which are not acceptable, alien to the Hmong.
Thus, "Peb Hmoob" is the inclusive concept used to bring home the fact that there is a collective Hmong identity, a collective Hmong consciousness. This collective image is represented by certain very distinct social values and material objects. The most commonly cited value is that "Hmong have to look after their own" (Hmoob Yuav Tsum Hlub Hmoob). This is like a supreme commandment, although it does not mean that it is always fulfilled. In term of material icons or symbols, the following objects are seen as typically Hmong: the reed Pipe or "Qeej", the long flute or "Raj Nplaim", the mouth harp or "Ncas", and the women's colourful costumes or "Tiab". The Hmong women's costumes in particular should not be forgotten in the Great Hmong Dream, for their colours are the symbols used to identify the divisions or tribal affiliations of each Hmong group such the White Hmong (with the women's skirt being White), the Green Hmong (with green dye Batik patterns on the women's skirts), the stripe or arm-ban Hmong (with the sleeves of the women's shirt having black and blue bands), and so on. These are the important cultural symbols of the Hmong: both at the abstract and material level. While most Hmong have sought to live simply and peacefully with very down-to-earth existence as subsistence farmers in the old homeland or as income-earners in their new countries, others have actively promoted certain ideal modes of behaviour through participation in messianic movements and activities to generate what they see as desirable group qualities. These mythical aspirations aside, we will truly be able to realise the Hmong Dream if we can weave together a mixed common Hmong image by using our old traditions and ideas, by borrowing from other sources to shape this new group image to fit the demands of the modern world.
Living Today's Hmong Dream is Being in Relationships with Other People
As a minority living among other people, we have certain images of ourselves which we present in everyday life to other people based on our expectations of them, and which others give to us based on what they expect of us. These expectations are readjusted all the time, to suit the needs of the moment and the roles we play. In order to meet these changing expectations, we need also to change, to negotiate, to improve and shift our positions. This requires us to learn from other groups as well as from our own people so that these images of ourselves can be used for our own advantages.
For this reason, the Hmong need to learn to mix with other people more effectively, so that we can present positive images to each other for our mutual benefits. To do this, we have to become competent people through: (1) being self-confident, flexible, tolerant and understanding; (2) being genuinely dependable, responsible; (3) acting on the basis of evidence, firmly held values and beliefs; (4) feeling that one's own life is important and worthwhile; (5) being open to new experiences and ready to learn; and (6) being in control of one's emotions and life situations. We cannot accomplish this by staying inside our houses and say there is nothing we can do because we are not educated enough, or that there is no need to discover new things because we are already the best. We have to learn from all sources. I do not mean that we have to go to colleges and get degrees - this too but mostly we need to learn informally from books, from discussions, get to know and try out all the fascinating ideas about life from other people. This will inspire us to greater heights, give us much more joy in living, and above all open our eyes to new things, make us see clearer and farther, make us out-ward, not in-ward looking. Introspection is good but looking outside ourselves gives us better direction - like steering a car or navigating a boat.
One of the most wonderful ways to reach to other people without getting out of our house is through the Internet. This wonderful modern invention has allowed many Hmong to get in touch with each other across international boundaries. Since putting my writings and address on the Internet with the Soc.Culture Hmong Newsgroup based in Minnesota (), a lot of Hmong have got in touch with me. It is most heartening to get e-mails from many young Hmong in colleges and universities here asking me questions about Hmong culture, about their studies, but above all saying how much they have been inspired to strive to do better for themselves and for their people. I would like to urge you to put your conference presentations, school assignments and other writings on the Hmong on the Internet, or you can send them to me for publications in the Lao Studies Review (for which I am the editor). In this way, your good ideas can be shared with other people, and will further help broaden our horizons, and increase understanding and interest in Hmong issues, as well as expanding our circle of contacts around the world with both Hmong and non-Hmong friends.
Realising the Dream Through Being Effective Parents
For some Hmong, it may be enough to be competent people and to relate positively to others. For many, however, we will need to be more than competent Hmong: we need to become better human beings, to have better visions for ourselves as parents and for our children who will hold the torch for the survival of the Hmong people. Like charity, character formation and cultural appreciation begin at home. If parents do not teach their children to love their own culture, how can these children know and accept that culture? If parents insist on being always right, how can our children think or act for themselves?
According to Barry, Child and Bacon (1970: BCB-4A), there are at least six aspects to the training of a child: (1) obedience training; (2) responsibility training through participation in household tasks; (3) nurturance training through being helpful to other siblings and dependent people in the family; (4) achievement training through competition or imposition of standards of excellence; (5) self-reliance training to take care of oneself and to be independent of the assistance of others in providing for one's needs; and (6) general independence training to learn to act without being dominated or supervised too often. Most Hmong parents strive to be good and loving to their children, but perhaps stress too much obedience and nurturance training at the expense of the other aspects such as self-reliance or independence training. There is a need for Hmong parents, in the West especially, to learn other ways of parenting which will agree more with their new Western life and the new cultural values adopted by their teenage children from schools and outside the family. This requires that parents and children become effective in conflict resolution, in producing "win-win" situations.
Parents who demand absolute obedience from their children only makes one side win, the parents. If you allow your children to win also, they will learn to respect you and to listen to you more. Being good parents means being effective managers. Some people are born managers, but most of us have to learn to manage and to make decisions. Unfortunately, few of us believe that they need training to be parents, to be family builders and managers. The survival of the Hmong people, their leadership and culture rests with Hmong children and young people who will be our future. Our children have to know and take pride in our culture in order for them to accept it as their own, to know it and to pass it on to future generations. For this dream to come true, we need to learn to become good parents and culture carriers. This does not mean we have to be rich parents and cultural experts, although this will help. We only have to try to be effective, caring and able to look into the future of our children, to point them to the right direction and not leave them to chance.
Above all, we need to act as custodial of the Hmong culture by actively passing it down to our children, and to future generations. We need to learn to listen more to our children. If we listen more, then our children will learn to listen to us too. If this happens, they will gradually love to learn and maintain our language, cultural skills, beliefs and values, for these are what give us our identity, self-respect and confidence in our own abilities and our future. As suggested by Carrithers (1992: 10), what the younger generation makes of things done by their parents must reflect the young people's own situation and needs: the young people should not be merely imitating their parents like parrots, because real understanding is being able to do something new for yourself with what you have learned, not just copying blindly.
Living the Dream is Sharing a House of Many Rooms and Living by Certain Commitments such as Equality, Fairness, Tolerance, Open-mindedness and Flexibility
An American Anthropologist, Clyde Kluckhohn (1964: 246), once said that "human life should remain as a house of many rooms". We can no longer speak about other cultures as "primitive" or "modern" only. No society is today isolated from the influences of the most powerful economic and political systems around them. The encroachment of capitalism and governments into the heart-lands of the most isolated tribes means that virtually no human groups have been left untouched. Many have been changed by this encroachment materially if not culturally, often forever. Cultures never hold still: they are alive, constantly adapting, being borrowed, forced upon one another.
For the Hmong in their many different settings, new trends and ideas emerge all the times, both within their own society and from outside. Thanks to the initiatives of Xu Thao (Xub Thoj) and other enterprising Hmong in the U.S., for example, we now have international movies dubbed in Hmong, Hmong videos and feature movies, documentaries, music and dance adaptations from all sources far and wide (Indian, Japanese, Lao, Thai, American, and Chinese). There is now even rap music in Hmong: this is real progress, living real dreams. The ability to travel freely to other countries where Hmong live and the informal Hmong mass media have allowed Hmong people from different countries to rediscover each other, to see each other on videos. Hmong girls in Australia and America have now adopted the colourful Hmong traditional costumes from China in their dances.
The modest Hmong Quarterly "Liaj Luv Chaw Tsaws", published by our Hmong community in French Guyana, has become an international Hmong voice: through it we can now share thoughts and read Hmong stories or news written by Hmong in many countries for other Hmong. The Hmong Dream will be really lived when Hmong people know and understand other Hmong in other lands. We are not one single homogenous group located in one single geographical area, but a multi-ethnic and multilingual nation living with many people in many countries. We are a community numbering more than seven million, but without any geographical boundaries. We have to accept these facts and to meet their many challenges without fear and without shame. We need to recognise that despite all the differences in languages, in dialects, life styles, religion, customs and economic status, we are but one people. We are challenged by the need to adopt a common Hmong writing for all and not the many scripts we now use. We are challenged by the need for a common history book incorporating all the local histories of the Hmong in whatever countries they now live. We need to share our house of many rooms with other people, but also and more importantly with each other as Hmong.
In the old days, it is said that wherever a Hmong might go he would always return home, return to his beloved highland, or return to his cradle in Southern China after death. These days, however, many Hmong are scattered in many countries across many oceans in many directions, creating loss of contacts and divisions. Because of the long distance separating them, it has not been possible for many Hmong to return to their house of many rooms. However, in order to keep the Hmong Dream alive, we need to look after our big house, this house represented by our leaders, our ancestors, our culture, all those who have fought valiantly and died for our survival through our long history. They are the foundation and the posts holding the house together. The posts need to support each other, and other parts used for the house need to stay together or else the house will fall down. We need to remember that no matter what clans we belong to, our clan system should only be used to define who we can or cannot marry, and not as something to divide us in other areas of life. Our clan differences should not be used to over-ride our unity of purpose, our common identity. Hmong of one tribe or clan should not distrust or betray those of another clan. If we avoid clan favouritism by treating each other as equals, we will be able to stay together to support the house of many rooms, many tribes and many clans. Other people around us build monuments and write books about their leaders: we need to do the same for those who died for us, for the celebration of the achievements of our leaders, and not just criticising and criticising them. Our leaders, on their part, should also set examples to show that they deserve this celebration, this respect from their people. Our house should not be destroyed by ourselves, but should be kept in excellent repair and be made bigger so it will provide us with comfort and protection against our adversaries - forever, not only now. There is a French proverb which says "tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner" or to know all is to forgive all.
The Hmong, no matter where they are, need to know that the total sum is always bigger than its parts: the overall global Hmong identity is greater than its many local variations. To stay Hmong, we have to accept that we are a people with other identities as well as our own. We are Hmong but also American, Chinese, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, French, Argentinian, Australian or Canadian. We need to fulfil our responsibilities as citizens of our respective countries of adoption, but we need to appreciate our "Hmongness" in order to fulfil these responsibilities. To meet the challenge of unity in the face of diversity, progress in the face of hardship and deprivation, we need to come together more often as we are now doing at this conference. We need to take actions, to be united in our goals, to talk to one another, and to communicate. We need to share our hopes and fortunes, to discuss our concerns and plans, to work together and to give of each other. For us, there is only one road ahead if we want to avoid eventual extinction. That road is the road to progress and redemption, redemption from a past of isolation and distrust, poverty and ignorance, submission and dependence. We need to build this road and to travel on it now. Only then will we come out of our own darkness into a new life of prosperity and a life of hope.
Living the Dream Now is Freeing Ourselves from Things that Hold Us Back from Progress
With modern technology connecting the world's cultures and nations to each other, the Hmong, like other people, have benefited as well as suffered from this international interfacing. They are no longer sure of their culture or identity. Many elements of this identity have been used and re-used too often, and are no longer seen as appropriate. Some of us have resorted to changing themselves, joining other religions and cultures. Some have reverted to messianic rituals and beliefs to recapture the past. All this re-invention of ourselves has caused much confusions and diversity. Instead of one common writing system and identity, we now have many. The common group image has suffered and is no longer as clear-cut as it used to be in their old villages in Laos where life was simple and our dreams were simple. The Hmong today can no longer see their way clearly. The compass, the mirror, is broken by the diaspora, by the years of war in Laos and the struggles in southern China, by the forced migration to many lands and the adaptation to may local cultures.
We now need to pause and to re-assess our position while not forgetting to get more education to regain our sense of direction, to compete in a complex competitive world, to make a success of our life in our new countries. So many of our Hmong women have transformed their beautiful embroideries into large commercial banners, bed spreads and quilts depicting Hmong history and way of life. Their handcrafts now adorn houses, bedrooms and museums around the world, and are the objects of world admiration. The biggest challenge for all Hmong is now to apply their joint skills, like our women's handicraft skills, to turn our diverse Hmong languages and customs into objects of admiration and pride for ourselves and for other people. We cannot achieve this until we look at our shortcomings, become educated, broaden our mind, learn to be tolerant and assertive, and to know how to speak and act without hurting people. When this is done, we will be able to join hands together more easily, to accept and understand each other and to strive for what we want. We need to progress and for this to happen, we need to discard what holds us back, what bring us shame and division, what makes other people look down on us and despise us. Although we are a people sharing other peoples' countries, we will feel pride and freedom in our heart when we know and can put on record our history, the great traditions and achievements of all the separate Hmong groups and their leaders, our legends and folk stories, our songs and music. We have to do more than talk, we have to act. We have to change our narrow-mindedness, our arrogance, our self-pity, our feeling of inferiority as victims. We have to take fate in our own hands, and not to leave it to someone else. We have to strive to free ourselves from our own shackles, from family problems and disputes, from clan rivalries and unproductive internal politics that consume so much of our resources and energy today. We have to focus, act on and live out our national dreams, to make them a reality for today's real life, for tomorrow, for the years to come, and not for yesterday.
Dear friends and fellow Hmong, for the Hmong to live their complex dreams now, we need to educate ourselves, to appreciate our own people and culture, and to free ourselves from despair and self-rejection. We need to maintain our visions: the vision for a clear identity of who we are so that we can fit and contribute better to our people and our respective countries, the vision to help others and to give of ourselves. For this, we will need many more concerned Hmong, young and old, who will be actively engaged in the progress and development. This will allow us to achieve the freedoms we yearn for: freedom from poverty and ignorance, freedom to learn and progress, freedom to get together and to share, freedom from exploitation and from contempt, freedom from our own greed, freedom from idleness and neglect of ourselves, freedom from inter-clan conflicts and homeland politics, freedom from too much free time and its negative impact.
It has been a great pleasure and an honour to be with you all at this inspiring conference. Before going, I want to share a dream with you, a dream we all know from the late Martin Luther King Jr (1988: 419-420) who said to his people more than thirty years ago that they should "not wallow in the valley of despair" and that "in spite of the difficulties and frustration of the moment" they should have a dream, the dream to "let freedom ring", for "when we let it ring from every village, every hamlet, from every stage and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God's children .... will be able to join hands and sing.... "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
Barry H, Child I L, and Bacon M K (1970) "Relation of Child Training to Subsistence Economy", in Epstein D G ed.
HUMAN NATURE: A SOURCE BOOK IN ANTHROPOLOGY New York: Simon and Schuster.
Carrithers M (1992) WHY HUMANS HAVE CULTURES Oxford: Oxford University Press.
King Jr M L "I Have a Dream", in Rottenberg A T (1988) ELEMENTS OF ARGUMENT New York: St Martin's Press.