Hmong Refugees in Australia: Cultural Issues Faced by Hmong Settlers in Australia
Based on an address given at the Second Hmong Research Conference, University of Minnesota, USA, 17-19 November 1983, and
published in Hendricks, G. L., Downing, B. T, and Deinard, A. eds. The Hmong in Transition
(New York: Centre for Migration Studies, 1986, pp. 55-71)
I wish to thank the conference organisers for financial assistance to present this paper and the Lao Community Advancement (NSW) Co-operative in Sydney, Australia, for allowing me time off work to attend the conference and to visit Hmong refugees in the United States.
In an article on Hmong refugees in San Diego, California, Scott  reports that they respond to external adversity "by becoming more Hmong rather than less so". This is manifested by their preference to settle in the same geographical area and to interact mostly with members of their own ethnic group. The result is a heightened sense of ethnicity which, although reinforced by environmental factors, bases itself on strong primordial sentiments such as "a tradition of political autonomy and social self-reliance" and a "strongly homogeneous community" with no major differences in language, religion or customs.
These attributes, whatever their relevance to the refugees, tell a casual reader very little what is "being Hmong" and particularly what is "being more Hmong". To a Hmong, what distinguishes the Hmong from other people is their Hmong way of life. This way of life is centred around shifting agriculture, a language with mutually intelligible dialects, a strong belief in ancestor worship and animism, a division of labour according to family membership and sex, a social structure based on kinship ties through the patrilineage and clan systems, a patrivirilocal pattern of residence, a history of migration from Southern China, and a long tradition of being stateless.
To elaborate on some of these components of the Hmong society, I will focus on the economic productivity, social structure and religion. This will allow us a better evaluation of Hmong cultural articulation in Australia and may help in determining whether or not the Hmong refugees can become more Hmong in the West or whether they have to change in order to accommodate to the new environment.
The Traditional Productivity Base
No Hmong life style is possible without subsistence farming, supplemented by foraging, hunting, some fishing and handicrafts. Agriculture is the dominant of economic production, and is closely related to the Hmong's religion through ritual offerings to appease field spirits, or through "first fruit" ceremonies for the dead members of one's lineage in order to seek their spiritual protection. The "prestige sphere" identified by Dalton  in another contest is also evident when the more agricultural goods a person can produce and display, the more they enhance his rituals but also to the ways in which social roles and the division of labour within the household are observed- To some extent, the Hmong come close to the Marxist contention that the economy determines the structures and institutions of society .
The roles of family members, for instance, are designated by their order of birth as well as their abilities to contribute to the survival of the family as a whole. Thus, a husband's duties are to act as head of his household and to provide for its members' physical and spiritual welfare. He is responsible for the selection of farming sites and felling of trees when clearing new swiddens but is rarely concerned with domestic chores, apart from perhaps getting firewood. A wife, on the other hand is given the tasks of caring for children, preparing meals, feeding chickens and pigs owned by the family, sharing in all agricultural activities with her husband, and consulting him on family needs or major decisions.
In addition to the division of labour, the socialisation of children is also affected when farming keeps family members close to one another with little or no outside contact and influences. Grand-parents, parents and children are together nearly at all times whether in the home or in the fields. The norms of primary group co-operation and mutual assistance are, thus, instilled early in life through the labour requirements imposed by the economic base. Furthermore, agriculture impinges on the allocation and consumption of goods in that while every able-bodied person participates in the growing of crops, these commodities are for the consumption of the whole household. Individual allocation of goods occurs only with jewellery, some domestic animals, clothing, opium/money.
It is obvious that subsistence cultivation plays a most significant part in shaping social roles and relations within the household . In order to achieve their economic ends, the Hmong have evolved their own rules of family behaviour with rights and obligations to be adhered to.
As stated by Cohen , in trying to satisfy their needs people are brought into relationship with one another in a socially prescribed expectations. This is true of Hmong, as of other human groups.
Religion and Social Structure
Two other dominant features of Hmong society are their social structure and religion. Hmong social groupings are generally the product of kinship organisation and its manifestations through the rituals of ancestor worship, two aspects of Hmong culture which are intricately related to each other. The fortune of an individual or family depends on close observation of ancestral reverence, geomancy and kinship networks. A Hmong religion cannot be separated from his social groupings, and his relations with other Hmong are meaningful only in terms of whether or not they share similar ancestral rites. Therefore, he cannot do without his kinsmen and a good knowledge of their rituals in order to carry on his Hmong existence.
When two Hmong meet for the first time, their immediate concern is to establish their clan identities so that they can relate to each other. If they belong to the same clan, the next question will be which sub-clan they originate from. This is done by inquiring whether they perform similar rituals in relation to funerals, the "door ceremony" and the "ox ceremony"; whether the graves of their dead are of the same construction. If these common factors are established, membership to a sub-clan is confirmed. From this point, they may try to learn whether they descend from the same ancestor and, thus, belong to the same lineage. A lineage is known as a "cluster of brothers" (ib cuab kwvtij) or " one ceremonial household" (ib tus dab-qhuas). Members of a "ceremonial household" can die and have funerals in one another's house, as they would share similar ancestral rituals. People merely belonging to a clan or sub-clan cannot be granted this ceremonial privilege.
This means that the social structure divides Hmong into different groupings united under clans, sub-clans and lineages. For a man, the clan makes it possible to know which group to identify with, and which woman he can or cannot marry (he cannot marry a woman of the same clan). After marriage, he is expected to observe the residential prescription laid down by his kinship system and reinforced by his ancestral cult. Patrivirilocality is preferred, at least until the couple has children and can establish their own nuclear household away from the extended family. This does not prevent him from maintaining close relationship with relatives of his wife. With the exception of material support, there are no ritual bonds between a married man and his affinal relatives because religion ceremonies are reserved for agnatic ancestors.
The Hmong do not have elaborate ceremonies for birth or during various stages of life Explanations for the meaning of life are to be found in funeral rites, the meeting point between the living and the dead. This relationship between ancestors and their descendants, between religion and social structure, gives the Hmong a clear defined way of life. As postulated by Radcliffe-Brown  such a belief system gives incentives to those taking part in them to have a sense of dependence on their ancestors and to commemorate them for having given them their life, while they are spurred onto bring up their descendants to whom they will one day also become revered ancestors. It is this sense of duty that creates a direct association between a Hmong's religion and his social structure, particularly his lineage.
In their world view and ceremonial practices, The Hmong see an explanation for their social groupings; in their kinship ties, they find reason to maintain their religion. Religious ceremonies renew group sentiment, strengthen lineage solidarity, and inspire members to carry out their obligations to the living, the dead and those yet to be born. These factors, in Geertz' phrasing, form the group's ethos, and are "rendered intellectually reasonable by being shown to represent a way of life ideally adapted to the actual state of affairs the world view described while the world view is rendered emotionally convincing by being presented as image of an actual state of affairs peculiarly well arranged to accommodate such a way of life" .
Impact of Settlement
Having discussed some of the most salient aspects of Hmong culture, let us now see how they have been maintained or adapted to respond to the demands and needs of a Western environment. To do this, the major factors which make Hmong cultural adaptation necessary need to be examined first by using the Australian experience of the Hmong refugees as illustration of the issues involved. It is necessary to add that the Hmong situation in Australia is by no means typical of other Hmong groups, although some common features may be shared by them.
In contrast to their subsistence farming in Laos where family members all work together, the complex wage economy of Australia only accepts skilled adults into the work force. For the refugees, this involves those who have some degree of training and who can speak basic English. The division of labour is no longer based on family membership, but on decisions by outsiders as to who is chosen for work and who to be made idle. This means that for the 344 Hmong in Australia, only 58 are gainfully employed or 52.5% of the total employable population of 112. Thus, a total of 54 adults are not in employment (including 18 persons in the retired age group) with 208 children of whom 61.5% or 128 are in primary and high schools.
The old tradition of joint economic productivity by all household members is seriously disrupted with those who are going their separate ways each morning while the elderly and the unemployed remain home with or without children to attend to. Children of school age are left to find company with Micky Mouse, Bull Winkle or Spiderman on television in the morning; and return from school to Sesame Street or the Brady Bunch in the afternoon. While at school, they read Walt Disney books or Shakespeare, interact with English-speaking children, and learn from Anglo-European teachers with a curriculum which makes no mention of their culture and history. These children quickly identify with the new society.
This almost daily fragmentation of the family by school and work has eroded the cherished ideas of a co-operated household united by common interests and economic participation. Many parents are no longer productive when 30 of the 67 family heads are without work. They often do not speak English and have to depend on their children in simple tasks involving contacts with non-Hmong outsiders. This reversal of roles and the consequent loss of self-esteem on the part of the older family members have made many of them feel despondent. The demands of the West have precluded them from fulfilling their traditional roles of providers and decision-makers for their families. Thus, social values regarding parental authority, filial respect, clan obligations and reverence of ancestors become gradually irrelevant or unenforceable.
This erosion of Hmong social values and norms within the family is also felt in the area of interpersonal relationships between members of the Hmong community. the social structure, as discussed previously, is already greatly weakened by the fact that many families only share clan membership but no other kinship features, and a few families are the sole representative of their clan in the new country. This means that there is little or no similarity in rituals between them, since the sharing of rituals is restricted to lineage and sub-clan members.
Of all the clans in Australia, the Lee has 19 families with 5 lineages, the Yang 16 families with 4 lineages, the Vang with 13 families and 3 lineages, the Thao with 10 families and 3 lineages, the Xiong and Vue number no more than 5 to 6, because only households with at least one skilled or educated member are admitted by the Australian Government for resettlement. Furthermore, not all members of a lineage were able to escape from Laos or to settle in the West, thereby significantly reducing the traditional networks of kinship and mutual assistance.
The young and skilled families preferred by Australia are generally ignorant of religious beliefs and practices. Most do not have with them older members who are well experienced in Hmong customs. Unless they are related to those who have, they do not know where to turn to in time of spiritual need. They exist in a religious limbo, neither as Hmong with knowledge and observances of ancestor worship, no as Australian with faith in Christianity. Some appear to be content with this state of affairs, filling the voids of their lives with material objects. Sooner or later however, they have to turn to other Hmong, because cultural and language barriers prevent them from reaching out to members of the host society.
Cultural Consciousness and Adaptation
In the face of this constant intrusion into their traditions by incompatible external forces, the Hmong obviously feel their very identity threatened. This is especially true when their identity as a household, lineage or clan is adversely affected by conflicting claims of the new country. Like any human groups in a state of uncertainty, most of these in Australia have reacted by trying to regain direction by improving themselves with education and economic productivity, or by joining force as a group in order to gorge for themselves a new identity.
At the individual level, the cultural value of self-sufficiency is still strongly followed, despite many difficulties to overcome. They are now given the stand on their own feet, following years of surviving on hand-outs in refugee camps in Laos and in Thailand. They know that the material comfort enjoyed by members of the new country can be theirs if they stride hard enough for it. Many of those who can find factory work even see this as a big step forward compared to the farming they used to do in Laos, for they are no longer at the mercy of nature and war. As a measure of their adaptability, 47 of the 56 households now own cars, and 20 have bought their own house. Two families are in the process of buying land for market gardening. All this has been achieved within the space of 4 to 5 years of resettlement.
The formal group, for its part, also encourages members towards self-reliance and towards the articulation of their culture but in a manner acceptable to the Australian society. I am referring to the Hmong-Australia Society which was first set up in Victoria in 1978. At present, it has branches in New South Wales, A.C.T. and Tasmania, with a Federal body to make policies and to coordinate the activities of the State branches. Since I am more familiar with the activities of the situation in New South Wales, I will discuss mainly the activities of the Society in that State which has 204 of the total Australian Hmong population of 344, in contrast to Victoria which has 113 and Tasmania with 27.
In a similar vein to other ethnic-based organisations, the Hmong-Australia Society (HAS) has its main objectives: (i) to assist Hmong refugees in their settlement in Australia, (ii) to foster mutual acceptance between Hmong and other ethnic, (iii) to uphold Hmong cultural traditions, and (iv) to safeguard Hmong interest in general. Membership is not restricted to Hmong, and is entirely voluntary. Nevertheless, nearly all the Hmong in the country are financial members, except for two families.
To achieve its objective, the HAS supplements the traditional support system with committees on welfare, education, culture, religious, public relation and fund-raising. It is clear that most of these concerns reflect a conscious attempt to put Hmong culture values into practice in a new environment in this virtual absence of kinship networks which traditionally oversee these activities. The HAS, thus, replaces the social structure by being a focal point for members to fall back on in time of celebration or crisis.
One of the first tasks undertaken was to get members to understand the Australian Government's policies on multiculturalism and to steer the group's activities to be in line with these policies. for example, ethnic groups are encouraged to maintain their cultures "without prejudice or disadvantage" and "to embrace other cultures"  . This is so long as there is acknowledgement of "common values which give all citizens a sense of being Australians" with importance given to the English language , Hmong are , therefore, urged to consider themselves as Australian Hmong with a unique cultural contribution to make to their country of resettlement and with obligation to identify with it. As the result of this policy, many Hmong have taken up Australian citizenship and in turn enjoy the privilege and freedom to travel overseas to visit relatives.
Faced with only a residual social structure among its members, the HAS has tried to promote mutual support across clan boundaries by insisting that Hmong refugees assist each other on the basis of their common ethnic background rather than membership to a lineage or clan. Overall, the majority of members have shown a genuine desire to help lessen clan and lineage consciousness by devoting time and energy for the common benefit of the group without regard to kinship ties. There are, of course, a few families which are still reluctant to take part in the common New Year celebration because of their religious belief, but this is a minor problem.
A good example of the society’s involvement in cultural adaptation is its ethnic school. Formed in 1980, it was designed to conduct weekend classes on Hmong language and culture for Hmong children who are growing up in Australia and who are not exposed enough to their own mother tongue and their parents’ culture. The aim is to enable the students to read and write Hmong, and to appreciate the customs of their older family members so that they may understand and assist the latter in their settlement. With operational costs met from federal government funding, the school has a current enrolment of forty three, with an attendance rate of about thirty two in two classes. Two Hmong teachers alternate in the teaching of each class.
After using an old primer from Laos for a year, the teachers found it to be too difficult, since many of the words refer to traditional objects no longer found in Australia, and therefore convey little meaning to the refugee children. This difficulty was compounded by the lack of suitable texts on Hmong culture. With a grant from the state government, the society has attempted to fill this gap by developing its own teaching materials with more relevance to the Australian context. Two books for learning Hmong – one for young children and one for older students – have been completed along with a book of traditional songs (for learning old forms of poetry) and a collection of modern songs (for learning new poetry), a book of proverbs and a collection of folk tales. A Hmong grammar and a text on the changing way of life of Hmong refugees (for social studies) are being completed. The new books, in very simple form, have been used experimentally in class during 1983, and have drawn much enthusiastic response from children and parents.
Cultural materials are taught not only through the use of these texts, but also through simulated performances of simple ceremonies, colour slides, recordings and samples of relevant artefacts. Many young men have successfully learned the mechanics of common rituals through role-playing. The learning of more complex rituals. Has been offered to older individuals according to their personal interest, with the elders in the Hmong community acting as teachers.
Realising that the teaching of Hmong language and culture may offer the refugees a sense of cultural continuity but will not be sufficient to help them integrate into the Australian setting, the Society also teaches them English, or arrange to have English and simple work skills courses provided on a short term basis by government instrumentalities. This applies in particular to the adult Hmong, many of whom were illiterate. There have been classes on sewing and dress-making, Australian law and society, basic mathematics, general health education and homemaking. The primary aim is the learning of English, but these language skills are acquired through other subjects deemed useful to the social adjustment of the Hmong. Similar orientation information is also published in both Hmong and English in the Society’s newsletter.
Initially, most of the Hmong were reluctant to carry out any religious ceremonies in Australia, but they are now gained enough confidence to perform readily such rituals as "soul calling" (hu plig), "wrist-stringing" (khi tes) and shamanic trance. Cultural expression outside the home or at public function is limited to the display of handicrafts, the playing of reed-pipe music (tshuab qeej) and flute (raj), and traditional singing. Simplified versions of the new year celebration and funeral proceedings have been adopted mainly from lack of time and man-power rather than the fear of being found objectionable.
Unlike some of those in the United States of America , The Hmong in Australia have never questioned the relevance of traditional beliefs to their new life, even when only rituals involving no killing of live animals are observed. Several explanations for this disparity between the two groups could be suggested. Firstly, the Australian Government's refugee program does not depend entirely on church and community sponsorship. Most of the Hmong were admitted under this official program which provides all necessary support services with minor assistance from voluntary agencies. They do not, therefore, come into early contacts with people who may influence them to doubt their traditional religion and to embrace a new one.
Secondly, the Australian Government. actively supports the idea of a multicultural nation, as mentioned previously, and has made funds available to various groups to test out the concept, especially in the fields of culture, arts and education. The Hmong happen to be in Australia at a time when this experiment is only at its beginning stage, by joining in, they are thus encouraged to carry on with their changing traditions while learning to adapt to the host community.
Thirdly and most importantly, the leadership and the very small size of the Hmong population have been crucial factors in this process of cultural adjustment. The informal decision-makers, whether of traditional or Western orientation, have been most accommodating to each other with decisions based on the democratic process instead of the dictates of a few individuals. The old leadership acknowledge the need for change, and the younger leaders know that change has to be gradual with cultural elements acting as both an impetus and a buffer. These leaders and their followers have equal role in guiding this change towards the common good of the Hmong and their new country.
This is, of course, easier said than done, for many problems have to be faced within and outside the Hmong community. Overall, however, I do believe that 97% of them share in this long term vision. With mutual support between themselves and the continuous assistance of government and other agencies the Hmong may yet achieve this adaptation through the use of their culture as a means and an anchor. After all, they are a universal minority group, and the adage of "home is where you make it" has always applied to their situation, even if home will take a bit longer to make in the West.
Hmong Research and Social Change
Least I am taken to task for being too optimistic and for talking about hopes rather than reality, let me now briefly justify my arguments.
From the literature I have read on the Hmong in Thai, Lao, Hmong, French and English, I have been struck by a lack of perspective in many of these readings. Too often, sweeping negative statements or generalisations are made from information obtained on the basis of single encounter or interview. This is true especially of politically biased newspaper reporters, travellers and arm-chair writers who often base their comments on second or third-hand sources of information. Even Government officials and serious scholars have not escaped this tendency to refer to old, out-dated accounts of the Hmong; and to made further sweeping statements after a few short visits to them.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Geddes , following a few years of field work among a group of Green Hmong in Northern Thailand, came to the conclusion that the Hmong economy is a cash economy based on opium, with their whole migration pattern and way of life affected by the need to search for opium fields. He  explained Hmong polygamy on the ground that the men marry more than one wife in order to obtain more labour for their opium growing. Geddes did not take enough account of the fact that thousands of other Hmong in other places do not grow opium; and that polygamy is strongly condemned in Hmong society, whether or not opium is produced.
Recently, Cooper  speculated that "almost every Hmong family will have some experience of patrivirilocality at some times". This is because 5 of the 87 households he studied in Northern Thailand exhibit this residential pattern. How valid is this interpretation when only 5.7% of the Hmong in the sample live with relatives of the wives? Again, other factors such as the rules of the ancestral cult and the kinship system have not been given adequate consideration, for the Hmong hold this type of residence as being socially and religiously unacceptable.
More relevant to our concern here are statements by Scott I referred to earlier. In his Conference paper two years ago , he discussed in detail how " the relocation of traditional Hmong religious system into an incompatible environment has entailed (a) the questioning of belief, much of which now seems painfully inappropriate in an environment with which it is no longer resonant, and (b) the abandonment of rituals in all but a few of the most conservative families". The annual New Year Celebration is the only occasion these rituals are taken out of their closets to be displayed out of context as a reminder of a "rapidly receding past". In an article on ethnic solidarity among the same group of Hmong in San Diego a few months later, he wrote that they have become " more Hmong " and interact 'less and less with outsiders, even with those whose task it is to help them"  . Could the "rapidly receding past" have come reeling back in such a short time like strips of a movie film being pulled backwards?
It is true that more of them have now joined in formal meeting or formed ethnic-based organisations, but this does not mean that they have become more Hmong. It is only that they have changed and have learned the value of formal organisations in Western society. The formalised approach to the requirements of life is in itself un-Hmong, a western ritual quickly seized upon by the refugees. The traditions based on subsistence agriculture as discussed at the beginning of this paper, are mostly now inapplicable or unavailable, and much of them have to be abandoned or changed. If the Hmong react to an alien environment by turning to each other or by migration, we would not have 5,000,000 Hmong in China today but only a few thousands in neighbouring countries where they were supposed to seek refuge from Chinese oppression. If they cannot be assimilated in Laos, why do so many Hmong women in the West still wear Lao skirts while nearly all the men use Lao words that have been integrated into the Hmong language whenever they speak Hmong?
I would argue that given time and the opportunities, the Hmong cannot help but adapt themselves to a new society, change their way of life, and make in-roads into various social strata and employment structures of the majority society. The key factors, however, are time and open doors. This change cannot be achieved quickly. It has to be slow and gradual, from the physical to the abstract, from the tangible to the intangible, beginning now with perhaps cars, housing and clothing; but eventually ending with the adoption of Western values and languages. Despite opinions to the contrary, the Hmong objectively are not the autonomous people some of us like to make them out to be: they are usually accommodating, keen to become acceptable to other groups.
The above comments are not designed to discourage. On the contrary, more research and debates on Hmong adaptation in the West are needed. May I urge that in our search for knowledge, we should be more conscious of what is hidden from us, what is not revealed but should be known before useful generalisations can be made. The United Nations Crop Replacement Project for opium farmers in Thailand in the 1970’s failed, because there was more, much more to the Hmong economy than the need for cash.
To avoid such pitfalls in social science research, I believe it should be more fruitful to take both the "enic" and "etic" approaches in which the researcher's observations and perceptions are combined with those of the research subjects, with information checked and cross-checked before it is used. This has been well stated by Goodenough  when he said that: (a) whenever we wish to know what people are doing and why, or what they are likely to do, we must know what kind of things they see and respond to, and (b) we must know what they believe to be the relations between these things and what they see as the possible course of action for dealing with them. As we try to unravel the complexity of the Hmong resettlement experience in the West, I hope that these premises will help yield information, interpretations and ideas on the Hmong in a much wider perspective.
I have tried to compare the new Hmong experience in the west with their traditional existence in the hills of Laos in order to see whether or not they can maintain their former way of life in the now social environment. I have used the case of the Hmong in Australia as illustration of the fact that no matter how hard they try to hold onto them, the links with the past will be gradually severed and forgotten unless their culture can be adapted to fit into the present. Culture is not an impediment, but an instrument for social change. Careful guided, its transformation may lead to a new form of cultural adjustment. Neglected, it will be doomed to extinction. It is argued here that the active articulation of their culture will help the refugees maintain their personal identity in the face of perplexing external demand. while they attempt to adjust to these demand and to acquire new cultural element to give themselves a new identity benefiting life in a Western society. The cultural past can act as a buffer to the upheavals of the current social change, and can give direction to the uncertainties of the future. Given some patience and the opportunities, this adjustment will certainly be achieved, because most Hmong, want to adapt, to become self-sufficient and to enjoy peace freedom and the comfort of life. Where else can they get all of that but in the West?
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