The Spirt of Enterprise and the Emergence of the Hmong and Hmong American Identities: Reflections of a Hmong Anthropologist
By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.
Published as Chapter 5 in Hmong and American: From Refugees to Citizens.
Ed. by Vincent K. Her and Mary Louise Buley-Meissner. 2012. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Being Hmong is having many identities, starting at birth and continuing throughout life. Sometimes, these identities are clear-cut, but often they clash with each other. As we mature, most of us learn, although it is not easy, to navigate through this maze of confusing self-image. We just accept it as part of our life, of belonging to a minority living on the margin, and of having to accommodate the demands of majority groups we live with. For a Hmong, even one’s birth order puts a difference on one’s identity: the first-born is expected to lead and bear more family responsibilities. Moreover, one’s Hmong identity is determined by whether one is a boy or a girl. A boy’s placenta is traditionally buried at the base of the central post of the house: he is expected to uphold the family line and assume the spiritual role by observing all religious rituals and making offerings to family ancestors. A girl’s placenta is buried under the bed in her parents’ bedroom: a girl has fewer roles in ritual performance and ancestral reverence. She is expected to uaneejnrogqhua, to marry out of the clan.
After marriage and a few children, a married Hmong man is given his npe laus, adult name, by his parents-in-law, and will be referred to by that name for the rest of his life. A married woman will also be known by her husband’s name, such as NiamTooj (Tong’s wife), almost suppressing her own name given at birth. Moreover, being born into a particular clan also sets a Hmong’s identity for life. The name of the clan one belongs to is also one’s family name, whether it is Moua,Vang, Yang, Xiong, Chang, Lo, Lee or any of eleven others. For those from Laos and Thailand, another determining factor is the subdivision into which one is born: White Hmong or Blue Mong. Many older Hmong also reckon their identities on the basis of which village or region they come from.
However, in the context of transnational migration and international politics, self-identity becomes more complicated. If a person is a refugee or the child of a refugee, new layers are added to his or her identity. It is no wonder that many young Hmong in the United States and elsewhere are confused about who they are. If a Hmong American teenager is asked, “Where are you from?,” her answer could be as simple as Sheboygan, Wisconsin; or depending on the depth of her knowledge, it could stretch farther back into the past and around the globe. Moreover, if she were to visit relatives in Laos, would she be seen as a Hmong, or a Hmong from America, or an American? If she goes to China or Vietnam, would she be called Hmong, Miao or Meo? All of these are possibilities in her self-image as a Hmong American living in the 21st century.
Many of the trends and transformations I have witnessed over the past twenty-five years reflect not only the complexity, but also the flexibility of Hmong and Hmong Americans as they align their culture and identity with their social and political environment. What is crucial is that new cultural features continue to evolve with a new self-image that has enormously raised Hmong consciousness about where they have been, where they are now and where they are heading.
My Life and Identities
I was the first-born son for my parents, a bouncing boy coming to earth around the New Year of 1949. At birth, I failed to cry out like other babies, so my father put me under a wok and hit it with a spoon. The noise made me scream in fright, and thus, I was named Yia, a Hmong word for wok. This is a common name for Hmong boys and girls.
Early in my life, I only knew war. It shaped my destiny and ability to struggle for survival. I was only a month old when my parents had to abandon everything in Ban Houei Kouang (Fib Khab) near the Vietnamese border, where we were living with other Hmong relatives. A Hmong leader on the communist Pathet Lao side came with his men, burned our houses down and confiscated all our possessions because we belonged to the Lee clan, supporters of Touby Lyfoung, their rival and opposition on the French side. For safety, we moved to Xieng Khouang city, where my father worked as a militiaman. When the Vietminh invaded in 1953, we hid for many months in the jungle with other military families. In 1954, the French were defeated in Dien Bien Phu and left Indochina. My parents enrolled me in the provincial primary school the following year with my older sister. Ten other Hmong students attended school with us, some coming from nearby villages while others were local children. Each day, my sister and I made a ten-mile round-trip on foot, with our lunch packs on our backs, from our village of Tham Kat to school. After two years, my parents decided that this was too much for me, so we moved to the city, where we stayed until I was accepted by the provincial high school, “College de Xieng Khouang.” As Laos was a country under French influence since 1893, all levels of education were taught in French.
Even before Laos became independent in 1954, Hmong knew the value of formal schooling, and a few parents sent their children to school in Xieng Khouang city or other district areas with primary schools. For example, in the 1930’s, in the village of Nong Het, Touby Lyfoung’s father had the foresight to hire a private tutor to teach his three sons: Touby, Toulia and Tougeu. They would go on to become the first Hmong to complete high school in Vietnam, and would later work for the French in Laos. Likewise, my father always valued education and gave me all the necessary support, including numerous books and a bicycle, a rare gift in those days. His parents died while he was still young; his older brother, Xeng, was left to take care of him and a younger brother. An itinerant trader, Uncle Xeng, who died in his twenties, recognised that the Hmong needed education.
In 1942, Uncle Xeng sent my father to Muang Gnanh to do his primary studies. Three years later, my father was one of the few Hmong who could read and write in Lao, and was later given the position of tasseng (canton chief) for Tham Thao. Working closely with Uncle Touby, he knew education was the only way to get ahead in life, so his children were all enrolled in school once we moved to Xieng Khouang city.
However, as a soldier and policeman, my father was not always home, so it was left to my mother to make sure that I studied hard. As the oldest son, I had to plough the rice fields and do the heavy work when my father was not home. While grazing the family buffalo and horses, I would read a book or do my homework. I loved reading stories, but there were no libraries or bookshops, so I bought Thai folk tales, written in poetic rhymes, from a local Thai man. Having taught myself Thai, I would read these epic tales aloud with voracity, sometimes singing them in Lao “mo-lam” opera style in the meadow to myself and my animals.
Education in Laos and Australia
In 1961, the year I entered high school, Xieng Khouang was overrun by Kong Le’s Neutralist troops. Because my father was a policeman with the Right-wing faction under which Vang Pao’s troops also served, my family fled south with them to Pa Dong, which was attacked three months later. When we were evacuated to Vientiane where I joined Hmong students from across the country who were moving there to do secondary studies. In 1962, at least thirty young Hmong, including myself, enrolled in the Lycee de Vientiane, and another twenty in Dong Dok Teachers’ College. Previously, less than half a dozen had gotten this far in the Lao educational system, given the high cost of living in the Lao capital and the lack of other opportunities for Hmong there. Thus, even in war time, the desire for education remained strong among the Hmong.
In 1963, my family safely returned to Pha Khao, VangPao’s headquarters, leaving me in Vientiane to study. To help meet my expenses and to feed my four brothers and two sisters, my mother and older sister sold small goods at the local market and nearby villages. Like other parents, my mother wanted to see me finish my studies and had high hopes for me to go to France or America to pursue higher education, and then, return home to a good government position. I continued to read, spending nearly all of my pocket money on Western classic novels from the only French bookshop in Vientiane. Like other students, I was very poor. Two teachers, Monsieur Robert Loche and Madame Renee Souvannavong, gave me clothes, took me to their homes, and provided extra coaching in French and Latin. When I was studying too hard and ended up in the hospital for three months in 1963, they visited me. Even after 1975, when she had returned to France, Madame Souvannavong continued to write to me to give me advice and news of her.
Through my education, I came to see life beyond Hmong villages in the highlands. However, my thinking was so colonised that I believed France was the centre of world civilisation. My goal was to go there for higher education. Acting on my own rebellious impulses, I started to use foreign knowledge to question my Hmong origin and beliefs. Moreover, I explored other options for my Hmong identity by delving into Buddhism, Catholicism, and Bahai. Yet, I was not happy because “the real me” remained elusive.
In 1965, a postcard from a cousin in Australia changed my life. Reading his description of that beautiful country, I decided to enter a scholarship competition to study there. Winning the Colombo Plan scholarship opened the door to a new opportunity and chapter in my life. After finishing senior high school in Australia, I completed a BA and a MA in social work, specialising in community development and refugee resettlement. Each vacation, I went back to visit my family in Laos, where people continued to suffer from the war. Many school friends who enlisted were dead. In the tens of thousands, civilians were displaced from their villages. There was no prospect for peace.
Growing up during war time and seeing so many people suffer, my plan was to help them in any way possible to get back on their own feet when peace should come. One of my main influences was Uncle Touby who helped by asking the Lao government to continue giving me a scholarship so I could stay on in Australia to complete my master’s studies. Even while suffering from the daily humiliations of “re-education camp” in Sam Neua where he was taken after the war, he wrote to me to urge me to return to Laos and serve the country. In 1978, he died from a gun shot to the heart after defying a camp guard. Like other high-ranking inmates, he was buried without a funeral, without a proper grave. For me, he remains a great Hmong leader, a true hero and a life-time inspiration.
In 1975, I started my PhD studies in Anthropology at the University of Sydney under Prof. William Geddes. He had just completed a book on the Hmong where he referred to them as “Miao” (Geddes). When I was critical of that term, he suggested that I should become a researcher. In doing so, he validated the possibility that a Hmong scholar could offer a valuable alternative perspective on Hmong history and culture. He not only accepted me as a PhD student, but also helped find funding for my studies. A great influence in my life, he taught me to be methodical in my search for answers. His interest in cross-cultural research was evident in his efforts to help establish the Tribal Research Centre in Chiangmai, and his many visits to Hmong refugee camps in Thailand. With great enthusiasm, I read everything in anthropological literature on the Hmong .
While waiting for the graduation ceremony for my master’s degree in 1975, I heard news that my mother, brothers and their families were at Ban Namphong, Thailand with 25,000 other Hmong refugees. Without any family remaining in Laos, I decided to apply for asylum in Australia, which was soon granted. When Hmong refugee friends and relatives in Thailand asked for help, I sent the Australian Immigration Department a list of families interested in resettlement. This was the least I could do for other Hmong made homeless by war. In 1976, my mother, four brothers and their families arrived in Sydney with the first group of 260 refugees from Laos. Housed temporarily in government accommodation, I visited them regularly in between my studies. By now, I had acquired an academic knowledge of the Hmong that I realised was very limited. Having been away from other Hmong for most of my life, I had lost touch with Hmong culture and tradition, and thus, had lost track of who I was. With my mother and brothers safely in Australia, I became motivated to visit Hmong in villages and refugee camps of Thailand. Learning about the Hmong, I hoped to find myself.
A Real Hmong Life
In 1976, I began fieldwork for my PhD at the Tribal Research Centre in Chiangmai, Thailand. My research site was the village of Khun Wang, a White Hmong settlement with 21 households participating in a UN opium replacement project. After ten years in Australia, meeting the Hmong in Thailand was a turning point in my search for identity. What impressed me most was their hospitality. As a newly married couple, my wife and I appreciated the graciousness of people who always invited us to eat with them after the initial introduction. Recognising us as fellow Hmong, many local people spent long hours telling us about their villages and work.
Once we were established, village women would visit my wife to embroider, chatting away the hours, while I interviewed the men and measured their farms. At the Hmong settlements of Mae Wak and Khun Klang, I attended weddings and funerals, recording their proceedings and learning about them in depth. To understand farming through the seasons, I helped to clear the fields, plant crops, weed, harvest, winnow rice (yujnplej) and grind corn. Most importantly, I came to understand Hmong religion and shamanism through participant observation, including doing some rituals myself. I taped funeral reed pipe music (qeejtuag) and the blessing funeral chant (txivxaiv), asking questions about their meanings and procedures. At Khun Wang and later in Australia, through my father who is a shaman, I returned to Hmong religion and spiritual practices. Much of this life-changing experience was later used in my autobiographical novel “Dust of Life” .
From this new knowledge, I began to see every Hmong ritual as having proper procedures with logical explanations, including guiding the soul of a dead person to thank household guardians; to revisit and honour all the places essential to his or her survival in the past; to retrieve the placenta as an afterlife garment at his or her birth home before joining the ancestors in the Afterworld; and ultimately to undergo reincarnation in the next life. The journey to the ancestors may be frightening in places, but it has the happy destination of reunion with them. Those who commit suicide or die without a proper funeral may stay in limbo, but there is no hell (Hmong have no word for it). Above all, Hmong religion is aimed at the living, to protect them here and now and not after death, to unite members for mutual support. Thus, at Hmong funerals, it is common to see how extended families across generations come together not only to fulfil their social obligations, but also to affirm their deep connection across time, space and the upheavals of history. Large amounts of food may be consumed at great cost, but no expenses are spared so long as kinship ties can be maintained through the inclusion of all kin members in ceremonies and the renewal of social bonds with their presence.
An Unfolding Journey
In 1978, I returned to Australia after sixteen months of doing fieldwork and learning to be Hmong at Khun Wang. After completing my PhD in 1981, I worked with Indochinese refugees in Australia. In 1983, I was invited to give a talk in the U.S. on Hmong refugee resettlement in Australia. On that trip, I talked with many newly arrived Hmong families in California and the Midwest regarding their concerns about welfare assistance, difficulties learning English, and limited job opportunities. Hmong leaders, workers and those who had been in the country longer were all eager to lend a hand in the resettlement of new arrivals. Refugee services were provided by the government, church groups and many Hmong mutual assistance associations. Everywhere I went, I found abundant evidence that Hmong Americans were taking initiatives to be self-sufficient. Wherever they started new lives, whether as farmers or assembly line workers, they were making the new country their own.
During my return trips to the U.S. in the 1990’s, I recognised that in Hmong American families, traditional roles were certainly in flux and some were even reversed. For example, children were finding it fairly easy to learn to speak English and assimilate into mainstream culture, while their parents were still speaking Hmong and feeling uncertain about their place in American society. Speaking different languages, sometimes parents and children were following different cultural values, widening the generational gap between them. Moreover, when wives found employment while their husbands were still searching for jobs, stable family structure became even more difficult to maintain as wives became providers instead of husbands as was traditionally the case. Another shift in traditional roles could be seen in attitudes toward the first generation. On the one hand, whether they spoke English or not, elders remained highly visible and respected as carriers of tradition and customs. Potentially their wealth of knowledge was a resource that their children and grandchildren could depend on for guidance in their lives. However, younger generations sometimes resisted asking for advice from their elders because they were more influenced by American culture. More at ease in navigating their way in American society, younger generations felt entitled to their independence and often rejected their elders’ old rustic values that may have become irrelevant to their modern urban life.
Like my own personal life, the journey of Hmong Americans continues to be full of unexpected twists and turns. It is a story of “becoming,” of learning to leave their rural subsistence farming life behind and become city dwellers, to see themselves as global citizens. In 2006, I was invited to be the first scholar-in-residence at the Center for HmongStudies at Concordia University - St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2008, the University honoured me with an honorary doctorate. As I sat on the podium waiting to receive this degree, I could not help but wonder what I had accomplished and what my true identity is: Hmong, Lao Hmong, Australian, Hmong Australian or Australian Hmong, a member of the Hmong global nation, or all of them. I realised that although in my mind I have many identities, I am and will always be Hmong at the core through my birth, physical appearance and the culture I have embraced.
Compared to what I saw in 1983 and 1985, when anxiety and fear of the future were widespread among first-generation Hmong Americans, the individuals I met in 2006 and 2008 were of a different kind: confident, politically engaged, socially committed and forward-looking. Since their resettlement around the world, what have the Hmong achieved and where are we now with our culture and identity as a people? To me, they have achieved much in the space of thirty years. They have now built a solid foundation for their new life in America, which will help to fulfil their dreams well into the future.
Global Exchanges and Hmong Identity Production
Hmong are now well informed about their multiple global identities, including Chinese Miao, Vietnamese Hmong, Lao Hmong, Australian Hmong, French Hmong, Canadian and U.S. Hmong. As anthropologist Louisa Schein points out, contradictions and disagreements allow Hmong opportunities to engage in “identity exchanges” and “identity production” (p. 273). When Hmong from America visit their co-ethnic “Miao” in China, they are bewildered by the fact that large segments of the Miao population do not speak “Hmong,” nor do they have customs and myths pointing to a shared cultural and ancestral origin. Yet, Hmong American visitors usually identify themselves as Miao with their hosts. On the other hand, when Miao from China visit Hmong communities in America, they refer to themselves as Hmong. This switching of identity affiliation by both groups is based not on a common culture and language, but on a “general notion of fraternity as well as more particularised bonds of kinship and marriage alliance,” leading to mutual obligation (p. 278). This experience of “identity production” arises out of social, economic and political expediency, carved from “not only linguistic and cultural dimensions, but also political and economic strategies … a multi-dimensional and potent trans-nationality that is constructed precisely out of the entangling of the cultural with the economic and the political” (p. 274) .
From my point of view, Hmong and Hmong Americans can only benefit by the ongoing search to explore identity possibilities, and to experiment with different versions, to mix them from a variety of source countries in the hope of finding the best possible model – as Hmong women have done with their costumes. For the Hmong, exposure to a bewildering diversity of cultures and identities across ethnic groups has become a positive force, allowing them to borrow desirable cultural features from other groups, while recuperating and reinterpreting their own culture and self-identity that will reflect a new transnational group image, a public representation that has been made possible largely by modern communication and travel.
Furthermore, Hmong Americans are movers and shakers in forging Hmong identities around the world. As the biggest group of Hmong living in a highly industrialised Western country, they have shown that they can lead Hmong in other countries in the spirit of enterprise and political initiatives. Increasingly since the late 1990’s, Hmong Americans have become frequent visitors to their fellow brothers and sisters in other countries. In these transnational travels, they provide friends and relatives with financial assistance; in addition, they contribute to community projects, such as supplying books for libraries in Laos or computers for remote village schools in China. Speaking out against discrimination and political persecutions, they have acted as a representative voice on human rights issues. Through the Internet, Hmong radio stations, magazines and newspapers in the U.S., they provide information and news on current situations of Hmong in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. As observed in 2008, through their cultural groups, they send their talented young dancers, artists and singers to Laos and Thailand to give dazzling performances in front of local Hmong audiences, including officials and dignitaries. Student associations and community organisations have been active in promoting cross-cultural exchange between Hmong in the U.S. and other places. When Miao professionals and business people come from China, Hmong Americans welcome them by providing interpreters, arranging sight-seeing tours, and hosting them in their homes with much drinking and feasting. Likewise, when U.S. Hmong visitors go to China, the same bonding and hospitality occur.
These myriad activities have elevated the status of Hmong Americans as leaders in business, culture, politics and education. Others around the world have come to perceive them as champions in fostering friendship and solidarity; in local and international politics, especially in getting their issues addressed by the United Nations and other bodies; and in making voices of Hmong heard around the world. In other words, the international Hmong community has come to see Hmong Americans as their representative on the world stage. Hmong in other countries still go through their respective and government channels, assume their local identity as Lao Hmong, Chinese Hmong or Thai Hmong, but they know now that they are part of another identity, the transnational global Hmong community. Thus, the role of Hmong Americans is similar to that of the U.S. government in pushing for the rights of oppressed people around the globe.
Emergence of Hmong American Entrepreneurial Spirit
In my perspective, the political and economic system of the U.S. has contributed positively to the Hmong ability to take the initiative in achieving entrepreneurial success. With freedom and opportunities come incentives to compete and do well. This is one of the Hmong traits in life: desire to compete (or sib twv in Hmong), to excel and improve one’s living conditions (sib twvuaneej). This is seen as critical to advance one’s life stages. The Hmong are not happy with remaining at the same spot. Traditionally, when moving villages, they wanted to find better pastures and more fertile farming land, so they could make a better living and accumulate wealth. In America with its capitalist economy, some Hmong have especially thrived, following this age-old migration from one city to another, from one life stage to the next in search of better opportunities.
Living in a capitalist economy with private ownership of the means of production and personal profit as main incentives, Hmong appear to have readily adopted free enterprise based on minimal government intervention and a free market. Few Hmong like the socialist economy in Laos, where they had to work under cooperatives; return half of the goods they produced to the government; and before the 1920s, pay colonial tax in the form of opium and silver coins to the French authorities. Now in the U.S., citizenship includes the obligation and benefits of paying income taxes, which support public education and other services.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when Hmong refugees were trying with urgency to re-build their lives, they accepted any jobs they could find, most of which were unskilled. Exceptions to these were individuals who worked as translators, teacher aides, or welfare service workers dealing with Hmong refugees. In 1983, when I first visited the U.S., this was the situation. As former soldiers and subsistence farmers, Hmong refugees did not have the business acumen or capital to start their own businesses. Yet, during my research in 1985, I was surprised to see that the Hmong of Merced, California were already running two thriving grocery shops and a pig farm. Their Hmong neighbors in Fresno were working in their own market gardens, growing vegetables for sale in farmers’ markets across the state, from Los Angeles to San Jose, or even engaging in commercial agricultural activities, selling to large wholesale distributors. At that time, except for a few who had accumulated enough money to buy their own small farms, most Hmong were leasing land from other people.
As most Hmong were used to agricultural work in Laos, it is not surprising that many wanted to return to an area in which they had knowledge and expertise. Yet, what they were doing was not subsistence farming, but commercial enterprise, something few of them had undertaken before. Skills required for this venture were far ranging, including bookkeeping, negotiating with buyers, and keeping up with new product development. Initially, many had been able to cope with these requirements with the assistance of their fast-learning children, and later, learn to deal with the situation themselves through practical experiences. Although many Hmong families still engage in market gardening today, most in the 1980’s found it difficult as a way of making a long-term living[i] (Dunnigan et al. 155-156) .
During my most recent stay in the U.S. from 2006 to 2008, I could see clearly how far Hmong Americans have progressed. Across the country, I was astounded to discover this successful diversification into many areas of businesses. Granted that most of them still cater largely to Hmong consumers, this high rate of participation as service providers within the U.S. economy is to be admired. In Detroit, for example, many Chinese restaurants and take-outs are operated by Hmong Americans. Similar developments can be seen in the Twin Cities, including grocery stores and specialty shops. A striking recent development are two Hmong flea markets in St Paul, which attract thousands of shoppers per week, including out-of-state and overseas visitors. Based on one estimate, they bring in $4-$5 million dollars a week to stall holders and operators (Lee PaoXiong, personal communication). In addition, many Hmong are real estate agents, financial planners and lenders, accountants, lawyers, doctors and chiropractors. A Hmong American presence in these latter fields is especially noteworthy in Minnesota and Wisconsin .
Cultural Innovations in the United States
Hmong cultural development has been made richer, more complex and interesting through the innovations of young Hmong Americans who have added new music and dances to their repertoires. Every year, groups of young Hmong American men and women compete at Hmong New Year festivals and other venues to showcase their creativity and originality. Many elements in their dances are inspired by cultures other than their own, including Indian, Chinese, Lao and Thai. Yet, their performances have retained stylistic qualities unique to Hmong through improvisation and clever use of Hmong costumes. Furthermore, Hmong culture has been transformed through visits by Hmong Americans to Laos, Thailand, or China to join New Year celebrations, or do sight-seeing in order to get a taste of the diversity of Hmong people and cultures around the world. Even a quick trip to the Hmong flea markets in St. Paul can be just as eye-opening regarding how Hmong identity has been redefined in the current global environment of rapid exchanges of information, ideas, and material cultures. To look at displays of Hmong traditional herbal medicine, hand-made embroideries, ethnic costumes from the homeland, and publications on the Hmong worldwide is to contemplate the evolving and elusive nature of what is “Hmong” itself.
Hmong spirit of enterprise is most amply manifested by the many ways in which Hmong Americans have tried to “package” their cultural heritage for personal use as well as for commercial consumption. In response to radical changes to their family and community life, many film makers are capturing and preserving on film Hmong tradition and cultural practices. Vast quantities of music videos, feature films, and video documentaries are now available in Hmong. Made each year by enterprising Hmong American individuals and Hmong American media companies, these films, documentaries, and music videos are intended mainly for Hmong consumers in the U.S. and other Western countries as a way to reflect on where they have been and where they are now. Themes in these amateur productions range from rock music and martial arts action to documentaries on Hmong life in Thailand, Laos, and China. In addition, Thai, Korean, Indian and Chinese films have been dubbed in Hmong for older viewers, thus expanding their cultural horizons and global awareness.
Along with Hmong self-image or identity, Hmong culture has undergone much change during the last thirty years. Even Hmong language has been affected. Many young people living in Western countries and the homeland are no longer fluent in their mother tongue. While some have tried steadfastly to maintain their culture, others are embracing modernity by adopting ideas and practices from the mainstream culture in which they live. In the U.S., one symbol of change is that costumes, which were unique markers of ethnic identity, such as the distinct clothing of White Hmong and Blue Mong, are now used interchangeably by all Hmong groups.
At the same time, Hmong Americans are careful to maintain cultural skills and practices which many Hmong believe to be essential to their identity across generations. In fact, parents encourage their children to take lessons in playing qeej, practicing songs and funeral chants, performing dances, learning needlework, and developing Hmong language fluency (including reading and writing as well as speaking). Mutual assistance associations in many cities offer after-school cultural programs. The Hmong Culture Center in St Paul and similar organisations in other cities have served as excellent venues for these learning activities. Equally important, young people are acquiring invaluable cultural knowledge from older generations. For example, they are learning ritual chants and songs from their grandfathers, fathers and uncles, and subsequently, taking part in funerals to gain hands-on experiences in honing their skills.
Since the mid-1990’s, the Internet has contributed to the enrichment of Hmong culture and intellectual development. Hundreds of websites on Hmong history, culture and other issues of concern are now available. Hmong today are able to enjoy reading and writing in their own language by recomposing and disseminating cultural information through books and other communication media, including television, radio broadcasts, and newspapers.
Being and Becoming in New Places
In my view, three traits have enabled Hmong Americans to take great steps forward in the U.S. First of all, they have capably dealt with great hardship, political persecution and racial discrimination. While subjected to centuries of domination by other ethnic groups, including Chinese, French, Japanese and Lao, they have strengthened their self-sufficiency and mutual support systems. During times of war, Hmong were driven by the need to survive. They had to be ready to live a life on the run, to accumulate food reserves to feed their families from one day to the next, and to build makeshift shelters with whatever tools they had. Discontent in the refugee camps with surviving only on United Nations food assistance, they went outside to work for local Thai farmers for wages, not matter how small the pay and how risky the undertaking. To this day, Hmong understand how important it is to make the most out of a good opportunity, whether a fertile piece of farming land or a profitable market. Wherever they settle, they need to feel that they can help themselves; they can make use of their own two hands to feed their families. After the destruction of their entire way of life in Laos, Hmong were intent on establishing families, clans and community that would endure in a new land. To regain pride in themselves, they wanted to control their own fate.
The second main trait for Hmong Americans is that a person belongs not only to a family, but also to an extended family network. One has obligations to reach beyond oneself, to family members and others in need, and to contribute to American society as a full citizen. Mutual dependence is expected, and mutual support provided. For this reason, a family in the U.S. feels obligated to help relatives left behind in refugee camps of Thailand or villages of Laos.
Finally, a major trait contributing to Hmong American progress during the last thirty years is that they have learned from the success of other people; they continually try to apply ideas they have become familiar with in urban America. At a 1998 Hmong National Development conference presentation, I expressed hope that Hmong would learn to be in relationships with other people, and to open themselves to new experiences, so that they can discover new ideas and work with other groups for mutual benefits (Lee, 1998). I am glad to see that many have now taken up this challenge. They have done this not only through formal education, but also through the contacts they have in their everyday life, at work, at school, through the media and across the fence with their neighbours. Over time, Hmong Americans have gradually developed networking skills, enabling them to advance and contribute as much as they can to American society .
Since Hmong people everywhere are changing, the issue of possessing an “authentic” Hmong cultural identity is no longer as important. Will the spirit of enterprise, which has been essential to Hmong American economic, social and cultural development up to this time, continue at the same pace of transformation? Considering that they used to be soldiers and subsistence farmers in the hills of Laos, away from centres of the bright life and education, they have done very well for themselves in their new country. Greater changes lie ahead, but there is much for Hmong Americans to look forward to, including even more economic and educational advancement.
Culture is the main area of concern as more and more of the younger generation becomes assimilated and adopts the values and practices of mainstream society, and as members of the first generation pass away and leave their ideas behind to be revitalised and made relevant to the lives of future generations. There is no doubt that a new Hmong identity, with its full range of nuances and subtleties, will emerge as young people become more and more integrated into a multicultural society with an international outlook. As yet, it is difficult to predict what this identity will be. For now, the Hmong have become a transnational community without borders. They have formed a global identity encompassing many subgroups, traditional markers and dialects, woven into the many layers of national and international images of themselves as Hmong and American.
As Rabbi Kushner observes: “When you are young, you admire people who are smart and strive to be like them, to use them as role models. And that is good. But as you grow older you admire people who are kind. In our youth, we do things for ourselves but in our maturity, we do things mostly for other people” (2001 5). As my life journey has revealed, the acceptance of a multi-layered set of self-concepts can make each of us a richer and more capable human being. As exemplified by the experience of Hmong and Hmong Americans, self acceptance, along with respect for others, is a rewarding path to building a healthy global family .
Geddes, William. Migrants of the Mountains: The Cultural Ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.
Lee, Gary Yia. Dust of Life. St Paul, MN: Hmongland Publishing, 2004.
Schein, Louise. “Hmong/Miao Transnationality: Identity Beyond Culture.” Hmong/Miao in Asia. Ed. Nicholas Tapp et al. Chiangmai: Silkworm Books, 2004. 273-290.
Dunnigan, Timothy, et al. “Hmong.” Case Studies in Diversity: Refugees in America in the 1990s. Ed. David Haines. Westport: Praeger, 1997. 145-166.
Xiong, Lee Pao. Personal Communication. 30 Sept. 2007.
Lee, Gary Yia. “Hmong Living Their Dreams - Then and Now.” Closing Keynote Address, 4th Annual Hmong National Conference, 16-18 April 1998, Denver, CO. Available at www.garyyialee.com.
Kushner, Rabbi Harold. Living a Life That Matters. London: Pan Books, 2001.