Their World, Not Ours - Problems Grip the Hmong in America

Article excerpt

The six young Hmong girls dance as one, their movements fluid and graceful. Their costumes glimmer in the light, adorned with items not available in their tribal villages of Laos. The perimeter of the stage is crowded with well-behaved Hmong children. Their eyes focus on each of the performers as they catch a fleeting glimpse of their heritage on this cold November day.

The girls are performing at the Hmong New Year's celebration in Denver. As the evening progresses, cultural performances give way to a Hmong rock band. The composition of the audience changes rapidly. Most of the families leave. Hundreds of young people, aged fourteen to twenty-five, pour into the auditorium. There is a strong police presence to prevent gang fights, and the youth are screened for weapons with handheld metal detectors. As a Hmong teenager pushes through the doors, a police officer tells him he missed an excellent cultural show. "That stuff is for the old people," sniffs the boy. "That's their world, not ours."

The young Hmong spread out around the perimeter of the auditorium. They act hip and speak to each other in "Hmonglish," a combination of Hmong, English, and slang. A few of the elders remain, looking on in dismay, disappointment, and confusion. In addition to celebrating the New Year, they are witnessing the erosion and prospective elimination of their culture in the United States.

Cultural constancy

The Hmong are a Laotian hill tribe. Their culture dates back over three thousand years to China. For centuries, Hmong kingdoms and independent settlements fought with China's armies to maintain their independence. Finally they were defeated by numerically superior forces. Survivors fled to the mountainous regions in southwest China, where many still live today. The Hmong began migrating into Laos and Vietnam between 1810 and 1820.

Their mountainous villages were small, made up of fifteen to twenty homes built from lumber or bamboo with dirt floors and thatched roofs. The Hmong practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. They took pride in their complete self-sufficiency, growing their own food, tea, and tobacco. They also grew cotton, which they spun and wove for clothing, and raised chickens and pigs. The jungle provided wild game, fruits, edible plants, and building materials.

The Hmong had few laws: They didn't need any. The cohesive environment of small, loosely related villages, combined with the fear of gossip, shame, and ancestor spirits, safeguarded the codes of conduct. All the villagers knew their roles, which were clearly defined. Maladjusted teenagers and crime were virtually nonexistent.

Clan and family ties remain the foundation of Hmong culture. Every individual is held in a cocoon of kinship and clan connections from birth until death. The eighteen primary Hmong clans provide the family name for each respective clan member. Each clan name is listed first for males (Yang Dao) and last for females (Sarah Yang). The clan is further subdivided into subclans and lineages.

In the village, the household was the most significant social and economic unit. It comprised a man, his wife or wives, their unmarried children, and elderly relatives of the male lineage. Upon marriage, daughters left the household while sons remained, bringing their wives to live with them. Enculturation, the process of transmitting culture to the next generation, was very important. Everyone in the household participated in teaching the children. In this enclosed community, cultural continuity and the acceptance of norms were secure inevitabilities.

Culture in shock

Between 1960 and 1975, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency recruited the Hmong to fight communism during the Secret War in Laos. The objective of their involvement was to stop communist expansion and take pressure off U.S. troops in South Vietnam. After the American withdrawal from Southeast Asia, the Hmong were slaughtered by communist Pathet Lao and Vietnamese forces. …