Changing Lives of Refugee Hmong Women

By Nancy D. Donnelly | Go to book overview
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After initial connections with particular Hmong families, I found tremendous changes in the conduct of daily life. Change was proceeding at lightning pace, too fast to record. I supposed it must be impelled by interaction with the environment, particularly the economic environment. The Hmong had come from an agrarian setting to an urban postindustrial setting with essentially no preparation for their new lives. They had a background of self-sufficiency and ethnic distinctiveness in their homeland with very limited participation in state-based politicoeconomic structures, followed by war, which brought a short period of national participation for a narrow stratum of military elites and their families, coupled with the experience for many ordinary Hmong of long-term dependency on wartime air-drops of food followed by refugee camp experience.

I had expected that in the United States, further economic adaptation by both elite and rural agricultural Hmong would produce new cultural conceptualizations of how men and women should treat each other, of what maleness and femaleness implied. I looked at economic change in two ways, studying household economic behavior by helping family members get jobs, and studying the social organization of two needlework sales cooperatives. In the five-year period 1981-85, there were many adjustments in the way families survived economically. Men took what jobs they could, whether laboring, professional, or (rarely and tentatively) entrepreneurial. Women took similar jobs or began acting as producers and intermediaries in needlework-selling operations. Welfare was a financial resource like any other. The Hmong studied English language and American society from the very beginning, from simple survival English classes at church or the YMCA to more advanced courses at community colleges, and also through interaction with American society via television, store, street, and workplace.

I did not find economic change driving social change. For first generation Hmong women, new economic activities did not seem to engender more control of economic resources or a greater sense of gender equality, although the women made explicit economic contributions to the household. Men and women retained the cultural conviction that men's words were more important than women's, that men's decisions carried more


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