Academic journal article Bucknell Review

Hmong in Transition

Academic journal article Bucknell Review

Hmong in Transition

Article excerpt

IN 1989, met a Hmong family from Fresno, California who told me that there were half a million refugees from the Indochina wars in camps in Thailand and that over one hundred thousand Hmong had fled from Laos. I was surprised by the number of refugees in Thailand since I had read nothing about their existence in Thailand. Since 1990 I have been working on a body of work entitled "Indochina Document" to better understand the Indochina wars and the role that the U.S. had played in them. I also wanted to understand how the war experiences affected the people who survived them and what subsequently happened to them. In the exhibition "Hmong in Transition" I attempt to do this.

In the process of doing this work, I have gained deeper insights into the nature of cross-cultural relationships and the aftermath of war. The stories I have heard are testimony to more general social and political cultural conditions. By starting with specific lived experience I am able to better understand larger historic dynamics which are often invisible unless these images and stories are collected and told.

I tried to understand why I was so drawn to the subject of the Hmong refugee experience. Initially, I wished to understand the effect of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia after 1954 and its impact on the lives of the people in the region. I had done a great deal of work about the U.S. military-industrial complex in the 1980s and viewed this exploration as an extension of that work.

When I first met the Hmong in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand I experienced their culture as unintelligible because it was so different from my own. I could not understand animism or the role that animal sacrifice plays in their culture. Thus, I continued my research, in part, because I wanted to grasp as well as I could the meaning of their social and spiritual cultural structure. I now also realize that the story of the Hmong, a people without a country who have fought to retain their cultural identity in inhospitable situations, has some resonance with the story of the Jews. While I have a very loose affiliation with Judaism, I came to realize that my interest in the Hmong is, in part, influenced by my own heritage.

As I continued to work on this project I realized that I can tell the story of the Hmong most clearly by telling the story of several specific families. So, I studied a Hmong refugee family, Kou Chang's family, in the refugee camps in Thailand, the United States, and Laos. And I followed the Vang family, one of the original Hmong families to immigrate from China to Thailand around 1850. In this way I was able to form a much more dimensional and coherent picture of the history of the Hmong than had I interviewed unrelated individuals.

The exhibition which resulted from this work, entitled "Hmong in Transition," has four sections: 1) Refugee Camps in Thailand; 2) The United States; 3) Laos; and 4) Thailand. Each section is configured uniquely to communicate the ideas which began to emerge from this research. This exhibition now comprises over one hundred image/text works containing hundreds of photographs. It is part of a larger work entitled "Indochina Document" which includes work about Cambodia as well. To date sections of this work have been exhibited at Purdue University, San Francisco Camerawork Gallery, California Museum of Photography in Riverside, the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Cal Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, California, and California State University, Fresno.

A Brief History of the Hmong and the Second Laotian War

Hmong are a people who originated in Mongolia several thousand years ago and moved to what is now called China over a thousand years ago. They shifted to the mountains in China as more aggressive people moved into the low lands. Traditionally they are animists who use "slash and burn" agricultural techniques which results in their moving every few years. …

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