DISCOVERING THE HMONG
The ad said, "Volunteers needed to teach English to Southeast Asian women." It was September 1980, and I was out of school, working nights, so I joined the Indochinese Women's Project, 1 imagining a daytime task both humane and interesting. The project met in a big square auditorium of pale blue concrete block that was also used as a basketball court. The thirty-five Hmong and Mien women who were students in the Indochinese Women's Project were very good-natured and friendly to the six American volunteer teachers. But their behavior was unexpected: they blew their noses in the drinking fountain or wandered away during lessons. Some were intent on learning English, but others approached the classes like play, as if formal school were foreign to them. The subject was "Survival English": letters and numbers, and beginning English grammar and pronunciation, put into practice by memorizing address and phone number, figuring out packages in the grocery store, and getting prescriptions filled on field trips to the pharmacy. These were useful skills, but often the older women sat idly, and always the chatter and screams of little children interfered with the students' concentration.
My class of eleven women was entirely ignorant of English. One day the subject was the difference between singular and plural--which is formed in Hmong and Mien by a helping word such as a number before the noun, in contrast to the English use of -s or -es. It was easier for the class to hear and say the difference between "woman" and "women" ("woo-ma" and "wih-ma" to them) than between "tree" and "trees" (which they heard as "tree" and "tree"). We worked using chairs, tables, hands, eyes, pencils, and pennies.
Using pennies got us off the subject. I discovered they did not understand money and could not add or subtract. For an hour and a half we added and subtracted numbers up to ten, using pennies, nickels, and dimes. They learned that five pennies equal a nickel and ten equal a dime. Some students learned how to use the plural as attached to these coins. Incidentally they learned that our money system is based on tens, matching the number of fingers and toes.
Later I learned that in rural Laos most women didn't handle money. They engaged in gift exchange, and only men traded with cash. But at the