by Carl L. Bankston III
Social scientists estimate that there are between six and seven million Hmong in the world. Until recently, almost all Hmong lived in the mountains of southern China, Laos, Thailand, and northern Vietnam. Chinese oppression during the nineteenth century and the rise of communism in Vietnam following World War II pushed many Hmong into Laos, where about 300,000 Hmong lived peacefully during the 1960s. After the royal Laotian government was overthrown by Communist forces in 1975, about one-third of the Laotian Hmong were killed, another third fled to Thailand, and the remaining third stayed in Laos. Many of those who took refuge in Thailand found homes in France, Australia, or the United States. Overall, about 95,000 Hmong have settled in the United States. The Hmong are sometimes referred to as the Meo in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. In China, one of the official "nationalities" is Miao, a group that includes Hmong, ancient predecessors of the Hmong, and non-related peoples. Each of these terms means "savage," a name that the Hmong understandably find insulting.
The Hmong can be grouped in many ways, including by the typical color or design of their clothing. According to Hmong legend, these divisions developed as a result of ancient Chinese conquerors who forced the Hmong to divide into different groups and to identify themselves by wearing distinctive clothing. White, Black, Flowery, Red, Striped, and Cowery Shell are some of these divisions. Another method of identifying subgroups is by their dialect. Most Hmong Americans are speakers of either Hmoob Dawb ("White Hmong") or Moob Leeg (no English translation). Though the Moob Leeg do not identify themselves as such, the White Hmong call them the Blue Hmong or the Green Hmong. This does not mean that most Hmong Americans are members of the White or Blue/Green color group, because the linguistic and color distinctions overlap and cut across groups. The kingroup is a more important identifier than language or color affiliation. In Laos, there are about 20 of these patriclans, all identified by family names.
Though Hmong agriculture has undergone many changes since the establishment of the People's Republic of Laos, the Hmong live in villages with economies based on raising livestock—mostly cattle and pigs—and growing crops. They grow rice, mostly of the dry land varieties, and vegetables in abundance. They practice swidden (slash and burn) agriculture, meaning that the Hmong clear fields by burning, thereby fertilizing the ground with ashes. Since this kind of agriculture exhausts soil rapidly, Hmong villages must constantly be on the move. Their principal crops are corn and opium poppies, which they use for medicines and spiritual ceremonies or sell to local traders.
Chinese historical sources indicate that the Hmong have lived in China since 2000 b.c. Many scholars believe that they may have lived in Siberia prior to this date because blond hair and blue eyes are occasionally found among the Hmong.
For centuries, the Hmong, who lived in the mountainous regions of southern China, struggled against the Chinese government to maintain their distinctive ethnic identity. In the 1700s Chinese generals convinced Sonom, the last Hmong king, to surrender, promising him that the Hmong would be treated well and that his surrender would bring an honorable peace to the mountains. Instead, Sonom was taken to Beijing where he, his officers, and his advisors were tortured to death in the presence of the Chinese Emperor.
After China was defeated by the British in the first Opium War (1842), the imperial Chinese government was forced to pay indemnities to the victors. To raise money, the government of China levied heavy taxes on its subjects, thus increasing tension between Chinese authorities and the Hmong minority. Between 1850 and 1880, the Hmong waged a series of wars against the Chinese. Unsuccessful in their rebellion, the Hmong fled southward; the majority of these emigrants settled in Laos, although many Hmong also migrated to Vietnam and Thailand.
THE HMONG IN LAOS
In Laos, the Hmong met new oppressors—the French—who had claimed Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as part of their vast Indochinese Empire. French taxation led to two major revolts against the French by the Hmong, one in 1896 and one in the 1920s. (The second revolt was initiated by Pa Chay, who called for the establishment of an independent Hmong kingdom and remains a hero to many Hmong today.)
In an effort to pacify the Hmong, the French established an autonomous Hmong district that was allowed to partake in self-government. This created competition, however, between the heads of two prominent families in the district, one headed by Fong and one by Bliayao. In 1922 a feud broke out between their over which group would rule the district. To defuse the perilous situation, the French organized a democratic election for chief of the district in 1938. Touby Lyfong, the son of Fong, won the election, defeating his cousin Faydag Lobliayao, the son of Bliayao. The subsequent rivalry between these two men and their followers led to the permanent political separation of the Hmong in Laos. Touby Lyfong made common cause with the French and later allied himself with the Americans in their fight against the North Vietnamese. Faydang Lobliayao, on the other hand, joined forces with the Lao nationalists, who favored total independence from France, and later became an important leader of the Lao Communist forces.
U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
The United States became involved in Southeast Asia to preserve a non-Communist regime in South Vietnam. Because the Pathet Lao, the communist guerrillas of Laos, were allied with North Vietnam's Viet Minh (later known as the Viet Cong ), the United States provided economic and tactical support to the royal Lao government to fight the guerrillas as well as North Vietnamese troops. Many of the individuals recruited by the U.S. government were Hmong led by Vang Pao, an anti-Communist Hmong military leader who had earlier assisted the French. According to many sources, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials who organized the Hmong army promised the soldiers, who numbered 40,000 by 1969, that the United States would resettle the Hmong if they were defeated.
After American troops were withdrawn from Indochina in 1973, the Lao government was forced to negotiate with its enemies and to bring the pro-North Vietnamese leftists into a coalition government. Following the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975, the leftists in Laos consolidated their political power, the royal government crumbled, the king abdicated his throne, and the Lao People's Democratic Republic was proclaimed. Despite General Vang Pao's insistence that the United States resettle all of the Hmong soldiers, the U.S. government evacuated only about 1,000 Hmong in the first year.
The new Laotian government sent many Hmong to harsh reeducation camps. Others continued to fight against the new government. Still other Hmong made their way across the border into Thailand, where they stayed in refugee camps for months or, in some cases, years. It has been estimated that some 55,000 Hmong remain in such camps.
Mouachou Mouanoutoua in 1988, cited in Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America, edited by Sucheng Chan (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).
"B eing an American is really espousing the founding principles of freedom, no matter whether you speak the language or not.... And I think the Hmong ... know in their hearts that these principles are what they have fought for, even in Laos—the basic principles of freedom."
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
In December 1975 the United States agreed to begin resettling the Hmong in America and Congress admitted 3,466 individuals. In 1976, 10,200 refugees from Laos (who had fled across the border into Thailand) were admitted to the United States; some of these immigrants were Hmong, although there is no official record of them. The number of Laotian immigrants then dipped to only 400 in 1977, but climbed to 8,000 in 1978. By the early 1980s, about 50,000 Hmong were living in the United States. By the time of the 1990 U.S. Census the number of Hmong in the United States had doubled to almost 100,000 people. Of the foreign-born Hmong in the United States in 1990, 75 percent had arrived during the 1980s, the majority of whom had arrived in the first half of the decade.
In 1990 the majority of Hmong Americans lived in California (43,000), Minnesota (more than 17,000), and Wisconsin (16,000). By the summer of 1999, the number of Hmong in Minnesota had reached an estimated 70,000. When the Hmong began arriving in the United States in the mid- to late-1970s, American refugee resettlement agencies dispersed the 12 traditional groups all over the country, placing small groups in 53 different cities and 25 different states, where voluntary agencies such as churches could be found to sponsor the refugees. Between 1981 and 1985, however, the Hmong reassembled through massive secondary migration, making their way across the country in small family groups. Drawn by the lure of reforming their kingroup-based society and by the moderate climate of the Pacific Coast, the majority congregated in farming towns and small cities in California, primarily Fresno (18,000), Merced (7,500), Sacramento (5,000), Stockton (5,000), and Chico, Modesto, and Visalia (6,000).
Acculturation and Assimilation
Hmong Americans generally have a very positive view of their new country and younger generations tend to understand both cultures quite well. However, there is a general ignorance of the Hmong on the part of most Americans. Many Americans find it difficult to distinguish them from the Vietnamese or other Asian groups. Insofar as stereotypes have arisen, the Hmong are often seen as hard-working, but also extremely foreign. Many Americans are also perplexed by the rituals of the Hmong and by the music that often accompanies them. Nonetheless, Hmong Americans tend to be friendly to members of other groups and welcome attempts on the part of outsiders to learn more about their culture. The Hmong themselves are rapidly becoming an American minority, rather than an alien group in American society. As of 1990, about one-third of the Hmong in the United States were born in this country. Since Hmong Americans tend to be very young, the proportion of Hmong who have personal memories of Laos is decreasing rapidly.
Many Hmong customs are not practiced in the United States, especially by those who have converted to Christianity. As might be expected in a group that has experienced such rapid social change, Hmong Americans are still trying to sort out which traditions may be retained in the new land, and which traditions must be left behind.
MYTHS, LEGENDS, AND FOLKTALES
In recent years, efforts have been made to record and preserve the Hmong's ancient stories as younger members of the ethnic group are drawn into the mass media-based American culture. One of the most comprehensive collections is the large, bilingual volume Myths, Legends, and Folktales from the Hmong of Laos (1985), edited by Charles Johnson.
The stories told by the Hmong date back to before they became part of the Chinese Empire. Magic, supernatural events, and spirits occupy a prominent place in these stories and, as in the folktales of other nations, animals can often talk. People are occasionally transformed into animals, or animals into people. Reincarnation is common and characters may reappear after their deaths. Many Hmong stories convey moral lessons, relaying happy outcomes for honest, hard-working, and virtuous individuals, and unfortunate outcomes for the evil, lazy, or selfish.
Hmong literature in America is largely preserved by older Hmong. Young Hmong Americans, like young Americans of many ethnic groups, are frequently more familiar with the lore of pop culture than with the lore of their ancestors. The Hmong and those familiar with them, however, recognize the oral literature as a unique repository of spiritual values and hope that some of it may be saved.
The New Year Festival (noj peb caug ) is the most important Hmong American holiday. In Laos, this holiday begins with the crowing of the first rooster on the first day of the new moon in the twelfth month, or harvest time, and lasts four to seven days. The scheduling is somewhat more flexible in America and does not usually last as long, but it always takes place around the time of the new moon in December. The New Year festival is the only holiday shared by the entire Hmong community and is an important occasion for bringing different Hmong families together.
The purpose of the New Year ceremonies is to get rid of the evil influences of the old year and to invoke good fortune for the new. One of the central rituals of the New Year ceremonies is the "world renewal ritual." This involves a small tree traditionally brought in from the forest (although Hmong Americans may use a green stick, or other symbolic tree), which is placed in the ground at the celebration site. One end of a rope is tied to the top of the tree and the other end is held by one of the participants or tied to a rock. An elder stands near the tree holding a live chicken. The elder chants while the people circle the tree three times clockwise and four times counter-clockwise. The chanting during the clockwise movement is intended to remove the accumulated bad fortune of the previous year and the chanting during the counter-clockwise movement is intended to call out good fortune. The evil fortune, in the traditional perspective, is believed to accumulate in the blood of the chicken. After the participants have finished circling the tree, the elder is supposed to take the chicken to a remote place in the forest and cut its throat to take away the evil influences, but this practice is frequently not carried out in the United States.
Other rituals associated with the New Year ceremonies involve calling home the ancestral spirits to enjoy the festivities with the living and offering sacrifices to the guardian spirits of each house. For American Hmong, the New Year serves as an opportunity to reaffirm their culture and to teach their children about their traditions. For this reason, New Year celebrations in the United States usually involve displays of traditional cultural practices, such as dances, intended to educate Hmong children born in the United States. Aspects of western culture, such as performances by rock bands, have been integrated into the ceremonies. Many New Year exhibitions and practices show a merging of custom with newly acquired cultural practices, as when young Hmong women participate in beauty pageants wearing their elaborate traditional dresses.
Because the New Year holiday brings together people from different clans, it is considered an important occasion for young couples to meet one another. Ball games, in which long lines of young unmarried men and women toss a ball back and forth with their favorites, are a colorful tradition brought to America that may be seen at each New Year celebration.
Traditional Hmong methods for healing are based on shamanism, which includes the use of herbal medicines and massage. Shamanistic health practices stem from the belief that illness is essentially spiritual in nature. For this reason, some western students of Hmong shamanism have characterized it as a form of psychotherapy.
The shamanistic view of the world considers reality as being composed of two parts: the visible and the invisible. The visible part of the world is the material reality that we see around us. The invisible part of the world is the realm of spirits, including the souls of the living, the spirits of the dead, care-taker spirits, malevolent spirits, and others. The shaman is capable of making contact with the spirit world and dealing with it on the behalf of others.
The Hmong recognize that illness can result from many causes, so the method of treatment depends on the source of disease. One of these causes is the loss of one's spirit or soul. It may become disconnected from the body and wander away, so that the body becomes alienated from the spiritual essence. Fear, loneliness, separation from loved ones, and other emotional stresses can rip the soul away from the body. This leads to a variety of physical symptoms, such as loss of weight and appetite, which usually lead to more serious diseases.
The "soul-caller" is one of the most important roles of traditional Hmong health care experts. There are many methods of calling a wandering soul back to its body. In less serious illnesses, parents or other family members may be able to perform the rituals needed. If a baby cries during the night, for example, an adult family member may go to the door and swing a burning stick back and forth to light the way for the baby's soul to return. In more serious illnesses, a shaman will be needed to perform rituals that typically include animal sacrifices.
Lost souls may also be found by someone who has a neng, a healing spirit in his own body. The neng and the healing skills that accompany it must be inherited from a clan member. A healer who has a neng can not only find lost souls, but he can also cure illnesses caused by evil spirits, frequently by engaging in battle with the evil spirit that has brought the sickness.
The Hmong have a great knowledge of curative herbs and most Hmong households in the United States have small herbal gardens. Women are almost always experts in herbal medicines. Herbs and massages are often combined to treat ailments such as stomach aches.
While the Hmong are, generally speaking, a healthy people, during the late 1970s and 1980s, Hmong Americans attracted nationwide attention as victims of Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome. Similar to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the illness strikes during sleep. The mysterious fatalities occurred almost exclusively among men, most of whom showed no prior signs of illness. Physicians have connected the disease to breathing difficulties, but many Hmong ascribe it to an evil spirit that sits on the chests of victims during slumber.
Western-style health care professionals often have difficulty winning the confidence of Hmong patients because their concepts of illness are so different. Those who have written on the subject feel that doctors, nurses, and other health-care providers who work with the Hmong must try to better understand the Hmong approach. Some have also pointed out that the Hmong, with their intimate knowledge of herbal medicines, have much to teach American doctors.
The primary dialect spoken by most Hmong in the United States is either Hmoob Dawb ("White Hmong") or Moob Leeg (no English translation). Hmoob Dawb speakers refer to Moob Leeg speakers as Hmoob Ntsaub, Blue/Green Hmong. Hmong is monosyllabic and tonal, meaning that it consists mainly of one-syllable words and that the tone of a word affects meaning. Hmong uses eight different tones, more than the average of other Asian tonal languages.
According to Hmong oral tradition, after joining the Chinese Empire, the Hmong lost their original writing system and any Hmong caught using the Hmong alphabet was punished with death. Women of the tribes tried to keep the alphabet alive by sewing the letters into the patterns of their traditional clothes. Portions of this alphabet can be found on Hmong clothing today, but few people are capable of reading these carefully preserved designs.
Prior to the mid-twentieth century, those Hmong who could write their language usually did so with Chinese characters. In the 1950s, American and French missionaries in Laos developed the Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA), a means of writing Hmong with a version of the alphabet used by English and other western European languages. Because the Hmong language is substantially different from European languages, however, some characteristics of the RPA are not familiar to English speakers.
Each of the eight tones is indicated by a consonant written at the end of the word. When the letter "b," for example, is written at the end of a word, it is not pronounced. It serves merely to indicate that this word is spoken with a high tone. The letter "j" at the end of a word indicates a high-falling tone, a bit like the descending intonation or pitch of "day-o" in the popular Caribbean song. A word ending in "v" is to be spoken with a mid-rising tone, similar to the intonation at the end of a question in English. Moreover, at the end of a word, "s" indicates a mid-low tone, "g" indicates a mid-low breathy tone, and "m" at the end of a word is spoken with a low, glottalized tone, a tensing of the throat. Words ending in "d" have a low-rising tone.
Most of the vowels and consonants that do not occur at the ends of words have pronunciations similar to those of western European languages, but there are some differences. The consonant "x" is pronounced like the English "s," while "s" is pronounced like the English "sh." Likewise, "z" in the RPA has the sound of the "s" in "leisure." The Hmong "r" has no equivalent in English, but is closer to the English "t" or "d" than to the English sound "r." The consonant "c" in this writing system has a sound similar to the sound that "t" and "y" would make if we pronounced the words "quit you" very rapidly. The consonant "q" is like the English "k" or "g" but is pronounced further back in the throat. Finally, "w" has a sound that linguists call the "schwa," the vowel sound in the word "but," and "aw" is a longer version of this sound, somewhat like the vowel sound in "mud."
GREETINGS AND OTHER POPULAR EXPRESSIONS
The White Hmong phrases given here are written in the Romanized Popular Alphabet described above. Therefore, in words that end in consonants, the final consonant is not pronounced. It indicates the tone with which the word should be spoken.
Common greetings include: Koj tuaj los? —"You've come?"; Kuv tuaj —"I've come"; and Mus ho tuaj —"Come again." It is not usually regarded as polite to ask a stranger's name but a Hmong may turn to someone else and ask Tus no yog leej twg tub? —"Whose son is this?"; Tus no yog leej tus ntxhais? —"Whose daughter is this?"; Tus no yog leej tus pojniam? —"Whose wife is this?"; or Tus no yog leej tus txiv? —"Whose husband is this?" It is both polite and common to ask where someone lives: Koj nyob qhov twg? —"Where do you live?" If a visitor starts to leave, a Hmong host may say Nyob. Wb tham mentsis tso maj —"Stay, and we'll chat a little first," since it is considered polite to try to keep visitors from leaving. Two useful phrases for anyone wanting to learn a little Hmong are: Qhov no yog dabtsi? —"What's this?" and Lus Hmoob hais li cas (English concept)? —"How is (English concept) said in Hmong?"
Family and Community Dynamics
Adjusting to life in a highly industrialized society has not been easy for the Hmong. In 1990, almost two-thirds of Hmong Americans (63.6 percent) lived below the poverty level, compared to seven percent of white Americans, and just over 23 percent of black Americans. Their median household income of $14,276 was one of the lowest of any ethnic or national group in the United States. As a result, about three out of every four Hmong families (74.1 percent) were receiving public assistance in 1990.
Many of the difficulties faced by Hmong Americans result from inadequate educational preparation. Having lived in a society based on agriculture and hunting, formal education was simply not a part of the traditional Hmong upbringing. Most adults, therefore, have very few educational credentials. Nearly 55 percent of Hmong over the age of 25 in the United States have less than a fifth grade education, and nearly 70 percent are not high school graduates. Despite these handicaps, however, Hmong born or raised in the United States have shown surprisingly high rates of college attendance. Almost 32 percent of Hmong aged 18 to 24 were in college in 1990, a rate of college attendance that is slightly below that of white Americans (39.5 percent) and slightly above that of black Americans (28.1 percent).
According to the 1990 U.S. Census, the average Hmong family has 6.38 individuals, compared to 3.73 individuals for the average Asian American family, 3.06 for the average white American family, and 3.48 for the average African American family. Over 60 percent of Hmong Americans were below the age of 18 in 1990 and the median age of Hmong Americans was 12.7 years, compared to 30.4 years for other Asian Americans and 34.1 years for Americans in general. The size of Hmong families, therefore, contribute to the economic difficulties of the group, since adults must use their incomes to support more children than are found in most American households. However, while the extreme youth of Hmong Americans may complicate family economic situations at present, this youth, combined with the educational achievement of young Hmong people, is a source of great potential for future upward mobility.
Hmong families in America generally regard men as the head of the family and chief decision-maker. Nonetheless, women often wield a great deal of power in the family, since they usually have primary responsibility for the household. This is partially due to the fact that Hmong homes are viewed as "child-centered" places, where small children are regarded as treasures. As chief care-givers for children, Hmong-American women can be extremely influential in their communities.
The ways in which Hmong American parents try to keep track of their children reflects their situation as new immigratns. They do not want the enculturation of their children taken completely out of their hands. The language and ways of their ancestors remain important to the parents who wish to see such valuable social attributes live on. Though some might view this as exercising a high degree of control over their children's lives, it would be more accurate to say that they want to teach and guide their children just like other American parents. Young Hmong Americans, however, sometimes have difficulty in seeing the relevance of cultural values important to their parents. As a result of this generation gap, some social workers and people who work with agencies serving the Hmong say that teenaged runaways have become a major issue among Hmong Americans and other Southeast Asian refugee groups.
While the extended family is the basic unit of social organization for the Hmong in Asia, those in the United States often find difficulty in maintaining the tradition of the extended family. It is not possible for large numbers of people to live together under one roof in the new country due to landlord and government regulations on fire and housing codes. Hmong Americans, therefore, have had to break up into nuclear-style families. However, extended family members almost always live in close proximity to one another and assist newcomers with living expenses, child care, and adaptation to American society.
Although Hmong kinship groups are still recognized in the United States, they have become less important to Hmong Americans. Respected elders previously took their functions from the rituals they performed in traditional ceremonies. Since the conversion of some Hmong to Christianity, however, these traditional ceremonies have become less important and less common. Also, many of the ceremonies require the sacrifice of animals, which is often illegal and typically frowned upon by other Americans. Many elders are gradually being replaced by newer and younger leaders who are well-educated and fluent in English and are, therefore, better able to help their families and other Hmong with the nuances of American society. These elders, however, are still held in high regard and receive deference from the young. Newer leaders rely on the moral authority and blessings of the elders.
Mus Thawj thiab, "go become again" or more simply "reincarnation," is a traditional Hmong belief. Thus, every child born is seen as a reincarnated soul. Children officially join human society three days after they are born. If a child dies within three days, no funeral ceremonies are held since the child did not have a soul yet. After three days of life, a shaman evokes a soul to be reincarnated in the baby's body. The family's ancestors are called upon to join the living family members in blessing the incarnation and in protecting the baby. The baby is then given a silver necklace that is supposed to keep the newly reincarnated soul from wandering.
Hmong marriage customs, as well as popular attitudes toward marriage, have undergone rapid change as a result of the move to America. In Laos, it is incestuous, and, therefore, forbidden for members of the same patriclan who share the same family to marry. Men and women with different family names, however, may get married regardless of their blood relationship. Most often, young people in Laos met potential mates at the New Year's Festival, which brought together people from different villages. At the Festival, young women wore their most colorful skirts and showed off their sewing and embroidery skills, while young men displayed their horse-riding and other skills, and sometimes played musical instruments to serenade the young women. Men generally married at any age between 18 and 30, while women often married between 14 and 18.
Traditional Hmong marriages required the prospective groom to secure a go-between, most often a relative, who bargained with the young woman's family for a bridal price, usually paid in silver bars. Marriages were made public by a two-day feast, featuring a roasted pig. This feast symbolically joined the clans of the bride and groom as well as the bride and groom themselves.
When a suitor could not reach an agreement on bridal price with the woman's family, the couple sometimes eloped. This practice became especially common after World War II when the social disruptions of war loosened parental control. Following the elopement, outside arbitrators helped to find an acceptable bridal price to pay in settlement.
Though always regarded as a serious transgression by the Hmong, young men with poor marriage prospects might attempt to abduct a woman and force her into marriage. Families without a formidable kin group to back them could not always prevent this from happening to their daughters. Usually the abductor and his relatives would offer the unwilling bride's family some form of payment in hopes of mollifying them. The government in Laos did not intervene in such situations, but the U.S. government does. Naturally, the practice has become extremely rare here.
Although most Hmong men had one wife, polygyny, or marriage with several women, was an accepted practice. During the war, polygyny became common due to the custom that required Hmong men to marry the widows of their dead brothers in order to provide a means of support for the brothers' families. Wealthy men often had several wives as symbols of affluence. Moreover, leaders sometimes married several times to establish political alliances.
American culture and law has made it necessary for the Hmong to change many of their attitudes and practices with regard to family. On occasions, those who have failed to drop older practices have found themselves in conflict with the American legal system. There have been a few instances of young Hmong American men kidnapping and sexually assaulting young females. While they may have considered this a culturally acceptable way to enter into marriage, American law defines this kind of activity as illicit abduction and rape. Some of the young women who have been abducted have viewed the events from an American perspective and have pressed charges.
The use of negotiators to arrange a marriage remains fairly common among Hmong Americans. However, many young women wait until their late teens or early twenties to marry. Surveys of Hmong Americans indicate that the majority believe that it is best for women to delay marriage until they are at least 18 years of age. Polygyny is rarely found among Hmong Americans.
Before the Hmong came to America, the death of a family member was announced by firing three shots into the air. This action was thought to frighten away evil spirits. Today, this tradition is rarely followed by Hmong in the United States because of laws regulating the use of guns in populated areas.
The deceased is washed, dressed in new clothes, and left to lie in state. Mourners bearing gifts visit the home of the deceased, where they are fed by the family of the departed. A shaman makes an offering of a cup of alcohol to the dead person and tells the soul that the body has died. Colorful bits of paper, representing money for use in the spirit world are burned and the shaman tells the soul the route it must follow to get to the ancestors and how to avoid dangers during the journey.
INTERACTIONS WITH OTHER ETHNIC GROUPS
Hmong Americans interact most closely with ethnic Laotian Americans, with whom they work in a number of Southeast Asian refugee assistance organizations. Most Hmong who grew up in Laos or had some schooling there speak Laotian, facilitating interaction. The Hmong also maintain friendly relations with members of most other groups, but intermarriage is still relatively rare because of the continued importance of kinship groups.
The cult of spirits, shamanism, and ancestor worship compose the three major parts of traditional Hmong religion. It is a pantheistic religion, teaching that there are spirits residing in all things. According to Hmong religious beliefs, the world consists of two worlds, the invisible world of yeeb ceeb, which holds the spirits, and the visible world of yaj ceeb, which holds human beings, material objects, and nature.
The shaman is important because he can make contact with the world of the spirits. Each shaman has a set of spirits that serve as his allies in intervening with the unseen world on behalf of others. Some spirits, particularly those of ancestors, also make themselves accessible to people who are not shamans. Some households, for example, feed the spirits of their ancestors at feasts by placing a spoonful of rice and a spoonful of pork in the center of the table and inviting the spirits to share in the feast. Because women are most often in charge of medicinal herbs, they are responsible for propitiating the spirits of medicine on special altars.
Some Hmong Americans adhere to the Chao Fa (in Lao, literally, "Lord of the Sky") religion. This religion is said to have begun in Laos in the 1960s when a Hmong prophet, Yang Chong Leu (sometimes written as Shang Lue Yang), announced that the Hmong would be sent a king who would lead them to salvation from their enemies provided the Hmong rejected lowland Laotian and western ways, and returned to the ways of their ancestors. Yang Chong Leu also taught an original system of writing known as Pahawh Hmong, which is still used by adherents to Chao Fa. The prophet was killed in 1971, but his followers continued to grow in numbers and were active in the fight against the new Laotian government after 1975.
Missionaries from a wide variety of Christian denominations converted many Hmong in Laos. Even more Hmong converted to Christianity after their arrival to the United States. Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, members of the Church of Christ, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses have all been energetic in seeking converts among the Hmong in America. Since religion is regarded as the foundation of life among the Hmong, conversion has been among the most drastic social changes. In many cases, conversion to Christianity has split families, with some members taking up the new faith and some members adhering to traditional beliefs. Marriage practices, in particular, have been affected by religious conversion since many traditional Hmong practices, such as the bridal price, arranged marriage, and the marriage of girls, are strongly discouraged by Christian churches.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Since most Hmong in Asia practice agriculture, early arrivals had few transferable skills, considering America's vast industrial economy. Hence, of the 40,649 Hmong Americans who were over the age of 16 in 1990, only 11,923 had participated in the American labor force; 18.3 percent of this group were unemployed. Almost 80 percent of the Hmong Americans who are employed have blue-collar, or manual, occupations.
Employers who hire Hmong Americans generally hold high opinions of them. Most employers and managers who have experience with members of this group praise them for their hard work and honesty. Some supervisors have remarked that the Hmong have a more flexible concept of time than the American majority, and that this can sometimes lead to minor difficulties in the workplace. Most of the problems faced by Hmong Americans, though, appear to result from an inadequate command of the English language.
One of the most interesting aspects of Hmong adaptation to the American economy has been their discovery of a demand for traditional handicrafts in the American market. For centuries, Hmong women have practiced an elaborate needlecraft known as paj ntaub (also frequently spelled pa ndau ). This art combines the techniques of embroidery and applique to produce colorful, abstract, geometric designs. The needlecraft is done entirely by hand, without the use of instruments for measurement.
During the 1980s, the cottage industry of paj ntaub —which had begun in the Thailand refugee camps—emerged in large Hmong communities, especially in California. Responding to the American marketplace, Hmong artisans have begun to produce bedspreads, pillow cases, wall hangings, and other items that appeal to buyers. This emerging industry confirms Hmong cultural value, while demonstrating the economic importance of women to their families and communities.
Politics and Government
Adaptation to American society is a matter of overriding concern to Hmong organizations, most of which are geared toward helping Hmong Americans with housing, employment, language issues, and other immediate problems. The Hmong National Development is one of the largest organizations of this kind and, as such, functions as an advocate in obtaining funding for local Hmong organizations.
Hmong Americans are also passionately concerned with political events in their native land, where the Communist party that overthrew the Laotian government remains in power today. Although the government of Laos appears to have moderated its position toward political opponents in recent years, most Hmong remain strongly opposed to the regime. In fact, some American Hmong communities provide economic aid for small groups of Hmong in Laos who are still fighting the government. It has been suggested that Hmong Americans have been coerced into making contributions to anti-Communist forces in their homelands by groups operating in the United States, but this has not been definitely established.
Individual and Group Contributions
Despite the fact that the Hmong have lived in the United States for only a short period of time, many members of the Hmong American community have made significant contributions to American society. The following list represents only a few such individuals.
Dr. Bruce (Thow Pao) Bliatout is Director of the International Health Center in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Bliatout first came to the United States in 1966, as a young exchange student. He returned to Laos, where he worked for the Laotian government until 1975. He then returned to the United States and earned a Ph.D. in public health. Dr. Bliatout is an authority on Sudden Death Syndrome (SUDS), and has written widely on the subject.
Dr. Xoua Thao arrived in the United States in 1976 at the age of 14. Dr. Thao's mother is a traditional herbalist and his father is a shaman. As a result of this family background in healing, Dr. Thao developed an interest in medicine and attended medical school at Brown University, where he received his medical degree in 1989. He is currently president of Hmong National Development and is studying for a law degree.
Dr. Dao Yang lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Yang became the first Hmong to receive a Ph.D. when he received a doctorate in social economics in France. He was one of the co-founders of Hmong National Development and remains active in social issues, such as the prevention of teenage pregnancy.
Community leader Vang Pao lives in Santa Ana, California. He was leader of the Hmong army in Laos and is still widely respected, especially among older Hmong Americans.
Community activist Dia Cha (1962?– ) worked as the Asian Community Outreach Coordinator at the Mental Health Center of Boulder County in Colorado where she provided support service to Asian students and served as an intermediary between parents and faculty in the Boulder Valley Public Schools. For the Southeast Asian Tribal Collections Project at the Denver Museum of Natural History, Cha organized collection materials, conducted research, and interviewed people to gather information. As a project director with the United Nations Development Fund for Women she assessed the needs of Lao and Hmong refugee women repatriates in Laos and in the refugee camps in Thailand. She authored the book Dia's Story Cloth: The Hmong People's Journey of Freedom (1996) and compiled Folk Stories of the Hmong (1991) with Norma Livo.
California Hmong Times.
The chief Hmong publication in the United States, it publishes news and general interest articles, with a focus on the American Hmong community.
Address: 1945 North Fine Avenue #100, Fresno, California 93727-1528.
Telephone: (209) 268-8567.
Organizations and Associations
Hmong American Partnership.
Provides support services to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.
Address: 1600 West University Avenue, Suite 12, St. Paul, Minnesota 55104 .
Telephone: (651) 642-9601.
Fax: (651) 603-8399.
E-mail: [email protected]
A community organization serving America's largest Hmong population. Helps with housing problems, translations, health and social services, and conflict resolution.
Contact: Houa Yang, President.
Address: 4753 East Olive Avenue, Suite 102, Fresno, California 93702.
Telephone: (209) 456-1220.
Hmong National Development (HND).
A national, non-profit organization that promotes the interests of Hmong Americans throughout the United States. The HND helps to facilitate communication among local Hmong organizations and to advocate for increased resources to Hmong organizations and communities.
Contact: Lee Pao Xiong, President.
Address: 1326 18th Street NW, Suite 200A, Washington, D.C. 20036.
Telephone: (202) 463-2118.
Fax: (202) 463-2119.
Email: [email protected]
Lao Family Community of Minnesota.
A nonprofit mutual assistance association founded in 1977 as the Hmong Association of Minnesota. Strives to help the Hmong community strike a balance between traditional Hmong culture and modern American life.
Address: 320 West University Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota 55103.
Telephone: (651) 221-0069.
Fax: (651) 221-0276.
E-mail: [email protected]
Lao Family Community, Inc.
Contact: Pheng Lo.
Address: 807 North Joaquin, #207, Stockton, California 95202.
Telephone: (209) 466-0721.
South-East Asia Center (SEAC).
Grassroots organization seeking to assist Lao, Hmong, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Chinese refugees from Indochina.
Contact: Peter R. Porr, Executive Director.
Telephone: (773) 989-6927.
Fax: (773) 989-4871. Email: [email protected]
Sources for Additional Study
Dunnigan, Timothy, et al. "Hmong" in Refugees in America in the 1990s: A Reference Handbook, edited by David W. Haines. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America, edited by Sucheng Chan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
The Hmong Homepage. http://www.hmongnet.org (accessed August 31, 1999), last updated July 26, 1999.
Quincey, Keith. Hmong: History of a People. Cheney: Eastern Washington University Press, 1988.
Sherman, Spencer. "The Hmong in America: Laotian Refugees in the 'Land of the Giants, "' National Geographic Magazine, October 1988, pp. 586-610.
Southeast Asian-American Communities, edited by Kali Tal. Woodbridge, Connecticut: Viet Nam Generation, 1992.
Vang, Pao. Against All Odds: the Laotian Freedom Fighters. Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 1987.