Who are the Hmong people?
Written by Pakou Xiong
Nyob zoo (Nah zhong)! That’s how you say “Hello” in Hmong.
I am Hmong.
So, who are the Hmong people? Not a lot history is known or has been written about the Hmong until recently. The current generation of Hmong people is an ethnic minority group from Southeast Asia. They are a group of people who, as history has discovered, migrated from South China.
They once had their own king in China, but through persecution, migrated to the mountains of Southeast Asia where they lived an agricultural lifestyle. Their religious practice is Shamanism which involves the belief and practice of soul calling and the spiritual world.
They fought and survived many wars and are now rewriting their own history of this generation. They value the closeness of family and the opportunity of getting an education. They are loyal people who are survivors.
A brief history of the Hmong people
It wasn’t until the Vietnam War did people start to notice the Hmong people. The Vietnam War lasted for 16 years, from 1959-1975. At that time, the Hmong lived in the mountainous highlands of Southeast Asia in countries such as Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and China.
Their lifestyle was hunting, gathering and farming. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong were recruited by the United States Army to help the U.S. fight and were known as the “CIA Secret Army.”
The Hmong were recruited because of their great knowledge in the geographic terrain, their quick ability to learn and be trained and their loyalty to the U.S. Army. During this time, the Hmong were led by a great general named General Vang Pao (1929-2011). His leadership encouraged the Hmong to fight the Vietnam War alongside the U.S. Army. He is considered to be the Hmong King of this generation. His death in 2011 caused great sadness upon the Hmong people all over the world. His role as a General and as a leader for the Hmong during the Vietnam War made a significant impact on who the Hmong people are today.
After the War ended, the U.S. retreated, leaving many Hmong targets of genocide. The Hmong lost many lives and families were separated. Many Hmong fled to neighboring countries such as Thailand to seek refuge. From there, the Hmong began their new life through resettlements in many countries throughout the world, more noticeably in the United States.
Resettling in the United States
Most Hmong in the United States are refugees from the Vietnam War. As newly resettled refugees, life in the U.S. was difficult. The Hmong struggled with having to overcome language and education barriers. This impacted their ability to find good jobs and support their growing families.
This struggle was what made education an important part of Hmong American culture.
As a first generation Hmong, we did not know what the future would bring us, but all we knew was that we needed to get an education.
The Hmong did not have a written language until the 1960s when one was created by the French Missionaries. This is a Romanized written language system that is being used today. The Hmong had limited education opportunities before the War. Only the wealthier Hmong and Hmong males had such privilege. Hmong women had little to no privileges.
Kazoua Kong-Thao, Equity and Diversity Director at Minneapolis Public Schools shares her story of her mother’s encouragement that helped her pursue an education. Her mother was a stay at home mother and did not have an education, but she expressed the value of education.
Her mother told her, “I don’t know what it means, I don’t know what it looks like, but I just know I want you to have a better life.”
Veronica Vang, Co-President of the Hmong Student Association of Colorado (HSAC) is also a first generation Hmong and the first in her family to pursue higher education. Because her older siblings did not attend higher education she realized that she had to be her own role model.
Her involvement with HSAC has been a great experience because, “HSAC is my backbone support. It has allowed me to be who I am as a Hmong person and it helped me to navigate my Hmong identity.”
What has encouraged Vang to be her own role model is she understands the burden that her parents went through. She says she strives for the better, not only for us but for our parents too.
Fong Vang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in the United States. He is currently a physical education and health teacher and Athletic Director at Hmong College Prep Academy, a charter school in St. Paul, Minnesota. His passion is education.
He says, “Teaching is not only a career, but it is my calling, this school is my calling. I want to give the things I learned back to the students and help them make a better decision.”
It’s not his responsibility, but as a first generation Hmong, Vang feels what most first generation feel, to give back. Now, successful in his career, he wants to help eliminate what he went through by providing guidance to his students. He says, “In my generation, we understand the struggles of what our parents went through.”
Preserving the Hmong culture
The Hmong have two dialects, green (ntsuab) and white (dawb) dialect. The Hmong language has eight different tones and each tone may have a different meaning to it. If pronounced incorrectly, it may mean something different. Our Hmong language is very beautiful, sweet, deep and poetic.
Kong Lor, of the Kong & Shu Project, a brother music duo started their music not so much as a hobby but as a challenge to themselves to preserve and continue speaking their native Hmong language. Lor says, “We started as a duo with a mission. We said let’s be different.” Staying true to their mission, their music, talent and leadership has evolved and influenced many youths to continue speaking and writing in Hmong through music. Kong Lor also feels that, “It is our responsibility to carry on and influence others to keep their values and traditions.”
Mai Choua Lee, Miss Hmong Colorado 2012, also realized at a young age not a lot of Hmong kids were learning their roots and so that inspired her to learn more about her Hmong roots.
Lee continues to wear her traditional Hmong clothing during the Hmong New Year celebration. The Hmong New Year is the one annual Hmong celebration where the Hmong celebrate the harvest season and wear their most valued traditional Hmong clothing. It is ten day celebration which involves family eating gatherings, courtship, ball tossing, poetic singing known as kwv txhiaj (keu-sia), qeej (qheng) music performance, renewal of the alter and ancestor workshop. Lee says, “Knowing my Hmong roots is a part of my identity.”
For the Hmong, there are 18 specific clans. These clans are identifiable through the family surname. These may be familiar in Chinese family surnames because of the Hmong ancestry from China. The 18 clan names are Chang, Cheng, Chu, Fang, Hang, Her, Khang, Kong, Kue, Lo/Lor, Lee/Ly, Moua, Pha, Thao/Thor, Vue, Vang, Xiong and Yang.
The 18 clan system is very important to the Hmong. It is an identifier of who you are, your family associations and where you come from. This is especially important during marriage. In the Hmong clan system you are allowed to marry your first cousin who is of a different surname, but you are not allowed to marry someone with the same surname.
The reasoning is your clan surname identifies which family you belong to. Marrying someone with a different surname as you means you are from two different families regardless of the closeness of relationship. This clan system is what makes family so important to the Hmong culture. Somxai Vue, Hmong community leader in Colorado, expresses, “Our clan system is one of the sources that binds us together as Hmong.”
Family structure and gender roles in the Hmong household
Kong Lor emphasizes his father’s leadership in mobilizing the Hmong community to be inspirational and encourages him to become the leader he is today. The phrase, “sib pab” (she-pah), means “to help each other” and strong part of our Hmong culture is how we help each other as a way of life – through good and bad times, through death and marriage, etc.
Somxai Vue also shares that “peb sib sib hlub” (pay she-she- lou) meaning “we love each other”. Love, not commonly expressed verbally is expressed through actions in showing how we love one another. Regardless of which Hmong clan you are from, you are still greeted, respected and loved. Fong Vang states it perfectly, “Family bond is so important in the Hmong community. We respect and honor our elders.”
Traditionally, the Hmong familial structure is patriarchal. Males are considered the leaders and protectors of the family. They are the physical and spiritual welfare for the family. Female roles are to nurture children, prepare meals and perform household chores.
For Kong-Thao, even though her parents supported her pursuit of an education, they still limited her full abilities because of her gender, but she used that as motivation to work harder to become the amazing and educated person she is today.
“We are still learning to accept new gender roles. Hmong females are looked down upon more than men, but today there are more emerging women leaders and not a lot of men are used to that yet,” says Mai Choua Lee, who is currently a student at the University of Colorado Denver.
Hmong-American achievement and leadership
Over the span of less than 40 years in the United States, the Hmong have progressed quite fast. Just as the millennium hit, the Hmong has had leadership at the state and city levels, increases in the number of Hmong attending higher education, Hmong doctorate level, business owners and even Hmong millionaires.
Chelsey See Xiong shared an interesting insight that the Hmong are able to accomplish this much thanks to the Chinese and Japanese who had already established some major ground work for the Hmong. “We still need a lot of work, but we have already had the help others established for us.”
Kazoua Kong-Thao shares that, “The Hmong are the fastest refugee group to advance in education because we are hard workers.”
Hmong work hard to pursue “self-sufficiency”. She says,” In our home country, self-sufficiency was the ability to farm your plot of land. In America, self-sufficiency is the ability to drive. If you are able to drive, you can go to school, go to work and make an income and that’s an investment that your parents provide for you.”
Tou Ger Xiong is the first Hmong comedian. Through his experiences traveling all over the world, he recognizes that the Hmong are at a cross roads. Before, the Hmong were hunters and farmers. Now, the Hmong are all types, more than just farmers and hunters. He says, “This is the first time in the history of our people [the Hmong] that we can invent a new identity of being Hmong American.”
He shares that being “Hmong” adds so much more value and draws a much larger picture to what other identities we have. “We are pioneers because we are the “first” of a lot of things. It’s exciting because we have all the resources and power of the pen to rewrite our history now.”
“We are getting there and achieving so many great things as Hmong people because we stick together, “says Somxai Vue.
Veronica Vang says, “One of the hardest things is that we don’t have our own country and that plays a role in influencing who we are but at the same time our culture is dynamic because we are always changing.
The most important thing is to at least know your history and where you come from. Never be afraid to look back at our struggles.”
Kong-Thao shares one last point that, “We are survivors. We adapt and do whatever it takes.”