Phonetically speaking, it’s actually Nyah zhong. Hello from the Hmong.
Back in 1980, The Refugee Act was passed by congress and signed by President Carter (read an article here). Even though I was in elementary school at the time, the signing of the Refugee Act has had a very large impact on my life. During the Vietnam war, the Hmong helped the CIA block the North Vietnamese from extending the Ho Chi Minh trail into Laos. Because of working with the US, the Hmong could not return to their homeland. I remember when Hmong refugees started arriving in my city.
There are several states that took in Hmong refugees. The top few are: California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina. My district has close to 30% Asian American students and that high percentage is thanks to the Hmong.
For my class today we learned about the Hmong. We learned of their involvement in the war, experience in refugee camps, family structure (clans), religion (Shamanism), beliefs about Health and Medicine, Marriages and Funerals. It was interesting, but I was hoping to learn something new.
I don’t know how extensively my classmates are involved with the Hmong. I’m sure their numbers are increasing as they move from the city to the suburbs. Most of my classmates teach in the burbs. The largest minority group in my school is Hmong. In fact, they are the largest single ethnic group at my school. Each year I learn from my students and see how the culture is evolving from when they first arrived.
When I student taught, there was a girl who barely spoke English. She was tiny and Hmong. One day after school I asked her if there was anyone at home that could help her with her math. What did she say? “My husband.” I was shocked. At the same time, I found out this girl was pregnant with her second child. There are still pregnancies with Hmong girls, but not how we used to see them.
Our speaker had mentioned that he married young. His wife was 16 when they were married. He was 21. Five years isn’t much of a difference now. But the more I think about it, that is exactly the situation that bothered me so much 14 years ago. Young girls, older husbands, pregnant teens, futures taken. How common is this practice now?
I had already had a fun conversation with my students about who they could date. The basic rule is that they can’t date someone from the same clan (same last name). There are 18 clans in my state. It’s nice to have a complete list! Chang/Cha, Chue, Cheng, Fang, Her, Hang, Khang, Kong, Lee/Ly, Kue, Lor, Moua, Pha, Thao, Vang, Xiong and Yang.
In my school we have something called the Senior Project. Each year I sit through presentations where a Hmong student has researched some aspect of their culture and presented it to a panel of teachers. From students, I’ve learned about the Hmong genocide in Laos, Qeej (reed pipe) playing, Hmong traditional dress (including White and Green Hmong), making a story cloth, learning to read and write the Hmong language and many more! I’ve even been taught how to make egg rolls by our Asian Culture Club.
When I see something that concerns me, I do ask the student about it. I realize that they have various healing methods that do not fit into western medicine. Last spring I had a student with band aids on her face because her mother had removed her moles. When I talked with her, it was clear that her mother was believing in the old Hmong ways and she was interested in what I could tell her from my experience with mole removal. Read about it here. She’s walking the line between being Hmong and being American and as her teacher, I’m helping her along the way.
At the end of the presentation our speaker asked if anyone in the room knew how to speak any Hmong. Years ago I asked a Hmong colleague of mine to teach me a few things. I only know a few phrases, but they seem to work. All I know is “speak English” and “be quiet.” Those two phrases have served me well in 14 years. Now they’re hardly speaking Hmong in school so I rarely get the chance to show off my Hmong. When the speaker asked what I knew, the one that came to mind was the “be quiet” one. I know I’m saying it correctly because my students understand perfectly. The speaker thought I had said “good-bye” in Hmong. I was confused, but I went with the flow. Now that I think about it, I sure hope he didn’t thing I was telling him to be quiet!
The Hmong are a lovely people and I’m so glad I get to teach their children. They are the only ethnic group that ever thanks me for teaching their children. I would love to learn more details about how their culture is changing as they live in the US longer. I need to know more about Hmong funerals and who is expected to attend and how long they should be absent. How is the culture adjusting to all of their girls that are becoming highly educated and very successful? Is it a legal marriage when two teens are married in their culture? Are arranged marriages a thing of the past yet?
Questions, questions and more questions. I’m glad I’ve got colleagues and students that can inform me.