Hmong Culture: Faith, Family, and Freedom
By Megan Fraser
Across three countries, three refugee camps, and through raising four children, Tue Moua never lost the values and the ideals of his Hmong culture: faith, family, and freedom. Racism, war, and spiritual segregation have not stopped him. War could not even erase his passion for life. “Times have been really hard,” Moua said. “But I have to do what I have to do for my family and church.”
Moua was born sometime around 1958 in a mountain village in Laos. Two years later, his mother died after giving birth to his younger brother. Around this same time,the Laotian government fled to Cambodia as the capital city of Vientiane was engulfed in war. Communism overtook the small country in the “Secret War” as times quickly changed both politically and in Moua’s family.
At age 10, Moua’s father sent him south to the capital of Laos, Vientiane to live with relatives as he finished his sixth and seventh years of school. “It was very, very lonely,” Moua said. “When I wasn’t around my family, it was like I was all alone.”
By the time he returned home, Communism finally had reached his family’s remote mountain village. Soldiers took whatever supplies they desired and required the villagers to work for them. Moua and his brothers were forced to become security guards because they appeared strong and healthy. They were given guns and a little ammunition and told to keep the villagers under control.
One day, Lao refugees came back from Thailand to raid the village’s supplies. Moua’s assigned job was to shoot the refugee raiders, something he just could not do. Instead of playing puppet for the Communist dictators he hated so much, he fled into the woods.
His Communist superiors were not happy. “Shoot them next time, or we will shoot you,” they threatened.
Moua loved his country and his village, but he could no longer take the oppression. In December 1980, Moua started the difficult and dangerous escape to Thailand and safety with hope for someday a new life in America. Border guards demanded payment to cross into the country. “Everything had a price,” Moua said.
Their first refugee camp in Thailand was crowded and surrounded by a big fence to prevent escape. The second camp’s conditions were disgusting, but here he learned English and about American culture. Conditions were even worse in the third camp, a Transit Center, where immigrants were merely waiting to leave. Guards pulled cruel jokes and painfully beat the immigrants for no reason, sometimes forcing people into tiny boxes where they couldn’t move a muscle for days at a time. “You couldn’t focus on the bad and the beating,” Moua said. “You had to look to the future and push through.”
Finally in March 1982, Moua made the long journey to the United States and ended up in Spokane, Washington. He lives here to this day with his family.
Moua’s parents taught him about Christianity for as long as he can remember. Before he was born, Moua’s grandfather had received a Lao Bible from a missionary and had hidden it among his possessions. After his grandfather’s death, the family found it and read the whole thing; and a few of them converted.
“Its story was such one of joy and love and heaven and not one of Hell and healers and spirits,” Moua said.
Moua believes his Christian faith sets his family apart from the rest of their Hmong culture. Instead of herbs and spells to heal sicknesses, their new faith pushed them to prayer and doctors. Back in Laos, Hmong people often cursed others by crafting copper in animal shapes. The cursed one then would have to go to a shaman to get the bad luck taken away. The shaman made a good living casting out away curses and was not happy when he lost customers to Christianity.
Neighbors and even family members alienated the new Christians converts when times got hard. Even in the refugee camps, cruel punishments were often invented to “re-educate” them.
“We were often asked to renounce what we believed,” said Moua, “But that is never worth it. “
Even now, Moua sees others use church charity for their own gain. That makes him angry because he sees his church as not just a support system but an integral part of life.
Moua met his wife, Pa Xiong, about two years after they had made the move to the United States. They met through their family as they are first cousins. “Hmong culture likes to marry within the family. It prevents family drama,” Moua said. The couple has been married for over 20 years and has four children.
Recently, Pa fell on the ice and broke her arm, leaving her unable to cook or clean with her arm in a sling. Moua had to help in the kitchen as well as their two youngest sons, Tou and Chalee. Pa is greatly frustrated that she could not maintain her role of caring for her sons. Part of her would like to get a job and help the family financially, but their cultural tradition requires that she focus on the children at home, one in elementary school and the other in high school.
The oldest son lives in Wisconsin, while their only daughter is in school in Seattle.
“I miss her very much and try to convince her to come back,” said Pa. Education, particularly for daughters, is very important to Hmong culture.
Moua currently works at a gasket factory. “You have to keep working a job even if you don’t like it because times are hard,” he said. “It’s hard to get a job also because of the language barrier. They doubt you at first, but when they see what a hard worker I am, they give me the job.”
Instead of focusing on the challenges, Moua maintains his hope, especially for his children’s future.
“America means freedom for us,” he explained. “I’m so happy my kids can grow up free.”
While they have faced language barriers and some racial discrimination, they have never felt in danger while living in Spokane. Here they can worship openly and freely; here they can make a life for themselves and not worry about Communist raids; here his family can finish elementary, middle, high school and even college; here they have freedom.
The children sometimes have a hard time grasping their parents’ pasts and often are caught in a juxtaposition of cultures. “I told them we should go back to Laos sometime so they can see where I came from,” said Moua, “But they have no interest. There would be no hot water, or sanitation; they don’t want that.”
However his children’s affinity for the American culture does not bother him. “I love my Hmong culture, but American culture is nice too!” Moua said. Things have changed throughout the generation, and he predicts they will only continue to change. His youngest son Chalee has decided to adopt an American style name: Charlie.
Instead of rice and vegetables, their meal includes chicken nuggets and bacon. Traditional gender roles have changed, and there is a new focus on education. Pagan rituals have been replaced with Christianity and hymns. “Our faith really sets us apart from the other Hmong people and has changed our culture,” explained Moua, “Christianity has made us almost more American.”Through it all, Moua does not see his culture’s values as any different from anyone other Americans. He values his family, his faith, and his freedom. He loves those close to him and strives to make life better for them surrounded by liberty. These are the things he believes have defined his past and will continue to drive his family’s future.