Hmong: A Culture Striving to Keep Its Identity
By Rachel Lynn
Vang Moua swam fervently against the current of the Meekong river, dodging the flying bullets from the guns of the Laotian soldiers.
Her only chance at survival was making it across that river.
"I escaped death to come to America. We lived a very sad life and did not know where we would end up. We did not know if we would end up in Thailand, Laos, or America. It was a really scary moment," Moua said.
Today, Moua and her husband with two children now live comfortably in Spokane Wash., running an electronic repair company and saving money to send their children to college. But they work hard to stay true to their roots.
In the mountain sides of Laos, the Hmong have maintained a distinctive culture, including dress, oral literature and religion, value for self-sufficiency and close-knit communities. In 1976 the Hmong people aided the United States in the Vietnam War and were given the opportunity to immigrate and start a new life. Since their transition to the United States, the Hmong people have struggled keeping their tradition and culture alive while adapting to Western culture.
The majority of Hmong immigrants made their way to Minnesota, California and Wisconsin. But a small group of Hmong took up residency in Spokane. While Hmong practice their traditional culture in their new homes, they also struggle to passing their culture to younger generations and making it uncomplicated for them to understand.
"We want to preserve our culture in written language. I want to write down what it was like in my country so we can leave our children something about our culture, like folktales, stories, history. If we don't write them down, they will disappear when our generation dies, and our children won't remember them," said Paja Thao, a member of the Hmong Christian Alliance in Spokane.
In pre-war Laos, the ethnic identity of the Hmong remained intact, because they lived high in the mountains and had little contact with other people. They farmed in the highlands and harvested enough crops for their own needs said Paja Thao. Here, that identity is challenged because of the lack of connection to the land and other Hmong.
Importance of Family:
"To be with a family is to be happy. To be without a family is to be lost," is an old saying they continue to live by.
Hmong are organized into clans, which are determined by ancestral lineage (great, great grandfather) and which traditional ceremonies they practice.
Paja Thao, his wife and four children live in North Spokane. "Right now, my family is getting smaller. It's not like back in the old country. When we had celebrations, the children always helped out. Now, the kids can't help you. In America, when they finish their education they're going to look for jobs," Paja Thao said.
The intergenerational rift that Paja is experiencing causes him sadness while he struggles to maintain his ancient traditions even while cultural cataclysm is occurring in his house and across the Hmong community.
Chai Thao, Paja's 12 year-old daughter, can be described as being caught between the traditional world of her father and the complicated life of a typical American teenager.
"Most of the young generation, when they find out that their culture is actually very hard to follow, they start deviating to other paths, they start going towards the American path. They start learning American values," said Hee-Won Thao, Chai Thao's mother.
Simple transitions in American life like graduating and establishing a career are not common in Hmong culture. And, English is inadequate for expressions of their history and culture. The Hmong have their own language, called Hmoob (Hmong in English). It has many dialects. However, most Hmong speak either white or green Hmong. Hmong was not a written language until the late 1960s.
Paja Thao says his fellow Hmong parents also feel that by learning to write Hmong, their children are the ones who can make a difference in preserving their heritage. Programs such as the Hmong Literacy Project have been created by Hmong elders to ensure the teachings of the Hmong alphabet, writing skills, and folklore.
Most Hmong immigrants do not arrive knowing how to speak, read or write English. Finding jobs and sustaining themselves has proven to be difficult when they first make the transition.
"We must learn and keep Hmong literacy before our culture disappears. It's very important to teach our children how to read, write, and speak Hmong so that we have a way of preserving our culture. We want to write down beautiful stories about our culture, things that happen in our country, in Hmong, for our children," Hee-Won Thao said.
Rituals of Hmong
Paja has worked hard to pass down the Hmong rituals for funerals and medicine down to his children. Paja emphasized the significance of soul-calling.
"When a Hmong dies, his or her soul must travel back to every place the person lived until it reaches the burial place of its placenta. Only after the soul is properly dressed in the 'placental jacket' can it travel on to be reunited with ancestors and to be reincarnated as the soul of a new baby," Paja said.
Funeral rituals often last three to four days and include animal sacrifice. Some of these rituals have been performed by Hmong families in Spokane, particularly in an effort to teach them to the Hmong younger generations.
Medical practices of the Hmong are distinctive and Hmong find themselves battling the medical practices of Western culture. Many recent refugees seeking Western treatment have intestinal parasites, tuberculosis, anemia, and depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome. For cures of Hmong sickness, Hmong practice spiritual healing.
"Good health comes from souls living within a person. Hmong believe that sickness can cause soul loss. Spiritual healing retrieves the lost soul from another plane of existence," says Hee-Won Thao.
Hmong will conduct healing ceremonies in the hospital or in the home.
Caring for the Future
Instilling a clear sense of identity is one way Hmong parents believe they may prevent their children from joining gangs or ending up in jail. Moua choose to live in a smaller city as added security.
"We feel safe in Spokane; our children are less likely to join a gang. The Hmong population here is small but large enough to have a community. It's not like Fresno or St. Paul," Moua said.
Overall though, Moua believes his children have many more opportunities particularly for education than they would if they were living in Laos even if every day can be a struggle to maintain their values. They have endured the violence and discrimination in Laos and come to the United States seeking new beginnings and a peaceful life, though the battles they face here can be just as complex.