Hmong Come in Bunches, Like Grapes: How acculturation through schooling widens the generation gap

Thursday, July 9, 2009

This is an old article, dated 2001. I am posting it cause I just now found it. I am copying the whole article and posting it here, just in case it gets "deleted" off the net in the future

By Sue Mote

Of all the recent immigrants to the United States, the Hmong from Southeast
Asia have been viewed as among the least prepared for this country. Fleeing for their lives in 1975 from the victorious communists in Laos, the vast majority of them arrived with knowledge of subsistence farming on mountainsides but little familiarity with formal education, technology or our civic and
social customs.

As it turns out, the Hmong have embraced technology and as a group have shown
eagerness to become part of the civic culture, if only to protect a place for themselves.

They also have a passion for education. As a 19-year-old woman told me, “It is a wish
from the ancestors.” But it turns out that the social values of American education run counter to what the Hmong, perhaps unconsciously, anticipated. Rearranging their heads to accommodate reality in American education has been one of the toughest adjustments for parents—a source of anguish and rupture.

At issue is the gap between the deeply grouporiented way of life of the Hmong—their
“groupness” (Vang)—and the fact that formal education here, being an inseparable part of American culture, pulls in the opposite direction, toward individuality.

Historically, the Hmong may be forgiven for expecting something different.

I first became acquainted with the Hmong in 1988 while writing a story for the
Sacramento Union. The more I learned, the more I became fascinated by their energy,
friendliness and the antiquity of their culture.

The following stories illustrate some things I learned about them and how their lives are being broken apart and re-formed.

What’s mine is yours

I’ll start by describing an event that became central to my understanding of the
Hmong mind set.

Early one April Saturday in a Southern California park, I joined a Hmong family
at their church’s Easter picnic and egg hunt. Women tended chicken and hot dogs
on barbecues, while young men played a vigorous game of volleyball and old men
watched intently. Kids tore around or whispered secrets to friends—probably cousins.
One boy of 11 or 12 cheerfully wheeled two children around in a stroller.

After we ate, and as raindrops began to spatter, the children were called to a big field nearby for the egg hunt, and I went along. Two teenage girls were running the event, but no parents were present.

I wasn’t pleased that these Hmong had taken up the American Easter egg hunt. The
last egg hunt I had observed had quickly become a display of greed and ill temper, and I wasn’t looking forward to this one.

The two teenagers explained the rules to the fifty-some kids, who listened with only a little squirming. Then off the youngsters ran, the littlest children first. In minutes, the kids were back, and I braced myself for the grousing
and whining.

It never happened. What I saw instead was kids checking others’ plastic bags and contributing from their own store of candy and eggs if there was a shortage. Even the awarding of prizes to those who had found specially marked eggs brought
no complaint from non-winners, only curiosity and brief commentary on the

I was floored. I had already observed Hmong kids’ openhanded spirit, and I admit that I had doubted its genuineness.

But this clinched it. What I had been seeing appeared to be the standard.

The children’s behavior could not have been more unself-conscious, more automatic. It is as normative for Hmong to practice harmonious cooperation as it is for us to carry money. The two are, in fact equivalent, since cooperativeness is a basic ingredient of survival among people who live as close to hunger as the Hmong have (Kim et al., p. 44). Where crops may fail or sickness incapacitate workers,
the safety net is defined by the number of people who can count on each other. Cooperativeness is not a parenting choice based on a moral value, as we urge “sharing” on our children. Rather, it evolved from the ancient experience of needing others in order to stay alive. As Geert Hofstede put it, persons in a
group-oriented society “from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty” (Kim et al., p. 2).

I witnessed a negative affirmation of this principle while visiting a Hmong friend’s family in a mountain village in Laos. A man complained that his wife refused to be pleasant to the other village wives. He was genuinely afraid that, should he need help, he could not count on the villagers. He felt that his family’s survival was threatened.

Thus the children I observed at the park, despite the nontraditional religion and alien location, in sharing their “crop” of eggs were behaving in a very Hmong manner. It was a picture of serenity. Everything was as it should be.

Different worlds

While the economics of subsistence living required harmony in Hmong culture, survival
in America is tied to its economic system, which often requires individuals to leave families to take a job, to abandon old ideas in place of new, to limit the extent to which they deplete their capital by sharing it too broadly with others. Members of an individualistic society are but loosely tied to each other. The basic unit of survival is the self (Kim et al., p. 277). Hofstede (Kim et al., p. xii) found that
the greater the wealth in a nation, the higher the chance that individualism flourishes.

People who feel secure don’t need networks in the same way as those who don’t. In a study, the United States emerged as the most individualistic among 53 nations—in fact, an anomaly. Others at the high end of the scale are Canada and Western European countries. Scoring high in collectivism, on the other hand, were African, Asian and Latin American nations (Kim et al, p. 1).

What’s becoming of our children?

The stories of Sai Sue and Ge, a Hmong husband and wife in their 20s, illustrate the
collision between contrasting worlds around the issue of school. Note that the two young people seem to have felt the greatest pressure not from school itself, which held real appeal for them, but from their parents. Though tensions did exist at school, the real war took place at home.

The three of us met at an upscale coffee shop in South Sacramento. I had arranged
through a mutual friend to interview Sai Sue about his gang history. The couple was late—there had been a last-minute change concerning a wedding—and I had missed them as they pulled into the parking lot in a big brown Cadillac, not the average Hmong car.

They came inside, dripping rain, Sai Sue was in his mid-20s, handsome, outgoing, eager to meet me. He spoke in Hmong-accented English, while his wife’s speech was very American. Over steaming mugs, Sai Sue told his story of decline into trouble and I took notes.

His wife, Ge, sounded the theme: “Growing up in this country can be hard.” Here is Sai Sue’s story, from his beginnings in a family that was repeatedly forced to flee. Notice the theme of isolation in the U.S.

I was born in Laos, in Long Cheng (the big military base built by the U.S. where thousands of Hmong found refuge). But the family was from Xieng Khouang originally. We moved to Ban Vinai (a refugee camp in Thailand) and to the U.S. in 1981.

I came to the U.S. when I was 9 and went into third grade [in Denver]. I knew not a word of English. The teachers and students were very helpful.

[At] the school I attended, my family and a Chinese family were the only Asians. Once we moved here [to California], there were so many Asians.

[In Laos] my father was an officer in the CIA. What experiences he had I really don’t know. He has a scar on his leg and two other scars. My mother stayed home and farmed. Now my father stays home.

I’m the seventh generation. The first is my great-great-great-great grandfather, Giatou. (This ancestor defines his closest kin.) Within my [immediate] family are 12 kids, six boys and six girls. I’m the oldest son of all my relatives (a position of responsibility).

Growing up in the U.S., we were the first generation. We kind of put our feet in both sides. Sometimes it drives us nuts.

As for Sai Sue’s wife, she was the first of just three children, born some time apart. Her parents wanted more, she said, but her father, a sergeant in the army, was gone a lot. His military role, however, meant that they had priority in coming to the United States after the war.

We came in 1978. The first place we landed was Nebraska. There were no Hmong.
We were sponsored by Catholics. They spoke only English, and we spoke only Hmong. It was very hard on my grandma, father and uncle. Grandma used to cry all the time, “Why did we come? There’s nobody here! How are we going to survive?” All they knew how to do was farm. The Catholics brought food, took us places, showed us
how to use money. They enrolled me in preschool. I was about 5.

We were on TV. A Hmong family in Denver saw us and came. They drove to support us. They said, “Don’t worry; we’re here.” They were not the same clan.

We moved to Denver and then Alabama, where there were a group of relatives and jobs. Dad was a welder and Mom worked in a hotel as a maid. Father had an accident welding, so he couldn’t work, and we came to California. Mom had stomach problems and had surgery. We thought we were going to lose her.

From that point, my parents went to school. They were still getting disability.

They still didn’t speak English. It was real hard in that period. I had to teach my parents how to pronounce things.

In all my schooling, there were so few Asians or Hmong that I felt closed up. There was this tension. I was just quiet and would study. I never raised my hand. I was scared. I never missed a day even if I was sick. I didn’t want to fall behind. It was fear.

I didn’t have that many friends, because with moving it’s hard to establish friends. In high school I went through a stage of self-hate. Asians were projected to be this or that way, so I would try to be as American as can be. I was all closed up. I didn’t open up until college.

This is a painful story of the younger generation. But readily apparent in the tale is the parents’ distress, too. The worried, even frightened, actions of parents is clear as Sai Sue told about his school years.

Parents expect a lot. You try hard to achieve in school, but they expect more and more. Father was drilling, drilling: I should attend school so I can be smart and help my cousins and relatives, not so I can be smart. (Ge added, “When one
gets a degree, it’s the whole community’s degree.”)

If you get a C or B, maybe the class was hard. But they say, “Too lazy!” They want you to become a doctor or a teacher, but they don’t help you that much, [because] they don’t speak English.

When we came [to California], there was a lot of influence of other nationalities. (His circle, for good or ill, was expanding.) I got more pressure from my parents. “Why you not have homework?” “Lunchtime, I do homework.” My sister collects homework all day [and brings it home]. My goal is to try to finish everything

They don’t like my friends. Even three blocks down I can’t go. I should stay home and study. They would deny, deny, deny. Can’t go to a friend’s house or to a party. When you’re a teenager, you want to explore. I have to lie to them. The typical thing (he caught my eye and grinned)—to trick your parent. Despite his willfulness, Sai Sue was doing his best.

I attended school every class period, eight classes a day. I planned everything ahead for five years, what I was going to achieve. Every year is a [dinner] plate. I wash the dishes, one each year (he mimed placing washed dishes in a rack).
LIke for one year I planned this class, that class. At high school I was one of the best math students. My father was proud, but it was not good enough. They want me to be a doctor or pilot (a reflection of his father’s war experience). I want to be an engineer or a mechanic.

As the father’s pressure built, so did the son’s resistance.

With my father I got into fights. He was always putting you down, never satisfied. Year after year, to the point of breaking.

In high school my hair was shoulder length in back. My parents and uncle complained. In the Hmong community, if your hair is long, you’re bad. You have to have it a certain length, and the shirt has to be tucked in. They always assume you are this or that. I tell parents, it’s the style. You can’t just wear tight jeans. You have to
go along.

To my parents I said, “I’m a good person
.(I’m not listening to you anymore).”

The anger finally had opened a chasm between generations, and Sai Sue began to get
in trouble with the law, the very thing his parents feared. His uncles and aunt lectured him.

When I reached my junior year, it was the crucial point. I told my aunt and uncle, “I see myself as a bright kid. I have everything planned ahead.”

I told [my father], “Every school year, every summer, I never missed—eight classes a day. That’s how hard I worked, but you put me down.”

While the household dynamics in Ge’s family may have been quieter, the parental
pressure was similar, this time from the mother.

My dad doesn’t speak. My mom is a real outspoken woman. My father was a soldier and not very family-oriented. She had to be the mother and father, make sure we did everything right.

My father went into the army, so his salary and sale of extra rice enabled [his brother] to go to school in Laos.
(Sai Sue added, “Every family picks one to go to school.”)

As among Ge’s kin, education is broadly valued in Hmong families and has been for
long enough that the custom of choosing one child has gained broad acceptance. Ge went on:

[In high school], I explained to Mom what I was doing. I saw other parents at school meetings, so I took her to school meetings [and told her what was going on]. So she let me go [to events]. I went to the first annual Hmong conference in Minnesota as a representative for our club. Because I took Mom everywhere, she was more trusting.

Even with that, she still said, “You can’t go out late. You can’t date.” (“Dating is always for the purpose of finding a wife,” Sai Sue added.) Even now Mom says, “You still going to school to get a degree?” Hounding me. Maybe she didn’t have that and wants it for me.

[My mother] since high school said, “Be a nurse or doctor.” I got accepted to several colleges (including well-regarded schools out of town). But there’s a double standard: Parents want you to go to college, but stay home.

Ge and Sai Sue have bought into the American education system, including its social
aspects. Sai Sue apparently had no quarrel with his school experience and although Ge
felt intense isolation through high school, she too did her best, including making sound extracurricular choices. But their parents seemed to be on another continent.

In a sense, they were. All four of Sai Sue’s and Ge’s parents were miserable to one degree or another. “This they’re not used to,” Ge told me. All four parents want to go back to Laos. Many such elders feel as lost here as the average American city-dweller would if dropped on a mountainside in Laos and told to farm for their livelihood. With their agricultural expertise now rendered nearly useless, these elders feel diminished. But there is more than humiliation behind the discomfort they experience as parents. There is the matter of a most basic social value.

It is my belief that the long history of the Hmong as a communitarian people in China
has uniquely set them up for difficulties in their encounter with education in individualistic America. We’ve already noted the reflexive cooperativeness of the egg-hunting children. The related lament of Ge’s grandmother, “There’s nobody here! How are we going to survive?” indicates the emotional intensity with which that value is embraced.

What many parents from group-oriented cultures—not just Hmong—learn is that the
flip side of having American-educated children is often a dismaying weakening of
communitarian bonds.

A bit of Hmong history is in order. The Hmong, who number some seven million or
more in China today, are believed to be among the first peoples to occupy that land. Nicholas Tapp (p. 178) argues that Hmong and Chinese, along with other subgroups in China, are not genetically or linguistically bounded islands of people but emerged as identifiable people out of a fluid population. This fluidity was the result of intermarriage, acculturation, trade, warfare and the like. Despite later centuries
of physical separation between Hmong in the mountains and Chinese in the more fertile
lowlands, therefore, there is ample evidence of shared culture. For example, the practice of geomancy, known today as feng shui, was a joint possession from the start (Tapp, p. 162). Other ideas were held in common, too. Written language, plus the schools and scholars that are necessary to sustain it, were held in high esteem since ancient times in China. Among other precepts, Confucius (ca. 551-479 B.C.) taught the importance of education, giving learning a preeminence that has persisted to modern times (Roberts, p. 15). Education included moral as well as intellectual
knowledge. One needed to know right behavior toward others, not just the details of
history, rituals, and so on. Tapp (p. 128) observes that probably no state has accorded higher status to writing than China.

During the centuries when the independence-minded Hmong were harried and driven repeatedly from their homelands by the Chinese, they possessed a rich oral culture but no written language and no schools, advantages the Chinese had. According to Tapp
(chapter 6 and 9), indignity at their powerlessness took the shape of a dream for those things the Chinese possessed—land, a king and a written language, interlocking cornerstones of power.

Education inevitably bears the fingerprints of the culture in which it finds itself. In China, education was and is primarily in the service of society. In America, where the economic heroes known to school children are sports or entertainment stars or the geek with the billion-dollar invention created in a garage, individualism is the currency.

So we find Hmong parents in the United States who believe in the value of education—
the “desire from the ancestors.” What they don’t comprehend is that in America, education produces a very different citizen from that student with a Chinese education. Indeed, the American classroom is a hothouse of flexibility, creativity and intellectual independence. We teach students to think for themselves. We feel we have succeeded when a student graduates, leaves home and enters a worthy field of work. Hmong long for the dignity of a profession, but it is dignity that would be at the service of family and kin, and the graduate would remain physically close.

They had no idea that education would lead their children away, not because they
knew so little about education but because they were familiar with education that served a different master. Instead of success and group solidarity, Hmong are being pushed to choose between success and solidarity.

What can be done? Probably not as much as we would like. School is simply the nexus where this group-oriented people encounters a different way of organizing human society.

For the Hmong, learning the ways of individualism is like struggling to learn a truly
foreign language. Ge did what she could by taking her mother to school and explaining
everything. She let her mother see and hear the teachers—hoping to forge human connections. Ge also engaged her mother in numerous conversations about her choice of career: Her mother insisted on medicine, but Ge knew she was not cut out for it and has chosen counseling.

Based on her own and her husband’s stories, Ge tells Hmong parents, “You’ve got to
understand and be easy on your children. You may feel their behavior is wrong, but give them a chance.” She also insists that the older Hmong generation continue to teach the young right behavior, as Confucius taught in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C.

Sai Sue had a tougher time than Ge throwing a bridge across to his parents. He did
his best to communicate the differences between Laos and America, but the differences
were too emotional, too deeply ingrained and too elusive. His father insisted on his parental right to direct his eldest son. Ultimately he lost all control, and Sai Sue slipped into gang life, a different kind of community.

Interestingly, Sai Sue was rescued from the gang by one of his people’s old ways. A
Hmong fortune teller to whom his family went on another matter gave Sai Sue a new
name, a common method of healing. In this case, however, the name given was a double
adult name usually reserved for a man who is married and has at least one child. In one stroke, Sai Sue was granted adulthood. With it came a new respect. What’s more, as an adult, his gang no longer had a claim on him. He was free to retire honorably. And that’s what he did. Now he searches out young males and tells them, “Education is the best thing for your future.”

At the time of the interview, Sai Sue was working for a fitness equipment company, preparing to become a father and taking night classes in math. At the same time, he as embraced many of the old Hmong ways, including traditional religion. Once again, he is firmly part of the Hmong community. He seems to have struck a balance between the inter-dependence of his heritage and the individualism of his new homeland.


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