ThreeSixty: Hmong, old and young, worry that culture is dying out

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A box of red, white and blue cupcakes is set on the table. In broken English and heavy accents, the group of Hmong elders at the Hmong American Partnership sing "Happy 73rd Birthday" to Kia Vang.

Since arriving in the United States in the 1970s, the Hmong have attempted to adapt to Western culture. They have encouraged the younger generation to learn English, go to college and even run for political office.

But at the same time, some fear that their traditions are fading away with each generation.

Seated with her friends, Kia Vang said she is happy about opportunities for education in America -- especially for women. But she worries that young people are forgetting their language and traditions.

"We wish that America accommodated to our traditions, but we like the American way of doing things ... it's simpler," the women said through an interpreter.

Hmong came to the United States as refugees from Thailand, Laos and China after the Vietnam War. Roughly 180,000 Hmong live mostly in California, Wisconsin and Minnesota. About 27,000 Hmong live in Minnesota, with the vast majority in the Twin Cities.

In Laos, people had very low education levels, and girls were not permitted to go to school, Men were the leaders; women stayed home, were more submissive and had almost no authority. Bao Vang, executive director of the Hmong American Partnership, said that she was not allowed to go to school as a child in her homeland, but that her brothers could.

But now, America has blurred the lines of possibilities for Hmong men and women, said Ka Vang, diversity programs director for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Hmong women are going to school, getting jobs and heading toward careers. Some men stay home to take care of the children and don't have the leadership roles that they had in their homeland. Hmong parents are now pushing education on all of their children so they can have a better life here.

Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, came to United States from Laos when she was 9. Trained in public policy and law, Moua is the nation's first Hmong-American legislator.

Moua described her parents as "traditional but very liberal."

"[They] made sure children knew the food and language [of their culture]," Moua said. "[They] had a preference to keep culture in the family but [have been] growing more into the American lifestyle."

Her parents pushed her to pursue high education as a child, but did not expect for her to become a senator.

However, the elders and youth of the Hmong community feel that the more Americanized the people become, the more their culture is dying.

"The longer you live here, a piece of your culture will die," Bao Vang said.

Hmong traditions include eating rice, vegetables and meat at every meal. Weddings are elaborate three-day celebrations with dowries and ethnic gifts. Funerals are three-day ceremonies with animal sacrifices and prayers to ancestors.

Some of the elders at the Hmong American Partnership said it's not as easy to maintain these rituals and traditions now that the Hmong live in America. For example, some families must get traditional Hmong clothing from Thailand or Laos for various celebrations or rituals.

Aprill Moua, 17 and a senior at Arlington High School in St. Paul, is very adamant about making sure that she keeps Hmong culture and traditions.

"I'm so scared that my culture is dying," Moua said. "If I don't keep up with my culture it's all going to die."

Moua, an honors student, said she loves being a Hmong woman, but at the same time, she doesn't let that get in the way of new opportunities America has to offer, including college.

She said she feels pressure to keep up with Hmong traditions. She is active in the community, attends weddings and funerals, and knows how to cook traditional foods. She speaks English and Hmong, but chooses to speak Hmong at every opportunity whether it's at home, school or with other Hmong friends.


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