Group aims to preserve Hmong culture

Friday, December 4, 2009

STOCKTON - Andrae Vang's parents have told him of their journey to the United States in the 1970s: how they were teenage refugees, how they didn't speak any English, how they struggled.

"My dad went straight to high school with a lot of language barriers," said Vang, 21. "It was really hard for him."

A generation removed, Andrae Vang is a fourth-year business student at University of the Pacific and president of the campus' Hmong Student Association. The group is hosting a show Saturday to include traditional dancing and other performances, a skit and a fashion show. Members say the event is an effort to maintain a culture from which, in some ways, their own lives represent a departure.

"I'm trying, in any way I can, to preserve it," Vang said.

During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Hmong, an ethnic minority group in Laos, to fight communist forces as secret allies of the United States. After the war ended and communists took over Laos, thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand. More than 130,000 eventually were resettled in the United States.

California's Central Valley has one of the largest Hmong populations in the country, including around 6,000 Hmong residents in San Joaquin County.

Like other immigrant populations, the Valley's Hmong community is a diverse one, encompassing some stark differences in experience. Increasingly, those who arrived among the first group of refugees - such as Vang's mother and father - have children who, after American upbringings, are going on to college and professional careers.

"I think they had really big dreams that they couldn't really complete themselves," Vang said of his parents. "It's been their dream to have their sons and daughters go to college and graduate. Every step in my life, it's been drilled in my head."

Meanwhile, there are thousands of Hmong in the Valley who grew up in refugee camps, not arriving in the United States until the early years of this decade. For them, the struggles of language and poverty persist.

Vang said he hopes the efforts of the Hmong Student Association can help close some of the gaps between those groups by reintroducing second- and third-generation Hmong-Americans to traditions that might have faded for them and by encouraging higher education among newer arrivals.

Kou Yang is an ethnic studies professor at California State University, Stanislaus, and is noted as one of the first Hmong refugees to earn a doctoral degree and a university professorship in the United States.

Much of his research has focused on changes in the Hmong-American community over the past 30 years.

"When I started to teach 10 to 15 years ago, the majority of Hmong students came here as refugees. Now it's a very different population," Yang said. "They come to school with language skills and are pretty Americanized."

But there is another large group of Hmong - those who arrived within the past 10 years - who are far more isolated, he said, bringing with them the challenges associated with growing up in refugee camps, often without education or employment.

"Besides the basic needs like food, clothes and shelter, they need help to understand the social-cultural system in this country," Yang said.

And as they struggle to understand that system, other Hmong-Americans, such as Christine Yah, are working to understand and preserve the customs of their parents' homeland.

"I think it's really hard nowadays, because a lot of kids are not speaking Hmong anymore," said Yah, 20, whose parents emigrated from a Thai refugee camp in the 1970s. She is a third-year biology and pre-pharmacy student at Pacific and also a member of the Hmong Student Association. "We really want to bring that back. I think everyone gets wrapped up into the American culture. Even ... wearing traditional Hmong clothes they see as just for the old folks. I love to wear Hmong clothes. I like the feeling of wearing it and being part of your heritage, part of your culture."

Contact reporter Jennifer Torres at (209) 546-8252 or


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