Book teaches understanding of Hmong culture

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

As with every family, culture and country, many stories encompass its history, some privately tucked away and others shared — a means to encourage understanding.

Concordia University Professor Paul Hillmer recently published a book on the experiences of the Hmong, a population that has reached 60,000-70,000 in the state.

The Hmong experienced a surge in immigration into the United States during the mid-1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War, and continue to endure the critical eye of far too many Americans, says Hillmer.

“All of us, whether recently or hundreds of years ago, have immigrants somewhere in our family tree … But somewhere back in our past, whether still recorded or long forgotten, our families underwent experiences that resemble what present-day immigrants and their children are going through now,” says Hillmer.

Hillmer’s book, “A People’s History of the Hmong,” is the result of more than 200 interviews and chronicles the Hmong history, immigration and life experiences. And it all began with a simple question to a Hmong student of Hillmer’s during a car ride to the young man’s intern site.

“I asked him about his father, family, the war, and he said his parents were always busy working and didn’t talk about it much,” said Hillmer.

But the student wanted to learn more about his Hmong history.

Intrigued, Hillmer met with a handful of Hmong students at Concordia and together they created a list of interview questions to discuss with their families.

“The parents were remarkably open and grateful and surprised that their children were taking an interest,” said Hillmer. “That’s what got me hooked — in the process of teaching students, I learned that there is a real story here.”

The process of interviews eventually expanded to include Hmong people from the Twin Cities and Wisconsin to Florida, Washington D.C., the east coast and even Australia; those who have served during war, embassy staff, people young and old.

The book includes first-person accounts of life in the hills of Laos, experiences of war and refugee camps, the trials and triumphs as citizens of new countries, ancient cultural practices and modern-day life existence, and religious beliefs unusually foreign to most people.

“A deeply important book,” says Vint Lawrence, former CIA agent stationed in Laos. “Instead of skimming the glossy highlights of America’s involvement with the Hmong people during the ‘Secret War’ in Laos, Professor Hillmer has given us a stark and vivid picture of the Hmong in the war’s tragic aftermath and ultimately a testament to the strength of these remarkable people.”

Throughout American history, immigrants have suffered indifference, hate and scorn of so-called natives, said Hillmer. But his hope is that through this introduction to the Hmong experience, Americans will both gain understanding and be understanding to a population that is a part of the collective experience.

“Especially in areas like Minnesota where there are so many Hmong, there are so many misunderstandings about who these people are. To quote a colleague, ‘It’s hard to hate someone when you know their story’,” said Hillmer.


WHO: Paul Hillmer, professor of American history and director of the Hmong Oral History Project at Concordia University

WHAT: Discussion of his book “A People’s History of the Hmong”

WHEN: 4 p.m. Thursday in St. Olaf’s Buntrock Commons, Viking Theater

COST: Event is free and open to the public

BUY THE BOOK: St. Olaf Bookstore, $27.95


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