Hmong Students in Sacramento learn of culture's Chinese roots

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hmong musician Li Yang, from Guizhou province in China, demonstrates last week how to use a leaf to create music, a centuries-old Chinese tradition, during an appearance at the Hmong charter school in Sacramento, which opened in August. Yang also played bamboo flutes to help teach the students about the Hmong culture's ties to ancient China.

The 264 students at Sacramento's Hmong charter school began grinning when Li Yang blew on a leaf and almost made it cry, the way his Chinese ancestors have done for centuries.

They rocked on the cold tile floor of the elementary school cafeteria, clapped, cheered and even popped up to dance along with Yang while he played the largest of three Hmong bamboo flutes, called "kengs," that sound like bagpipes.

The versatile Yang – who was flown in from Guizhou province by a local Hmong man – represents the growing connection between Hmong Americans and their 8 million cousins in China.

Yang – who also sang, plucked a tuning fork and played a small flute or "raj" – is one of the keepers of Hmong culture, which threatens to fade into American history as Hmong shamans and keng players slowly pass on.

"Hmong culture's beginning to disappear in the U.S., and we need to keep it alive as long as we can," said T.T. Vang, a Hmong radio host who translated Yang's words into English. "Even if many of us don't worship shamans anymore, we must preserve the the music, the language, the ceremonial clothing."

Yang was introduced by Vang's daughter, Miss Hmong International Ruby Mee Her, who showed students a slide show she'd made of Hmong villagers living in huts in China and Southeast Asia without beds, bathrooms, electricity or even shoes.

"They have to pay to go to school," she said. The Chinese Hmong are one of China's largest minority groups.

Taking the stage in a classic Hmong beanie, which is black with a red band, the lanky Yang blew a mournful Hmong love song on a fresh green leaf from Vang's yard.

"I'm outside, you're inside, can you hear me?" Vang translated.

Yav Pem Suab ("Preparing For The Future") Academy opened in August for kindergarten through fourth-grade students, about 80 percent Hmong. Most of the Hmong children were born in the United States and had a tough time following Yang's Chinese Hmong dialect.

"The traditional Hmong people in the mountains and valleys of China and Laos were using leaves to communicate because it echoes farther," said Principal Vince Xiong, who came to America at age 8. Each leaf player had a distinct sound he'd send to his wife "far, far away," Xiong said.

For an encore, the 44-year-old Yang played "My Darling Clementine," delighting the kids, who knew this one.

The scene was truly a fusion of cultures – Yang was flanked by two American flags, a Christmas tree and lights. He backed a few of his ancient ballads with a CD of techno music and strings.

After the show, Xiong gave Yang a T-shirt with the school's motto: "Dream, Believe, Inspire, Achieve!"

Xiong, who remembers growing up poor in Laos, declared, "We teach kids pride in their customs, clothing, language. Before we go further, we need to know our roots."

The Hmong, who had their own kingdom in southern China for centuries, were conquered by the Chinese emperors and forced to grow opium. The Hmong who did whatever they were told are known as "cooked Hmong"; those who resisted and fled are called "raw Hmong," Vang explained.

Some of the raw Hmong migrated to the mountains of Southeast Asia a few centuries ago.

"This is such a beautiful facility," Yang said of the school. "My village doesn't have a place like this. Every morning, you'd go to the side of the mountain and collect firewood, then walk an hour to a school, uphill and downhill, then come home to feed the cows and pigs."

Her, a community activist who was born in Laos, told the children, "They're still waiting for you to get an education and go back to help the country. I want to see every one of you graduate from high school and go on and get your college degree."


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