Kathy Walsh Nufer column: Hmong students learn about past through play

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"A long, long time ago and many thousands of miles away, there lived a beautiful group of beings who had originated from China.

"Beauty flourished within their culture and much hard work and dedication was put into the making of their traditional foods and clothing. Dance and ball toss were both well-known sources of entertainment.

"But, above all, these peaceful, strong-hearted people loved each other very much. These people were known as the Hmong."

And so begins "We Are Hmong," a play that tells the story of the origins of Hmong clans, the critical role they played in helping the American CIA and U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, their persecution by communists and dramatic escape from Laos to the refugee camps of Thailand, and eventually, their resettlement in America.

Kreston Peckham, Renaissance School for the Arts drama teacher and director of West's theater program, introduced the play project last school year in a Renaissance elective course, "We Are Hmong."

Having directed a play about the Jewish Holocaust, he noted the strong presence of Hmong students in Renaissance and thought, "Why not do a play about them? It's important their stories get told."

He had his students gather stories, and those stories were woven into a script, written mostly by the class.

"My plan was to turn it into theater that could be acted out and performed as part of West's theater season," he said.

The collaboration brought together 46 West and Renaissance students, most of them Hmong and many with no prior performance experience.

In Peckham's words, this is "heavy material," and sharing family stories of survival against great odds, layered with loss and grief, has been an emotional journey for students.

Like many immigrants in transition, new generations of Hmong are not as fluent in their native language or as connected to their culture and customs as their parents and grandparents would like.

While eager to see their children educated and successful in pursuit of the American dream, elders also fear they're becoming too Americanized.

"A lot of us don't know how to speak the language and little about our customs," said junior Kasheng Lee, 16, who feels like she has gained a deeper understanding of her culture through writing and performing the play.

She and others also see the importance of remembering the hell their families went endured in the jungles and refugee camps and the price they paid for freedom and a future.

"It's a good way to teach everybody," Lee said. "We didn't write down everything about our history. We don't really have a textbook on this. All this information is from stories and off the top of our heads."

The family stories compel your attention, from personal accounts of seeing their villages destroyed and loved ones killed by the communists, years on the run trying to survive before crossing the Mekong River to Thailand, and then life in Thai refugee camps and the shock of traveling across the world to the U.S. to start new lives.

Senior Connie Vang, 17, said reading her mother's story during auditions was a powerful moment.

"It almost felt like I was meant to read that," she said. "I felt like I was there. The loneliness, being left behind (after her village was bombed), the loss they felt. I cried."

"Every other play, we act out another person's culture," said sophomore Choua Rosemary Xiong, 15. "This play is our culture and it's emotional because you can really relate to it. A lot of those stories did happen. People don't realize the Hmong went through all this."

"So many Hmong have wanted to say so much but haven't had an opportunity to share," said Yer Chang, 17, a senior who was born in a refugee camp.

"This is a big step to help the Hmong share what they went through. It's important for audiences in general to learn about the Hmong, but I think the Hmong will learn something about themselves, too. I found out a lot of things about my family I never knew."

She said she never fully appreciated the fact that her mom and relatives risked their lives crossing the Mekong River.

"I knew it was big and they swam over, but all I could imagine was a big pool," she said.

Her family members have always been stoic about their ordeal, she added.

"They didn't show you expressions of fright."

The play stresses the role of education in the lives of Hmong and the responsibility that many young Hmong feel to be worthy of their family's sacrifice.

"We don't take education for granted," Xiong said. "Hmong kids feel they have to do something good and get somewhere in life."

The girls have high hopes that their performances, including two matinees for nearly 2,000 school children, will inspire respect for the Hmong from their audiences.

"I want people to learn our ancestors and parents sacrificed everything to survive," Vang said. "They sacrificed everything for us."

Lee wants to make sure the Hmong merit more than a footnote in a history book.

"They didn't just come over here that easily or quickly," Lee said. "They had to go through war, and they faced death to be free. There's a lot more to it."


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