Comedy show gives Hmong culture lesson

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tou Ger Xiong expresses the struggles of being an immigrant. Xiong said one of his biggest struggles was having parents who didn’t speak English Mixing the immigrant experience with Hmong culture, Tou Ger Xiong presented an entertaining and eye-opening comedy show to the UW Oshkosh community April 19. “I, like many Hmong children, did not know the story of Hmong people, so one day I asked my mother, ‘What is Hmong?’” Xiong said. Xiong’s story started with the Vietnam War. After China became communist, the CIA sent Green Berets to train Hmong guerrillas in order to oppose the Vietnamese and the Lao communist forces. Xiong’s father was one of these people. He went to war at the age of 15 along with some friends. After the war Pathet Lao, a communist group in Laos, tried to wipe out the Hmong. As a result, thousands of Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Many were killed along the way, especially when crossing the Mekong River. An estimated 30,000 Hmong were killed by Communist forces while trying to reach Thailand. More than 100,000 Hmong people died as a result of the war. Today approximately 250,000 Hmong are in the U.S., most living in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Xiong was born in Laos and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand until he was four. One night, at 1 a.m., they escaped by bribing some fishermen. It took three trips to get everyone out, but on the last trip the fishermen robbed and killed Xiong’s neighbors. Xiong later returned to Laos in 1997 and 2007 to visit relatives, some of who have lived in refugee camps for more than 20 years. “My dad worked for the CIA, and just being associated with that could get you killed,” Xiong said. “Our whole family was in danger.” From there Xiong’s sister sponsored them through the Catholic church to come to America. They ended up in a public housing project in Minneapolis. His father went from a captain in the army to cleaning toilets. Xiong had to quickly adjust to living in America, sharing his experiences through a series of entertaining stories about his first time seeing snow and learning English. Xiong was also bullied at school for being an Asian immigrant. “It really comes down to the issue of bullying, embracing diversity and the need to experience the world,” Xiong said. Now he’s turned that experience into a way to educate Hmong and non-Hmong through comedy. In 1996, Xiong created Project Respectism, an educational service project that uses comedy, storytelling and rap music to bridge cultures and generations. “A comedian isn’t what most people think when they hear Hmong, and people in big and small towns needed to hear the message of how our ancestors came here and how our stories are the same,” Xiong said. One of his first jobs was entertaining a group of Hmongs in prison for gang related activity. He found that getting people to laugh made them listen to what he had to say. From that experience he wrote a rap song called “I am the Mac,” about transforming negative situations into a positive one and not giving up on one’s dreams. “I really like how he related his past life with where he is now, how he came from Laos to America and using those differences as a motivation tool to teach others,” Oshkosh student Lee Vang said. Xiong has taken his message about respect to 44 states in the past nine years. He has given more than 1,500 presentations nationwide to audiences of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. A documentary of Xiong’s project “Hmong Means Free,” aired on public television in Minnesota. Xiong also starred in “Portraits from the Cloth,” the first television movie about a Hmong family’s journey from war. “I loved this event and I wish there were more of them on campus,” Oshkosh admissions staff member Melanie Cross. “Explaining the Hmong story and traditions allow me to be more understanding of the culture.”

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