Introduction: Who are the Hmong?
Though Minnesota and California have the biggest Hmong populations in the United States, there are still many people who don’t know who the Hmong people are and about their diasporic movements. The Hmong are a nomadic people who have a beautiful culture that has been preserved orally throughout history. Though their origins are still debatable due to many centuries of migration, the Hmong are said to have migrated throughout Southeast Asia, settling in China for hundreds of years before once again having to migrate again due to persecution – this time, they settled in the mountains of Laos.
During the Second Indochina War, also known to Americans as the Vietnam War, the United States sent troops to South East Asia to back up the South Vietnamese in their fear of the domino theory spread of communism. In what is now known as the Secret War, the United States Central Intelligence Agency recruited the Hmong people in order to navigate the coarse and unfamiliar jungles of Laos. With this recruitment, the C.I.A. also promised the Hmong that they would be protected by the United States from persecution and that they would be given land to call their own.
In 1973, the Paris Peace Accords was signed and the United States agreed to pull out of Vietnam; though the North Vietnamese troops and Pathet Lao agreed to release all U.S. and other prisoners of war, the Hmong were left to fend for themselves. This started a mass genocide and the Hmong were forced to flee their homes, running through the jungles and seeking refuge across the Mekong River in Thailand in order to survive. Many of those who chose to stay in their homes were sent to re-education camps where they were abused, tortured and/or killed. After this mass exodus from Laos, many Hmong families relocated to the United States, France, Canada, and other Western countries as refugees and asylees. Populations also stayed in Thailand, and others were forced to go back to Laos.
This year marks the 40th year of the Hmong people resettling in Minnesota; throughout history, there have been mass migrations of the Hmong people throughout the world. As Hmong-Americans, we navigate our Hmong lives in a world that isn’t dominated by our own language and culture. There are things we accept, struggle with and are still learning about to learn more about our roots. With our trip to Thailand, we have met and encountered a number of Hmong-Thai men and women who have helped us learn more about things such as preservation of culture, religion, Hmong marriage practices, and Hmong women in society. As Hmong-Americans who have very Western points of views and approaches, we hope that everyone will learn something through our simple observations and conversations.
Topic: Hmong Women
What does it mean to be a Hmong woman? I have always asked myself this question, but I never had a real answer. I noticed many Hmong women struggle with their life because of their culture. Many of the things inside the culture have been practiced for so long that it seems impossible to change. Such as when a Hmong woman gets divorced, she will have to carry the stigma for the rest for her life. People will point at her and talk about her. The Hmong people have such a small community that everyone knows almost everything about each other. The most challenging thing is as a Hmong woman of this generation, what can I do to help the next generation so that they don’t face the same struggles?
I interviewed a Hmong woman in Thailand named Tsiab. I wanted to know what did she thinks about Hmong women in general. My interest was the different perspectives between Hmong American women and Hmong women that lives in Thailand.
I asked Tsiab what she thought about the bride price. The reason I wanted to know was because I knew that each country had their own bride price. From what I knew, once a Hmong women got marry, she would be considered as one of her husband’s people. She was no longer able to walk home easily like before. She could not give birth inside her parents’ home. I did not understand. I asked Tsiab about the bride prices. I wanted to know if the bride price was worthy or important. “I think the prices are not worthy if I think about my mom”, she replied. Each bride is worth four silver bars in Thailand. Each silver bar is worth 5,000 in Thai baht. As a Hmong woman, once you get married, your life belongs to your husband. Hmong parents would always teach their daughters to be a diligent wife in order to be loved by her husband and his family. A good wife should take care of everything in the family and should not complain. She must be penitent and be a good wife. Tsiab graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business management. She said that the money cannot compare to what her parents had given to her throughout her life. She would increase the bride price if she is able to. I agree with her. I thought, if I were to spend the rest of my life with someone, that person should really work harder than my parents.
I’m really glad that I got to talk to Tsiab and learn from her experience and her life. As a Hmong woman, I did not think I can change everything by myself. However, if all women come together and talk about this issue, I believe we can create change in the community.
Topic: The challenges to learn and preserve Hmong language, writings, culture and practices in America and Thailand.
I noticed that there were many Hmong students struggling to learn the Hmong language, writings and culture as well as practices in America. I thought that this was only an issue in America because even though English isn’t the official language, it is the dominant language. There were also many families that have converted to Christianity and have moved away from traditional Hmong religion and practices. I later found out that this challenge is not only for the Hmong in America, but that it is also a challenge for the Hmong in Thailand. I had the chance to talk to a few Hmong Thai people about this issue and asked their opinions and thoughts on it, as well as ways to help preserve Hmong language, writings and culture for the younger and many more generations to come.
One of the many things that they have here to help Hmong students learn the language is by teaching Hmong in Thai schools. In Ban Xong district, there are schools that teach Hmong from kindergarten to fourth grade, said Qai. Hmong-Thais live in Thailand and speak Thai because it is the dominant language just as English is the dominant language for the Hmong in America. Tom, the young Hmong man that I interviewed from the Mekong School, said that he discovered he wanted to be a Catholic priest when he was 19. Ma Ha, another Hmong gentleman that I interviewed who still practices Shamanism, said he teaches and speaks Hmong to his children when they are home. He does this because they’ll learn Thai in school so there is no use for him to teach them Thai. Ma Ha also noted that ‘it doesn’t matter if we believe in Christianity or Shamanism, as long as we don’t forget that we are Hmong.’ The challenges to learn and preserve the Hmong language, writings, culture and practices is really an international issue for the Hmong people.
Topic: Abusive International Marriage
I have heard many Hmong American perspectives in regards to abusive international marriage. Based on what I’ve learned from social justice advocates such as the Building Our Future Campaign, international marriage is becoming a public health issue affecting Hmong families abroad and in America. This issue involves husbands leaving, sometimes disappearing for weeks and months, and then returning with news of a second wife from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, or China. In the early years, this practice was more common among men in their 50’s and older. However, in recent years, men in their 30’s also started going overseas to marry underaged girls. In addition, there is a trend recurring in the Hmong community defined as “transnational abandonment” which is sometimes referred to as “marry and dump”, where Hmong American men marry women and girls abroad with no intention of sponsoring their brides to live in the U.S. (Dabby-Chinoy et al., 2012). The Hmong women and girls who are left behind would be looked down upon by their community, with many being forced to move out of their parents’ home.
I felt appalled by the knowledge I’ve gained this year in regards to abusive international marriage. My thirst for knowledge grew as I connected with Hmong women advocates such as Bo Thao-Urabe, co-founder of VivNcaug (Hmong women support group in Laos); Bao Vang- CEO of Hmong American Partnership, and volunteers of the Building Our Future Campaign- a network of change agents who are working towards ending gender-based violence. Seeing the passion and work that these individuals are doing in the Hmong community has empowered me to explore this issue, gain the perspectives of the Hmong in Thailand, and share my knowledge with others.
To better understand the perspectives of the Hmong in Thailand, I decided to interview three Hmong Thai men who were invited to join us for dinner at the Mekong School. First, I asked them how they felt about international marriages in general. Qai responded, “I think international marriages and relationships are okay. As long as they respect one another and love each other, there shouldn’t be any problem”. He further explains how international marriage is more common in Laos because many families there are poor. Hmong daughters are encouraged to marry men in America to increase their future success and to ensure that they are financially secured. I then delved deeper into this topic and asked how they felt about abusive international marriage. Ma Ha answered, “Many of the elders don’t agree with this practice. However, abusive international marriage isn’t as common. Many married men from America just dates the young women in Thailand, but they do not proceed to marriage”. He also agreed with Qai that Americans are rich. When this component is combined with love, then girls will be more inclined to marry men who are already married. I also talked about “transnational abandonment” and how problematic this can be for Hmong women. After a few moments of silence, Qai shared a story of a Hmong woman who encountered this in his village. The woman got pregnant by a Hmong American man but was left behind with uncertainty. She lived with her parents, but her reputation changed the way others view and treated her. She began to carry the negative stigmas of being a single mother.
After dissecting the issue and reflecting on the conversations I’ve had with the Hmong Thai men, I have come to understand that this is an ongoing problem because there is a lack of conversation. The men that I interviewed acknowledged that this topic is not often talked about. Many individuals know that this problem is impacting their loved ones, but many are also not willing to engage in conversations; maybe in fear of provoking those above the hierarchy who are participating in these practices, or in fear of not knowing what the conversations may lead to. I believe that by having courageous conversations with the community, and through collaborative efforts, this problem can be alleviated. My passion towards community empowerment has certainly grown from this experience. I hope to become more informed on the various issues in the Hmong community as I continue to engage in courageous conversations with those around me.
Topic: Diversity in Religion
Where do I stand with my religion, do I know enough about my religion to say that it is my own belief? Do I believe in the practices of Shamanism, or am I just thinking that because my family practices it? My stepmom is a Shaman and being born into a Shaman family with little knowledge about why it is practiced the way it is, brings a lot of questions about the root of my religion. Coming on this trip and being able to be exposed to the diversity in religion with Hmong people has given me a different point of view about religion. Many people do not know but Hmong people are scattered around the world and because of that Hmong people adapted to religions that will help them survive. This trip has opened my eyes to understand the reasons why Hmong people are not limited when it comes to religion.
Animism is the most practiced religion in the Hmong community. For those who do not know what Animism is, according to Dictionary.com Animism is defined as “the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena or the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.” Hmong people believe in healing sickness and health through spiritual calling and supernatural. The way how Hmong people get in touch with the supernatural power and practice the acknowledgment of a soul is through a Shaman. Shamanism is the second most practiced in the Hmong community. For those who do not know what Shamanism is, according to Dictionary.com Shamanism is defined as “a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.”
By coming on this trip and getting the opportunity to visit two Hmong villages that are so opposite with their religion has helped me gain insight to my own religion. The first Hmong village that I had the chance to visit was in Chiang Dao District. In this village, more than all of the families have converted into Christianity. The head leader said that there are only probably two families in their village that still practices the old way and he was referring it to Shamanism. I was so shocked to hear that Christianity was such a big part in the Hmong villager’s life because I came to Thailand expecting Hmong people to still keep the old ways so that I will be able to learn more about it. I told myself that by coming on this trip, I wanted to learn more about where the root of my religion or shamanism came from but it felt like a dead end hearing that it is not practiced in the first village. I asked the head leader why they decided to choose that route and he answered that it is because of survival. By being shaman, there is a lot of animal sacrificing which results in a lot of money and living as a hill tribe in the mountains, they are not provided with the resources to continue the old ways. After hearing their decisions to why they converted, it made me realized how survival can play such a huge role in religion. Even though the questions I had about my shaman beliefs were not answered in the first village, there was still the second village.
The second Hmong village in Chiang Khong had a head shaman that answered many of my questions to why Shaman is practiced the way it is. Everyone in the second village still practiced the old way and it made me felt like I was home because I finally realized why things were done the way it is when I participate in the Shaman ceremonies. I finally gained knowledge to why animals are sacrificed and the use of each tools during the rituals. Some of the things that I have learned from the head Shaman are that the gong used during the ritual symbolizes the calling to guide the Shaman spirits back into the house, white horse symbolizes death or a bad omen, and pigs are sacrificed to protect the bad spirits away.
Animism and Shamanism is most practiced but Hmong people are adapting to their religion based on where they live and the resources that are given to them. Having the opportunity to go to a Monk Chat and meeting Prab Jo Lee was an amazing experience, especially knowing that he is a Hmong monk. He said that the reason why he decided to become a monk at such a young age was because becoming a monk, he was provided with food and education. He lived in the mountain and was not given the chance to go to school so becoming a monk gave him a new life and opportunities. Like many others, religion is based on survival and on what will bring happiness in the future.
As Hmong people move into different locations, religion is changing and our old ways are slowly disappearing. The diversity of religion in the Hmong community is depended on geographic, the lifestyle that will help them survive, and the resources that are provided from them. Now the religion of Hmong people can be anything from Animism, Shamanism, Christianity, Lutheran, Catholic, and even atheist.
Culture is something that is always changing and evolving right before our eyes – as you can see, even the Hmong culture has changed through migration and time, and sometimes people see it as good and sometimes people see it as bad. One thing that we should all keep in mind, though, is that “we are all Hmong, no matter how far and different we are. Don’t ever forget that and each other.”