Personal Story: Exploring Hmong Culture
The Students were given this assignment:
Write at least a four-page story about your experiences in learning about Hmong culture. Include:
• your first awareness of Hmong people
• early stereotypes & questions
• notes from your HCT Notebook
• many details!
• definitely dialogue!
• use quotation marks for direct statements you've heard or read by Hmong people, conversations you've had about learning Hmong culture, things you've written before, or thoughts from a particular moment
• moments with strong feelings
• important people, places, and activities
• questions answered and unanswered
• problems resolved or unresolved
• experiences with recording observations: notes, photos, etc.
• what you've told parents and friends about this experience
• ways you have changed, grown, or developed
• ideas for learning more about Hmong culture, your own culture, or other new cultures
Here are their responses:
When people call me Chinese I look at them in a strange way. Because I’m Hmong. I was upset when people called me Chinese in first and second grade. Some people always called me a Chinese boy. Even today people still call me Chinese. I never told anybody that I was Hmong. They thought my culture didn’t exist. I felt embarrassed when people said my culture didn’t exist. I felt that they needed to study, research, and do some science on my culture.
My class went on a Hmong culture tour for a long time. When I was on my Hmong culture tour, they figured out that I was Hmong because I spoke Hmong. When people started to get my culture, they finally called me Hmong. I like the way they call me Hmong. Sometimes I let them know I’m Hmong. That’s my real ethnic culture.
The first encounter I ever had with Hmong culture was when I met my friend Mark. He was in my first and second grade classes. I didn’t think of him as being Hmong or being different—I thought of him as a friend. I only thought about the similarities and not the differences, with one exception. I noticed his skin wasn’t black or white but a mixture of the two... It was a tannish color. I hadn’t even heard of the Hmong yet, so I thought that he was Chinese or Japanese because I thought that if you were Asian that meant you were either Chinese or Japanese. Another of my early stereotypes was that the Hmong just sat around all day knitting and playing the qeej. I knew very close to nothing...
I have to admit that this project has been long and hard, sometimes even tiring, but it was worth the work and effort, because now I know a lot more about Mark’s culture. Hmong culture is much more complex than I had originally thought. It’s not just qeej music and story cloths. The cultural boundaries are almost limitless. Now I know I was totally wrong about Hmong culture and I’m sorry for what I thought about the Hmong and I hope that no feelings were hurt from my insolence.
When we started I thought Hmong was just a culture like Japanese or Asian. But I was wrong. The Hmong are as far away from the Japanese as, well, me!
It all started last year when my teacher Mr. Wagler told us about the trip we would be taking in the fall to see the Hmong. There was a lot of confusion. “Hmong what?”
“There will be performers playing the qeej,” said Mr. Wagler. “The what?” asked Delia. (She got her name put on the board and shut up.)
“The qeej is a Hmong musical instrument,” Mr. Wagler went on. “We will help Pao’s mother make egg rolls.” Egg rolls! Finally something I recognized!
Now we’re at least 3/4 of the way through the year and I’ve learned a ton about the Hmong. I felt welcome everywhere we went. Sometimes (sounds silly) I actually felt Hmong!?! Wow, it sounds really strange, but I actually felt Hmong and the people who we visited on our tour accepted the fact that we wanted to know about them and we weren’t just there because our teacher made us. We were there because we were interested in Hmong culture and we were ready to learn as much as we could.
The first time I ever heard about Hmong culture was last year when we talked about our individual cultures. Three of my classmates were Hmong. Even then, I didn’t know much. “Okay,” I thought. “Hmong is Asian, a bunch of Hmong live at Bayview, they play the qeej, and tell folk tales.” (My classmate Pakou had told us a folk tale.) Now, as I think back and compare my thoughts then to what I know now, it’s amazing how much I’ve learned...
For most of my classmates, photos and videos were just about as close as they could get to Asia, but I got lucky and was able to see the real thing. In December, my family set out to Vietnam to adopt my baby sister, and while we were there we went up to the mountains, the home of many ethnic minorities including the Hmong. I met and interviewed many Hmong people, and learned about the way many of the Hmong in America used to live, and how many of the Hmong in Laos still do. “They have no electricity or water systems! It’s really cool how they invent ways to deal with that, like bamboo pipes for water and water-powered rice grinders,” I wrote in my travel journal. When I came back, I put together a big report and movie about the Hmong.
Before we studied the Hmong, I had made many stereotypes. Those stereotypes weren’t bad, it’s just that I really didn’t know the culture. When I went deep into the culture, I learned so much I started to become part of the culture. To become a part of a culture, you must not only watch, see and hear people of that culture, you must think and feel the traditions, rituals and feelings of the culture within yourself.
Before these trips I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Hmong culture... I’ve changed a lot. It’s like I’m a new person. Some people who I know who are Hmong don’t know as much as I do. I know so much I feel like I am Hmong inside.
When I heard the word Hmong, I thought Hmong is just Hmong. They can blow a qeej and just do needlework. But now that we went on our trip, I learned a lot more about Hmong culture.
I told my family about how it’s like studying your own culture and where we visit on our tour... I learned something different each day when we took our trips... Everytime when I learn something from new peoples I notice that I’m becoming more Hmong like more traditional Hmong. At the Hmong America Friendship Center it made me feel like getting to know a lot of people, especially Hmong elders from other places... I felt like being [a part of] a big community of Hmong and American people... If I have a question would I pick being Hmong or American, I will pick being Hmong American, because I am Hmong American.
I know it’s hard to be in two cultures because when people in my class start talking about my culture I get mixed up on which culture they mean, my Mexican culture or American culture. At school, I’m American. Well, at least most of the time. And at home only Mexican because my parents don’t understand much how to speak or understand English. I sometimes have to translate for them when they are signing slips for jobs and school. I’m, like, their tiny little teacher.
That’s all I’m going to write because I feel I said a little too much of my life at school and at home. And because I don’t know what else to write about in this essay...
Here’s another exciting page of my thinking of Hmong culture. Talking and watching about two different cultures was neat because I go through some of the things that they are going through too. It feels so good to speak of something in common with other people as I’m doing right now. Except I’m writing it not talking about it...
At the beginning of the year, I thought why Hmong? Why not study many cultures so we can have an understanding of many cultures, not just one? I thought Mr. Wagler was stereotyping, not against, but with the Hmong... Well, after a while I figured out that learning very deeply about one culture can help me understand a lot about that culture, other cultures, and, more importantly, my own culture. Hmong seems like one noodle in a pot full of spaghetti. One culture with a world full of others surrounding it...
When I started learning about Hmong culture I thought it had nothing to do with mine, but as I learned and went to places like the blacksmith shop and the shoe factory I noticed it was a lot like mine. When we talked about the Hmong going and getting rice I began to recognize that Hmong people need to eat, drink, and sleep just like us...
Something simple can tell me about beliefs and traditions. Like at the Hmong funeral, someone told us about putting food, drinks, and clothes in the coffin for the person’s next life. When they said that, I told myself they believe in reincarnation! The funeral was another example of something that proved Hmong culture was more like my culture, because they have funerals where dead bodies go in coffins and they celebrate that someone is dead. It’s kind of like they do the same things we do, just in a different way.
I came out of the Shaman’s house as a different person in a way. I had a whole different vision of Hmong shamans. I started wanting to believe in the spirit world, and the idea of being able to spiritually heal someone...
This year I have experienced a lot of Hmong culture. [Now] I look at other cultures closely and look for details and am curious.
At the end of this trip, I was loaded down with about 110 pounds of culture waiting to be taken off [and put] into discussions and reports about the trip.
The butcher shop was the most powerful experience for me. I felt that I was going as deep into Hmong culture as any Caucasian kid had gone before.
I will tell you about one culture shock I had and that was at the Butcher Shop. All the animals were dead (almost at least). They were hung by one foot and killed. You may think that’s brutal, but would you rather be on a conveyor belt getting killed one by one over and over? Or one quick slice to the neck, a short death but happy life? You pick.
The butcher shop wasn’t too bad. It was just different from what I was used to. I had many encounters like that. For example, at the Union Oriental Market there were lots of weird foods like lion head! The Hmong funeral was very different from anything I have ever seen in my life. The dead body lay peacefully on the floor, dressed in lovely traditional Hmong clothes. A spiritual guide sang to the dead lady. The Hmong believe that when somebody dies they go back to Laos to find his/her placenta, then he/she is reborn. The Hmong funeral changed my understanding of Hmong culture forever.
I got to make egg rolls with Hmong ladies! Now that I know the recipe I sometimes get to make egg rolls at home... The blacksmith was incredible... Did you know that I got to learn a Hmong dance? Did you know some Hmong kids our age taught it to me? The shoe factory mostly taught me how hard Hmong people work...
I learned a LOT about Hmong culture this year but I definitely did not learn everything.
At first, when I saw a Hmong face, I thought they were Chinese or Japanese. I have known Mark since third grade, but our class didn’t really talk about his or anyone’s culture. My first real knowledge of Hmong culture was when I was in fourth grade, when Mr. Wagler started talking about it. I had so many questions, including:
1. Who are the Hmong?
2. Where are they from?
3. Why haven’t I heard of them before?
Now I have all those questions answered, and since I’m on the topic, here are the answers:
1. If the Hmong were lucky, they would get to go to America. As they arrived over the years, they brought their cultural traditions with them, making the country a more culturally enriching place.
2. The Hmong are a culture that originated in China. Then it migrated to Vietnam, where they had to flee because of the “secret war”. They moved to Thailand [and Laos?], which was very hard because of the long walks through the jungle and the deathly crossing of the Mekong River. Then they had to live in refugee camps where they were hardly given enough food to survive.
3. They are a minority group that not many people have heard of, but just because you haven’t heard of them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Our class read a great book called a Hmong family...Also, I LOVED the Tou Ger Xiong video. He is such a good example that the Hmong culture isn’t all playing the qeej (pronounced kang) and going to funerals and weddings. It’s a lot of fun and games too! Tou Ger Xiong had a way of making it [the story of the Hmong people] funny. If somebody else had told the same story without Tou’s jubilant attitude it might have been quite depressing.
One of my favorite places was the Blacksmith. He put it [a knife?] in the fire 18 times and pounded it countless times. “The more the better,” he said. When we told him that he put it in the fire 18 times, he said: “What? Only 18?”
There are still a lot of things I don’t understand about Hmong culture, though. Like some of the traditions of a Hmong funeral. I believe that killing roosters is wrong, unnecessary killing, but if they believe that the rooster guides them to the spirit world, then I guess it’s okay.
I think I have finally grasped the idea that when you play an instrument, it’s actually speaking the Hmong language, and I have a theory: Maybe, when the Hmong culture was just starting, they formed their language around the music. For example, the word for “long” is a high note almost, and there is a note on the qeej that sounds like it...
...I understand that the qeej speaks to Hmong people and the spirits and that it is very important to the Hmong people and very difficult to learn to play. I also understand that qeej playing is dying out, bit by bit, more and more, along with many other traditions. Hmong elders are afraid. If it dies, what will they have left of Laos?...
One of my favorite places on the trips was Dr. Bee Lo’s house. Dr. Lo is humorous, fun to be around, and educational at the same time. He is very skilled with all types of medicines and cures, naturopathic especially. He told us about all sorts of cures for all sorts of pain, sicknesses, and diseases (even cancer!) and occasionally would joke about something or other. He let us try some of the cures (put on by grownups, of course) and looked at our eyes and told us what kind of people we were, and will be. Although nobody understands why he said Sara K. wasn’t talkative, not even Sara K herself!...
I used to think that “Hmong” was just a word, spelled “mung,” and used for a bunch of kids who wore colorful clothes with coins and danced at assemblies. I had never even heard of Laos or the Mekong River. Then came the project, which completely changed my thinking...Truth be told, I wasn’t very keen on going on tour #1. I knew the notetaking wasn’t going to be fun...But by the end of the trip, my knowledge had doubled. I knew about marriage negotiation, the similarities with Bosnian refugees, games, clans, stories, paj ndaub, cooking, old villages in Laos, and more. I wrote reports, studied more, and prepared myself for the other tour yet to come...
I thought Sue Bassett’s presentation was especially interesting because I’m interested in Hmong healing, herbs, and medicine. I felt sorry for all the injured and sick people, some with deceased family members. I thought about how I would feel if half my family were lost to bombing, sickness, etc.
Finally, when the second tour came, I felt tired of going around studying the same things over and over. I thought it wasn’t worth the effort and work just for a web page, good reports, learning materials, and a couple other things. But I felt I had to go...My favorite place was Dr. Bee Lo’s house. I got to see and taste some of the herbs that Dr. Lo uses here in America and that were used back in Laos. Some of them were ginger root, garlic, onion, tomato, and Gingko. I tasted ginger root and garlic. They were both rather spicy, but the ginger had a special sweetness.
After three days and two nights of being away from home, I was dead tired. I thought I would never survive the hard job ahead of me without assistance. I felt like giving up. But I didn’t. I came to my senses and it felt good to know that most of it was over and done with.
I experienced a great deal on my trips, and I learned more about the Hmong in one school year than I have about any other culture (except my own) in 9 3/4 years. And the end isn’t here—yet!
When I was young, I didn’t know what Hmong was. But I had Hmong friends the whole time...When I first heard the word Hmong, it was in class. Mr. Wagler wrote HMONG CULTURAL TOUR in big letters on the board. I was like, “Huh-mong?”
The first real Hmong experience I had that impacted me was the butcher shop. When I went in, the smell of blood and carcass filled the air. They were talking about how they ran the business. I was thinking of any possible reason someone would want to take some kids to a place where there are a pig’s guts, eyeballs, and eyes on a tray...After the butcher shop, what I remember best is learning about Shamanist practices, like how they connect to the spirit world. They light incense, burn money, and give eggs to the spirit world to show respect. They also kill cows, chickens and pigs to help guide people to the spirit world. They use split horns and big heavy rings with red fabric tied on to communicate with the spirit world. They flip and throw the horns to understand what the spirits say. I thought all of these tools were pretty weird at first—killing an animal because someone died and taking bullhorns and throwing them around. I was confused about [why] shamans sit and stand blindfolded on a bench and yell things. But after experiencing a lot of this, I understand it differently.