Friday, November 4, 2011

Why Hmong Outside China Oppose the Term Miao

It is probably na├»ve of me to think that all the answers are in China, but I did. The more I dig this grave of Hmong history I’m realizing that I am biting to more than I can chew. There’s so much history yet nothing is solid stone. I’m searching for some kind of solid evidence about the Hmong history pre-Vietnam War. I thought I would find it here in China since I couldn’t find it at St. Ben’s. The facts are definitely not in the Chinese history. In the Chinese language “there are no Chinese characters for Hmong throughout recorded Chinese history” (Tapp, 2004).
The only fact I can find is that during Maoist period when China was trying to unify everyone, including ethnic minorities, “China came to recognize each other (ethnic minorities) as co-ethnics and to identify with and operate under the ethnonym Miao. Only a portion of those identified as Miao – the ones distributed over Western Guizhou and parts of Yunnan, particularly the border states – call themselves Hmong in their own language” (Schein, 2004). As a young child I learned from many Hmong elders, professionals and mentors that the term Miao is a derogatory term, much like how the word nigger is a derogatory term for the African American community.
Many Hmong outside China oppose the term Miao, but “it is utilized as a neutral ethnonym within China, and as the only term that encompasses all the subgroups” (Schein, 2004). The term Miao literally means “rice-plant shoot,” “sprouts,” and in some sources, “weed” in Chinese (Leepreecha).  I do not like to refer to myself as a Miao for this reason, but I would only do so reluctantly in China to get my point across Chinese people. What’s strange is that it seems like the Hmong-Chinese are fine with people calling them Miao.
The reason why the term Miao is more accepted in China is because during “the Maoist (1949-1979) and the early reform (1979-1989) periods, they were more caught in Nationalist projects, building a strong sense of Chineseness vis a vis the West, throwing their culture into the amalgam that was to constitute the multi-ethnic Chinese people. The Chinese state, for the most part, was seen as their patron, their benefactor, their projector form the economic caprice to which both nature and the market had subjected them in the past” (Schein, 2004). During that period “the Chinese government’s project of ethnic identification, based upon the criteria of common language, territory, economy, and psychological characteristics or sentiments, was launched after the Communist Party took power in 1949” (Leepreecha).
However, “deeply disaffected with the trajectory post-Mao reform took, however, some came to question the Chinese national project which had so acutely disadvantaged them. They have turned instead toward a transnational source of identity which could yield the possibilities for development that the reform process had denied them” (Schein, 2004). During the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, “Hmong ritual leaders said that their ritual practices were banned. They even had to hide their ceremonial gong for funerals in a cave. However, after the Cultural Revolution, they resumed performing the rituals, in spite of the Communist government’s continued refusal to support any religious beliefs” (Leepreecha).
In fact during the early reform period in China, “more than four hundred groups of people were registered for approval in the early 1950s.  However, by the mid-1960s, only 55 groups (nationalities or minzu), including the majority Han, were officially registered.  All the rest of the groups were classified under these 55 categories.  During the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960s and 1970s, one more nationality was added. Up to now, many ethnic groups subsumed under other nationalities and still struggle to gain official recognition from the Chinese government” (Leepreecha).
Truth of the matter is, “the cumbersome umbrella term Miao refers to a number of disparate groups totaling 7.5 million people as of 1990, speaking 3 mutually unintelligible dialects and scattered over 7 provinces in southwest China, but most densely aggregated in Guizhou, Yunnan and Hunan” (Schein, 2004). The problem lies in the fact that three ethnicities (San-Miao) in the larger entity more broadly known as Miao, “a classification originally imposed by the conquering Chinese; each of these Miao groups has their own history, and their own views about who were their ancestors and where they originated from, but these varied versions have now been combined to read like a single unified account” (Lee, 2007).

Lee, Gary Yia. “Diaspora and the Predicament of Origins: Interrogating Hmong Postcolonial History and Identity.” Hmong Studies Journal, Volume 8, 2007. 25 Oct. 2011. Web. < >
Leepreecha, Prasit. The Construction and Reproduction of Hmong Ethnic Identity in China. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct 2011. < >
Schein, Louisa. “Hmong/Miao Transnationality: Identity beyond Culture”, in Jean Michaud, Christian Culas, Nick Tapp and Gary Lee, Hmong/Miao of Asia (Chiangmai: Silkworm Books, 2004).

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Teaching English in China

Teaching Weekend in Shehong, Sichuan, China

Middle school girls touring  me around their junior high.

My middle school class that I taught English to (approx. 42 students)

My kindergarden class. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

When Someone Dies

I am in China right now, the Hmong homeland, looking for answers. It’s true that “everywhere the Hmong reside they refer to China as a homeland. In funerals, for instance, when a Hmong ritualist anywhere in the world guides the soul of a deceased person back to a place where it can be at rest, the ultimate destination is a mythologized China” (Schein, 2004). 

In the Hmong culture when someone dies there is a Song called Qhuab Ke, (Showing the Way) performed by playing a qeej (bamboo instrument) that is the first ritual that opens the funeral ceremony. The ritualist opens by asking whether the dead person really dies or is only faking death.  If he or she is truly dead, then the person is informed that his or her body is to be washed and dressed in mortuary costumes, and the soul will be guided back to all the places he or she has lived to show them gratitude before joining the ancestors in the After World.  Prior to making this journey, however, the Qhuab Ke chanter informs the dead person about the beginning of the world, the getting of seeds for crops and why people die.  The “Showing the Way” chant says that a pair of female and male super-beings, Nkauj Ntsuab (Gao Njua) and Sis Nab (She Na) were sent from the Nether World to fashion the world, to make the mountains and plains, the rivers and lakes; and to populate it with people without specifying who they were.  In the “Showing the Way” funeral chant, it is said that the sacrificial animals for the dead are given to the soul of a dead person for use either as food or assets to pay debts incurred while alive on Earth.  Should he or she want to replenish this stable of animals, the need will be made known through a sickness among the close living descendants who will then have to carry out an “ox ceremony” (ua nyuj dab) involving the killing of a cow.  Apart from incense, rice alcohol, ghost-paper-money and these sacrificial cattle, no other economic needs are mentioned in Hmong rituals (Lee, 2007). China is the “Homeland” for the Hmong people, which is why I am here.

Lee, Gary Yia. “Diaspora and the Predicament of Origins: Interrogating Hmong Postcolonial History and Identity.” Hmong Studies Journal, Volume 8, 2007. 25 Oct. 2011. Web. < >
Schein, Louisa. “Hmong/Miao Transnationality: Identity beyond Culture”, in Jean Michaud, Christian Culas, Nick Tapp and Gary Lee, Hmong/Miao of Asia (Chiangmai: Silkworm Books, 2004).

Paug tau ub ob...

Puag ……….. tau ub os………….ib tus ntxhais Hmoob txiam txim siab tias nws yuav mus kawn ntawn nqib siab tos lub tsev kawn ntawn College of St. Benedict. Nws muaj 18 xyoo. Nws paub hais tias lub tsev kawn ntawn feem ntau yeev yog Mekas xwb; nws tshai heev tabsis nws muaj peem xwm heev. Tau nws mus txoj tog lus tsev kawn ntawn ntawn lawn no nws hais tias:
            “Where are you from?”
Nws tes: “St. Paul, Minnesota.”
Lawn nog duas: “No, where were you from before that.”
Qhov no ua rau nws tus siab heev. Nws tsis pom nqa yuav teb li cas. Nws tias mus rau teb chaws Suav mus nhriav nws li Hmoob keevkwm. Lws zaus lawn no nws duas nws tias paub teb lawn.

(Translation: Once … upon a time… a young Hmong girl decided that she was going to attend college at the College of St. Benedict. She was 18 years old. She knew that majority of the students will be White; she is intimidated by this but she was also very courageous. When she arrived at the college they asked her:
            “Where are you from?”
            She answered: “St. Paul, Minnesota.”
            They asked again: “No, where were you from before that.”
This made her really sad. She didn’t know how to respond to this question. That is why she decided to come to China in search of her Hmong history and heritage. Next time when they ask her this question she will know the answer.)

I wanted to tell “them” that I was Hmong and that my family resides in America but we were originally from Thailand, but we are not Thai people, because before Thailand we (the Hmong people) were in Laos and Vietnam, but we’re also not Laotian nor Vietnamese, because before that we were in China, but we’re not Chinese either. I didn’t have enough time or knowledge to tell them. So I shut my mouth about the history.

I answered: “I’m not an international student. I’m from the Twin Cities. I am Hmong.”
They said: “I’ve never heard of that.”
End of Conversation.

Friday, September 30, 2011

One Question leads to a million Questions

Ashley Cooper, one of the Breakthrough Staff members said to me in an email: "I was walking around Barnes & Noble a couple months ago and was appalled to see that there were only 3-4 books about the Hmong culture. Granted, it's something isn't surprising for many Hmong people but I would love to see the younger generations debunk this trend and being publishing their experiences for others to learn from."

It is moments like this that really ignite the fire inside of me to write.

Being in China and just being far away from home this entire year has really hit me how important my identity is in this world. Our biggest project this semester for our China study abroad seminar is this thing called the "One Question Project" where we pick one question and dissect it. My classmates are tackling issues such the One Child Policy, Buddhism in China, Chinese Tradition Marriages, etc. I decided to focus my one question on the Hmong-Miao minority population in southwestern China. I've read up on the history of Hmong people in China - I've learned so much about what happened to the Hmong people before the Vietnam War. Anyway, one of my biggest discoveries about this one question is: SO WHAT, WHY SHOULD PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT THE HMONG PEOPLE? WHY SHOULD IT MATTER?

The more I dig into the Hmong history, the more I wonder why I am even doing it. The more I talk about the Hmong history to people, the more I realize how unimportant it is to them. So why bother educating people about things they don't care about? Just because it matters to me does not mean it matters to the world.



If we don't write our own stories, others will write it for us. For the longest time, especially growing up in the States, my identity and cultural heritage as a Hmong person had always been neglected and put down - when I speak Hmong and practice Hmong traditions it never seemed as valuable as speaking English or practicing "American" traditions (Christmas, Halloween, Easter, Independence Day, etc). As time went on and I grew older, I began to believe that my story, the Hmong Story, was not as important as other people's stories. I began to believe that my story was not worthy of telling, not worthy to record down in history and not worthy of researching.

 Who are the Hmong people, anyway? Why do they cling so tightly to their culture? Why can't they assimilate to their surrounding and accept their new environment is their new identity? Why are they so defensive? 

I'm still trying to uncover the answers to these questions. But it’s exactly like what Ashley said; it's really up the younger Hmong generation to fill up those bookshelves at Barnes and Noble. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dear Niam, You are my Center of the World

My center of the world began inside of you, Mom. To be honest, my center of the world still revolves around you. When I think of the beginning of the world I see April 7th, 1991. I was born the year of the sheep according to the Chinese zodiac. I was born to a Hmong mother in a refugee camp somewhere in Thailand. We don’t get to pick and choose our skin color, racial background, class status, country of origin or parents – but if we could, I would choose you a million times over. I would choose to be Hmong a million times again.

To the world the Hmong people were inexistent.  But I never knew that. When I tell people I was born in Thailand they automatically make the mistake of categorizing me as Thai. Mom, you were my center of the world and you reminded me each and every day that I was Hmong. We spoke Hmong. We ate Hmong food, peb no mov nrog kua txob . We celebrated Hmong festivals such as No Peb Caug. We practiced Hmong shamanistic traditions. We sacrificed chickens and cows to our ancestors. We made ghost money and burned it to the spirit world. We watched Hmong movies and listened to Hmong music. As a little girl I knew that knowing my culture and heritage as a Hmong person was the most important thing to remember. To me being Hmong was the center of this universe because you were my mom and you were Hmong.

My identity as a Hmong person imprinted itself permanently into who I am and shaped how I saw the world. 

(To Be Continued...)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

What does it even mean to be HMONG?

I’ve always known that I was Hmong. You know, attending the Hmong New Year festival, participating in the ua neeb (spirit calling) and hu plig (soul calling) ceremonies, eating sticky rice with Hmong sausage, speaking Hmong, etc: The point is, growing up in a Hmong household I pretty much knew what my expectations were and obeyed it.

BUT – I never knew how HMONG I was until I stepped outside of my Hmong community. Of course this epiphany has hit me various times at various points of my life (Hmong Women’s Circle/ Girls Scouts, HmoobTeen, Youth Leadership Initiative, college, Breakthrough Saint Paul, India) but it has never hit me as hard as now.

Here in China were my Hmong ancestors originated, I feel more Hmong than ever. How so?

This semester we are assigned a project called the ONE QUESTION PROJECT where we zoom in on one question we have about China and research about it while we are here. My One Question Project is on the Hmong-Miao people in Southeastern China. Through this I’ve had the opportunity to educate my peers about the Hmong people, culture, religion, history and values.

I’m sure my peers are annoyed about my constant “Did you know that in the Hmong culture…” I redundantly educate people who are unfamiliar about the Hmong people about how we got to the United States. I’ve told the story of the Vietnam War so many times, I bet I could recite it back and forth from A-Z and Z-A. I’ve also given them many facts and tidbits about what the Hmong people believe in.

When my peers have dreams about things like someone they love died or they are pregnant, I usually tell them what the dream means in the Hmong culture:
-          Dream that someone died: It means that the person who died in the dream is getting better and healthier; their sickness will die away.
-          Dream that you are pregnant: It means you will have a lot burden to carry such as a long to-do list, a lot of preparation for an event or exam; basically a lot of stress weighing you down.
-          Dream that a snake bit you: It means you will get pregnant if you have sexual intercourse. If you already had sexual intercourse, it means you will definitely be pregnant.
-          Dream that an animal bit you: It means you need to be cautious of the people around you because there are people out there who are intentionally planning to physically or emotionally hurt you.
-          Dream that an attractive opposite sex person wants you to go with them to an unfamiliar place: It means a wandering ghost wants to take your soul from the human world to the spirit world. If you go with them you can possibly die.
-          There’s more but I’ll stop here.

When someone bruises out of nowhere and can’t recall how they got that bruise it usually meant that the person’s spirit is trying to run away because it’s unhappy about where it is at that point in time but the body will not allow for it go leave so people get bruises without knowing how they got them. It just means that their spirit is not in tune with their body.

When you scoop rice out of the rice cooker don’t scoop straight from the center. It means that you are greedy and your mother-in-law will dislike you.

When you see someone’s belongings out in the street don’t pick it up because it’s probably a ghost trapping you. Ghosts are wandering spirits and if you pick their bait you’re basically giving them permission to take your spirit away.

Don’t ever exchange blood with your boyfriend, significant other or anyone else. If you do you are making a promise (a covenant) with that person saying that you’ll wait for them after you die – this means you can’t enter the gates of heaven without them if you die first. Vice versa.

There’s more but I’ll stop here.

The more I dissect these ideas and values in the Hmong culture the more I realize how much I know (and don’t know) about the Hmong people. I ask myself: First of all how do I know these things? And how did I remember them? Then: Why am I still holding on to these values? Finally: Why am I not questioning or doubting these beliefs?

At the end of the day being Hmong isn’t about having dark hair, almond-shaped eyes, and peach skin. Being Hmong isn’t about eating rice, attending the Hmong New Year festivals or killing chickens to make sacrifices. Of course these things contribute to the Hmong culture and customs but it does not define what Hmong is.

At the very end of the day being Hmong is when the values of the Hmong culture are glued so tight inside of me to the point where I don’t even question it. I don’t think there’s even a ‘definition’ to it. It’s something you know deep in your soul.