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. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

On the flip side…

Today was a great day in Beibei, Chongqing, China. And since it turned to be such a great day my roommate Deanna and I expressed that we could definitely live here for a long time. Then Deanna innocently said, “I can totally live like this. The only problem is if I were to learn to speak Mandarin fluently and live here forever, people would still think that I can’t speak the language due to my physical appearance.”

It hit home for me right then.

In the United States I experience that all the time. I speak Hmong and English fluently but people (college peers, employers, normal U.S. citizens) still doubt my communication skills due to my physical appearance (my black hair, almond-shaped-eyes, tan skin and shortness). In fact, many of my peers in the states have commented on my English proficiency skills.  “Thank you.” I’d reply. But seriously it’s demeaning, it sucks and it’s offending.

The funny thing about this situation is that for the past 16 years of my life I have experienced this sort of treatment. Today for the first time this thought ignited in Deanna’s head. It’s not Deanna’s fault at all. Fact of the matter is, if you don’t experience ‘racism’ then it doesn’t exist for you.

All I have to say is, “Welcome to my world.” 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Being Hmong in China

My hypothesis: In China the Chinese people will be able to quickly pick out that I am not Chinese because Asians are pretty good at distinguishing different Asian groups.

Conclusion: Wrong.

I have only been in China for a little over two weeks but I am already realizing how wrong I am about my hypothesis. I thought being Hmong in India was hard. Being Hmong in China is much harder.

Here in China everyone expects me to be Chinese and to already know the language. At the stores and markets they’d come up to me and say things to me Mandarin and all I can reply with is, “Wo bu zhi dao” while shaking my head and shrugging my shoulders. I am pretty ‘dumb’ here.

When I start telling people that I am Hmong, that I am sort of related to the Miao minority in China people react differently to me. I remember one night we went out for dinner as a whole group with Professors from Southwest University (the University we’re studying at in China). The topic of my ethnicity came up because the professor was interested in my background. He was wondering if I was Chinese American. I said, “No. Keep guessing.”  

Then finally I said, “I am Hmong. It’s closely related to the Miao Minority here in China.” He was taken aback. Then he said that in his village there are a lot of Miao people and that they are very poor. He mentioned how beautiful and expensive the Miao’s clothing was. At the end of the meal he said, “I’m surprised you’re Miao. I would not have been able to guess it at all.”

Somehow deep in my guts I could sense that he was shocked at how education and literate I was compared to the Miao people he knew. I wasn’t sure if he was praising me or insulting me.  

All of this really makes me wonder: Where do I stand in this world? Where does the Hmong people stand in this planet?

But I guess when we measure our lives against eternity our lives are nothing more than just a speck of dust. So how do we want to spend that time? How can we maximize our experiences here on earth?

So here I am here in China. Hmong girl. Pursuing my dreams. Traveling the world. This is how I choose to spend my time on earth. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Materialistic China

I don’t think I can survive this “materialistic” culture; especially this year when my New Year’s Resolution is aimed at being “non-materialistic.”

About 99.99% of all the women I’ve seen in China wear makeup, high heel, cute skirts/dresses, and straighten/curl their hair. They act as if the world is a runway. About 99.99% of the men are out to get “stuff” out of those materialistic women. There’s nothing wrong with people having fun. I am just saying I don’t think I can survive in this culture.

I would like to think I’m a pretty open-minded person who is always willing to try new things and adapt to my surrounding. But here in China … I don’t know.

The youth culture in China is very shallow. People judge others base on appearances. You must cut your hair a certain way, dye it a certain color, where certain brand names and etc. to attract people of the opposite sex. This happens with the youth culture in America, too, but I feel like it’s waaaay more extreme here in China. College students drink every single night. Every single night. They party at the clubs, they stay up past 3 AM and they party like there’s no tomorrow.

I understand I’ve only been in China for a week. But within 1 week all I have seen are these things. I can’t stand this culture in the US. How do I expect myself to be able to stand it here in China, especially when it’s three times as bad. It’s going to be a hard semester.