The first scholarly work to come from inside the Hmong community, Hmong America documents Chia Youyee Vang's own migration from Laos to Minnesota at age nine and the transformations she has witnessed in Hmong communities throughout the migration and settlement processes. Vang depicts Hmong experiences in Asia and examines aspects of community building in America to reveal how new Hmong identities have been formed and how they have challenged popular assumptions about race and ethnicity in multicultural America.
With an approach that intermingles the archival research of a historian, the personal experiences of a refugee, and the participant-observer perspectives of a community insider, Vang constructs a nuanced and complex portrait of the more than 130,000 Hmong people who came to the United States as political refugees beginning in the mid-1970s. She offers critiques of previous representations of the Hmong community and provides the sociological underpinnings for a bold reassessment of Hmong history in the greater context of globalization. This new understanding redefines concepts of Hmong homogeneity and characterizes ordinary Hmong migrants not as passive victims but as dynamic actors who have exercised much power over their political and social destinies.
While Vang focuses on the Hmong community in the Twin Cities, she also has conducted research in numerous Hmong enclaves in the United States and abroad. In addition to recounting historical events, she incorporates the voices of those who personally experienced and informed the development of ethnic and faith-based traditions, political mobilization around unequal treatment of Hmong Americans, and changing aesthetics and cultural politics regarding ethnic celebrations.
About the Author
Chia Youyee Vang is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the author of Hmong in Minnesota.
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Hmong AmericaRECONSTRUCTING COMMUNITY IN DIASPORA
By CHIA YOUYEE VANG
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
PrefaceI am a member of the one-and-a-half generation of Hmong who came to the United States as a nine-year-old child in 1980. I grew up in the Twin Cities, and my personal experiences, whether as witness to the transformations in this community or as participant in the many events here, greatly influenced my research and writing. My parents had tried to escape from Laos in 1975 when the military leaders fled, but the shooting of some escapees ahead of our group convinced my parents that the risks outweighed the unknown future benefits. They returned to our village, Tashelaan (Taj Siv Laav), and from 1975 to 1979, tried to bring some normalcy to an unstable situation by working hard to rebuild their lives, their agrarian lifestyle. Like thousands of other villagers, however, their efforts were interrupted by sporadic bombs dropped on villages that were thought to harbor resistance fighters. The fear intensified. Each time the noise of an airplane was heard approaching, villagers would disperse like ants to the surrounding thick jungle. In 1978, my father's youngest brother, Tong, who had escaped in 1975, sent a message through Hmong men who had returned from the refugee camp in Thailand to let my father and his other brother know that he was safe in America. He encouraged all of the villagers to find a way out of the country. However, my father and the elders hesitated. Following the bombing of our village in the summer of 1979, the elders convened a meeting and decided to make another escape attempt.
We made the journey from northern Laos to Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand in September 1979 along with our extended family members and relatives. Upon arrival on the Thai side of the Mekong River in October, our group was held by Thai officials for several days until international relief workers were allowed to examine us. After being registered by refugee-camp workers, Uncle Tong urged my parents to apply for resettlement in the United States as soon as possible. We were fortunate in that we spent only six months in the refugee camp before being resettled in Minnesota in April 1980.
I remember only bits and pieces of being tired and hungry traveling through the jungles and crossing the Mekong River in the darkest of the night hours. I also remember being consumed by new experiences such as drinking soda and holding a pencil for the first time in Ban Vinai. The truth of the matter is that I have limited personal recollections of the actual journey. When I am asked to describe the journey from Laos to Thailand, I often describe it as a film one had seen a very long time ago. One may be able to recall the themes and a few scenes here and there; however, one cannot accurately recount the entire story. As my mother frequently reminds me, perhaps I could not remember much because the smell of diesel fuel made me sick. Vomiting and being "near death" were my state of being from the bus ride from Ban Vinai to Bangkok International Airport. On the plane ride from Bangkok to San Francisco, California, where we stopped to go through U.S. customs, my health condition troubled my parents greatly. Unlike my siblings, motion sickness overwhelmed me, and I could not eat anything. While we waited in San Francisco, my mother literally begged the Hmong interpreter helping with customs check to find me some rice. When he came back with a small bowl of steamed rice, she mixed it with water and fed it to me. My mother tells me that this bowl of rice saved my life. We arrived at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport on April 13, 1980, and were welcomed by my Uncle Tong and his family, who had been in Minnesota since 1976. So, our life in America began.
It is common for scholars of non-Hmong ethnicity to describe their sometimes intentional and other times surprising encounters with Hmong subjects. In studies about Hmong in the United States, in other Western nations, in Thai villages, and in Laos before the Vietnam War era, researchers describe their increasing knowledge and understanding of various aspects of the Other's culture and traditions. Frequently, it is through observations and both structured and nonstructured interviews with their subjects that outside researchers discover cultures and traditions that contradict or complicate their own worldviews while providing them with a better understanding of Hmong worldviews. By immersing themselves in the lives of their subjects, these researchers position themselves as cultural bridges where they assume responsibility and expertise in explaining to Western audiences exotic Hmong cultural practices.
If these are common processes by which researchers of non-Hmong ethnicity take, what path do those who are of Hmong ethnicity follow? What difference does it make when one has lived and/or experienced the topics of interest? How does one's status as an insider influence the process and outcome of research studies? In one community study after another, it is also a widespread strategy for researchers to engage key informants or cultural brokers who serve as interpreters. When language is not a barrier between researcher and interviewee, I believe that stories are told or experiences are explained differently due to the existence of common cultural knowledge. Furthermore, insider status increases the researcher's access to information that marginalized groups such as the Hmong may not feel comfortable sharing with an outsider. This stems from their attempt to portray a positive image of the ethnic group to outsiders. As a historian, I want to increase the possibility of understanding the forces, choices, and circumstances that brought the Hmong people to our current situation. It is important to recognize that what one knows of the past is not static but constantly evolving as new information become available. Additionally, historical understanding requires studies that encompass all aspects of human experiences and recognize that the lives of ordinary people are as full of interest and significant as those of famous leaders.
My interest in Hmong diasporic experiences has evolved over the years with travels to many enclaves throughout the United States. My research is also informed by numerous trips abroad since the early 1990s. As an undergraduate student, I spent my junior year (1992–93) studying in France where I had the opportunity to visit and interact with different Hmong populations throughout the country. In 1999, I visited Argentina and was able to interact with Lao refugees who had resettled there. I spent two weeks in Thailand in March 2006 where I was able to visit with the several hundred refugees who remained at Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist monastery northeast of Bangkok where many Hmong refugees fled following closure of United Nations–sponsored camps in the mid-1990s. In January 2009, I had the opportunity to lead a short-term study-abroad program to Laos where I reunited with my aunts and uncles from my mother's side for the first time since 1979. Although it felt as though I was returning "home," I came away realizing how different our lives were and how out of place I was in the village. The life I was born to lead and the life I am currently living are clearly worlds apart.
Overall, I have tried to present perspectives from a variety of people. Despite my status as an insider, I am sure that not all people of Hmong ethnicity will agree with my portrayal of the Hmong American community and my conclusions. What I do hope is that this project will encourage other researchers to engage in the production of more-critical work on Hmong in the diaspora.
Excerpted from Hmong America by CHIA YOUYEE VANG Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
Chronology of Relevant Events xx
1 Hmong History and Migration Prior to America 17
2 A New Home in America 44
3 Re-Creation of Social Structures 68
4 Continuity and Reinvention of Traditions 97
5 Political Activism 122