“It is sad, it is discouraging, it is unbelievable. My identity and life experience isn’t known about. Not anywhere.”
Enter the Hmong perspective: here nobody knows your history; here nobody knows your culture; here you are foreign to all.
Unfortunately, Carleton Hmong students are all too familiar with this reality. They understand the unfamiliarity surrounding their identity. That being said, they possess an unparalleled desire to break free from the status quo of ignorance, exemplified by their brainchild we know as Hmong Awareness Week. This event, which took place over fifth week and included various dialogues and activities to educate the Carleton community about the Hmong identity, history, and culture. The schedule for Hmong Awareness Week included events like: Hmong dessert samplings in Sayles, a screening of the documentary Being Hmong Means Being Free, a discussion held in conjunction with ASIA club titled The (In)Visible Spectrum: The Heterogeneity of Asian Experiences in America, a dinner and discussion with Hmong convocation speaker Kao Kalia Yang, and a convocation address given by Kao Kalia Yang.
In order to understand the importance of this event, we must look to the troubling history of the Hmong people, as well as the trials that Hmong people, specifically Hmong youth, face today.
To begin, I answer the question “what is Hmong?” Short answer: an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous region of China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Long answer: the short answer plus a brief and gruesome history lesson. In the 1960’s, the CIA recruited and trained Hmong people living in Laos to fight against the Communist North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. The assistance and efforts of the Hmong during this conflict was deemed the “Secret War”. The Hmong were promised that if they assisted the United States and the United States was victorious, then America would assist them in establishing a homeland. However in the face of defeat, American troops withdrew from Southeast Asia, abandoning their Hmong allies and allowing for the return of Communist rule in Laos. What ensued was the immense persecution and genocide of the Hmong population for their role as allies of democracy. The inflicted atrocities prompted a mass Hmong exodus from Laos, and those that survived the jungles and the furious Mekong River found themselves in overcrowded refugee camps in Thailand where even today many Hmong people still wait to be relocated. Today, there are roughly 250,000 Hmong people living in America, and the largest population exists in St. Paul.
What is fascinating about the Hmong historical narrative is how intertwined it is with that of America. Maybe so few people are familiar with the Hmong identity because America feels ashamed for its abandonment of the Hmong people and for keeping the Secret War under wraps.
We now turn our attention to the contemporary condition of Hmong youths, which though less brutal than its past counterpart, is still troublesome. Today, a battle is being waged over the allegiances of Hmong youth between traditional Hmong culture and contemporary Western culture. As previously mentioned, many Hmong are still immigrating to the United States decades after the Secret War. This results in either first generation parents who have children in America, or children who immigrate along with their parents. Carleton has Hmong students who fit both profiles. Regardless of whether the children were born in a Southeast Asian refugee camp or in America, they bear the trying responsibility of preserving Hmong culture. In a world where Hmong youth in America are forced to juggle their own culture and Western culture, Hmong youth must face the reality that their culture has no written record, and if they neglect to preserve the culture then it will surely disappear. Hmong youth also carry the expectation of joining the ranks of other accomplished Asian ethnicities like the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean for example, which each have a firmly established base of doctors, lawyers, and other successful professionals.
We at Carleton enjoy a rich diversity of culture, viewpoints, and experiences, and the Hmong culture is a single dot on the grid of diversity. Hmong Awareness Week is one of many opportunities that exist for us to learn more about the fascinating history, culture and challenges that our fellow Carleton Hmong students experience. In the words of Cesar Chavez, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves, and forget about progress and prosperity for our community... Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”