First generation Hmong students feel culture clash
First, some history.
During the 1960s, the United States recruited Hmong people to fight on the side of Americans in the Vietnam War. The Hmong, an ethnic minority group originating in China and Southeast Asia, then participated in what is known as the â€œSecret War.â€
When the Laotian government was later overturned, Hmong people became targets of persecution.
Due to that political strife, many Hmong migrated south. Some stayed in countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Thailand and some migrated to the United States; the U.S. government placed the Hmong mostly in California and Minnesota.
â€œThey didnâ€™t ask to come here,â€ said Kathleen Garabed, founder and executive director of the Fresno nonprofit Stone Soup, which strives to help families preserve their Southeast Asian culture. â€œThey are refugees.â€
Many Hmong came to California because of the resources in the land and for growing vibrant crops, like strawberries.
Old traditions in a new culture
Now, the present.
Members of the newest American minority group have struggled to maintain their own language, customs and religion. But now, many first generation Hmong live in America with their refugee parents.
Garabed said that when the Hmong arrived in the United States it was a culture shock, especially when they began to raise children. Conflict arose.
â€œElders want to maintain their strong traditions,â€ Garabed said. â€œBut they are stuck because their children take on a new culture, particularly through their education. Education is a positive culture adaptation, but there are also the negatives, such as selfishness and materialism.â€
Garabed said it is difficult for many Hmong refugees to understand certain American values because they come from clan-based families, where they are focused on the wellness of the group, not the individual.
Although Stone Soup strives for cultural preservation, not everything, of course, can be preserved in a completely new society. â€œYou have to be selective,â€ Garabed said. â€œYou canâ€™t preserve it all.â€
She explained that Hmong culture could be supported in many ways, specifically through language, arts and values.
Garabed said she constantly advises the young adults that she meets: â€œYou need to know who you are, to be who you are; otherwise you will lose it.â€
The cultural differences cannot be ignored. Specifically, many Hmong Fresno State students in the Hmong Student Association feel the differences.
Vangkou Khang: Stanford biology graduate, first generation Hmong
Khang created a Hmong student group at Stanford. When he was freshman, there were only three other Hmong students at the private school in Palo Alto. By his senior year there were eight â€” just enough to start an organization.
Khang, who hopes to go to medical school soon, spends time with members of the Fresno Stateâ€™s Hmong Student Association to stay connected. He said that there is a struggle between the Hmong and American cultures, but it is not simply due to racial differences.
â€œThe separation is due to naiveness,â€ he said. â€œOf course a separation is natural and it exists, but people really are just not knowledgeable about our culture.â€
â€œIf they knew more, there wouldnâ€™t be a cultural gap.â€
Khang said he does not lose sight of his culture because he has constant reminders from his parents. He said because Hmong parents are considered conservative, it is hard for them to understand how their children are adapting to American culture.
â€œMy parents remind me who I am,â€ he said. â€œYou can easily lose it.â€
Song Her: senior, liberal studies major, first generation Hmong
In high school, Her was part of a similar association, so the transition was easy. She is currently president of the Fresno State Hmong Student Association.
Herâ€™s father is a shaman, a practitioner of shamanism, which means he can communicate with the spiritual world. A shamanâ€™s spirit can leave the body to the supernatural world and answer difficult questions about life, Her said.
â€œHe has been a shaman for over 20 years,â€ she said. â€œIt is easy for me to stay connected with my culture because we carry out all the traditions.â€
During Hmong holidays, her family dresses in traditional clothing to â€œshow their pride.â€
Although Her feels connected to her culture, she said that there are many members who are not. â€œMany [students] are afraid to talk to their parents about their culture,â€ Her said. â€œBut here we are like a family and we can talk amongst each other and learn.â€
Xia Xiong: junior, kinesiology major, first generation Hmong
Xiong was involved in his high school Hmong student organization and believes the group is a useful and valuable way to be active in the community. He easily relates to his peers â€” they are his friends.
He said he does feel a culture clash because he has to adapt to American culture, which is different.
â€œHere, you go to school and youâ€™re focused,â€ he said. â€œBut adapting to a different culture makes it hard, especially when your family continues with traditions.â€
Xiong said he is constantly reminded of his Hmong culture by constantly being around family and friends.
Song Her: junior, liberal studies major, first generation Hmong
Her is a Hmong-Christian, but most members of the association practice Shamanism, the traditional Hmong religion. She said she is even learning about the subcultures within her culture.
â€œItâ€™s a real educational process,â€ Her said.
Her, the community and activities director for the Fresno State Hmong Student Association, said since most students in the association are first generation Hmong, they are still considered â€œnewâ€ and are still assimilating.
â€œMany of our parents are refugees,â€ she said. â€œWe are new to America.â€
Herâ€™s father was in the CIA and fought in the Secret War, so she said she has always felt American. â€œMy father always pushed that â€˜you are American and itâ€™s a good thing,â€™â€ she said. â€œBut it differs from family to family.â€
Vang Lee: junior, pre-nursing major, born in Thailand
Lee joined the Hmong Student Association to support his Hmong culture. His older sister was part of the association and urged him to join.
He wants to really stay connected. â€œSchool takes a lot of my time,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™m losing my culture.â€
Lee said that he is sad that there is a distance between him and his Hmong culture, but he simply does not have time for the Hmong traditions.
â€œMy mom asks me to go to different things,â€ he said. â€œBut I would rather choose school over my culture, because my education comes first.â€