Preserving and adapting

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 “Secret War.”

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.

“They didn’t ask to come here,” said Kathleen Garabed, founder and executive director of the Fresno nonprofit Stone Soup, which strives to help families preserve their Southeast Asian culture. “They are refugees.”

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.

“Elders want to maintain their strong traditions,” Garabed said. “But 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.”

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. “You have to be selective,” Garabed said. “You can’t preserve it all.”

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: “You need to know who you are, to be who you are; otherwise you will lose it.”

The cultural differences cannot be ignored. Specifically, many Hmong Fresno State students in the Hmong Student Association feel the differences.

Joseph Edgecomb / The Collegian

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 — just enough to start an organization.

Khang, who hopes to go to medical school soon, spends time with members of the Fresno State’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.

“The separation is due to naiveness,” he said. “Of course a separation is natural and it exists, but people really are just not knowledgeable about our culture.”

“If they knew more, there wouldn’t be a cultural gap.”

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.

“My parents remind me who I am,” he said. “You can easily lose it.”

Joseph Edgecomb / The Collegian

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.

Her’s father is a shaman, a practitioner of shamanism, which means he can communicate with the spiritual world. A shaman’s spirit can leave the body to the supernatural world and answer difficult questions about life, Her said.

“He has been a shaman for over 20 years,” she said. “It is easy for me to stay connected with my culture because we carry out all the traditions.”

During Hmong holidays, her family dresses in traditional clothing to “show their pride.”

Although Her feels connected to her culture, she said that there are many members who are not. “Many [students] are afraid to talk to their parents about their culture,” Her said. “But here we are like a family and we can talk amongst each other and learn.”

Joseph Edgecomb / The Collegian

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 — they are his friends.
He said he does feel a culture clash because he has to adapt to American culture, which is different.

“Here, you go to school and you’re focused,” he said. “But adapting to a different culture makes it hard, especially when your family continues with traditions.”

Xiong said he is constantly reminded of his Hmong culture by constantly being around family and friends.

Joseph Edgecomb / The Collegian

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.

“It’s a real educational process,” 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 “new” and are still assimilating.

“Many of our parents are refugees,” she said. “We are new to America.”

Her’s father was in the CIA and fought in the Secret War, so she said she has always felt American. “My father always pushed that ‘you are American and it’s a good thing,’” she said. “But it differs from family to family.”

Joseph Edgecomb / The Collegian

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. “School takes a lot of my time,” he said. “I’m losing my culture.”

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.

“My mom asks me to go to different things,” he said. “But I would rather choose school over my culture, because my education comes first.”

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