May is the heritage month for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Maybe some of you have already known that I am Asian. Specifically, I am Hmong. I was born in California in 1992 and raised in North Carolina. I have no memories of California because my family moved to NC when I was a toddler. All my life, I have been asked, what is Hmong? What does your name mean? Where are you from? Can you write in Hmong? This month, I will be answering some of these questions and sharing my experience growing up Asian American. I do not plan to make this a series, but I do not want to write long and tedious posts. So, I plan to publish a few posts during these last few days in May. Today, I will be answering the top five common questions that I always get from almost everyone that I meet.
Where is my family from?
My parents are from Laos. After the Vietnam War, many Hmong families fled to Thailand, living in refugee camps. Then came to the United States. My older sister was born in a refugee camp, but she came to the US as a baby. She spent all her life growing up in this country and earned her US citizenship at age 18. After a year of arrival in the country, my father gained his, and my mother hers in 2014. My father has a sister who is still in Laos, living with her husband and children. Many Hmong families in the US still have relatives in Laos and Thailand.
What is Hmong? Where are they from?
Hmong is an ethnic tribe originally from China, classified as a subgroup of the Miao, one of China’s top 10 minority groups. Through history and war, many Hmong families moved to Laos. After the Vietnam War, many Hmong families fled to Thailand to escape persecution as many Hmong members worked with the US. Escaping to Thailand was not an easy journey. Many Hmong elders that lived through the war and experienced the aftermaths are traumatized by those events. As part of the younger generation and as very young children, it was infrequent for us to see an elder coming out to say that they were traumatized. However, as we get older, we realize that many elders in the Hmong community are severely traumatized by those past events. Many even suppressed those memories and feelings by looking into the future with better outcome possibilities soon come to them through their children. In Thailand, Hmong families lived in refugee camps and survived on food rations. Eventually, after a few years, many countries opened pathways accepting the Hmong into their homeland. Those countries included the US, Australia, and France.
Can I speak, write, and read in Hmong?
Yes, yes, and yes. Among my siblings and cousins, I am the most proficient in writing and reading. I did not receive any formal education on how to read and write. Instead, I would learn from reading titles on Hmong movies and karaoke songs. There are consonant pronunciations, but I do not know them, which surprises many elders that I still write with an accuracy rate of 85%-90% in a document. If I am struggling, I will pull out my trustworthy dictionary.
There are many English vocabularies that we cannot translate directly into Hmong, so we must describe certain words, meaning that we translate the definition instead of the word. For example, cholesterol, we would translate that into “ntshav muaj roj” which is the description of cholesterol, the fat found in your blood. Many young people are no longer fluent in Hmong, and the main factor is that their parents only speak to them in English. That is impossible in my family because we grew up with our grandparents and cannot speak English. My uncles have a more deficient English level than my late father; my two aunts are so-so, and my mom is not fluent in English. Moreover, my parents would always remark, “why are there English people in our house” whenever my siblings and I continuously speak in Hmong.
Can you date or marry outside of your ethnicity?
Yes and no. It depends on the family and the values of that family. I have seen parents who are absolutely against their children dating a non-Hmong person, while some parents are okay with it. However, there are some requirements. For example, a good personality, education, job, and family are also open to interracial dating or marriage. I, specifically, am pretty much open to dating whoever as long as he meets my criteria. For example, I want him to know that I will not wash his dishes after he eats and that I also expect him to help cook, clean, and do laundry on some days. Also, if I am dating a non-Hmong man, I would like him to learn a few essential words to communicate with my mother and accept my culture.
How did you learn English?
I learned English through school and lots of tears. I did not know a single English word in kindergarten. I cried on my first day in the library because I did not understand what the librarian said. All I remember was that she was old, and she spoke to me in a harsh tone. I did not even know how to ask my teacher to use the bathroom, so I wet my pants a few times. I also did not know what the word “bathroom” was, so I had no idea why some students were always lining up in front of this door when the teacher said that word. I do not even know how I passed kindergarten or first grade since I hated doing homework. Even in first grade, I had a hard time reading and writing and always so intimidated by my peers. Halfway through second grade, I started to open a little bit to my teachers and peers. I was also an ESL student that stands for English as Second Language, and that was my favorite part of school. I would get pulled out of my class for a few minutes with other bilingual students, and together we would do some activities. Sometimes we would read a book, do a writing assignment, get help on homework, or do fun-related educational activities. At the end of the year, we take a proficiency test in all three categories reading, writing, and listening.
I do want to clarify that getting pulled out of class only happened in elementary. In middle and high school, it is different. The middle school, I went to all the bilingual students that were part of ESL were always in the same homeroom. During language arts class, the ESL teacher would also be present for additional help. However, if a student were to pass the ESL test or the ESL teacher feels that a particular student can do well without extra help, then the following year, that student will be in a different homeroom. That happened to me in eighth grade, I expected myself to be in the same homeroom with the same people, again, but surprisingly I was put into a different homeroom. I was not upset because I received almost no additional help from the ESL instructor compared to my bilingual peers. So, she probably felt that I did not need her help.
Nonetheless, I can work without her assistance, so I did not care about being in a different homeroom. In high school, we do not have any of that, but we know where to find the ESL instructor if we needed additional resources or assistance. I have no shame to admit that I was in the ESL program until I graduated from high school. One perk of being in the ESL program in high school that probably benefitted my bilingual peers was that we get additional time on tests. It was in our student portfolios. My algebra 2, whom I also had for calculus, informed me that if I ever needed additional time to let her know, I never asked or used that benefit since I work just as quickly as all the other students and sometimes faster.
So, these are usually the most common questions that people asked me when we meet for the first time. Of course, I have no problem answering these questions now, but as a young kid, I tried to avoid these questions as much as I can since I always lacked the confidence to answer them. As I stated initially, I plan to share a few more posts about my culture and experiences, so stay tuned!