The Missing Histories of the Hmong
UCLA Hmong Americans search for their place on campus and their place in the history books.
Chong Moua says she does not know how to respond when people ask, "Where are you from?" Eric Yang's parents were born in Laos and fled to Thailand during the Vietnam War, a family history he is just now beginning to understand. Sannya Fang says when she arrived on the UCLA campus, "Everyone was embracing their culture," but she felt left out.
Moua, Yang and Fang are first-generation Hmong Americans and undergraduates at UCLA. The three are members of the Association of Hmong Students (AHS), a tightly knit and active student organization. The club has about twenty-five members -- almost all the Hmong Americans on campus. They not only form a community and connect with other Hmong in the area but work for recognition and inclusion of Hmong culture and history in the mainstream curriculum on campus. They also organize a yearly conference -- this year's was on May 7 and was called "Giving Voice to Hmong American Experiences: Research and Rhetoric."
Moua, a third-year history major, took a few Asian American Studies courses in her first quarter. She says she identified with the material, but few professors ever addressed Hmong history -- and those who did only gave it a passing mention. "We don't see ourselves in the classes," says Moua. "We want our topics and our issues to be included in curriculum."
Fang says Hmong Americans have a unique past that relates to other Asian American groups, but also differs in significant ways. "We're first or second generation and our parents are still struggling to assimilate," she says. "Why should they leave us out? We're important too."
In the summer before he came to UCLA, Yang, a second-year undergraduate, started taking an active interest in his family history, especially their involvement in CIA actions in Laos during the Vietnam War. His uncles -- the older men in his community -- are ex-soldiers who fought for the US in what is often referred to as the "Secret War."
"They don't really talk about the actual fighting," Yang says. "They talk about all the traveling." Yang sees his family's time during the war as movie scenes. His grandparents talk about how difficult it was to be always running from Vietnamese and Laotian soldiers. His interest was piqued and he wanted to learn more, but did not find many places on campus to do so.
In the fall of 2004, Moua, Fang and Yang took an Asian American leadership course; it was there, they say, that they found the structure to "get it done," to begin to effect change in the curriculum. The trio created a syllabus and reader for a would-be course called "The Hmong American Experience." The course is designed to cover the rarely taught thirty years of Hmong American history, as well as Hmong history in China and Southeast Asia.
"One of the arguments that we knew we would be challenged with is that there isn't enough material on the Hmong," says Yang, a second-year UCLA undergraduate. The reader, which was showcased at this year's AHS conference, shows not only that there is enough material for a course but that the material is very good.
Chong Moua, Eric Yang and Sannya Fang created a course syllabus and reader that focuses on Hmong history, which was highlighted in a recent Hmong American academic conference at UCLA. Moua wrote an article about the conference.
Yang believes that if others learn about Hmong history they will find it as alive and fascinating as he does. A class about Hmong Americans, he says, will succeed and have high enrollment if non-Hmong students first get a taste of Hmong history. "If people learn about the Hmong, they'll be interested in learning more."
Sarah Marie P. Mamaril, a fourth-year UCLA undergraduate and the McNair Scholar in Sociology and Asian American Studies, agrees. She is Filipino American and initially took interest in Hmong Americans because she has a Hmong friend. Now she is devoting her honors thesis to research about Southern California Hmong students.
Both Chong and Fang say finding a place for Hmong studies is important -- whether it is in History, Sociology, Asian American Studies or any other department on campus. Other groups, like Japanese or Chinese Americans, are easier to place because they are connected to countries that have recognized geographical and academic boundaries. "It's hard for us," says Fang, "because we don't have a country, so where do we go?"
"The Hmong actually came from China," adds Moua, "but I don't identify with China." So when the question of national identity comes up, she grapples with an explanation she can give to others. "The highlands of Southeast Asia? That's not concrete enough," Moua says. "They want to hear China," she says, but that too is inaccurate.
"Where are you from?"
The truth about Hmong origins is unclear, but many scholars believe they originated in present-day China and migrated to Laos, Vietnam and Thailand around the turn of the nineteenth century. The Vietnam War and US actions in Laos in the 1960s and 70s -- in which the CIA enlisted Hmong to fight Laotian communists -- forced Hmong refugees to move to Thailand and then to the US, France, Australia, French Guyana and Canada. In December, 2003 the US government began a resettlement program for about 15,000 Laotian Hmong refugees living in Thailand.
According to a 2000 census analysis project by the Hmong Cultural and Resource Center and Hmong National Development, there are over 65,000 Hmong in California, with about a third concentrated in Fresno. There are about 40,000 Hmong in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota and just over 30,000 Hmong in Wisconsin. The report estimates that there are about 275,000 Hmong in the US.
This migration history is embodied by Hmong students at UCLA. Yang grew up in Rancho Cordova, a town near Sacramento that is home to some twenty Hmong families. After fleeing from Laos to a Thai refugee camp during the Vietnam War, his parents were brought to Iowa by the US government in 1979. They came to California in 1985, right before Yang was born.
A Hmong woman gardens in the central California city of Visalia. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Bays)
Sharon Bays, a lecturer in the Anthropology and Women's Studies and one of the few UCLA faculty who teaches about the Hmong American community, sees the Hmong as people who are carrying on an American tradition of agricultural migration. The central California community Bays studied was one that came to the area just over fifteen years ago looking for work. Many are farm workers and some bought their own land on which they grow berries and other produce. Although they were enlisted by the US military during the Vietnam War, county officials did not understand how or why they came to California, says Bays. "Some local governments didn't know anything about Hmong -- they thought [the Hmong] had never worked."
Moua tries to understand her past but she says she does not really remember her life before America. She grew up near Santa Barbara, in a small town of 50,000 with a Hmong population of about 200. The sixth of nine children, she was born in Laos and came to the U.S. in 1989, as a five-year-old. Moua says she does not know if her memories of Laos are real, or if they come from things her parents told her or images and films she has seen. "I can't distinguish it from dreams," Moua says. "It's a little sad."
In Hmong culture, parents and grandparents do not often talk to their children about hardships and family history, says Bays, so many undergraduates find out about how the Hmong fled Laos and Vietnam only when they get to college. Bays says that once when she was lecturing on this history, a Hmong student in her class walked out crying; the student had never known what the elders in her family had been through.
Dr. Min Zhou, chair of the UCLA Asian American Studies Department, says Hmong Americans are significantly understudied. Not only are they unknown to the larger population but they are virtually invisible within Asian American scholarship. "I feel that UCLA has one of the most comprehensive [Asian American studies] programs," Zhou says, "and yet Hmong and other Southeast Asian groups are severely underrepresented."
Without classes and curriculum specifically devoted to them, "Hmong students are not finding out all the richness [of their history] -- they're just getting to the surface," Bays says. She has been following Moua, Yang and Fang's work and says she would love to teach the course they designed. "It's exciting to me that the class is being created by students, in a very democratic way."
Incorporating Hmong curriculum into academia is not just about giving students a chance to discover their own heritage. It is also about preserving Hmong history, much of which is known only through stories passed by word of mouth and fleeting memories.
"There is a sense of urgency to do something," says Moua. AHS has been leading the effort to bring Hmong studies to the forefront, but Moua hopes that others will be moved to take up the cause of documenting and preserving Hmong history and culture.
"Now it's time that there is curriculum that reflects the growing number of Hmong and the growing number of people who are interested in Hmong people," says Bays. AHS is a very active group and a class specifically devoted to Hmong history is inevitable, she says. "It's just a matter of time, especially with this group of students."
You can find more information about Hmong and Hmong Americans from the Hmong Cultural and Resource Center and Hmong National Development. To find out more about Hmong students at UCLA, visit the Association of Hmong Students. Information about Sharon Bays' research can be found on her website.