A little more than three decades ago, the term “Hmong” had little or no meaning to most Americans. Now, “Hmong” stands for a people, a term that is well-known and understood by many in communities across America.
Knowing where the Hmong people came from is a question that is still a mystery even to the Hmong people themselves. Why? Well, the Hmong didn’t have any written history. Some say the Hmong people came from Mongolia because it has “mong” in it. Others say the Hmong people came from China because we share similar cultural rituals like ancestor worship and a clan-like social system.
For many centuries, the Hmong form of history was embedded in folktales, myth and legend stories, funeral rituals and other religious ceremonies that were passed down from one generation to the next. How vague, huh? I agree. Many Hmong parents and children today are completely oblivious to what make them Hmong.
On the other hand, some of these same parents and children are trying to reconnect themselves with their history and cultural practices. Some parents grasp at whatever essence that is left of their Hmongness, a survival mechanism that has allowed the Hmong people to endure for centuries despite integration and assimilation pressures. Can a people preserve a culture in its authentic form? Perhaps, depending on your level of determination to preserve your cultural heritage and how important it is to you and your family.
For many years, as an adolescent, I searched high and low for traces of my origin — the Hmong origin. My historical knowledge went as far as Laos, the country in which I was born. Where exactly in Laos? Which village? Which city? Who knows? I don’t know, even to this day. Worse yet, I am an orphan — clearly, my parents aren’t around to tell me where I was born exactly, not even as specific as a “next to a giant tree.”
All my extended relatives really couldn’t recall where they were born either, especially those born in Laos. Even if they did, it was not something that was written down on an official paper the way we have it here in America. Most Hmong individuals learn of their birthplaces through word of mouth from their parents and grandparents. That is fine by my book; better something than nothing, wouldn’t you say?
Whenever I was asked, I would start out by saying something like this, “I was born on a very high mountain in a house next to a big tree. This is when the moon was high, and the sky was cleared. It was during a harvesting season.” I would laugh out loud because I really didn’t know where I was born. Like all Hmong who put their birth city and country on paper, I was born in Xiangkhoang, Laos. I really didn’t know why we all chose this place to be our birthplace. Now, I know why and don’t really mind saying out in the open that I was born in Xiangkhoang, Laos, because I was there and it was a beautiful and breathtaking place. Though ravaged by the Vietnam War, it was still one of the wonders of the world. That is where the Plain of Jars is situated. I thank my family for choosing such a fine province, either intentionally or by default. I now proudly claim it as my birthplace, even though I really don’t know where I was born.
Yer T. Yang is an educator and a freelance writer who lives in Sheboygan. She will contribute occasional columns on Hmong culture and social issues. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.