The Hmong are a resilient people. Forty years after many of them were outed from Laos they have scattered across the globe as refugees. In America the two largest populations of Hmong people are in the Central Valley and in Twin Cities, Minnesota.
In this interview KVPR’S Ezra David Romero chats with Fresno State Anthropologist Kao-Ly Yang who’s studied the Hmong people for decades. She says each of these communities mirrors the man who helped establish the Hmong people in each region.
ROMERO: “Who are these leaders in each community?”
YANG: “The first one is the late former General Vang Pao who passed away in Fresno in 2011. The second man is Dr. Yang Dao. He lives in the Twin Cities. One is born in the 30s and the other in the 40s; two men for different backgrounds.”
“How do these two men influence, shaped the face of the two communities in the United States. In the US you have mainly two big communities. The first one is in Fresno. The second one in the Twin Cities and you have small communities everywhere.”
ROMERO: “How do these communities mirror the men who founded them?”
YANG: “The common features for the two populations are that they are all farmers. They farm, everywhere. Maybe a little bit more in Fresno than in the Twin City. One of the other main features is the conversion into Christianity as well for the past 30 years. In the Twin Cities you have more upper and middle class. In Fresno you have more middle class.”
“In terms of life in Twin Cities you have more jobs, people have more money. They have a better life.”
ROMERO: “How so?”
YANG: “It’s the influence. Dr. Yang Dao was in France and in the 80s he came to the United States. Many people sponsored him to come to live in the Twin Cities. He came in and brings in his passion for music, for art. In the Twin Cities you have people with higher education. There are more women with PHD then here in Fresno.”
ROMERO: “Tell Me about Dr. Yang Dao.”
YANG: “He has his PHD in France. So he is highly educated. He’s also a man of dialogue as well. When he first came to the United States he was teaching Hmong at the University of Minnesota for many years. He’s a man of culture. He composes songs, he also sings songs. He’s a modern man.”
ROMERO: “You said he likes dancing too.”
YANG: He dances the tango very well. I had the opportunity to dance with him. He’s a wonderful dancer as well.”
ROMERO: “Him being a modern man how is that reflected in Twin Cities?
YANG: “You have a lot of people willing to follow the same path. For example, in terms of leisure time in Twin Cities I have the experience when I travel there during the weekend I party a lot. I start by Friday night and finish by Sunday. They do have place to entertain in the evening. A place for elderly in their 60 and 70- year-olds, places for the 40 to 50-year-olds and places for 30 and 20-year-olds as well.”
“In Fresno you do have that only during the period of the Hmong New Year.”
ROMERO: Twin Cities is a very different place than Fresno. Do you think the culture is a mix of this Dr. Yang Dao’s ideals and the city?
YANG: “The Hmong people are very competitive. My experience living in the United States is that they love to imitate each other. And Dr. Yang Dao, who’s remained for all of us an intellectual model of success, he’s inspired a young generation to go to higher education, to get a PHD. In the Twin Cities you do have more successful people with money, with comfort, with houses. In Fresno the economic background is also a factor to social success as well.”
ROMERO: “Here in Fresno how does the Hmong represent General Vang Pao?”
YANG: “We can say in Fresno the Hmong are more conservative. They want more to preserve culture and to value more traditional values. For example, one of the key aspects in General Vang Pao’s contribution is to set up the bride price. When you marry the husband pays a price for his wife. This is something that is very traditional, because for mainstream society you don’t pay money for your wife. General Vang Pao saw it necessary to set up that price and for everybody to follow that rule.”
ROMERO: “Do you think Fresno is representative of General Vang Pao’s education?”
YANG: “Yes, we can say that in that way. Because I’m thinking instead of worrying about bride price it would be wonderful to promote the great structures organizations to promote students.”
ROMERO: “Would you say the Hmong have resettled better in Fresno than in Minnesota?”
YANG: Certainly, because economically it’s also a better place. You have factories, people can find work easily. But also they create a structure with an organization. They have a day for the Hmong culture. December first or second and they have structure like archives to social organizations to help people.”
ROMERO: “So Fresno is behind the times for the Hmong population?”
YANG: “I believe we are. For example in the years of 2000 in the Twin Cities they started to talk about creating cultural centers. People tried to move and so they created the Hmong Cultural Center that has a website online. You have all the archives; they created the Online Hmong Journal. In Fresno we don’t have that. You still live like farmers, you try your best to live your best as individuals or family or lineage to support your children. You don’t have those structures, leaders or role models to inspire you. We don’t know if Fresno is left behind, but the path of the Hmong in Fresno is a total different path.”
ROMERO: “How do you feel like Americanization is changing Hmong culture in Fresno and Minnesota?
YANG: “In Fresno in terms of cultural practice it doesn’t change a lot. For the non-Christians, the animists, they still practice traditional rituals – shamanism. For the Christians they moved to the American style. In the Twin Cities you still have the same, but you have a different lifestyle that overlaps the traditional lifestyle. For example, night clubs, dancing, going to the bar to drink. Those practices are not Hmong.”
ROMERO: "Do you think these two men thought they wanted to make their communities look like them?"
YANG: “I don’t think so. Dr. Yang Dao had been living in France for many years. People wanted him to contribute to modernize the community. He did give his best to his community. We can say two men different. One is looking back: General Vang Pao. In 2011 when General Vang Pao passed away I read all those newspapers to know what people thought about that event.
“A French newspaper wrote about General Vang Pao and said that his passing marked the end of the cold war in Southeast Asia. Dr. Yang Dao looks forward and General Vang Pao had been leading a virtual war for many years until his passing. I can say that because he remained the father of all the Hmong. When he passed away suddenly the term that they used to name his was a king. He was kind of a king for the Hmong people.”
ROMERO: “How do you think the Hmong people 40 years later are holding onto their Hmongness?”
YANG: “If you study the history of the Hmong people you realize the Hmong have changed over the centuries. We are not the same as our ancestors were at the beginning of the century. The idea of being Hmong is to acknowledge that. If you want to emphasize the material aspects in order to be a Hmong we don’t have anything else to do anymore. The way we are dressing, the way we are eating. Our eating style is all Laotian. We don’t eat our traditional foods any more like 40 or 50 years ago. At the material level it’s changing, it’s over. We are totally assimilated to the American way of living.”
“But something that is crucial for the Hmong community is language. The identity is defined by language. If you speak your language you are Hmong. If you believe that you are so you are Hmong. If you still give back to your community you are Hmong. When you don’t speak the language anymore, when you don’t care about your community anymore, you live outside the community you are not some how Hmong.”