The question of “Who am I?” is a normal insecurity for teens and it’s a no brainer that Hmong youth in Central California would face a similar struggle. They’re grappling with the tribal religions of their refugee parents, other faiths encountered in the U.S., and the pressures of conforming to popular culture. Some have clung to the tribal ways of their ancestors, while others have lost faith altogether. Valley Public Radio Reporter Ezra David Romero visits with a group of Fresno Hmong high school students to bring you a glimpse into their struggle.
Mai Joua and Mai Chong Vang go to the same school, share the same room and are seemingly inseparable. They’re sisters – Mai Joua is 17 and Chonny is 15. The two Hmong-American teens grew up in a Fresno family that practices animism with regular shaman rituals. But one thing divides them.
Here’s Mai Joua: “I do participate in Shamanism although I don’t believe it.”
And here’s Chonny:
“I am shamanism and I actually believe in it.”
Kao-Ly Yang is a Hmong anthropologist who has studied Hmong culture for over 25 years.
“Shamanism is not a system of beliefs it is a healing ritual practice,” Yang says. “So what the Hmong people believe is Animism. They believe in the multiple of souls ad they practice the code of the ancestor. They honor the ancestor."
She says many young Hmong are confused about their beliefs.
“When I first came to the US in 2000 I realized more and more young people questioned about their faith,” Yang says. “Believing in animism is a traditional perspective. You are born into a family, they are animists, so you are just animist. Right now people start to question that.”
Mai Joua says time and what she calls American influences have helped push her away from the religious practices of her Hmong refugee parents.
“I feel like it’s made up,” Mai Joua. “I feel like I don’t have time for anything so I don’t want to believe in something that I won’t be there to participate in.”
But for Chonny, Shamanism is a point of connection to her family and heritage.
“I believe that the spirit will actually help you and it’s basically how faithful you are to that religion and to me I believe it will help my point of views and show who I am,” Chonny says.
These sisters face a struggle that Hmong teens are grappling with across the region. Do they assimilate to the culture around them or hold true to the values and traditions of their families.
Sixteen-year-old Jasmine Vang’s story is a little different. She’s not related to Joua and Chonny. And she’s Catholic.
“I guess the reason I am so strong into the religion or so pulled is because besides Shamanism, Catholicism is the only other thing that gave me hope,” Jasmine says. “I found comfort in being Catholic.”
She says many of her Hmong friends are trying to hold western religion and ancestral traditions in the same hand.
“What I feel like I need is what I take,” Jasmine says. “If I feel like I am struggling and I need prayer then I pray – I’m catholic. If I feel like I am getting sick or if I need to find something and my mom needs to ask my grandpa to help me find something she can call him up because he’s a Shaman too – the actual Sha-man.”
She says outside pressures have made it hard to balance her social identity with her spiritual life.
“The struggle is finding who you are because there are just so many things that your parents and society wants you to believe,” Jasmine says.
It’s a struggle that many Hmong teens have faced over the years, including Song Lee, who at age 38 is now a professor of counseling at Fresno State. She came to America from Laos as a toddler. But she says today’s youth also have a different perspective than her generation.
“We’ve seen severe poverty, we see the struggles that our parents went through,” Lee says. “Some of these youth have parents that have been successful. Everyone has an iPad or an iPhone. If you have a lot of things already what are you motivated to do.”
Her fear is that since Hmong culture is passed down orally this current generation of youth may leave out traditional practices altogether in their pursuit of the American dream.
“I think if we don’t do something now then they’re gonna lose that piece,” Lee says. “For one thing if you don’t understand it you’re not gonna embrace it.”
Another Fresno State professor, Kao-Ly Yang says many of her Hmong students don’t know a lot about their culture, or the difference between Shamanism or Animsim. But she says assimilation isn’t the main cause of the confusion. She blames Hmong culture itself.
“Hmong do not socialize their children by explicitly explaining the rule or the culture content,” Yang says. “So the parents let their child discover the culture, discover the rules. You have to make mistakes in order for you parents to teach you.”
And because of this, she says many Hmong children are losing touch with their culture.
“This is the third generation, born in the 90s,” Yang says. “This is a generation that I feel have connection but not understanding anymore.”
According to Kao-Ly Yang, around 70 percent of Hmong Americans are under the age of 24. And with Hmong elders aging, Yang says today’s youth have a short window of time to regain what she calls their Hmongness.
“The picture I give to my students is of a tree,” Yang says. “You have a big wind that is blowing and you have your roots solid in the earth. The Hmong culture is like the root, the earth, so you have to have that. So the wind can blow as much as it wants, but it won’t fall. This is the foundation.”
She says that as teens like Mai Joua, Chonny and Jasmine mature, and define their own generation, that strong foundation will be essential.
“If you still remember you are Hmong, if you are still interested in your community, if you give back to your community, if you still try to create something that makes sense and makes your life beautiful as a Hmong, you are still Hmong,” Yang says.
And it will be up to this generation of Hmong Americans to decide what that means.