Hmong Americans Are Fighting to Preserve Their Endangered Culture
Hmong people are an ethnic group originating in East Asia. And while the group's population is in the millions, many outsiders are still unaware of their existence.
A tight community, Hmongs are proud of their traditions, which they've managed to keep throughout the centuries despite lacking a unified country. But as the wars of the 20th century forced thousands to escape Asia, assimilation has endangered the Hmong language.
In the United States, Hmong Americans aren't sitting idly. Instead, they're fighting to preserve their unique culture so that it can survive for hundreds of years more.
Where Are Hmong People From?
The history of the Hmong (or Mong) is estimated to go back at least 4,000 years. Most of that history was spent in China, where they are considered a Miao subgroup.
In the 1800s, the Quing Dynasty pushed for a unified national identity that resulted in the persecution of several ethnic groups. Many Hmong people were forced to flee, scattering to different communities in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. While traveling in one of these countries, you can visit a Hmong village to learn about the culture first-hand.
What Makes the Hmong Language So Unique?
As some countries don't have official census information about their Hmong population, there is no way of knowing exactly how many Hmong people there are in the world. But estimates place the number between 4 million and 15 million.
Hmong people are divided into subgroups with distinct dialects, traditions and clothes. Two of the largest subgroups are commonly referred to as White Hmong and Green Hmong, based on the color of the garments women wear on special occasions. Their language also uses these wonderfully poetic names.
All dialects of Hmong are tonal, meaning that the same word can change meaning depending on the tone you use, as with Chinese. But whereas Mandarin has four tones, the Hmong language has seven or eight. This makes it challenging to learn, but it's also one of the reasons why the language is so special.
An Endangered Culture
Tragically, UNESCO has listed Hmong as an endangered language. Part of the problem is that it's largely oral. You can blame persecution for that, too. One of the ways that the Qing Dynasty pushed for assimilation was to ban the writing and reading of Hmong.
For more than a century, stories and traditions were passed on by mouth, but no written records were kept. Annie Vang — a Hmong American who developedHmongPhrases,the world's only Hmong language learning app — explains that "a lot of everything we've been told is through stories. And sometimes stories get lost because there's no documentation."
As Hmong began migrating to the U.S. and other western countries, assimilation added to the problem. Having moved to America after the Vietnam War, Vang says that it's been difficult to keep the language. "Especially the younger Hmong generation," she laments, "they don't speak it anymore."
She worries that "over time, if we all just convert and speak English," no one will be speaking it anymore, at least not in the U.S.
Hmong People in the United States
Like Vang, most Hmong immigrants came to the U.S. after the Vietnam War. The CIA recruited people from the community to fight against the communists in Vietnam and Laos.
When the U.S. lost — sorry, "withdrew" — the communist governments in both countries retaliated by attacking Hmong communities. Once again facing persecution and threats, many fled to Thailand and applied for political refugee status. Most who were granted the status came to the U.S.
Today, there are about 327,000 Hmong in the U.S., 66 percent of whom are American-born. Around 81,000, live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, though there are also large communities in California and Wisconsin. In fact, Hmong is the third most spoken language in Wisconsin, after English and Spanish.
Notable Hmong Americans include Olympic gold medalist and Brenda Song, an actress mostly known for her role as London Tipton on the Disney Channel.
Hmong Americans Won't Let Go So Easily
Despite gaining more attention, Hmong culture continues to be threatened. Thankfully, people have stepped up to the challenge of saving it.
Vang is one of the best examples of someone who celebrates her language and culture by sharing it. Her HmongPhrases app has helped many young people practice the language on their own without feeling judged. It also teaches people who can speak it to read and write it. And language isn't all she's focused on. "For me, the prime things [of Hmong culture] are the language, the food and the clothing," she explains.
Her phrases app addresses the first. But this iOS application developer and tech entrepreneur also developed Yumaholic, an app for learning Southeast Asian and, particularly, Hmong recipes. She complements with apps with an Etsy store that sells digital files for making traditional Hmong clothes. "That's another way that I showcase my Hmong roots, my identity and celebrate who I am," she explains.
And she isn't the only Hmong on a mission. Her cousin owns Hmong ABC, a Saint Paul bookstore that promotes authors from the community and books written in the language. The city also has the Hmong Cultural Center Museum and the Hmong Museum. The latter has no physical space but holds Hmong events around the area.
You don't have to be in the Twin Cities to get to know more about Hmong culture either. Besides using Vang's apps, you can listen to different podcasts. "Hmong-Glish," for example, explores Hmong American culture. And "Not Your Average Mai" explains different aspects of Hmong traditions for people who want to understand the culture better.
The trend, it seems, is only getting stronger. And if these determined Hmong Americans have their way, the language and culture will continue thriving in the U.S. for generations to come.