After college, my husband and I got married and moved from Wisconsin to North Carolina where my husband attended Duke University.
We had no family, no friends, and no job lined up in North Carolina. Just a childish sense of adventure.
Although North Carolina has a decent sized Hmong community, it exists primarily in the western part of the state. We were in the eastern part of North Carolina where there were very few Hmong people. In fact, we knew of no Hmong people at all! (This was before FB got really savvy with connections).
As we started building friendships and started getting more connected with a community there, we found that very few people even knew who the Hmong people were. They usually thought we were Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. We even had people ask on multiple occasions if my husband was Mexican cause, well, he didn't look like anything they'd ever seen before lol! We got really good at sharing the history of the Hmong people and every time we shared it, people were fascinated.
After being away from the Hmong community for a while, my husband and I had a conversation and we realized just how much we missed it! We missed Hmong food. We missed speaking the Hmong language with others. We missed the closeness of the community, and we even missed interacting with the older Hmong generation.
One day, after landing my new job at Duke Law School, I went to have lunch with a friend. I was telling her about the history of the Hmong people, my family, the dinners we’d have, and the clothing I so loved.
She looked at me wide eyed and said, “I’m so jealous. I wish that I had as rich of a tradition and that I was as connected with my roots as you. Even eating together was uncommon in my family.”
I'll be honest: I never thought that there’d be a white person who’d be jealous of what I had because, for so much of my life, I felt like I was inferior. Whether it was what others said or what I just perceived, I unconsciously believed that since white culture was plastered everywhere, it must be superior. It wasn't something that I could articulate. It was just something that I felt. But my coworker's words helped me realize that that belief was wrong.
It helped me see that I had something beautiful.
I know some of you are thinking, “Ok Mykou, it’s easy to say, ‘I love the Hmong culture! It’s beautiful!’ but you haven’t gone through what I have.”
You’re right. I haven’t.
And if you’re Hmong, you’ll know that it’s not that simple.
I've said it before but I'll say it again:
Hmong culture, like every other culture, is beautiful AND broken.
I’ve talked with and know quite a few Hmong people who feel like they’ve been burned by the Hmong culture and by Hmong people. When they think about Hmong culture, all they can think of is the hurt they’ve experienced and seen. Their response then, is simple.
They reject it completely.
And I’m not hating on them. I get it. There are some things about the Hmong culture that frustrate me as well. I even wrote about it in last week’s blog entitled, 3 Things I Hate About The Hmong Culture.
That being said, I believe there is still much beauty in the Hmong culture. I also believe that if we lose our culture, we lose a huge part of who we are.
Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, I want to hold on to what I think are the good elements of Hmong culture.
Although there are plenty more, here are 3 specific things that I love about the Hmong culture.
1. I love that the Hmong are a resilient people.
Throughout history, other people groups have tried to conquer and subsume the Hmong people, but the Hmong have resisted because they have always wanted to remain a free people. This has happened wherever the Hmong people have lived.
The Hmong never gave up or gave in. They raised up armies to fight against emperors and kings. They fought for freedom. They fought for their simple way of life.
Throughout human history, minority cultures have been destroyed and lost forever because other cultures overran them due to war, colonialism, or assimilation. But the Hmong have survived.
We come from a resilient people group who have passed on traditions and culture through stories woven and stitched into clothing, through poetry and songs, through food cooked over fire pits.
It’s easy to disregard what our parents, grandparents, and ancestors have experienced and endured when we’re sitting in air conditioned homes with iPhones in hand.
But I’m here because of the blood that was spilt. I’m here because my ancestors never gave up. I'm here because the Hmong are a resilient people.
Resilience, the ability to bounce back from difficulty, is something that I want to embody and teach my children.
When my kids face challenges, I want them to know that they are stronger than they think because they come from a resilient people who never gave up when obstacles came their way.
When the Chinese came after the Hmong centuries ago, they fought and didn't assimilate. When the Laotian Communists systematically hunted the Hmong after the Vietnam War, they did whatever it took to resist and escape. I want my children to know that resilience is in their blood.
One specific thing I plan on doing is tell my children the stories that my parents have told me about their experiences in Laos and in Thai refugee camps. I regularly ask my parents about their stories and the hardships they’ve endured because I want to remember and never take for granted all that I have.
My children are still young, but when they grow up, I want to have a queue of stories that I can share with them about my parents and grandparents and how their efforts, courage, and determination got us to where we are today.
2. I love that the Hmong are a hospitable people.
When my husband and I lived in North Carolina, I learned that I had an aunt who’s brother-in-law lived only 1 hour away in a small town just outside of Durham. She encouraged us to visit them.
My aunt called to tell him that we would be visiting...but it was still nerve racking to randomly visit this distant uncle of ours. We'd never met him before.
However, when we arrived, he and his wife invited us in like they had known us for years. We took our shoes off at the door (as any good Asian would!), and they brought out metal chairs for us to sit on. Right after that, they asked if we were thirsty. We said no, but they gave us a cup of water followed by a bowl of fruits to snack on anyway.
After conversing for about 30 minutes, they asked if we were hungry. We said no, but they said the food had already been prepared so we should eat. We again said we weren’t hungry but they wouldn't have it. After much back and forth, they insisted and pulled us to the dinner table where we relented and sat down to eat.
(Note: Of course we were hungry! We just knew that in Hmong culture, you don't tell others that you're hungry because they already know.)
If you’re Hmong, this is normal.
You can travel anywhere, and if you come across, especially 1st gen Hmong folks, the first thing they ask is, "Who's the patriarch in your family?" In other words, how are we related? If they can place you, then you're family. We've seen our parents and grandparents do this all the time growing up and we've experienced it even more.
But even for 2nd gen folks like me, hospitality is huge. It's how Hmong people show generosity and kindness, even to complete strangers.
Hospitality is a beautiful aspect of Hmong culture that I want to pass on to my children.
Something small that I want to do when my children are old enough (whether they’re boys or girls), is to have them bring snacks and drinks to guests. It’s something I was taught to do since I was little, and it's something I continue to do. Whenever I have guests over, no matter their race or ethnic background, I ask if they’re thirsty and grab something for them to drink and snack on. This is something I personally think is great for children to learn.
Children shouldn't be sent away when guests arrive. Rather, they can be essential partners in showing hospitality to guests. When they do this, they are learning how to serve others and how to interact with adults. They’re being taught manners and hospitality, transferable skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
3. I love that the Hmong are gardeners.
When I was young, my parents would wake me and my siblings up at 4 in the morning to help them with the garden in the summers. I'm not talking about a raised bed with a drip irrigation system installed in the backyard. I'm talking about an acre or more of land that my parents rented from a farm 30 minutes to an hour away from home.
My parents would pack the van with gardening tools, rain boots, gallons of water, a thermos with hot water, some instant noodles, and a small cooler with enough food to feed the family one meal for the day. Then off we'd go in our long sleeve shirts and sun hats.
We'd arrive at the garden right as the sun was breaking over the horizon. I loved catching fresh dew from tall grass in my hands as I watched the sunrise. It was always so peaceful and beautiful. For the first few hours when the air was cool and the sun still low, we'd work hard pulling up weeds that had grown over the previous week.
Around midday when it got too hot and us kids got too fussy to bare, we'd head to the van with a few small cucumbers in hand to cut and eat along with our simple meal before we headed back to work again.
As a child, the garden felt endless. I still can't believe all that land was tilled by hand using only the hlau (a simple Hmong gardening hoe). The large plot of land would be divided amongst a number of Hmong families using yarn with wooden posts and sticks. I remember looking at the other plots of land and seeing makeshift shelters that other Hmong families built to give their families reprieve from the scorching sun during the middle of the day. I would always think, "Why didn't we have have one?"
Our family planted corn, sweet peas, cilantro, green onions, squash, onions, lettuce, Thai chili peppers, watermelons, and a ton of other things I didn't even know about. During the winter and spring, we'd pull out mustard greens, squash, and other veggies that had been frozen from the autumn harvest. Our deep freezer was always overflowing.
As a child, I didn't really understand why my parents gardened. I went with my parents simply because I had to. It was a chore.
I didn't know then that gardening was in my parent's DNA. It was their way of life when they were living back in the old country. My parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so on and so forth were all gardeners. For centuries, the Hmong were subsistence farmers, growing their own food for survival. They didn't depend on governments or kingdoms to feed them. Instead, they were self-sufficient and able to maintain their culture and way of life because of it.
There is power in being growing your own food.
I want to teach my children to be self-sufficient through growing their own food as well. Although I don't have an acre of land to garden, my husband and I have torn up most of our lawn to create a garden. Not only do we have less grass to mow (heck yes!), but we also have food right outside our doorsteps.
Just yesterday I wanted to make margarita pizzas and realized I needed some basil. I thought to myself, "Shoot! I don't have any basil in the fridge!" Then I remembered that I had planted some in the garden! I walked 5 feet outside and plucked 10 basil leaves right out of my garden. I came back in with the biggest grin on my face :)
Up until a few years ago, I thought the way my parents gardened was unsophisticated.
But once I started learning about urban gardening, sustainability, and permaculture, I realized that my parents were right all along. I mean, they were gardening in their backyard before it became cool! Their way of gardening is not only good for the environment, it has lasted the test of time, generation after generation.
I have so much more respect for my parents now that I've started gardening and have learned more about it.
We live in a time where kids barely go outside.
They spend more time with screens than they ever do with sticks and stones. Many kids have never seen a vegetable grow! Everything simply comes from the grocery store.
I want something different for my children. In our home, we've consciously made a decision to let our children regularly play outside, just like we did growing up. I love it when my girls get dirt under their nails and come back with dirty dresses. It teaches them that life was not meant to be watched through a screen. Rather, it was meant to be experienced! It teaches them that food comes directly from the dirt and that they are therefore completely reliant and connected to the earth.
My 2 year old's favorite activity right now is watering the plants. The garden hose snakes behind her as she waters the veggies, holding the nozzle like a desert eagle! I think it's stinkin' adorable :)
I love that I grew up gardening with my parents and grandparents and I want to pass it on to my children. I want them to know that they are a people of the earth.
So, although there are many things that I love about the Hmong culture, 3 things that I love most are that Hmong folks are resilient, hospitable, and that they love to garden. These are aspects of the culture that I hope to pass onto my own children.
Now, I know that there are still some who are saying, "Hmong culture is backward and primitive."
They respond by swallowing whole the American culture thinking it's going to be perfect. But the truth is this:
There are many aspects of American culture that is broken as well!
Replacing an imperfect culture (Hmong culture) with another imperfect culture (American culture) is not the answer.
No matter what culture you’re a part of, every single culture is beautiful AND broken.
But here’s the really cool thing: we as Hmong Americans grew up straddling two very different worlds. That means we can take the beautiful elements from both cultures and create a new and more beautiful culture!
Culture is always changing and it needs to evolve in order for it to survive! That’s how any culture has made it to the 21st century!
I started HmongBaby because I wanted to create products to help Hmong children know that being Hmong is special.
We are a hospitable, connected, and resilient people who honor our elders and cherish our children and our earth. We can embrace the future as we honor our past.
I believe with all my heart that when we know where we come from, we will know who we are. And when we know who we are, we will know what to do with our lives.
That’s why I talk so much about the importance of knowing our roots and about the beauty of the Hmong culture (while also being honest enough to acknowledge the not so great elements).
When our children know their roots, they will feel more whole, more complete, and live more fruitful lives, which in turn will help them better navigate this complex world.
Although Hmong culture is not perfect, it is still beautiful. So let's embrace and practice what brings forth life and abundance and let go of the things that steal and destroy us :)
What aspects of Hmong culture will you consciously pass on to your children and WHY?