Hmong students at Northeastern State University may be learning things for themselves, but they’re also teaching others some important cultural lessons.
Among them is telling others the first letter in the word “Hmong” is silent. Another lesson is that the word refers to a “people group” and language originating in China. This group of people was originally one of 55 subcultures referred to as “Mei.” One of these people groups decided to rename themselves “free people,” or “Hmong,” according to Sunshine Vang.
Vang is a Hmong student at Northeastern State University. She became frustrated when her mother pushed for correct pronunciation when Vang was learning to read and write in her parents’ native language.
After teaching fellow NSU students to read, write and speak proper Hmong for the first time, she called her mother to tell her she was right – the Hmong language must be pronounced correctly to be learned.
Vang is one of about 20 students who are members of We Are Hmong, a student organization started in 2010 to educate, diversify and unify the campus.
Since then, Vang has held multiple offices within the group.
“When we first started, no one really knew who we were,” said Vang.
Cher Xiong, former president of the group, said Hmong students and other Asian students are often mistaken as Chinese.
“Having our WAH group on campus is able to help the Hmong students bond and show off our culture to those that don’t know about the Hmong people,” said Cher Xiong.
After four academic years of putting on cultural events and becoming involved in the community, she said the campus has become more aware of the Hmong culture.
Last weekend was one such opportunity, when We Are Hmong hosted its annual cultural show. This year, the women performed traditional dances; the men and women put on a fashion show with traditional outfits; and the group explained the history and culture of the Hmong people.
Clothing is especially important to the Hmong people, according to the students. During times of war, the Hmong were expected not to speak their own language.
“Women would sew patterns and symbols on story cloths to tell stories,” said Vang.
They would also wear particular clothes to symbolize their membership in one of the 18 Hmong clans.
“The struggle they had to go through for us to be here was tremendous,” said Bong Xiong, the president of the group.
The Hmong people were living in northern Laos when the U.S. entered the region during the Vietnam War.
Indigenous Hmong people were trained by the Central Intelligence Agency to fight in the Vietnam War and the Laos civil war, often referred to as the “Secret War,” on behalf of the U.S. and the Royal Laos Army.
“They were the guerilla soldiers in the Vietnam War,” said Bong Xiong. “It was a secret war so we weren’t really talked about.”
Bong Xiong said his parents and others in Laos during the Vietnam War made enormous sacrifices. His brother-in-law’s father was a soldier, even though he was about 12 years old at the time.
He said American Vietnam veterans are respectful of the Hmong people in conversations, and often describe becoming close with those they served with – often seeing them like family.
Hmong people were allowed to immigrate to the U.S. after the war because they faced repercussions once the Laos government was overthrown.
Bong Xiong said some do still hold a grudge against the Hmong people who did not leave the region.
“There are still some Hmong people over there living in the jungle and they are scared to come out,” said Bong Xiong.
The “adoption” of Hmong families by Christian missionaries was another reason the Hmong people were able to come to the U.S., many settling in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina and California.
Vang said moving to the U.S. came with its own difficulties for Hmong families. Her parents had to go back to first grade because they were not fluent in English, and language barriers continued to be a problem for Hmong immigrants.
The lack of education opportunities for their parents - compared to the educational opportunities available to young Hmong Americans today - is a reason she and the other members of We Are Hmong work hard.
“We want to strive to be the best; we want to make our parents proud,” said Vang.
Because of these academic goals, Cher Xiong said WAH also offers tutoring and study groups to members. The group also tries to help younger students become active in campus life.
The Hmong people are family-oriented and community-focused, which Vang said is part of the reason WAH is so involved on NSU’s campus.
Hmong groups at the University of Arkansas and in Tulsa have connected with WAH, and they often attend each other’s events.
Parents of the Hmong students often attend fundraisers and cultural events.
“My parents have met the group already and they see the other Hmong students as their children,” said Cher Xiong. “The last time my parents came to visit, they made pho [a soup] for everyone to eat.”
Bong Xiong said he has been learning to read and write in Hmong to teach other WAH members.
All three students expressed a desire to keep their culture “alive,” and said some younger students are not as knowledgeable of the culture and history.
Bong Xiong said many Hmong college students are the first generation to be born in the U.S.
“Some of us, even me, don’t fully understand our culture,” said Bong Xiong. “We’re kind of in between cultures.”
Even as Hmong students learn their own culture, they also want to share it. Vang and Cher Xiong said the group is open to all NSU students, not just Hmong.
“We love it when other students want to know more, or learn about our culture,” said Cher Xiong.