Author(s): Christine Wilson Owens
Reviewer(s): Dao Moua, Program Manager of Kashia Health and AANCART at Hmong Women’s Heritage Association, Sacramento, CA
Contributor(s): Long Vue, MPH, Health Educator
Date Authored: May 01, 2007
Date Last Reviewed: June 01, 2007
Country of Origin
The Hmong people relocated throughout their history, maintaining a strong sense of cultural identity and independence. Evidence suggests the Hmong lived in Siberia as similarities are seen between the Hmong and Siberian shaman practices. Chinese text suggests the Hmong originated in 2300 B.C. E. in northern central Asia, the area of present day Mongolia. Over centuries, people migrated south into Tibet and China, in the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Hunan. For several thousand years, the Hmong lived relatively independently while paying tribute to the Chinese government. However, under the oppression of the armies of the last dynasty in China, the Hmong rose in rebellion.
In the 1800s, faced with political persecution, depleted soil fertility and increasing population pressure, some Hmong migrated into Southeast Asia. They settled in the mountains of northern Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. After the 1975 communist takeover in Laos, Hmong soldiers and family fled Laos to refugee camps in Thailand. Some Hmong remained in the Thai camps, while many resettled in other parts of the world.
The worldwide Hmong population is approximately 6,000,000 in China where the Hmong are called Miao; 788,000 in Vietnam; 315,000 in Laos; 124,000 in Thailand; 2-3,000 in Burma; 250,000 in the United States; 8,000 in France; and 1,800 in Australia. The majority of Hmong living in the United States today are those who came directly from Laos or via Thai refugee camps. (Culhane-Pera, Vawter, Xiong, Babitt and Solberg, 2003) (Lee and Pfeifer, 2005)
Laos covers about ninety-one thousand square miles, an area similar to that of the United Kingdom or slightly larger than Utah. Laos is landlocked and shares borders with Thailand to the west, Burma to the northwest, China to the north, Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south. Mountains and the Mekong River valley are the main geographic features. The country’s major means of transportation is the Mekong River. The Plain of Jars in the northeast and the Bolovens Plateau in the southern panhandle sit about three thousand feet above sea level. South of the Plain of Jars lies the Phou Bia Massif mountain range that rises to almost ten thousand feet. The Annamite Mountains form an eastern border with Vietnam.
The Hmong living in highland Laos practiced slash and burn agriculture on the fertile, shallow, mountaintop soil. The climate is tropical monsoon, with a rainy season May to November and a dry season December to April. Only 3.8% of the country is arable land. Natural hazards include floods and droughts and current environmental issues include unexploded ordnance (landmines), deforestation and soil erosion. Most of the population does not have access to clean drinking water. (Culhane-Pera, et.al, 2003) (Chan, 1994)
History and Politics
From 1790-1860, the Hmong fled south from Chinese persecution into Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. In Laos, the Hmong lived separately from the Lao people. During the period of French colonialism in SE Asia, the French relied on the Hmong for their skills in weaponry and military service. Though often treated badly by fellow countrymen, the Hmong excelled in government service positions and as liaisons with the representatives of the French government.
From 1963-1975 during the Vietnam War and the CIA’s secret war in Laos, the Hmong were recruited for their military skill and trained and fought on the side of the United States. The CIA coordinated efforts against Laotian Communists, the Pathet Lao, in partnership with Hmong military leader General Vang Pao and the Royal Lao Government.
Former CIA Director Colby credited Hmong with saving thousands of U.S. soldiers by blocking the North Vietnamese from extending the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Laos. However, the U.S. did not fully acknowledge the Hmong role in the war until the early 1980s. In 1975, many Hmong-Lao fled to Thailand as refugees, escaping the persecution and retaliation of the Lao communist government.
Thousands of Hmong tried to escape from Laos across the Mekong River into Thailand. Many people drowned or were killed. Hmong who survived the journey settled in refugee camps in Thailand. Conditions in the camps were horrible; there was little food, sanitation or clean water. Shelters were thin.
The first Hmong refugees began arriving in the US in late 1975, mostly sponsored by religious groups and non-profit organizations. Refugee arrivals peaked at 27,000 in 1980, and decreased to less than 5,000 by 1981. The numbers began increasing again in 1987, with more than 10,000 Hmong arriving in 1988.
In the early 1990s many UN refugee camps in Thailand were closed and Hmong who remained there were forced to move to a non-UN camp at the Thai Buddhist temple Wat Tham Krabok, where suffering continued, especially isolation from not being allowed to go outside of the camp. For survival and permission to cross out of the camp and local areas, many Hmong refugees became Thai citizens (Hmong Thai) by paying sums of money borrowed from relatives.
Through pleas for asylum brought by Hmong human rights groups in the U.S., in June 2004 refugees from Wat Tham Krabok began arriving in the U.S. The remaining Hmong still have no official status in Thailand and the Thai government has tried to force them back to Laos where they fear for their safety. The year 2006 marks the relocation of Hmong out of Wat Tham Krabok to a more isolated place in Thailand where many Hmong are deprived access to join families in the U.S., and where they continue to fear for their own lives. (Lee and Pfeifer, 2005)
Hmong is a member of the Miao-Yao (Hmong-Mien) language family, considered unrelated to other languages. Hmong-Mien has been at times included as a branch of Chinese-Tibetan or Austro-Tai families, though increasingly is thought by scholars to have developed independently.
Though a minority language in China, Hmong may have influenced spoken Chinese. For more than 4000 years, Hmong has been a spoken language, though a written form may have existed long ago. The Hmong “Romanized Popular Alphabet” (RPA) script is a written language created by missionaries in 1953 to familiarize Hmong speakers with the Roman alphabet, to provide a written language to accompany the oral tradition, and to make the Bible accessible. Wri tten Hmong using the RPA script is not universally accepted or understood and may not be the most effective way to communicate. (Mote, 2004)
Hmong is an advanced oral language and highly expressive; it includes proverbs, poem-songs, plain language of morality tales and ancestral stories, flowery speech of elders, code speech of sweethearts, and antique language of wedding and funeral rituals. In spoken Hmong, ideas are wrapped in words in a non-linear way. Hmong is tonal, so that the meaning of the word changes when pronounced differently. In addition, Hmong is mono-syllabic so one syllable represents one word or meaning.
The Hmong language is divided into two main dialects, Green Hmong (sometimes called Blue Hmong) and White Hmong. More people speak White Hmong. The differences in dialects are due to the geographic separation of Hmong living in China. In Laos, the Hmong lived more closely to each other and learned to communicate and understand each other across the dialects. The differences between White and Green Hmong can be compared to the kinds that exist between British and American English. The dialects take their names from the differences in style and color of men and women’s traditional clothing. For example, White Hmong women traditionally wore white skirts on special occasions while Green Hmong women wore blue/black skirts died with colorful indigo. (Lee and Pfeifer, 2005)
Many older Hmong do not speak English and may not be literate in the Hmong language. Increasingly, American-born Hmong are not fluent speakers of Hmong. Some efforts are made (mainly in states with high concentration of Hmong such as California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) to stem the loss by offering language classes to younger people and preserving language in writing. There are some university-level courses offered in the language. However, in relation to the overall Hmong population across the US there are few resources available to preserve Hmong language due to barriers in planning and funding language and cultural classes.
A Fresno Journal article by Patricia Leigh Brown, A Hmong Generation Finds Its Voice in Writing, describes how members of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle are addressing a new kind of coming of age in America, as the first generation to grow up with a written language – rather than the traditional spoken word.
Traditionally a Hmong name was simply the given name. People would introduce themselves using their given name and by telling which clan they were from. Eventually, the clan became included in the name.
The Green Hmong and White Hmong share some clan names. The most common translation of Hmong clan names to facilitate American pronunciation is the following (with the common English spelling first, and the Hmong spelling in parenthesis): : Chang (Tsab); Chue (Tswb); Cheng (Tsheej); Fang (Faj); Her (Hawj); Hang (Taag – White Hmong/Haam — Green Hmong); Khang (Khab): Kong (Koo): Kue (Kwm); Lee (Lis); Lor (Lauj): Moua (Muas/Zag); Pha (Phab): Thao (Thoj): Vang (Vaj — White Hmong /Vaaj – Green Hmong): Vue (Vwj); Xiong (Xyooj): and Yang (Yaj). (Hmong Cultural Center, 2000)
Traditionally in Asia, the clan name would be spoken first followed by the given name. A wife keeps her own clan’s name, but neither her clan name nor first name is used after she is married. The reason is that she belongs to her husband and her in-law’s household, so she is called only by her husband’s name once she is married.
In the US, many Hmong now use the Western pattern of the given name first, followed by the clan name, and some women adopt their husband’s clan name as their own. Many children born in the US are given a Hmong name with an American nickname, or an American name and a Hmong nickname.
A ceremony takes place 3 days after the child’s birth, and is an occasion for naming the child and a time for the family to show love for the child and for relatives and community members to offer blessings and words of wisdom to the child. In this ceremony, animals such as a pig or a cow are sacrificed in thanks for the child and his/her souls. If later on, the child is ill or has misfortune, a shaman may determine that the wrong name was given and give another one. It is common for the same names to be used by both genders.
Married men and fathers usually receive an adult name added to the name they were given as a child. White Hmong receive an adult name from the wife’s parents. For Green Hmong the adult name is giving by the husband’s parents. Traditionally, Hmong men receive their adult names after the first child is born. The father’s naming ceremony and the naming ceremony for the child is combined for Green Hmong, while White Hmong usually do two separate ceremonies. For instance, if a man’s birth first name is Vang, the adult first name would be Nao Vang, with the “Nao” name added to the birth name. If his last name is Vue, his full name would then be Nao Vang Vue. In the US, changing a name can be complicated and so male babies are more commonly given their adult name at birth. Most Hmong men prefer to be called by their adult name.
Status, Role, Prestige
The man’s social status depends on what kind of roles he plays in the community. For example, status comes with roles like mayor of the village, district chief, shaman, herbalist or clan leader. Within a lineage, there is an elder man, usually the oldest living descendant, who is the head leader, assuming major responsibilities over his lineage, resolving problems and conducting group ceremonies. Elders, shamans and spiritual leaders are held in very high regard. While having a big family is valued, it does not necessarily lead to higher status.
Traditionally a woman has prestige because her husband has social status. Secondly, she gains status by having lots of sons. If she has only daughters, then she does not gain prestige. As she ages, a woman may lose some status with more marital conflicts. Even women who are shamans and herbalists and whose talents and skills are acknowledged by the community don’t have the same status as the men.
In the United States, the changing roles between the young and the old has altered the traditional social structure, with older members relying on the younger people for language and income assistance. Older Hmong males, especially, may suffer loss of social status and feelings of family fragmentation and isolation, leading to loss of self esteem and despair. Older Hmong females may feel helpless because they are uneducated, do not have job skills, experience a language barrier, and therefore are unable to earn enough income to support their children and family.
People greet each other verbally and men shake hands. Shaking hands is a new behavior for Hmong women and they may be embarrassed shaking hands with a male or holding hands too tightly during a handshake. Traditionally, Hmong women who are close to each other share hugs as that of American greetings. When a person visits a family, all members of the family are expected to greet the guest by saying welcome (“koj tuaj los” which literally means “you have come”). When the guest leaves, they are encouraged to come back and visit (“mus hos tuaj”).
Displays of Respect and General Etiquette
(Hmong Cultural Center, 2000)
To be respectful, one must ask to speak with the head of the household, usually the father, when conversing with a Hmong family.
Hmong people tend to be humble and may not want to express their emotions in front of others. They may not say “no” directly even if that is what they mean, and may say “okay” or “yes” when they actually mean “no” but feel pressured. Instead of giving a firm positive or negative response, a person may say “maybe” or “I will try”.
For traditional Hmong, making direct eye contact is considered inappropriate and rude. A person may look down or away rather than looking directly at the other person or into their eyes while talking or listening. To smile when meeting a Hmong person is considered warm, welcoming and friendly, though laughing or speaking roughly may be considered a sign of insincerity and rudeness.
It is very common for Hmong families to visit one another without setting up an appointment. A family may show up unexpectedly and still be warmly welcomed inside. It is considered inappropriate to tell the visitors there is no time to visit.
When entering a Hmong home, a seat or chair will be offered. If the visitor does not sit on the family’s furniture, family members might assume that the visitor thinks that something is wrong with their furniture, or that the visitor assumes a higher status than the family.
It is considered to be impolite to simply decline a drink, food or gift offered to you. Refrain from quickly saying “No”. When entering a Hmong home during mealtime, guests will be invited to join the family in eating. Whether the guest wants to eat or not, he or she should take part in the meal, just taking a bite or two will make the family happy. Otherwise, the family will stop eating and will talk to the guest until he or she leaves.
The “head” of the table as considered by Americans, is for Hmong the “end” of the table, the place of least honor. The Hmong place of honor at the table is midway on the side. For important ceremonies, the head of the table in not on midway on the side but is at the end corner of the side that is closest to where the altar is placed. It is standard etiquette after dinner not to linger at the table. It is traditional and good manners to send guests away from a meal with food, leftovers, to take home with them.
Before entering a Hmong home, ask if visitors are allowed to enter. Traditional families may have just had a shaman perform a ritual when a woman has given birth, or a ritual to get rid of bad spirits. For a period of time following this ritual, visitors are not allowed to come into the house, wear shoes and carry handbags into the house.
Watch for a taboo sign outside the front of the house indicating the family should not be disturbed because the house is being protected from evil spirits. The sign may look like a cross, made of sticks with some green leaves, or may consist of a simple cluster of green leaves. A white or black woven octagon shaped basket made of bamboo or plastic may be placed next to the leaves. Upon observing this sign, do not knock or enter the house.
Most traditional Hmong elders, especially men, do not want strangers to touch their heads, or those of their children, due to their religious beliefs and personal values. It is considered dangerous to remark out loud about the cuteness or positive qualities of a child, as spirits may hear and steal the child’s soul.
Historically as part of the household etiquette and respect, the father in-law may not go into the son and daughter-in-law’s bedroom; and, the daughter in-law does not enter her mother-in-law and father in-law’s bedroom. This is still practiced by some clan members.
Marriage, Family and Kinship Structure
(Hmong Cultural Center, 2000)As well as uniting a man and a woman, the Hmong marriage rituals unite 2 families in a formal relationship. The couple may come together in various ways, including mutual consent, elopement, or parental arrangement. Force or bride-capture is becoming rare these days in Laos and almost unheard of in the United States.
Hmong are restricted from marrying someone in their same clan. Since clan identity passes from the father to children, a person is allowed to marry into their mother’s clan and there is a custom of doing this. A person can marry someone in any of the other clans as well.
A couple may elope or marry without parental permission, but the more usual and proper custom involves the groom, or a go-between, gaining permission of the bride’s parent’s, or an engagement is arranged by both sets of parents. Marrying someone who a family disapproves of can bring shame and bad reputation not just for the individual but for the family too.
Traditionally, the engagement follows a strict protocol of negotiations held between the bride’s parents and the groom, with the support of his male relatives. Before the wedding date is set, long negotiations are held at the bride’s home, beginning with the groom demonstrating his respect to the bride’s ancestors and living elders.
Bride wealth, or bride price, is the fee paid by the groom to the bride’s family. The negotiation and gift of bride wealth is a tradition still practiced by most Hmong in the United States, and can amount to a large sum of money and other gifts. The amount symbolizes family status, bride integrity, new relationship between the families, the bride’s value in her own family, and promised security of marriage. The groom enlists the help of his male clan relatives to raise the dowry.
Typically, a girl is expected to follow her parents’ wishes about whom she should marry. A couple may elope if the girl is trying to avoid an unwanted union or when the parents do not consent to the union of a couple who wish to be together. Catch-hand marriages are somewhat controversial in the US and are cases in which the male and his relatives take the girl, either willingly or by force to be married. To make elopements and catch-hand marriages legitimate, the bride price would be negotiated and paid afterward.
In Laos, men may marry multiple wives, but due to the custom of bride price, polygamy has been mostly restricted to wealthy men. A widow may marry her dead husband’s younger brother and continue to have children. Due to respect, a widow cannot marry her husband’s older brother because he is like a parent to her has higher birth status than her husband . The husband traditionally gets custody of the children in cases of splits or divorce (this is still the norm in the US), though traditionally divorce is not common.
It was somewhat common in Laos and Thailand for a younger woman to marry an older man. Many youth, especially girls, would be married by the time they were 15. In the United States, Hmong men often wait to marry until their late teens or early twenties when they are finished with their education, though it is still relatively common for girls to marry in their middle teens. Traditionally, the stigma of being called an old maid is a factor for girls marrying very young. In general, Hmong believe a couple is ready for marriage when they are able to handle the responsibilities, socially and economically, of having a family.
A strict protocol is to be followed for the marriage ceremony, which centers on showing respect to both families. If the formalities are not followed disrespect is shown to both sets of parents, and can bring shame to the families. A wedding serves to honor the couple and their families and to preserve a continuation of Hmong culture and community. The marriage event is the creation of a new family, a bond between the couple and the families, and a strengthening of past family and community connections in the people present. The traditional wedding itself can last days, with chant readings and feasting.
In marriage, a young couple maintains a deep connection with family, often finding among kin financial assistance, shared living space, childcare, and guidance. In their newlywed role, the couple gives their parents decorated pieces of cloth to work against the day of the parents’ deaths, a ritualized way the couple wishes the parents long life and good health. In the US, changes happening between the generations are beginning to alter this tradition, as children are not learning the art of the appliqué decoration.
Powerful roles exist for men and women in Hmong culture, though in the US there is disruption in gender roles based on economic need and acceptance of American ways. Hmong women in the US are more active and in positions of power outside the home than they traditionally have been. In some cases, marriages have broken up and the risk of domestic violence has increased in the face of pressure brought by changes in gender status.
Traditionally, girls had a lower status than boys. Unmarried daughters were referred to as “other people’s women” since they married and became part of the husband’s family. Men have a higher status than women publicly, while women hold their power more privately. Traditionally, women are hard working and hospitable, primarily caring for the household and raising children, not going to school or holding a job outside the home. The head of the household in a Hmong family is usually the father, though the mother also has a highly respected role at home and in some ways, especially in child rearing and daily household affairs, she is the leader of the family. Women gain more power in the household as they age. Usually the father makes most of the important decisions for the family. But sometimes, the male head of the immediate household involves relatives including uncles, cousins, or even clan leaders in important decisions. Men are entrusted with performing rituals of ancestor worship, such as calling the names of ancestors during occasions like New Year, weddings, christenings, new harvests, and family feasts, invoking the dead kin to take part in these events and bring protection and good fortune to the family and household. When a man and woman grow old and unable to perform all the responsibilities as heads of household, their son and his wife assume the roles. (Culhane-Pera, et. al., 2003)
Traditionally, it is considered inappropriate for the opposite genders to sit too close to one another when conversing. To avoid misinterpretations, a male should keep a distance between himself and a female when in conversation or in any type of encounter.
Family and Kinship Structure
Kinship is based on marriage and descent. Hmong people are traditionally not individualistically oriented, but identify the self as a member of the family, clan and community. Hmong culture emphasizes relationships between relatives and clan members, with respect for elders and strong families. Remembering ancestors, their accomplishments and their sufferings, and preserving traditional ways are highly important.
Traditionally the Hmong are a patrilineal society with extended households of married sons and their families.
The clan is the primary organization of the Hmong who gain lifetime clan membership and relations passed from father to children through birth or adoption. Daughters marry into their husband’s clan and even if divorced or widowed are not allowed to return to the clan of their birth. Members of the same clan accept and assist each other, and clan loyalty is practiced in political and justice issues. If a person is of a particular clan, he is automatically welcomed into the house of another clan member, even if they do not personally know each other. In general, people are compelled to support members of the same clan more than their in-laws or other non-related clan. The number of clans is commonly said to be 18, though 12 may be considered the main clans.
Traditionally, the clans provided any social services required of their members. Every clan possessed skilled persons who served as healers, marriage brokers, teachers, and disciplinarians. Fellow clan members regard each other as brother and sister. Marriage between members of the same clan – no matter how distant the relationship – is strictly forbidden. In a time of need, an individual will first turn to the clan. The clan is obligated to respond. Clans offer security. The larger the clan the more services it is able to offer its members including help finding jobs and apartments. In the United States, clans and extended families have often drawn their dispersed members to larger enclave communities of Hmong.
Sub clan is a sub unit of the clan whose members are made of many families who may or may not share the same ancestor but who subscribe to a particular religious practice or ritual, for example certain post-partum, funeral, or taboo rituals. The affinity of sub clan members to each other is great. Persons of the same clan or sub-clan without any known blood relationship refer to one another as relatives.
The sub clan is divided into smaller groups of families, or ceremonial households, who share the same ancestor. Family members are bound by bloodline and share the responsibility and name for the family. Family members die and perform religious ceremonies in each other’s houses.
The family is divided into individual extended families consisting of spouses, children, parents and siblings. Extended families often live together under the same roof, though may separate to different dwellings as siblings marry and have children. Traditionally, a large number of relatives that could be readily called upon provided an element of security to farmers who had to move periodically. In Laos, the Hmong resided in extended families of three or four generations. (Hmong Cultural Center, 2000)
Having children is important in Hmong culture. Only the ancestors who were parents become spirits that are feared and revered, because they can bring harm to the living descendants. There is a strong desire by Hmong parents to have sons who will offer sacrifices to the ancestral spirits, maintain the family line, and be sanctuary for parents when parents are not able to live by themselves. (Keown-Bomar, 2004)
In traditional Hmong culture, sons were desired because parents could never live in the same house with daughters and sons in-law due to spiritual reasons. A married daughter and son in-law has a different house and ancestor spirits; therefore two sets of different spirits could never live under the same roof. Although male children are desired and given greater spiritual responsibilities in the family, this does not mean that daughters are given less affection. Nevertheless, couples without sons may seek to adopt them or may allow the husband to marry a second wife in the hope that she will bear male children. In the US, as many parents consider placing themselves in nursing homes at old age and start understanding the biological reason for conceiving a son or daughter, there is increased acceptance when a couple has only daughters.
Menopause is not discussed in the community.
Pregnancy is considered sacred and especially fragile in the first trimester. Traditionally, young pregnant women are encouraged not to inform others about the pregnancy due to a fear of evil spirits that would endanger the pregnancy leading to spontaneous abortion. The pregnancy is kept unknown until it becomes self evident in the later trimester cycles. Today, some Hmong women may not seek early prenatal care for this reason. In addition, due to lack of medical knowledge, the gender of the infant is said to be due to the faith (luck) of the women. For instance, if the first child is a boy, it is said that the daughter in-law/wife has brought good fortune. (Vue, L. & Lor, K ., 2006)
Child Birth and Post Partum Practices
In Hmong culture, mothers and mothers-in-law help at the birth, which often occurs in the squatting position, with the husband helping to cut the cord and wash the newborn infant. Women prefer natural tearing and healing to clinical episiotomies. Today, a woman requiring a Caesarean section under general anesthetic may have concerns that when her body is cut, her soul will be lost. Traditionally, Hmong believe the placenta is required for reincarnation and bury it at the place of birth, under the house. (Australian Centre for International and Tropical Health at the University of Queensland, 2003)
Traditionally, the woman is kept warm for three days post-partum, and touching cold water is prohibited. In Laos, women lay by fires. In the US, women may wear warm clothes and use heating. Women should drink hot or warm water after birth. There is a belief that drinking cold water or failing to eat properly can lead to having wrinkles or skin rashes, or walking bent over in old age. In the hospital, women might not eat the hospital diet. Traditionally they should eat hot rice and chicken soup with special herbs for 30 days post partum. Eggs, pork and some fish may be added after the first 10 days. No fruit, vegetables or cold drinks are allowed. Physical activity post-partum is also restricted, as this may cause internal organs to collapse. Furthermore, during the first 30 days, a new mom is not permitted to visit other homes. (Australian Centre for International and Tropical Health at the University of Queensland, 2003)
Infancy, Childhood and Socialization
Ceremonials during Infancy and Childhood
A necklace is placed on the newborn baby’s neck often before the cord is cut to protect the infant from harm and ill health. (Traditionally, infants and toddlers in many Southeast Asian countries have wear amulets or “protection strings” around their necks, wrists, or waists. A CDC report identified a case in which the likely source of lead exposure in a young child in the U.S. was a traditional amulet made in Cambodia with leaded beads that was worn by the child. See: Consider Lead and Other Heavy Metal Toxicities in the Evaluation of Nonspecific Symptoms.)
It is believed that praising the newborn may cause harm to the baby from the spirits. The newborn may therefore be greeted by expressions such as “you are ugly” in order to fool the spirits and protect the baby.
Three days after a child is born, an important elder man or woman in the community conducts a ceremony to call the child’s soul into their body, to welcome the child to the family and to thank the fairy godmother (Niam Nkauj Kab Yeeb) that is believed to have sent the child to earth. The ceremony is an occasion for naming the child and for relatives and community members to offer blessings and words of wisdom to the child. In both ceremonies, animals are sacrificed in thanks for the child and his/her souls. (Mote, 2004)
Infant Feeding and Care
Among American Hmong, fewer mothers are breast-feeding than in previous times. Bottle-feeding is preferred for reasons of convenience when the mother returns to work and desires others to feed her infant. In Laos, bottle-feeding was not an option for Hmong mothers due to the high cost and inaccessibility of formula and cow’s milk. Babies stayed close to their mothers and ate all their meals fresh. Babies were weaned when another child was born. Solid foods were introduced when a child showed interest and were mostly the same foods adults ate, just watered down versions. In the U.S. problems of iron-deficiency in children older than 1 year old have occurred when parents continue to give bottles of cow’s milk in the same quantities as formula had been given, in lieu of a more iron-rich diet of solid foods. (Culhane-Pera, et.al., 2003)
A Hmong child is considered a treasure. The baby is given lots of affection and attention, physical and social contact with mothers, grandmothers and older siblings. In Laos, infants were carried on their mother’s backs. In the Thai refugee camps, women adopted Thai-style baby baskets or cradles, often hanging from the tent roof or dwelling while the mother performed chores or embroidery work.
Child Rearing Practices
Most traditional Hmong families do not want to hear direct comments about their children, especially infants and babies. A comment such as “your child is cute” is not appreciated. Hmong believe that if a bad spirit hears such comments, it might come and take the child’s soul away.
Traditionally, the norm in marriage is to raise families with large numbers of children. Children generally grow up with their needs responded to quickly and help in the work of a family at a young age. In Laos, at four, five or six years old a child helps keep watch on the house, doing tasks like hauling water, shucking, milling corn, and carrying a baby sibling; usually a grandmother, uncle or other adult would be nearby in the cluster of family houses. Children are still young when they begin helping in the farming. (Mote, 2004)
Elders tell stories to children, passing knowledge and life lessons between generations. Traditionally a Hmong man would not have much to do with the children when they were still little; not physically affectionate, especially with their daughters.
Hmong teach their children to be well behaved in the presence of guests. Typically, in cases where their children are interrupting or not behaving well in the presence of guests, Hmong parents do not send their children away or discipline them. Discipline is usually administered after the guests have left.
Adolescence, Adulthood, and Old Age
In Laos, girls and boys in their adolescent years have the same responsibilities as adults. Young boys are expected to learn from their fathers, and young girls are expected to learn from their mothers.
In Laos, many adolescent Hmong courtships were begun at the time of the annual New Year’s celebrations. Boys moved from village to village for the purpose of meeting girls and participating in festivals where they had relatives. The primary means for meeting young people of the opposite sex during the New Year was a ball game that took place at the festivities. Boys in one line faced girls in another line and tossed small fabric balls back and forth. A boy often would concentrate attention on a certain girl. The New Year’s game typically provided an outlet for the emergence of more intense romances. Often boys and girls would use a secret form of language to communicate with one another. By playing a small mouth harp they could approximate human speech. In Laos, a suitor would play the mouth harp outside the house of the girl he was interested in. The girl would sometimes reply with her own mouth harp or another instrument, and the dialogue sometimes continued for hours. In the United States, youth use the telephone and email instead of the traditions of ritualized flirting and communication. Hmong youth are fans of Laotian popular music from Laos and from the United States and France, both Hmong and Laotian bands. New Year celebrations are still a time of courtship and result in many marriages. (Hmong Cultural Center, 2000)
Adulthood and Old Age
Traditionally, Hmong women and men work until they no longer can carry out their daily tasks feeding the farm animals, farming, and tending family duties. An adult male is expected to have full knowledge of traditional values passed from his father or male relative. Elder people are highly respected, and it’s expected they will be taken care of by the younger generation. Adult and elderly males are looked upon for wisdom and skills for handling marital conflicts and problems within the community. In the U.S., the contributions elders can make to their families based on their relevant life experiences have changed from what they were in Laos. Elders may be less respected and feel depressed about their lesser place in the family. Increasingly, elders are placed in nursing homes as families are not able to take care of them and meet the demands of society. (Culhane-Pera, et.al., 2003)
For more detailed information on geriatrics and older Hmong Americans, see Stanford’s Ethnogeriatrics Health and Health Care of Hmong American Older Adults. This is an on-line learning module, but you can download the module as a PDF and print the cultural profile by filling out a short survey. Additional cultures and geriatric information also available on their site.
Nutrition and Food
Rice is a staple in Hmong cuisine. Distinctions among various kinds of rice are found in Hmong language – new rice, sweet rice, purple rice, sticky rice, rice in field, harvested rice. Rice is usually eaten at every meal, along with everyday dishes of meats, fish and vegetables, grilled, fried boiled and spiced. Families eat together around the table, using utensils both in Laos and in the US. No chopsticks are used in Laos. Feasting on special occasions usually includes a menu of roast pig or boiled pork soup, fruit, boiled eggs, egg rolls, seasoned meats, vegetables, rice, and salad. Hmong will commonly grow vegetables and herbs in their gardens or yards here in the US. (Mote, 2004)
Traditionally, during family feasts, males ate first. In the US today, many families attempt to have a food table for young men/adult men and young girls/women so that everyone can eat at the same time.
Drinks, Drugs and Indulgences
Traditionally, there is no such thing as a beverage since at all family meals, a vegetable soup (zaub tsuag) with no salt, oil, or any other spice (such as green mustard “zaub ntsuab”) serves as the beverage dish. This is a dish common for many adults and elder people, even in the US today. In the US, having drinks during family meals is similar to American meals. Hmong health professionals consider this new habit of drinking juice, punch, sodas and/or alcoholic drinks during meals to be a factor for the rising diabetes and chronic diseases among many Hmong adults and elder people.
In Laos, wine is consumed on special occasions such as New Year’s feasts or weddings. In the US, wine and beer are used during special occasions. During traditional Hmong weddings, wine and/or beer are offered each time a negotiation is made or when a new conversation takes place between a member of the bride and groom’s family members. For example, when the bride’s brother greets the groom, they both must drink to seal the greeting. Excessive alcohol is consumed during traditional Hmong wedding ceremonies, both in the homeland and in the US.
In Laos, opium is used as a treatment drug to cure muscle aches after a hard day of farm work or severe injury to the body. Abusive use of opium leads to family poverty and causes a bad family name. Marriage to a young girl or young boy from a family where the father and/or mother smokes opium is discouraged due to the association of poverty with opium smokers. This negative image continues to taint families in the US.
Indulgence cannot be defined in the Hmong culture or Hmong people. In Hmong society, there is no such food as ice cream or other edible things that someone could indulge oneself in. If there is a strong interest to explore indulgence in Hmong, the word needs to be defined carefully in order to guide discussion. (Vue, L. & Lor, K., 2006)
The Hmong are traditionally “animist” in their practice of religion, believing in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena that are separable or separate from bodies. Hmong animist tradition believes in multiple supreme beings, called Gods, responsible for high-level creation and functions of nature. These Gods along with other spirits are believed to dwell in the spiritual world – the realm of the dead, the invisible, and the supernatural.
The Hmong believe that the spiritual world coexists with the physical world and is inhabited by a wide variety of spirits, many of which can influence the course of human life. The Hmong believe spirit types include ancestral spirits, house spirits, spirits in nature, as well as evil spirits. Ancestral spirits include any deceased member of the family. Most Hmong believe that the ancestors with the strongest potential impact come from the father’s side of the family. House spirits are believed to inhabit each corner of a Hmong house. Each part of the house is also believed to have its own spirit, including the stove, and the doors. The altar is assumed to be the place in the house to which ancestors return. Spirits of nature include mountains, trees, streams, valleys, caves, ponds, and winds. (Hmong Cultural Center, 2000)
Human souls are differentiated from spirits and are the spiritual energy inside a person’s body, believed to dwell in the physical world. It is said people have 12 souls – the three major ones are the reincarnation soul, the residing soul and the wandering soul. The reincarnation soul leaves the body at death and is reborn in another being’s body. The residing soul stays with the body as it breaks down and becomes the ancestral spirit that descendants revere and pay homage to. The wandering soul leaves the body during dreams or to play with other souls or spirits. If frightened, the wandering soul may be lost in the spirit world. At death, the wandering soul returns to the spirit world and continues to live life there much as it did in the physical world.
A traditional animist practices shamanism. Shamans are people who mediate between the visible and spirit worlds through ritual practices conducted for purposes of healing, divination, and control over natural events . For a shaman, the altar is the sacred place where the shaman spirits dwell. Shamanism is viewed as a way to maintain communication between the Hmong and the spiritual world. Spirits of nature can cause physical and psychological harm to Hmong in the guise of illness, nightmares, and even death. Hmong shamans perform ritual trances in order to figure out the causes of illnesses for the purpose of treating the effects. Shamans communicate messages from spirits to the persons affected, and vice versa.
Almost all aspects of traditional Hmong life are affected by contact with supernatural beings. A person is thought to have been allotted time on earth by God and to have been given several souls. The Hmong perform many ritual ceremonies for the purpose of fulfilling the will of the ancestors and natural spirits. If the ancestors are pleased, they will protect the believer’s descendants from illness and natural disasters. Hmong rituals usually revolve around the practices that their ancestors passed onto them. Variations in rituals are found in the practices among different clans and lineages and are passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition. Fathers pass animist ritual traditions to their sons. (Cha, 2003)
Persons of Hmong origin traditionally believe in life after death. With proper guidance from Hmong musical performers during the funeral rituals, Hmong believe that the souls of the deceased will come back to their ancestors for reincarnation, and that the new bodies of their relatives will come back as new members of Hmong families.
Many Hmong in the United States continue to practice some form of the Hmong animist tradition. Some practices have undergone changes due to restrictive factors of the new environment. Also, many Hmong in the United States have embraced Christianity, Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. Missionaries in China in the 1800s and in Laos in the 1900s first introduced Christianity to the Hmong. However the majority of Hmong Christians converted in the United States.
People converted for various reasons – to please their Christian resettlement sponsors, to qualify for private school scholarships or in response to the difficulty of performing traditional rituals. Difficulties included living in apartments without access to outside yards for performing rituals, as well as outsiders’ suspicion of animal sacrifices and intolerance of loud chanting. Within some families, divisions have resulted when some members have converted to Christianity and others have not. Some Christian Hmong label traditional animist practices as sinful. On the other hand, some Hmong believe it is dangerous for everyone when Christian members of the household disrespect the spirits by not performing the traditional rituals.
In general, Hmong Catholics are more likely than Hmong Protestants to accommodate some forms of traditional animist practices within their new faith framework. Traditional animists may be more willing to attend Christian rituals than their Christian counterparts are willing to attend animist rituals. (Cha, 2003)
Rituals such as “wrist/neck stringing”, “soul calling” and shamanic trance are still carried out by the American Hmong. Wrist/neck stringing is when a string (usually a thin white yarn or woven red cloth) is tied to a person’s wrist (or neck) to bring good luck and health. Wrist usually occurs during wedding, celebration of a new birth of a child, and feast to honor parents or relatives. Neck stringing is generally done to promote good health. (Vue, L. & Lor, K.,2006)
When an old person dies, the body is usually kept inside the house for five to ten days. The body must be kept in the house until the deceased’s family and relatives arrive. Members of a shared ceremonial family – those who can trace common ancestors between them, rather than people belonging to a clan or sub-clan by virtue of a shared name – can die and have funerals in one another’s house. A funeral consists of 5 days of ceremony including speeches, drumming, hours-long chants to guide spirits home to Heaven, and ritualized crying – a way of declaring love for the person.
Traditionally, Hmong graves can be a mound of earth on which tree branches are piled to protect disruption by animals, a mound of earth surrounded by a wooden fence, or a mound protected by boulders, the type depending on sub-clan funeral tradition. In the United States, it still may be important for terminally ill patients to return home to die, as the soul of a person who does not die at home may wander and not be reincarnated. Family members of the deceased may refuse autopsies, and reasons for this include belief that intact body parts and organs are needed for smooth reincarnation and response to rumors that organs are taken out for eating and for sale. (Cha, 2003)
Traditional Medical Practices
Hmong recognize that illness can be a result of external natural forces, such as accidents and infectious diseases. The concept of contagion is not new to the Hmong in understanding diseases like TB and Chickenpox. Other causes of illness known to the Hmong include heredity, metaphysical imbalance (similar to the Chinese concept of Yin/Yang), weather, stress, and reckless behavior. Hostile spirits, spells, curses and a violation of taboos are other factors believed to cause illness. A traditional Hmong belief is that ill health may be the result of the soul wandering from the body unable to find its way home. The soul may be lost due to injury, wounds, a fall, a loud noise, being unconscious (including from anesthesia), fear, or feeling sad and lonely. (Australian Centre for International and Tropical Health at the University of Queensland, 2003)
In the United States, environmental toxins are also seen as causing illness. Hmong believe the liver is the center and regulator of human emotions, playing a role in mental health and personality. (Cha, 2003)
Traditionally, Hmong use home therapies for common aliments. For more unusual or serious problems people seek help from folk medicine doctors, ritual healers, and shamans. Throughout life, people learn about home therapies for common conditions like colds and aches, and sometimes for other issues as varied as arthritis and fertility. Many homes have a family member specializing in healing herbs. Medicinal plants are grown in home gardens or imported from Thailand, and are administered in teas and ointments.
Other healing techniques include massage, coining or spooning (rubbing an area vigorously with a silver coin or spoon), and cupping (applying negative suctioning pressure on the skin with a cup). Physical marks like bruises and redness might be found on the body of a Hmong person, the results of these treatments. Hmong also may wear accessories such as red necklaces made from silver and brass, white cloths around their wrists, and red or white strings on their wrists, necks, or ankles. These accessories may be worn for health and religious purposes.
As mentioned above, traditionally, infants and toddlers in many Southeast Asian countries have worn amulets or “protection strings” around their necks, wrists, or waists. A CDC report identified a case in which the likely source of lead exposure in a young child in the U.S. was a traditional amulet made in Cambodia with leaded beads that was worn by the child. See: Consider Lead and Other Heavy Metal Toxicities in the Evaluation of Nonspecific Symptoms.
Among Christian Hmong, prayer is also used to seek healing.
People seek healing outside a home from a folk medicine doctor (usually a woman) or a ritual/magic healer (usually a man). The medicine doctor gains knowledge of diagnosis and treatment by apprenticing with another healer and from the guidance of her helping spirits. She specializes in healing with herbs and may be a generalist or may be dedicated to healing certain conditions. The ritual/magic healer learns his craft from other healers, healing power, and helping spirits. He calls on healing spirits with Laotian and Chinese words and incense. He directs the spirits toward the patient’s aliments through different media like bowls of water, knives or breath.
The symptoms of soul loss include weakness, tiredness, fever and headache, loss of appetite with extra thirst, insomnia or dreams of being in a strange place with a stranger. A soul calling ceremony is required to cure the sick person. Some family members may learn to call a soul home. If no one in the household is able to call the soul, a revered soul caller is consulted. The soul caller moves from the place where the soul was lost to the patient’s spirit door in their home, holding a live chicken and enticing the soul home with sweet chanting, incense, liquor and food. The soul caller observes the chicken killed and boiled to divine whether the soul has returned and in what condition. If the healing is not successful, a shaman is consulted.
A shaman is the supreme spiritual healer whose primary means of patient care is to travel to the spirit world. Shamans are usually well known, well respected, and mostly male though some are female, and are key figures in traditional culture. It is said that shamans do not seek the calling but that the spirits call them to the spiritual healing practice. They learn from other shaman. Shaman ceremonial tools include a gong and a wooden bench, and rituals involve going into trance, long chanting, and sacrificing animals, usually chickens or pigs. Animals are killed so their souls can be asked to guard the patient. Shamans are able to speak the language of the spirits, negotiate and fight with the spirits for the health of the patient. Shamans perform divination procedures for diagnosis, and trance rituals for curing and further protection. (Culhane-Pera, et.al., 2003) This New York Times article talks about how a hospital in Merced, California is welcoming the role of Hmong shamans.
Experience with Western Medicine in the United States
In the Country of Origin
Hmong families rely mainly on traditional healers and shamans for prevention and treatment of mild to life-threatening illnesses. In Laos, there is minimal contact with Western Medicine due to isolation from big cities and medical facilities. The biggest barrier is the cost of conventional health services. Those who are able to seek modern health care services for life-threatening conditions are those with the knowledge of the health care services and the money to pay for them. Anyone without money is denied conventional medical services even for life-threatening but preventable health conditions, such as diarrhea in young children. (Vue, L. & Lor, K., 2006)
In the United States
Modern health care is believed to be beneficial, but traditional diagnosis and treatment (either herbal or spiritual) may be used first. Some biomedical treatments may conflict with Hmong belief. In particular surgery may conflict with beliefs that a person needs all his/her body parts for reincarnation, that surgery weakens the body or leaves the body open to evil spirits entering. After a general anesthetic, it may be necessary to perform a soul calling ceremony in the operating room. People may consider the amount of blood in the body to be finite and not rejuvenating, and they may resist blood draws. There may be resistance to vaccines and problems of adherence to treatments that require long-term sustained use of medicine. In most cases, Hmong will willingly use medicine that brings observable results.
Hmong women may refuse vaginal examinations, especially by male doctors. Medical examinations of the breast or private parts are sensitive issues in the Hmong community (as well as other ethnicities not used to Western medical practices). Mammogram, Pap smear or rectal exams were not available back in the homeland. When the patient is Hmong, knowledge of the medical services must be assessed first before introducing the medical exams. To foster understanding of the medical exams or diagnosis, visual aids of the human body part related to health condition must be used to accompany the information.
Issues of trust between a care provider and the patient and family are critical. People may have a problem when a practitioner is perceived as forcing a decision or treatment, or fails to respect a patient’s wishes. People may perceive they are receiving sub-par care because they are poor, lack insurance, are seen for so little time by the doctor, or feel the doctor’s impatience. The reputations of care providers, those trusted and those not trusted, are shared in the community. (Culhane-Pera, et .al., 2003)
When dealing with a Hmong family, confidentiality is considered to be a very important issue. However, within the family itself, confidentiality may not be thought of as all that important and families may make care-giving decisions together. The men in the family may consult traditional healers for advice about health care decisions. Family members share their experiences and seek support from one another. When talking to less assimilated Hmong persons it may be necessary to repeat questions and allow extra time for responses. In the United States, less-assimilated Hmong may have a limited English vocabulary; it is helpful to use simple terminology whether by telephone, in person, or through an interpreter. (Hmong Cultural Center, 2000)
Traumatic experiences of war and its aftermath leave an impact on health. Hmong were victims or witnesses to terror – bombings, murder, rape, drowning, starvation, displacement and discrimination. Most people lost loved ones during and/or after the war. Post-traumatic stress disorder may be prevalent among Hmong in the United States. US studies have shown high rates of depression, often related to the life situation difficulties of the Hmong refugee – especially difficulties of adjusting to life in the US. (Culhane-Pera,et.al., 2003)
See a May 25, 2013 New York Times article about a program in which construction and maintenance of community gardens and adjoining meeting spaces for Hmong and other immigrant communities are made possible by the California Mental Health Services Act of 2004.
“The thinking of community leaders and health professionals is that gardens can help foster resiliency and a sense of purpose for refugees, especially older ones, who are often isolated by language and poverty and experiencing depression and post-traumatic stress. Immigrant families often struggle to meet insurance co-payments, and culturally attuned therapists are in short supply.”
See also: The Hmong and Health Care in Merced, California, an article by M. Warner and M. Mochel discussing the linguistic and cultural barriers the Hmong encounter when they attempt to access the health care delivery system in Merced County, CA.
The Hmong society remains one of the most structured social groupings in the world. Several levels of community are identifiable in the Hmong social structure worldwide: clan, sub-clan, ceremonial households, extended families, and nuclear families. At all levels, the Hmong are communitarian in nature, surviving on relationships. New Year (traditionally marking the end of one agricultural year and start of next) is a time for family reunions, community gatherings and meeting prospective mates/partners. In US cities, the New Year is held on different dates so people can attend more than one locality’s celebration.
Due to the various influences of acculturation, the Hmong community has become less cohesive in the United States compared to life in Laos or other homelands. In traditional Hmong culture, the son and his wife are to live with the parents and care for them in old age. The Hmong parents are to help look after the son’s children (their grandchildren), except in the case when the parents are not able due to very old age or medical condition. In the modern day, specifically in the US, as many children and parents become independent, there is tendency to live in separate houses. A decrease in extended families living together has led to loss of social support for elderly parents.
In the homeland, people farmed for their own crops and food. People had similar lives and there was no large income gap causing people to look down on each other. In the US, the social structure has changed. People work to earn a living. Those who are unable to work rely on public welfare. In the US, the gap between household incomes has resulted in decreased community coherence. (Culhane-Pera, et.al., 2003)
One common event among Hmong living in the US is Hmong New Year celebration. In Seattle, several Hmong New Year events are held between November and December. The events are organized independently by different Hmong organizations established by different clans. People travel from afar, even across the country, to join different New Years events.
The United States Hmong Community
(Hmong National Development, Inc., 2003)
The 1990 U.S. census counted 94,439 Hmong in the U.S.; the 2000 census counted 186,310, a 97%increase in the course of a decade. A community estimate puts the total number of Hmong living in the U.S. at a much higher number, 283,239. It is rare that Hmong families in the U.S. live where they first settled; like most immigrant groups with few resources, the Hmong began to cluster together with relatives and other families once in the U.S. Minnesota appears to have attracted the strongest percentages of Hmong from various regions throughout the country between 1995-2000. According to the 2000 Census, the largest population of Hmong in the U.S. numbers more than 65,000 in California; followed by 41,800 in Minnesota; 33, 791 in Wisconsin; 7,093 in North Carolina; 5383 in Michigan; 3000 in Colorado; 2101 in Oregon; 1468 in Georgia; 1294 in Washington; and 1127 in Massachusetts. Census data indicate that 55.6 percent of Hmong in the US were foreign-born and of those 68.6 percent were not citizens.
The first Hmong refugees began arriving in the US in late 1975, mostly sponsored by religious groups and non-profit organizations. Refugee arrivals peaked at 27,000 in 1980. Of the current population, about 26.4% arrived between 1985-1989; 28% arrived 1990-1994; and an estimated 5% have arrived between 2002-2006.
According to the 2000 census, the Hmong are the only ethnically based population with a median age under 20. Fifty-six percent of Hmong are under the age of 18 compared to twenty-five percent of the entire US population. The median age for Hmong in the US is 16.1 years compared to 35.3 years for the entire US population. Fifty-one percent are males, forty-nine percent females. Hmong families in the US average 6.51 persons compared to 3.14 persons overall US families. Per average Hmong household there are 6.28 persons, versus 2.59 persons overall US households.
Among the Hmong American population 16 years and over, 17% work in the managerial, professional and related occupations; 21% work in sales & office occupations; 16% work in s service occupations; less than 1% in farming, forestry, & fishing; 5% in construction & maintenance; 42% in production & transportation.
According to the 200 Census, statistics pertaining to the socio-economics of Hmong Americans include a poverty rate of 38% for all ages, per capita income of $6,613, median family income of $32,224, average household size of 7 or more persons. Seven percent of people older than 25 years hold a bachelor’s degree, and 35% of households are considered “linguistically isolated”.
Clan leaders will typically settle any dispute between two Hmong persons or between different clans. Clan leaders may be involved in such matters as reconciling a quarreling couple, and ensuring that individuals fulfill ritual obligations.
In Laos, there was no single Hmong government or ruler. The leader at the family level can be a powerful and influential person in the community. He may not necessarily be the most educated but is someone who holds the respect of others because he cares for the people and is just and fair. He is someone who knows all the rules and norms of the culture. People seek advice from this leader and rally for his support. The leader accepts responsibility for giving advice and solving problems. When there is a challenge in a nuclear family setting, it is best resolved within that unit. If that fails, the next level of the hierarchy will take over. This process continues, if required, until the conflict is satisfactory solved.
During their history, there has not been any one Hmong leader who presided across borders even though the Hmong have a word for a Hmong national leader – Hmoob tus vaj – tus coj ib haiv Hmoob. The one person that comes closest to this position is General Vang Pao. Due to his record in Laos during the Vietnam War, the Hmong all over the world have heard of him or have respect for the man. He is considered by some to be the Hmong paramount leader. (Saykao, 1997)
Two important issues that have received constant attention and effort from the Hmong community are related to human rights of refugees in Thailand and wedding/dowry issues. The threat to deport Hmong refugees in Thailand into Laos initiated many support groups in the US to stop the illegal deportation of Hmong in Thailand refugee camps, and ask for political asylum by letting them come to the US. Recent efforts in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California opened the US doors to let some Hmong refugees join with their families in the US. For example, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ Wat Resettlement Working Group convened by Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s Office located in Minnesota, is one of the councils that helped seek political asylum for Hmong refugees. (Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, 2004)
In California, 18 clans met in Fresno to put a cap on the dowry price. On July 9, 2005, the clan council, called United Hmong International Inc , capped the dowry price to $5000, plus $800 for other wedding costs such as food. The guideline was drafted by clan leaders with the help of Fresno lawyers. The purpose of the dowry cap is to prevent parents from imposing unreasonably high wedding fees (i.e. more than $8000). (Lo and Magagnini, 2006)
Intercommunity Related Offenses and Sanctions
Historically, in the Hmong community wrongdoings (ranging from domestic violence to murder, theft, etc.) were all dealt with by clan leaders. Today, in the US, the US legal system is sought to resolve such offenses, with the exception of domestic violence. Domestic violence is the only problem in which family members and clan leaders still try to resolve it first before resorting to the US legal system. (Vue, L. & Lor, K., 2006)
Seatttle Community Life
About 1,000 Hmong live in Seattle, Burien, Renton, Bellevue, Mount Lake Terrace, and Carnation. The Indochinese Farm Project, funded by a Seattle city block grant and by the King County Park Commission from 1983 through 1990, helped some Hmong and other former farmers from Laos learn about Seattle soil, weather, marketing, and business practices. Several Hmong families have established truck farms near Woodinville, selling vegetables and flowers in the Pike Place Market in Seattle.
In Washington State, less than 12 percent of Hmong receive public assistance. Many Hmong work two jobs, often in factories, landscaping, housekeeping, or mechanics. Some are professional teachers, social workers or interpreters. Many women continue making tradition-derived needlework that finds its way to market, usually through fairs or the Pike Place Market. The beautiful embroidery and appliqué work from the mountains of Laos is now, with different colors and mingling of styles, applied to pillow covers, bedspreads, jackets, aprons, and other useful items. For some, this had developed into other kinds of sewing, such as piecework, stuffed animals or hair bows, and factory sewing. The Hmong families who have settled in Washington formed a hard-working, permanent nucleus. They became citizens, bought homes, worked hard, and invited other Hmong to join them. (Donnelly, 2006)
(Vue, L. & Lor, K ., 2006)
Historically, neighborhoods were marked by a sense of caring and trust regardless of the clan name (last name). The sense of being neighbors was also practiced on the farm. In the homeland, there was no fence to separate one person’s farm from another’s farm and still, there was no theft issue.
During the early days when Hmong started settling in the US, a Hmong neighborhood was filled with people who knew each other. Due to their sense of family values being more important than the individual, Hmong settled in cities or states where relatives resided. As times changed, people tended to live where they could survive economically. Hmong neighborhoods that are still more visible are those in California and Minnesota.
Two neighborhood activities that thrive are the New Year celebrations where people would travel from afar to join the event — and family feasts (for example, to change a married man’s name to an adult name) where relatives who still share common values would come together to support each other.
Hmong New Year has changed in its way of being celebrated in the US. In the homeland, each family would have their own New Year dinner in their home, and they would take turns going to each other’s houses to share the dinner. After the feasts, the community would have one single New Year celebration lasting several days with activities of ball tossing and chanting poetic songs, boys seeking brides and girls seeking potential husbands. In the US, especially in big cities such as Seattle, St. Paul, etc., there are several Hmong New Year celebration events organized by different groups.
Learn more about the annual Hmong New Year Celebration at Seattle Center.
In Seattle, the Lao Highland Community Center is a membership organization located at 3925 S. Bozeman St., in the Rainier Valley. The organization was established by a coalition of Mien, Hmong and Khmuu people in May 2005, after eight years of planning. It is a community-gathering place, and offers programs for children such as after school tutoring and classes in traditional dance, language and arts.
Hmong Association of Washington
1531 Bradner Place South
Seattle, WA 98144
Spokane Hmong Association
15225 E. 17 Ct
Veradale, WA 99037
Hmong National Development, Inc.
1112 Sixteenth St. N.W., Ste 110
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 463-2118
Other groups by State
Lao Family Community, Inc. of Tulare County
919 North Court St.
Visalia, CA 93291
Hmong Women’s Heritage Association
2245 Florin Road Sacramento, CA 95822
Phone : (916) 394-1405 Fax : (916) 392-9326
Healthy House Within a MATCH Coalition
1729 Canal Street Merced, CA 95340
phone: (209) 724-0102; fax: (209) 724-0153
Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC)
4601 Market Street 2nd Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19139
Southern Wisconsin Lao Hmong Association, Inc.
2222 Catalpa Road.
Madison, WI 53713
Common Acculturation Issues
(Vue, L. & Lor, K., 2006)
Language: Limited or no English language skill is still a problem faced by many Hmong people who had less than 5 years of formal or adult education. This issue creates challenges for adults in communicating with children who are more acculturated and in searching for and maintaining jobs.
Religion/rituals: As some Hmong people take up new religion practices abandoning the practice of shamanism the result has been a less cohesive Hmong community. Those who practice the new religion may no longer want to eat the food, especially from the celebration of a new birth or a New Year feast, prepared by those who still practice shamanism. Due to the food bias, Hmong people practicing the new religion may decline to attend family gatherings organized by relatives who still practice shamanism, weakening the Hmong community network.
Marriage roles: As with the overall general trend in the US, there is increasing number of men taking on childcare responsibilities while the wife works outside of the home. The changing role has lead to marital problems in cases where there is no mutual understanding and support for the wife to work.
Youth/Generational conflicts: Children raised in the US have more understanding of the English language, American history and values portrayed by the media. One common conflict is the misperception of being adult at 18 years old. In the Hmong culture, one must respect and try to consider what the parents are saying no matter how old he/she is. Hmong American children who embrace the notion that they can do whatever they like when they are 18 years old experience many family problems. One solution to minimize the challenge of family feud for both Hmong parents and children is to encourage parents to teach family values and secure funding to teach Hmong history/values so children raised in the US could better live in both worlds – Hmong and Western cultures.
Economics/jobs: Many parents must both work in order to earn a living or to pursue their economic goals, leaving many teenage kids home alone. This issue contributes to social problems caused by teenagers having no supervision at home after school. In the homeland, all the household members go the farm and come back home together; or in a situation where a child did go to school, the parents would be back from the farm when school is out.
Healthcare: There were no healthcare services in the homeland, so Hmong people practiced personal home care (consulting with herbalist and shaman) to prevent and cure illness. Many Hmong are taking advantage of the modern healthcare services available in the US, though there is still disparity especially among adults with limited English skills.
Critical health issues for Hmong people in the US include diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, hepatitis A, and mental health. The changes in diet, especially consumption of food high in sugar and fat, and lack of knowledge about screening services are possible reasons for the increasing prevalence of diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney and hepatitis A. Feelings of isolation and helplessness (due to physical health or acculturation factors like lack of English language skills) are possible reasons for many of the undiagnosed/untreated mental health cases among Hmong adults and elderly.
Generally a Hmong patient expects that he/she will receive medicine when visiting the doctor. If the patient doesn’t receive anything, there is less chance of the person returning for a follow-up appointment or seeking future healthcare services. If the patient, especially an elder Hmong person, does not receive any medicine, it is appropriate to explicitly explain to the patient the reason no medication is given.
Law enforcement: Police officers may be perceived as frightening authority figures and bearers of bad news. Some elderly Hmong might consult with relatives or the clan leader or a community member with knowledge of the legal system before permitting the police to enter their home. People may be hesitant to say much or respond to questions asked by the police, being afraid of saying the wrong things due to their limited English ability. (Hmong Cultural Center, 2000)
Cha, D. (2003). Hmong American Concepts of Health, Healing and Conventional Medicine (pp. 4, 20, 36-37). New York & London: Routledge.
Chan, S. (1994). Hmong Means Free. Retreived September 19, 2006, from WWW Hmong Homepage http://www.hmongnet.org/publications/hmf-intro.html
Culhane-Pera, K.A., Vawter, D. E., Xiong, P., Babbitt, B., & Solberg, M. M (Eds.). (2003). Healing by Heart: Clinical and Ethical Case Stories of Hmong Families and Western Providers (pp.13, 15-16; 26-27; 31-47; 56, 151). Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Donnelly, N. (2006). The Hmong Community: From Laos to the Puget Sound. Retrieved September 19, 2006, from http://www.arts.wa.gov/folk-arts/hmong.shtml
Hmong Cultural Center. (2000). St. Paul, Minnesota
Can find topics such as Hmong Clans, Traditional Hmong Religion, Etiquette for Interacting with the Hmong, Information for Visitors to a Hmong Home http://www.hmongcc.org/
Retrieved September 19, 2006
Hmong National Development, Inc. & Hmong Cultural Resource Center (2003). Hmong 2000 Census Publication: Data and Analysis, pp. 4-8). Washington, D.C., St. Paul, Minnesota. Also retrieved September 19, 2006, from http://hndinc.org/content/view/41/
Keown-Bomar, J. (2004) Kinship Networks Among Hmong-American Refugees, (pp.51). New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.
Lee, T.P., Pfeifer, M.E. (2005). Hmong 101. Retrieved September 19, 2006, from Hmong Cultural and Resource Center of Minnesota. From main page access the Online Research Library at http://www.hmonglibrary.org/
Lo, P. & Magagnini, S. Hmong Community Debates ‘Dowry’ Cap. Retrieved December 22, 2006, from New America Media, News Report.
Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Hmong Refugee Resettlement. Retrieved December 22, 2006. Link no longer available, 2010.
Mote, S. M. (2004) Hmong and American: Stories of Transition to a Strange Land (pp.80-81, 283-286). Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
Queensland Health, Community Health Profile — Hmong. Retrieved September 19, 2006, from Queensland Health website. Link no longer available, 2010.
Saykao, P. (1997). Hmong Leadership: The traditional model. Retrieved September 19, 2006, from http://www.hmongnet.org/hmong-au/leader.htm
Vue, L. & Lor, K. (June 24, 2006). Personal communication.