Culture Clash: The Hmong in America
Social Problems Faced by the Hmong People
Perspectives of Jeff Lindsay
All text and photos are copyright © 2004-2013, Jeff Lindsay.
All text and photos are copyright © 2004-2013, Jeff Lindsay.
Others are trying hard to adapt, to learn new ways and deal with a new culture and language. But they still have their culture that gives them identify, that spells out many steps for them in life. Americans who don't respect Hmong culture may find it weird and primitive, but it's no more weird than American culture. Unfortunately, there are aspects of Hmong culture that clash sharply with American ways, and sometimes American law. Both Hmong people and the rest of us in America need to understand these differences if we are to work better together.
Here are some areas of potential cultural conflict that I discuss on this page:
Hmong people are very protective of their families and tend to live together as extended families, with grandparents, children, and grandchildren often under one roof. I think this is a very healthy aspect of Hmong culture. Hmong people care for their own and show a lot of dedication to their family members across generations.
The different emphasis on family ties sometimes leads to some confusion between modern American and Hmong culture. Americans often don't understand why there are such big gatherings of Hmong people when there is a funeral or wedding or other event. And they don't understand how anyone can have so many "cousins" and "uncles" - these terms are often used loosely to include distance relatives. I think Americans would do well to learn more from Hmong people about strengthening family organizations and caring for each other.
In the old country, where life was based on farming and involved short life spans, children were essential for one's economic security, so large families and early marriage was the norm. It still is in much of Hmong culture. Historically, Hmong girls typically marry starting at about age 13 or 14, often marrying older husbands. In the United States, this cultural pattern is typically in conflict with the law. While teenage marriage is still common in Hmong society in the U.S., it can put a husband in trouble with the authorities. In Wisconsin, for example, it is illegal to marry under age 16, and those age 16 or 17 still need parental permission to become legally married. In some cases, the Hmong-style marriage qualifies as sexual child abuse, and some of the older men have been prosecuted.
Unfortunately for many Hmong women, their marriages are often done under rules of Hmong culture and not through legal U.S. channels, meaning that they are not legally married. This can make life especially difficult if there is a divorce, since they will have a harder time asserting their rights without the benefit of a recorded legal marriage. Hmong women abandoned by their husbands and neglected by the US legal system are one of the most painful artifacts of the cultural gap between Hmong and American society.
I would encourage Hmong parents to teach their daughters not to marry too young, and always make sure that the marriage is legal and licensed. Unfortunately, one important part of Hmong culture may motivate some parents to neglect these important issues. I refer to the dowry that a man must pay to the girl's family to complete the marriage. When a girl marries, her family typically gets several thousand dollars, often in the range of $5,000 to $10,000. For some, that may be a big incentive to encourage early marriage to an older, wealthier man. On the other hand, the girl's family pays for the big feast and party that is held to celebrate the marriage, and that can eat up much of the dowry, so there may not be much of a profit motive in most cases.
Given the negative effects of these teenage marriages on the girls, local authorities are doing nobody a favor by letting this practice continue. A fourteen-year-old wife may have two kids by age 16 or 17, and will usually not be able to complete high school. Her educational opportunities are often destroyed. And the fun and freedom they hoped to find are replaced by what can be a hellish reality.
Hmong culture also occasionally accepts forms of polygamy, which can also lead to big trouble in Western countries. To Americans, this looks like little more than old-fashioned adultery, and that's how I see it, too. But some Hmong men feel justified in having a second "wife" on the side. The second wife tends to get a lot of attention and money, leaving the first wife in a difficult position. Few Hmong women feel they can challenge these things and tend not to use the legal resources that may be available to them. I think we need to help Hmong women better understand and assert their rights.
Polygamy, though relatively uncommon now, is a serious problem when it occurs. The first wife is often aware of the new relationship, and sometimes it is rubbed in her face to make her feel even worse and lower than she already does. This so-called polygamy is really just adultery, but with the pernicious twist of impoverishing and degrading the first wife even more than "normal" adultery does. Anglo or Hmong, adultery is for scum. It's a problem for both cultures, of course. In Hmong culture, since it is more visible, it's especially problematic. Whole families grow up knowing that their father is married to another woman, and that their mother is either a neglected first wife or an illicit second wife. It's ugly.
One of the real problems here is the non-uniform enforcement of the law by local officials. In the Fox Cities of Wisconsin, for example, some Hmong men have felony convictions for sex with a minor when they married an underage wife, while school and city officials in other cases seem to ignore some cases where a girl's life may be seriously harmed by her early marriage. From my ties to the Hmong community, it is obvious that no clear message has been sent. Frankly, I think it would help keep some young girls out of serious trouble and disappointment to more strictly enforce the law. Some of these girls feel pressured to accept marriages they really don't want. If the law were on their side, they might be able to say no and continue with education and social growth until they were prepared to marry the right man for them, the one they choose, when they were ready.
Some outstanding Wisconsin Hmong girls
at a New Years' Celebration in Appleton, Dec. 2005.
Here is an area where good counseling of students and their parents can help. Parents may need help understanding their teenagers, and the teenagers need good counsel in dealing with the frustrations and problems they face. I strongly believe that good youth programs, such as those offered by many churches and community organizations, can play an important role in helping the teenagers. And for those Hmong families that participate in a church, the youth leaders can play a role in helping them to understand the needs of youth.
On the other hand, basic concepts of private property and personal freedom are an essential part of Hmong culture, one that has been at odds with the Communist regime ruling Laos with an iron hand. Understanding the Hmong love for freedom is an important step in appreciating how much America has in common with Hmong culture.
Poor racial attitudes are not a problem for whites only. There are negative attitudes of some Hmong toward white society also. Whatever problems the Hmong people face from some whites should not condemn all of them, or make Hmong people hesitant to form friendships outside of their culture.
Racial isolation, however, is a serious problem. Some Hmong people tend to seek out other Hmong or other Asians for friends, and seem nervous around whites, and the same tendency applies to many whites as well. We need more social ties across our cultures, more friendships and partnerships between all races. For the Hmong people, shyness around whites may hold them back from the kind of relationships and networking that can be essential for success in American life. Let's all reach out and make more friendships, regardless of race and cultural differences. These don't have to be strong or close ties - casual ties and acquaintances can still be very helpful.
In 1986, I was assigned as the first neighborhood police officer in the Bayview/Brittingham Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. I remember my first meeting with the local association of Hmong in the neighborhood. I don't know who was more curious: me, a blonde, blue-eyed, woman of German, Norwegian, Scot, and Cheyenne descent. Or the group of about fifty Asian men who had gathered there. I knew nothing about them and there was little in the way of reference material. So I resorted to what I would do in my Native American communities and asked if someone could direct me to some elders who would be willing to help me learn. I found several wonderful men to help as translators including Joua Kao Vang and others. I would spend an hour or two a day, off duty three of four days a week with various men and women and a translator while they told me of history, tradition and recounted harrowing stories of escapes and the secret war. I was invited to naming ceremonies, healing ceremonies, wedding, funeral, Hmong New Year, etc.Lora Lee Fry asked that I mention name of an attorney who made many efforts to help with the Hmong people. The attorney was John Beaudin, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Anishinabe (Ojibwe or Chippewa) tribe in northern Wisconsin, who sadly passed away in 1993 from cancer (only 46 years old). Lora wrote:
One of my favorite "adventures" was when I intervened when a family was cited for sacrificing a chicken and got the DA to withdraw the charge. I had to tell one family they couldn't raise chickens in the basement of their center city apartment. When they tried "freedom of religion" as an excuse, I explained sacrificing a chicken might be under freedom of religion and I would defend that vigorously. However trying to raise fifty chickens in their basement wasn't under freedom of religion especially as they were selling and eating those chickens. I went on to talk to them about how it was not sanitary and healthy to do so in crowded city situations. They understood and in a few days had disposed of the chickens. In the meantime, I located several farmers who were willing to provide chickens, pigs, and even cattle for religious ceremonies at practically their cost for raising them if the animals were for religious ceremonies. The farmers even provided a place to perform any rituals. I worked on getting some of the families community garden plots including my chicken family. They now own a small farm and are doing quite well and sell at the local farmers market.
I found most of the things they got in trouble legally for were out of ignorance and not malice. A local attorney (who worked pro bono) and I set up classes about American law and what to do if you got a ticket. The first two were sparsely attended, after that there was standing room only. I also gave inservice classes at the police department about the Hmong and brought in speakers from their community. One of the things officers would complain about was that they "conveniently forgot English". I could attest to how one forgot a second language under stress such as being confronted by a police officer. I had lived in Germany and did not speak a word of German the day I arrived. About two years later, I was in an accident. Although my German was quite fluent, I could not remember one word at the accident. It was anything but convenient.
I loved my time working with the Hmong. I found them remarkable. They were courageous, polite, friendly, eager to learn, and so lonely for home. The dreams of the older Hmong of returning home, like those of so many immigrants before, would never be for most of them. As their children became Americans who never saw or had a memory of Laos, you could see the pain in the parents faces knowing they would never return. They work to preserve language and culture and have added so much to the tapestry of life here in Wisconsin. I would have done anything for information that is available on the web and in libraries today back in 1986.
[John] helped so much with his own time and efforts. I had never done any public speaking, worked with any groups problem solving, taught a class, etc. He reminded me of Native American traditions and learning from elders. Most of the ideas and approaches were from him. He and his wife became two of the best friends I have ever had. . . . Things would not have been possible without him.Police officers, lawyers, ministers, neighbors, whoever you are, I salute those who treat newcomers like the Hmong with kindness and respect. Thanks, Lora, for letting me share your memories of working with the Hmong.
Importantly, the Hmong community is not making excuses for his action, and strongly condemns the killings. Both Anglos and Hmong grieve over what happened. This incident is a bizarre exception that is in no way characteristic of Hmong people and culture. Hmong hunters and Hmong people in general do not have a track record of striking out in violence against whites. They are not crazies who can be easily provoked into murder.
However, based on the mail I have received from whites on this topic, it is clear that racial tensions have been greatly strained, and that racism is alive and well among us. I have been contacted by a number of people who use Chai Vang's crime as an excuse to vilify the entire Hmong people or Asians in general. Here are some actual e-mails I have received in the latter half of November 2004. For each of these, please recognize that there are many people in the US with the same names, so don't assume that someone you know of the same name is the one who sent the email. Also, the names given may not be their real names.
The first one comes from a person who identifies himself as Mark Lawrence; his note was received on Nov. 22:
After reading the news articles about the Hmong mass murderer in Wisconsin that killed 5 unarmed, defenseless, innocent victims, I take great joy in reading of the suffering of this wayward, degenerate group as described in your bleeding heart, wimpy, crybaby website. The silent majority in America would prefer that all these worthless leeches go back to Laos. If they can't understand the concept of private property and respect landowner rights then they are in the wrong country. It's quite obvious to me why the Laotian got wants to exterminate this vermin.Here is one from Donald Petzold, received Nov. 23:
Too bad this whole mess didn't perish in the Vietnam War.
What a pathetic collection of human garbage this group is, particularly their poster boy that's gonna fry in the chair when the authorities get done with him. When they execute this psycho, you will hear the celebrations from all over the United States.
No More Mongs, in this country.We cannot afford to support these kind of people who do not have any VALUES.Here is one from "Sherrie" from Nov. 23:
Hasn't America been invaded enough for you nutjobs! They bring their culture, NOT AMERICAN, with them.My reply:
YOU need to go live among them. . . .
You liberals are either insane, stupid or truly evil.
Again, you need to go live with your own people. Them.
Uh, Sherrie - they are Americans, and we do live with them, like it or not. May I remind you that you are descended from foreigners who came to this land UNINVITED and brought a foreign culture here. Our government that represents us invited the Hmong people here after we messed things up for them in their land. They are here now, and we need to learn to work with them and help them as new fellow Americans. Anger and racism is not going to do any good.And from R. Fischer I received this:
haven't enough american's died at the hands of these killers?This appears to be the common mistake of confusing the Hmong for the enemies Americans fought in the Vietnam War. And even then, the war is over, Americans! Germans, Vietnamese, North Koreans, and even the English have all been our enemies at one time or the other (remember British aggression in the War of Independence and the War of 1812? I sure do!) , but that doesn't make those people killers in general, and does not justify ongoing hate.
who will be next?
On the other hand, I received a thoughtful message from Vince Manning (name used with permission) who points to some issues that some Hmong people may need to resolve. Here is his thoughtful message from Nov. 23, 2004:
I am an avid user of California's Ventana Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest. I'm emailing you with the hope that you can somehow influence the Hmong hunters in California where resentment is growing.I hope all of you Hmong campers and hunters will pay attention to the concerns raised in the message above. Please go the extra mile to earn the respect of others. While I have gone camping several with Hmong people and saw no obvious problems in behavior, in cleanliness, or in respect for the environment and the camp site, the Hmong people I was with probably had been trained in camping etiquette by other experienced campers, and some of them had kids who had been exposed to Boy Scout camping. If you aren't aware of the basic rules of camping and so forth that are followed by the Scouts and other experienced outdoorsmen, please ask and learn!
The Hmong have a poor reputation among campers, backpackers and hunters in the Ventana Wilderness as well as the neighboring forest areas. Many people who love the area are angry and resentful of Hmong hunters who leave ALL their trash and show very little regard for our hunting laws. It is frustrating to arrive at a usually pristine site and find an ugly mess. It is frustrating for a hunter who follows regulations to see a Hmong hunter blatantly disregard them.
I witnessed a friendly attempt to educate three Hmong we came across about the ethic of not littering. They didn't seem interested and all of a sudden pretended not to understand English. Similar stories abound. I myself do not hunt, but know the Hmong out here have a reputation for shooting any animal that moves regardless of season or location. A friend witnessed two Hmong shooting just a few feet from a road. When he confronted them in a respectful manner, they acted confused (perhaps they didn't speak English) and then ignored him. It is easy to get away with these transgressions out here because the Forest Service is severely under funded as well as the Department of Fish and Game so there is no emphasis on enforcement.
I have not heard of trespassing problems though.
Your website instilled sympathy in me for the plight of Hmong folk. Their plight will not improve though if they refuse to abide by the same laws and ethics that the rest of us must. Not understanding our ways is one thing but this excuse can only be valid for so long before it wears thin. It appears to many users of the Los Padres National Forest that Hmong hunters are not trying to understand or just don't want to. Hopefully the younger generation will be more adaptable.
Thanks in advance for any effort you make to convey this to Hmong folk in California. I will try to educate friends and members of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance in the sad struggle of the Hmong due to America's betrayal and ill-conceived war.
A voice of reason hailing from New England sent me this response on Nov. 27:
I believe that I speak for the good people of this country when I say the racist e-mails you received, while they think they are the silent majority, are really the loud mouthed, ignorant minority. I wonder what they would have to say if the next time someone in their family committed a crime, they were all treated as human garbage or perhaps all prosecuted/persecuted and "fried" together!Amen!
As an example of the response in the Hmong community, here is a note received Nov. 2004 from a Hmong man, Xeng Ly:
I am still in pain about the terrible loss of lives. No matter what happened, six people should not have lost their lives.I am with you.
My heart goes out to the victims, their families and friends.
As for the effect that the hunter murders have on the Hmong people, consider this message from Dec. 2004:
Thank you so much Mr Lindsay for your help and your support for the Hmong. I have sent the link to your site to many of my friends, families, and co-workers. Your voice shines a light in the darkness for our people. We cannot fully express our gratitude to you. I live in California, and in light of all the events that has happened within the last month with the tragedy in Wisconsin, things have not been so positive for the Hmong. My husband listens to AM radio in the mornings and evenings on his commute to and from work and he has told me of the many negative reactions that people have expressed towards the Hmong because of this tragedy. We have people of other races and ethnic backgrounds (mainly white) who came on the radio and publicly say that the Hmong are savages who would hunt, kill, and eat anything that moves - even dogs and cats. Conservative talk show hosts, such as Michael Savage, repeatedly bash the Hmong for this incident. It is a depressing and hopeless time to be a Hmong. However, with voices like yours, I am sure that we can get through these difficulties. I am proud to be Hmong... however .... I am moreso proud to be an American.Additional comments are on my page of comments from readers of this page.
Other crimes involving Hmong people tend to get additional publicity in some areas. Yes, there are some social problems among the Hmong people, as with all parts of society, and these must be put in the proper perspective. The Hmong community is seeking to overcome some of the problems they face. But there have been some sad setbacks. For example, the Hmong community in my area is reeling after a tragic murder-suicide by a Hmong man in Oshkosh in April 2006. The story includes a lengthy standoff with police and grave danger faced by a surviving woman hiding in a closet, communicating with the police by cell phone. A high-tech robot was brought in to survey the house to help the police make plans for their assault, but the murderer had already killed himself and his wife by then. This is not a normal event for the Hmong people! It is a rare tragedy, but even one such incident is far too many.
There are some aspects of what is called "Hmong culture" (Hmoob kevcai) that need to be modified especially for the Hmong in the United States. And there are some things that should be held as examples to the rest of us. Both cultures need to become less isolated from one another and work together to build a healthier society.
This is a good put together photos and writing about the Hmong New Year. A Hmong man like me cannot even do a good job like this. I am sure all Hmong readers love to read this site. You did an excellent job, my dearest American friend.
I want to share this personal story to this American friend. I am 42 years old now. When I was about 9-10 years old, I remembered an American helicopter pilot came to our village in Samnuen, Laos. My dad and the rest of the men in the village got together and talked about how to take care of this American man. They agreed that each family had to donate a chicken to make food for the American friend because he was from a country like heaven. We (kids) followed him every where he went. He looked so strange but nice at the same time. The village treated him and respected him like a king. I have not seen any Hmong person who would not like this man. You know, I was never imagined that I would have a chance to see a heavenly country like this America. Thanks god that we poor Hmong people got to know American service men during the war and had always kept the strong relationship with the Americans until these days. I know that our people did a good job for American men during the war, but in return, America has provided freedom, opportunity, other legal, social and political assistance to the Hmong world wide. There isn't any country in the whole world that will listen to and help the Hmong like the U.S. Thanks, again.