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Thai Vang: Hmong Youth
Thai Vang is a 17-year-old Hmong teenager that came to Madison from Laos. When he came to America he was just 12 so it was hard for him. Back in Laos he didn’t have any food, money, maybe clothes. When Thai came here he first had to learn the ABCs, 123s, in the language they mostly speak here, which would be English. When he was 12 or 13 he had to sit in a first grade class and learn English while other kids did other work.
Thai Vang was born in Banvani, a refugee camp in Thailand. When he came into our class he said, “Banvani brings back horrible memories.” Thai’s family came to the U.S. in 1997 to escape hunger among other things. His family was one of the later Hmong families to move to America because his father didn’t want to lose their culture. But finally they decided to move. “We had no choice,” said Thai. “We couldn’t go back to Laos and we couldn’t stay in the refugee camp, they didn’t want us there.” Now Thai is a junior at East High School in Madison. He plays the qeej, is a shaman and knows 5 different languages. Thai believes in being friends with everybody no matter what their culture is. Many of his friends are very interested in his culture and they love his mom’s eggrolls.
Being a shaman, and playing the qeej and such doesn’t mean he cannot also be American. Thai said that he has the privilege of going between two worlds (American culture and Hmong culture) and speaks many languages (English, Hmong, Spanish, Thai, Laos) and hopes to learn French! His reasoning: he thinks that to know many languages is a great gift, so you can talk with all ethnicities. “If everyone can speak all languages we all will be relatives and share the world,” Thai says. In his American culture he has many American friends, one wants to learn Hmong. He likes the Backstreet Boys, and rock music, he likes to watch football, baseball, and basketball.
He doesn’t just like Hmong music, he also likes American music like the Backstreet Boys. He plays sports like football. He lives in two different worlds, he has to change his home and schools. A lot of Hmong people are afraid of Americans because they think we are going to hurt them. A rumor is if you dig a deep hole you will go to America, and there is a giant here and people shouldn’t come. He speaks 5 languages, he is working on Spanish and next year French. He has been in plays and talent shows. For the Hmong, when you are 14 you are considered an adult. A lot of kids argue with parents about wanting to be American. He teaches a class for young Hmong people on culture and language.
Most Hmong teenagers want to be American but their parents want them to be Hmong. Thai is different, he wants to be both. It is harder to be a Hmong teenager than a Hmong kid, Thai says.
In America, Thai quickly made lots of friends by simply going up to someone and saying “Hi!” Thai doesn’t understand why Hmong people stick together and don’t try to make friends with other Americans. He wants both nations to think of each other as equals. Why can’t we be buddies? is his question.
Thai aims to have friends of all different kinds from all different cultures and places. He feels that he has a special gift that many people don’t have, a special way of connecting and communicating with different people, and that includes different spirits, and others. Thai doesn’t believe in lying. He knows that it doesn’t do any good, especially specifically if you’re in a bad position and you’re trying to weave your way out of it. It’ll only make things worse for you and won’t help at all. Thai wants to be American but he also wants to stay forever Hmong, always loyal to his culture, religion, and traditions. His goal in life is to get good grades in high school and college, and teach young Hmong children about how to be a better Hmong person, and what it’s like to be a true Hmong person.
Mr. Wagler asked, “Aren’t all Hmong traditional?” Thai: “Not necessarily.” He said that of the Hmong in Wisconsin, about half were Christian and half were traditional Hmong.
Thai doesn’t speak good English but his friends correct him and he likes that.
Tou Ger Xiong, Comedian
Hmong is a very special tradition that can be funny or sad.
So imagine never using a toilet before and that you had to go outside on a tree every time you had to go [to the bathroom]. Then coming to America seeing a strange appliance and someone tells you that you actually have to go on it. When you finally pluck up the nerves to go, they tell you that you have to drain the water. You wouldn’t know how to, so you think he means you have to get a bucket and take all the water out. Then you see the water going around and around in circles. Ahhh, it’s going to suck me in. That’s what you are thinking as you are running away. Also, the man that tells you to do all this is weird, as he doesn’t have brown eyes and black hair like everyone else you’ve ever met. Nope, he’s a monster with yellow hair and, well, blue eyes. Then, you think he’s trying to suck you into his world and turn you into a monster like him.
Back in Laos, they had to wash their feet before they go to sleep. So, they thought it was for washing their feet, so they put their feet in it. The sister yelled and said this is not how you are supposed to do it. You have to pee in it.
I didn’t think there are many Hmong comedians, if any. But after I saw this video, I thought differently.
It is just as funny to be Hmong as it is to be American.
Tou Ger questioned his father, “What is America?” His father replied, “It’s in the clouds. We take a metal bird up and there’s America.”
Then, his sister showed him the sofa. That was “cool.” They bounced up and down. They saw the TV next. Wow, they thought. Then they noticed the fridge.
She scolded them, and told them about the bathroom [in the house]. They walked in [to the bathroom]. “Where’s the tree?” they asked.
Tou Ger ran to his house and told his mom about the giant [the missionary] and his mother said, “Keep away, they bite.”
When he want to school, he saw that everybody liked to skip, and he thought everyone walked weird.
Before, I kind of thought that the Hmong only did things like funerals and qeej playing. I now know that they have their own sense of humor, just like every culture.
It was funny when [his dad] said, “Don’t go closer, or they’ll bite you, son.”
I understand Hmong culture differently, because Tou Ger Xiong made me feel a little braver.
Just because the Hmong have gone through and endured crossing dangerous rivers, fires, war, and hard times…doesn’t mean they’re just going to say “I’m done…I’ll never laugh or run in fields or help in golden fields of rice, again…” No! The Hmong say, “I’ve gone through a lot. But that can’t stop me from farming, gardening, having fun, etc. I’m going to make the best of it.”
Back in Laos, people went barefoot. The rule was to wash your feet before you go to bed. So, when Tou and his brother saw the big white bowl, they didn’t immediately realize what it was. “Oh, look! A special bowl to wash your feet in! Press the handle and your feet get cleaned.”
Dialogue: Hmong Kids, American Kids
At the Hmong center in Green Bay, a woman dressed her daughter, Christina, in traditional green Hmong clothes. The lady dressed her oldest daughter in white Hmong clothes. The traditional outfits were so different, but yet they both are from Hmong culture.
We asked Hmong kids what they thought about the traditional clothes they were wearing. One girl said the clothes were heavy. The other one said the clothes were tight. I knew what she meant, because she had about five scarves wrapped around her waist.
When they wear Hmong clothes they feel more Hmong, but when they wear American clothes they feel American. They overall feel American because they were born in America, but they learned the Hmong language first.
We asked the adults if they called Laos home, and they said yes. Then we asked the kids if they called Laos their home. They said no. I think it’s interesting that parents call one place home, but the kids think of their home as another place halfway around the world.
Youth Groups and Games at WAHMA
At WAHMA (Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association) we spent the afternoon with two youth groups. The groups [were established] to keep young people out of trouble. The first one showed us a game that involves teamwork. We had to build a structure using ten straws, fifteen marshmallows, and one balloon. Later, another youth group came and taught us some Hmong games. One was the Ball Toss.
In this game you get a partner (normally a girl if you’re a boy) and you toss a ball made of fabric. If you drop the ball you owe the other player a piece of jewelry or money. In another game, we’d lined up and when the line started to run around the leader tries to catch the person at the end. The last game we played was like Duck Duck Goose, but instead of tapping the person you leave a small object behind his back.
In Wausau at WAHMA some teenagers taught us how to play some Hmong games played in Laos and Thailand. First, we played a game called Ball Toss, a simple game where you toss a ball back and forth. This game was played mainly for the Hmong New Year. The game was made for boys and girls to talk to each other.
The second game we played has many different names such as Dog Chases the Tail and Caterpillar. You have a line of at least five people holding on to each other, and the person at the front tries to catch the person at the end without breaking the line. This game is harder than it sounds. [In Laos] they would play this game all night. The third game is kind of like Duck Duck Goose…
The first game we all tried was Ball Toss. Hmong people play this game at the New Year, mostly a boy and girl toss the ball to each other so they can get to know each other. Usually two people toss a ball with only one hand. The other game is called Caterpillar. The way you play it is a group of people holds each other on the waist and then the person at the head needs to catch the person at the tail. It keeps going in different patterns. I’m pretty sure this game was made to [create] community. This game shows me that whatever we do we need to keep hold of our friends…
“When all is said, and all is done, working together does not just bring out the best in all of us, it brings out the best in each of us.” That is one of the first things Mai Kao Moua told us. She is the director of the Hmong Women’s Circle. The group is fairly small, but Mai hopes that it grows to be like the Girl Scouts, and that teenage girls all around [the state?] can be in the program. One of the group’s main foci is on working together and teamwork. Hmong people are very much an ethnicity where others come first. “Back in Laos, you’d take care of your family and friends’ wants and needs before you take care of your own wants and needs,” Mai said.
Mai taught us a game that, although it wasn’t played in Laos, requires a lot of team work. My group was trying to make a structure of fifteen marshmallows, some straws, and a balloon. After the structure was completed, an egg would be dropped from above and the structure would have to support it. The game required a lot of teamwork, because it’s hard if one person tries to take over, but it’s also a problem when nobody wants to give ideas.
Three other games we played are traditional Hmong, and were played back in Laos. The most common game is Ball Toss, and it is still played at Hmong New Year and other times big groups of people get together. (My family and I saw it played at the Madison convention center during Hmong New Year this year.) The game is played with a teenage boy and a teenage girl. You simply toss a ball back and forth and chat to get to know each other.
Another game played back in Laos is very similar to Duck Duck Goose, but instead of tapping people on the head, the “it” hides a small object (such as a rock) behind one of the people in the circle. That person tries to chase “it” back to his/her place.
The last game we played can get pretty wild. In this game, a line of people hook on to each other, holding on to the back of the person in front of them. The line of players runs and wiggles while the person in front tries to touch the person in the back. Usually people get unhooked. We played with half a dozen kids at a time, but back in Laos they could play it with more than fifty!
This is a very fun and frantic game. First everybody gets in line with their hands on the other person’s shirt. You run around, and the person in front tries to touch the person in the back… In Ball Toss, you toss a ball back and forth while having a conversation. The game is used by teenagers getting to know each other—especially girlfriends and boyfriends…
Hmong Youth Radio
On our Hmong cultural tour, we went to a radio place. There we talked into a microphone about our trip, and how it is important to us. First we introduced ourselves, then we started to answer questions, like “how is it meaningful, how does it help you understand, what is your goal for the trip?” So we answered it.
They record your voice on a computer and they cut out the bad parts, (then) burn it and play it on their next show. This radio program is not live so the people can make mistakes and they will just cut it off.
Also the microphone is very sensitive—if you speak very soft it will still pick it up. On the computer you can change the pitch and how loud it is.
Emma's Homestay at the Yang's
I was the only one in the whole class who stayed at a Hmong house for one night. It was so fun. I had sticky rice and chicken for dinner and breakfast. The house was a one-floor, three-bedroom house. It was perfect! I loved staying there. It was home sweet home. They had seven kids. Pafoua and Lee were two of them. The mom worked at Kolby and Koby and the dad at the Hmong Association. I think the mom and dad married at age thirteen.
I really liked the decorations. There were fans and pretty fake flowers. Down in the basement, there was a music studio with a keyboard and boom box. The kitchen had a buffet table where you could get food. The living room had three comfy couches and pictures of Hmong culture.
I really liked it that they let us stay with them. I had good luck and a fun time.
Being a Hmong Teenager
On the last day of our trip we met up with some 7th graders from Longfellow Middle School [in Lacrosse, WI]. They study Hmong culture every year and we decided we wanted to know how they do it. The kids were interviewing six Hmong kids who used to be in that class. [Their names were Kazoua Moua, Se Ying, Vue Ying, Mia Cha, Bong Lo, and Vue Vang. -Abigail] When we walked in there were three people who were going to ask questions and one kid at the computer. The reason there was someone at the computer was because the interviewing was being broadcast live on the web. People could watch and send questions.
Kids’ Birthplace & the English Language
A couple of the students were born in Laos, some in Thailand and three in America.
…One kid said he was born on the way to the refugee camps in Thailand.
Some were born in the US, but for the rest it was extremely difficult to learn English and it could take up to two years to learn.
They said it was hard to learn English. Because, well, first of all they didn’t know the language and second of all they had to start in kindergarten math even if they were in grade school.
When they were leaving Laos (the Hmong), many treasures and animals were left behind and many died escaping. They (and many others I am sure) would like to go back to Laos to see family members who had to be left behind, their livestock (if it is still alive), and their treasures.
These children call Laos “the old country.” Since they were born in Laos, wouldn’t that be called “their country” like a lot of older people call it? I think it has to do with the fact that the older people were actually brought up in Laos and can remember it well.
Value of Studying Hmong Culture
…They asked … “Do you think schools in La Crosse should research more about Hmong culture?” …Most of the kids said about half their friends were Hmong and that there should be a class on Hmong.
They believe that we should teach more about Hmong culture so people will understand more and not tease as much. “They don’t know even why we’re here!” said one student.
They feel that the Hmong are treated differently mainly by somebody who doesn’t know their culture. They want the Hmong to be treated like everybody else, and they want classes about Hmong culture to teach more. …They feel that true friends don’t care about culture. They just want a nice friend!
Dang Yang Life Story
Dang Yang (pronounced Da Ya in traditional Hmong) was born in Laos, high in the mountains. He learned to make and play beautiful instruments when he was a child. In 1958 his family moved to Kaos, a little Hmong village. Dang’s family stayed there while his father went out to find and bring back Dang’s father-in-law and brother-in-law. But a messenger came and told the family that the Communist army had killed Dang’s father. They were very sad, and for months they cried. The people in the village had a party for them. There they played a song on the Hmong violin that was happy and joyful. Dang has remembered the song to this day. All of a sudden, the cloud of darkness over Dang’s family vanished.
In 1967 Dang’s mother married again. Soon after that the Communists started to take over the country, and Dang’s family was forced to move from town to town. In 1968, at the age of 15, Dang joined the army. He was the one from his family chosen to go, because in Hmong tradition it is the eldest son who goes. If the father leaves the family, it is very bad luck. Dang stayed in the army for seven years. In 1975 he returned to the village he had lived in, hoping to find his family, but there was nothing. No people, no houses—just pigs, cows, chickens, sheep and horses the villagers had left behind in their flight from the Communists.
When Dang finally found his family, they traveled together through the jungle. While they were walking through the huge jungle, Dang’s mother and father died of water poisoning. The journey took Dang and nine others one month and 15 days. On foot!
On July 22, 1980, Dang arrived in America. For the first two years he lived with a sponsor in Manitowoc. For a hobby, Dang and his friends played soccer! See—he isn’t much different from other Americans at all!
In the summer of 1982 he moved to Milwaukee. Somebody told him about a job opening, and needing a job he quickly accepted, even though it only paid three dollars per hour. In 1983, Dang realized that he was very lonely. Right around that time he met Lee. Lee told us that whenever she saw Dang he was sad and crying in loneliness. He asked her to marry him, and even though she was only 15 she agreed. It might seem a little strange to think about marrying so young, but in Hmong culture that is the custom. However, Lee tells HER daughters that they must finish high school and college before they can marry, because times have changed, and it is very important to have a good education. Now Lee and Dang speak very good English (as well as Hmong, Laos, French and Thai!) and are living in a house in Milwaukee. So I think that they are adjusting well to American culture.
Dang Yang’s father died when Dang Yang was seven years old. It must of been sad for him, really sad.
When Dang went to America he played songs about his mother and father. That made him sad, so he cried a lot.
Every New Year Lee makes Hmong clothes [for the family]. Dang’s clothes are black with orange designs. Their daughter is the best dresser in her school. Lee says that she wants her daughter to always dress good.
Dang Yang was born in Laos in 1953. The village he lived in was small. Dang’s father died when he was seven. His mother married a second time. Dang’s family moved from town to town for a while until 1968, when Dang was fifteen and was drafted for the army. By the time he got out, his whole village was gone.
Lee married Dang in America when she was 15. The Hmong traditionally marry early. Lee wants her daughters NOT to marry that young. She wants them to go to college, to have an education, and to take care of themselves, and then marry. But if someone special comes along, she won’t outlaw marriage as a possibility.
Lee wants her children to learn how to sew and Dang wants them to learn how to make and play instruments. They tell their children Hmong folktales. Their family sometimes goes to Shamans. Lee got married when she was 15, but she wants her children to finish college.