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Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora


reviewed by Vincent K. Her - June 15, 2011

coverTitle: Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora
Author(s): Chia Youyee Vang
Publisher: University of Illinois Press, Urbana-Champaign
ISBN: 0252077598, Pages: 192, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com


Who are Hmong Americans? What are their connections to U.S. history? And what are the signs suggesting that they have been integrating into mainstream society? Since the late 1970s, these questions have piqued the interests of many researchers, including within the last decade a small, but emerging group of Hmong Americans scholars.


Trained in the field of American Studies, Chia Youyee Vang is a professor of history of Hmong descent. Drawing on her ongoing research, her book Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora offers a host of insights into the lives of a people displaced by war. One of Vang’s aims is to provide readers a better understanding of what first generation refugees went through to make the U.S. their home. Organized into five chapters, her narrative weaves together a story of transition and change, community rebuilding and identity reformation that should be read against the backdrop of social and historical processes.


To entertain diaspora as a concept fundamental to our understanding of contemporary Hmong experiences, especially how Hmong American identity development continues to be influenced by memories of a homeland, Vang provides extensive review of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia from the 1940s to the 1970s. Hmong contributions to U.S. efforts to slow down the spread of communism in the region would, in 1975, open doors for thousands to come to this country as refugees. Today, first generation Hmong Americans consider their service to the CIA a central part of their American story. Their courage and sacrifice were officially recognized by the U.S. in 1997 in the form of a plaque placed at Arlington National Cemetery. Three years later, their service would again play a crucial role in the passage of the Hmong Veterans’ Naturalization Act of 2000, enabling thousands who spoke little to no English to acquire U.S. citizenship. In 2001, the House passed a resolution to proclaim “July 22” as “National Lao-Hmong Recognition Day” (p. 129). In 2006, the Lao, Hmong and Americans Veterans Memorial was erected in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. According to Vang, all of these were recognitions that came only after years of advocacy work by Hmong and non-Hmong. Taken together, these experiences suggest how memory politics is an important part of the politics of citizenship, inclusion, and belonging. They illustrate, in particular, how U.S. history is being re-articulated to include a Hmong American presence.


Humble were Hmong beginnings in the U.S. Their transition to urban life was marked by isolation, fragmentation, and instability. Early on, community leaders recognized that without help Hmong adaptation to this country would be slow and lengthy. With support from federal, state, and local governments, self-help organizations, called mutual assistance associations, were established in cities with substantial Hmong refugee populations. The goals of these associations were to provide job training, language literacy programs, and other basic services. Essential were these resources as springboards for Hmong Americans to achieve greater economic participation, and hence, self-sufficiency. Additionally, these associations hosted community events and social gatherings to give people opportunities to discuss issues affecting family and community life and to contemplate visions for the future. All of these were small but important steps in the community rebuilding processes.


In the late 1980s to early 1990s, the Hmong American community began to experience a transition in leadership where younger people took on more prominent roles in providing directions for change in their families and communities. Unlike the first wave of leaders, their focus was not to return to Laos, but to build a new life in America. With this shift in outlook, people began to question their status as “perpetual refugees” (p. 9). While some continue to embrace the label as a way to access resources to support community development projects, others have been inspired to take collective action to make their votes count and their voices heard.


In addition to coping with forces from outside of their community, Hmong Americans have had to contend with conflicts arising from within: between older and younger generations; between men and women; and between Christians and traditionalists. All of these tensions have added new possibilities to Hmong self-reinvention. In that process, women also have become leading voices of change. It is clear from Vang’s discussion that the Hmong American community is not homogenous, but informed by a diverse range of outlooks and life experiences. As she explains, “Today, the images of displaced, struggling refugees during the mid-1970s have transformed into a partially blurred image of upwardly mobile new Americans plagued by fragmented and disconnected social, economic, cultural and political representations” (p. 156).


Overall, stories in this book are to be appreciated as a subset of the American immigrant experience. In that vein, readers will quickly recognize that although Hmong arrived in this country under very different circumstances, the path that they took to becoming American is informed by many of the same challenges faced by other immigrant groups, including language barriers, racial intolerance, and bigotry. In their struggle to gain full acceptance as citizens, Hmong Americans have achieved a clearer understanding of their purpose in this multicultural nation. Today, they are reaching across ethnic and racial boundaries to work with others, to claim their place as Americans in society. From their initial experiences of culture shock in the 1970s to organized marches in support of General Vang Pao when he was arrested in 2007 to the crowning of Beauty Queen and Prince Charming at New Year celebrations, Hmong Americans have come a long way in their life journeys. “If one looks back to where the Hmong were in 1975 when the first refugees arrived in the United States and compares this with the vibrant community that exists today,” Vang reminisces, “one finds that notwithstanding continuing poverty and discrimination, the American Hmong community has made great strides” (p. 160).


Although written for an academic audience, this book contains a wealth of information that anyone can use to develop a better understanding of the lives of Hmong Americans. With its extensive coverage of history and refugee resettlement experiences, it is a nice complement to recent publications in Hmong American studies, including the work of Paul Hillmer (2010) and Keith Quincy (1995). As a contrast to earlier writings, Vang’s account is a deviation from the norm in that it is a good example of how indigenous scholarship can help to deepen our understanding of the lives of an ethnic community. By incorporating relevant literature whenever it is appropriate, Vang has provided sufficient context for readers to appreciate her writing as a scholarly contribution to Asian American and Hmong American studies. Her perspectives add to ongoing efforts to explore in depth the quintessential journey that transforms all immigrants into Americans.


References


Hillmer, P. (2010). A People’s History of the Hmong. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press.


Quincy, K. (1995). Hmong: History of a People (2nd ed). Cheney, WA: Eastern Washington University Press.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 15, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16447, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:38:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Vincent Her
    University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
    E-mail Author
    VINCENT K. HER is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. His teaching includes courses on Hmong American history and culture; Ethnic and Racial Minorities; Peoples and Cultures of Southeast Asia; Images and Visual Culture; and Rites, Rituals and Ceremonies. He was born in Laos but has grown up in the Midwest. Over the past decade, he has done extensive research on Hmong funeral practices and has come to recognize the ongoing influence of tradition on the development of Hmong American cultural identities. He lives in Southeastern Wisconsin with his wife and three daughters.
 
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