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The Hmong Among Us - 2003-05-23

English Feature #7-73481 Broadcast May 19, 2003

Among the various ethnic groups that have immigrated to the United States, the Hmong – with their unique culture and background – face some particular challenges in trying to adapt to life in a new country. Today on New American Voices, Bo Thao, the executive director of a non-profit organization that provides social services to Hmong immigrants, talks about her own experiences, and about the people her organization is trying to serve.

The first Hmong came to the United States from Laos about 25 years ago. Recruited to help the United States as fighters and scouts during the war in Southeast Asia, these mountain farmers were singled out for reprisal by the communists after American troops left the region in 1975. Eventually many were brought to the United States as refugees. Now there are about 300,000 of them here, concentrated largely in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina. In addition to the difficulties all immigrants experience in moving to a new land, the Hmong face some particular challenges in fast-paced, urban America.

“I think the Hmong are different in that it’s a very agrarian group. They were all farmers before they came, and the current language that is used now was not developed until the 1950s – the written form, I mean, and so we have a large portion of our community who are also illiterate in the Hmong language, because it’s always been an oral language, so that’s created some difficulty in how they learn English here. And also many of our parents had never gone to school, so being in America was the first time that all of us had the opportunity to go to school. These kinds of challenges have been at times very difficult for the community to find solutions for.”

Bo Thao speaks from experience. She came to this country as a six-year-old with her parents and four siblings after fleeing Laos and spending some time in a refugee camp in Thailand. She remembers arriving in Chicago in December of 1979.

“Imagine coming from this very tropical weather to December in Chicago, with all its snow, and it being the windy city. It was very cold when we came, so that was the first major shock, just how different that climate and environment was. And snow. Snow everywhere, we didn’t understand that. We’d never been in cars before, so being driven from the airport… Everyone was in awe!”

Bo Thao’s father, unable to use his farming skills, found work in a factory making plastic cups, and after a few months her mother got a job cleaning one of Chicago’s mansions. The children were sent to school, and as soon as they learned some English they became translators for their parents in negotiating all the small transactions of everyday life in a new country. Ms Thao says that perhaps the hardest for the Hmong to adjust to was the change in traditional family relationships.

“For Hmong women, we are like any male-dominated culture, in that traditionally men were the head of households, they were in the leadership positions. But to make it in this country, most families have to have both parents working, and that’s changed the dynamics of Hmong families, in that women are now working outside the home, they’re not just the caretakers. And also Hmong girls are growing up in a different environment, they’re learning that they can pursue their education and be whatever they want to be, and that’s been difficult in some situations for families to accept.”

Bo Thao herself was the first girl in her family to complete high school, and the first person in her family to graduate from college. She studied family social science at the University of Minnesota. She says she was fortunate in that her parents, particularly her mother, supported her desire for a higher education, without quite understanding what it entailed.

“I think they were proud, but they never really understood what we did with our degrees or why we studied certain areas. Even to this day I think sometimes it’s hard for them to understand what kind of work I’m doing. Now you kind of have to say, ‘Well, I do policy work’, and they’re like, ‘What is that, what does that mean, why do you have meetings’, you know, and those kinds of things.”

Although as a teen-ager in high school she had been frustrated with her parents’ limitations, Bo Thao says that in college, as she sought to find out more about her Hmong roots, she came to appreciate them and the role they played in her life.

“In college I started to say, well, what does being Hmong mean? In history you study and you read about lots of countries, but nothing is ever mentioned about the Hmong. So I knew that the only people who could teach me were my parents, and that’s when I really came back around and appreciated that my parents had all this great knowledge that I had never tapped into. I think that when I was growing up I thought that I could get everything that I needed to be successful from books and from being exposed to my American friends and, you know, people who were more educated. But I think what I learned is that that’s not true. Yes, I needed to go to school and learn, but I also need to watch my mother and see how she does things. She has great communication skills, and she’s this great leader within our family. So it’s like education gives you the framework, but the experience that she had has really shaped who I’ve become.”

As executive director of the Hmong National Development, Bo Thao lobbies on behalf of issues important to the Hmong community, and oversees the work of some 80 affiliates throughout the United States that provide educational, health and counseling services and English language and citizenship classes to help the Hmong in their new life in America.