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Hmong Teen Issues - 2004-08-06

All immigrant groups resettling in the United States must, to some degree, deal with problems of adjustment. But the Hmong – agrarian tribespeople originally from China who have lived for many years in Laos and Thailand -- face some particular challenges. Today on New American Voices a young Hmong woman talks about her generation’s attempts to balance the strongly traditional, family-oriented Hmong culture with life in present-day America.

Choua Her is only nineteen, but already she’s the editor-in-chief of a thriving English-language magazine written for and by Hmong young people, called Hmong Teen. Miss Her says the topics covered in the magazine indicate the variety of stresses that Hmong teenagers have to deal with.

“Some of the issues most recently discussed are basically about communication between parents and teens. We talk about identity crises, a lot of the teenagers don’t really know who they are, they can’t speak enough Hmong to say that they’re really Hmong and they don’t really know enough English or enough about American culture to say that they’re American. We also talk about how divorce and separation here in the United States by a lot of Hmong parents affect the teenagers, and what they go through.”

The overriding issue for young Hmong, as reflected in the articles appearing in Hmong Teen, is what Choua Her calls the generation gap. The parents often have little education and find it difficult to learn English and adjust to the fast-paced American lifestyle. In Laos and Thailand, their entire lives revolved around farming and the family.

“But being raised in the United States, teenagers always have conflict with their parents, because we have so many activities, like after-school, playing sports, or getting into some kind of club. The parents always expect us to be home and to help baby-sit the kids or help make dinner or help clean the house. So there’s conflict between the teens and the parents because of that issue.”

Choua Her notes that Hmong parents try to keep their children close to home not only for practical reasons. They also fear that their kids will be acculturated, falling under the influence of an American culture that prizes individualism and personal achievement over family obligation and tradition. In many cases, however, their attempts backfire.

“Sometimes when the parents try to hold teens back from what they want to do, they tend to rebel and just run away so that they can do what they want to do.”

Choua Her says that she herself didn’t really face any of the generational problems that her peers experience. She came to the United States with her parents and an older sister in 1988, when she was three years old. Her parents were young and not so tradition-bound, she says, and besides -- they were always working when she was growing up, so didn’t have the time to become too involved in her life. For her sister, though, it was a different story.

“I guess I was always the quieter child, where I did a lot of things like my parents wanted me to. But my sister, she came here when she was a little bit older, and she was involved in a lot of gang activity and stuff like that. I didn’t really rebel against my parents, but my sister did. She did everything. She ran away from home, she did not listen to my parents, she didn’t like the lifestyle that my parents were living or the lifestyle that they were raising her in, so she did rebel. But she did eventually grow out of it.”

The sister eventually married a Hmong man, pleasing her parents, and now feels more or less comfortable being a part of the Hmong community in Minnesota. Meanwhile Choua Her, the “good” daughter, says that there are many elements of her parents’ culture and values that she would like to maintain in her own life.

“I want to continue speaking Hmong, our beautiful Hmong language, that’s one thing that I truly, really want to keep for my children and for many generations after me. I want to keep the culture, having the traditional clothes, the traditional costumes. I like the values. We were having a debate, writing about sex in our magazine, and the values the Hmong have, you know, is that there’s never safe sex, there’s always either abstinence or you get married and then you can have sex. So I think those are some of the values that I would like to keep.”

But there are some aspects of traditional Hmong values and lifestyle that Choua Her would just as soon jettison. Above all, she says, she likes the equality of the sexes here in America and the fact that women can speak for themselves and stand up for their rights. In the end, she believes that it is possible to take the best of both cultures, and to be both Hmong and American.

“I think that trying to live your American lifestyle, going to school, having a career and being educated, you can still come home and live the Hmong life where you respect your elders and you eat the traditional food, you celebrate the holidays, you attend the Hmong New Year, and stuff like that. I think it’s very possible to balance the two cultures out.”

About 160,000 Hmong live in the United States, with the largest concentrations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California. An additional 15,000 Hmong refugees are scheduled to be resettled here from Thailand by the end of the year.