The cold and snowy metropolis of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota couldn’t be further from the mountainous rainforests of northern Laos. But the so-called Twin Cities are home to the largest Hmong population in the United States. The Hmong Cultural Center plays an important role in that community.
Visit the Center in the evening, and you are likely to encounter a group of teenaged boys seated in a circle, each holding a flute-like instrument made of 6 long bamboo pipes attached to a wooden air chamber. Each boy takes a turn, trying to imitate the notes created by instructor Galong Thor, when he blows into the mouthpiece.
Since it first opened its doors in 1992, The Hmong Cultural Center has taught students like Johnny, 14, how to play the khaen, or qeej as it is sometimes spelled. ”The reason I wanted to learn it or play it is it is a Hmong tradition and we have to keep it alive,” the student says. The instrument plays an important role in traditional Hmong funerals.
The Hmong farmed in the hills of northern Laos for more than 200 years, until they were driven out by the Communist government because of their support for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. The loss of their homeland and the years spent in refugee camps in Thailand have threatened the traditional Hmong way of life. Preserving that tradition is just one role of the Hmong Cultural Center.
Helping the Hmong adapt to life in the United States is another. The first step is often learning English. Mark Pfeifer, the only non-Hmong employee at the center, teaches the English as a second language, or ESL, course.
”We have a lot of the new refugees who have been coming from Thailand over the last 6 months or so in ESL classes here,” he says. “We have more than 100 of them. We have citizenship classes as well that are taught in Hmong and English to help Hmong adults pass the U.S. citizenship test.”
The center also serves as a bridge between the Hmong community and the population at large through its presentations about Hmong culture and history.
As director of the Resource Center, Mark Pfeifer has given many of these presentations to schools, businesses and community organizations. On a recent Wednesday morning, he spoke with about a dozen employees of the local YMCA, which offers childcare, health and fitness class, and special after-school programs for teens.
Emily Renner, executive director of the facility, said she brought her staff to the center so they could “better serve [the Hmong] community. We have at our YMCA a few Hmong families, and we would like to get more involved in our programs.”
With more than 40,000 Hmong living in the Twin Cities alone, most Minnesotans are at least aware of the Hmong community. But many Americans had never heard of them before last November, when a Hmong who was hunting deer in the neighboring state of Wisconsin shot and killed six other hunters. The tragedy made front-page headlines across the United States, and, Mark Pfeifer says, had repercussions in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
”Here at the center we got quite a few very negative e-mails, even hate e-mails,” he says. “When something like that happens there is a backlash, unfortunately of a small segment of society. A fear that we have is that an incident like that is a fruitful opportunity for recruitment by hate groups. And they were putting out fliers in St. Paul and Wisconsin, anti-Hmong fliers, unfortunately.”
Even before the shooting in Wisconsin, Mark Pfeifer says there was a need in St. Paul and Minneapolis for educational presentations about Hmong culture and history -- not only to alleviate occasional tensions, but also to boost what he calls the “cultural competency” of community workers.
”You know, schoolteachers, healthcare workers, criminal justice workers, any professional who would have interaction with the Hmong community in Minnesota," he explains. "The Hmong community is so large here, especially in the Twin Cities, it’s kind of hard to avoid. So there is a real need for cultural information. You might think with the Hmong having been in Minnesota since 1976 that a lot of that training would be widely available and that information would be out there, but it really isn’t.
That’s why employers, schools and groups like the YMCA call the Hmong Cultural Center to provide it. Now the center has another tool to help promote cross-cultural understanding in Minnesota and beyond. In January, they launched a new, multimedia website: learnabouthmong.org.