As a child, I had an overwhelming curiosity about the (H)mong*. For the life of me, I could not figure out why of all the places in the world, they picked Minnesota. Frankly, I was a bit dumbfounded by this choice. Nothing against Minnesota. I still am a Minnesota girl at heart, but growing up, this girl was keenly aware that there was a great big world that needed to be checked out, and was counting the days until she began that exploration. Paris, I’d have understood, Los Angeles – ditto, heck even Sacramento sounded exotic to me as I’d never been there. All I knew was it was in California and I imagined all Californians had wonderful tans, and lived on the beach. I now know better, having experienced the fickle San Francisco climate. Here I was excited to explore what lay beyond Minnesota’s borders, and simultaneously these people were just as anxious to get into Minnesota.
Growing up, I participated in 4-H, which allowed me to explore many of my interests: photography, art, gardening, and cooking, and started me on a rewarding path of volunteerism. A vital component of 4-H involves community service. Each year, every club must develop a community service project. One year, we decided to adopt a (H)mong family, but then struggled to determine what that adoption meant, as we had no idea what activities would make a good project. Communication between us and our adopted family was a serious obstacle.
For our project, we settled on growing a garden, an idea that gained enthusiastic acceptance as we determined this activity might just succeed despite our limited verbal communication ability. The ideas was to share with them some of the vegetables that grew in Minnesota, and perhaps we could find some seeds of vegetables that were favorites of theirs so they could reciprocate and perhaps show us some us something new – not just the produce but possibly some cooking and preservation techniques as well. I could have told you, but apparently it must be scientifically proven that genuine smiles universally mean the same thing regardless of culture. We all smile when we are happy. I can say there was universal happiness when we saw the first buds, the fruits of our labor – no translation was needed – everyone’s face glowed. To culminate a successful project, and with a garden full of produce, we produced an incredible pot luck. I remember some tasty (H)mong dishes only further piqued my interest in traveling as they tasted nothing like I’d encountered before started a craving that needed to be addressed. Looking back, I struggle to call it volunteering as I think we gained as much from the experience as our (H)mong family. The memories of the share goals and and rewards has stuck with me.
What brought on this renewed interest in (H)mong food and memories to the fore was the release of a (H)mong cookbook, the first one written in America. The cookbook reminded me I had some unfinished business to attend to – I had some dishes to make and sample that I had been dreaming about for years. The book, Cooking From the Heart – The Hmong Kitchen in America by Sami Scripter and Seng Yang is a treasure of recipe and insights about (H)mong life in the US. I’ve enjoyed leafing through the pages and having my questions answered after all this time, and I now realize I may not have been the only one. Until the 1950s the Hmong had no written language so capturing recipes that had been previously handed down only by watching mothers and other relatives was not possible, until now.
So why Minnesota?
I confess that none of the (H)mongs that I met could not answer that question, their rudimentary English was limited to “please” and “thanks you” and my Hmong was non existent. Our communictions were more a pantomime, which worked fine for the basics like “do we need to water” or “weed the garden”? but lacked something for meaningful conversation. As I wrote this post, I discovered this article of why people migrate, which offered some interesting insights.
A Bit About the (H)mong
The (H)mong are of the Miao ethnicity in southern China, and have been around for thousands of years. Around the 18th century, the (H)mong gradually migration due to political unrest and a desire for arable land. They settled in Laos and some of the surrounding countries and established themselves as farmers. About this time the word “Hmong” came into use which means “freeman”. In Laos, around 1975, as a result of many (H)mong having supported the US and fought against the communist-nationalist Pathet Lao in Laos, they were singled out for retribution when the Pathet Lao took over the government. Tens of thousands fled to Thailand seeking political asylum, and from there many of those refugees continued migration to the United States, Australia, France, French Guiana, and Canada. Today they continue to struggle with immigration, and their situation is further complicated by the fact, that under the Patriot Act and Real ID Act because the (H)mong helped American, they are now classified as terrorists further complicating their ability to settle.
The (H)mong people have their own subgroups, with “White Hmong” (Hmong Der) and “Green” (Mong Leng) being the largest groups. The word “Hmong” often refers to both groups, but because the name really only applies to one subgroup, and does not mention the Mong, some people believe it marginalizes this group. Both speak their own dialects of the (H)mong language with some differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. One solution offered to address this perceived oversight, is what I’ve used here and that is the term “(H)mong”. Some traditional (H)mong gatherings include:
Weddings (Tshob) – typically last several days once the wedding contract is negotiated between the clans. A unique feature of the (H)mong wedding is that sometimes the bride and groom elope ahead of time and come back to make arrangements for the wedding.
“Calling in the Soul” of a New Baby (Hu Plig) – Three days after the birth of a child an elder calls the soul to enter the body. This rite can be compared to a Christening since the child is bestowed his or her name at this time. A cow or pig is typically slaughtered and fed to the guests.
Recognition of Achievements – an big event such as a graduation is celebrated with food, drink and fellowship.
Bestowing an Adult Name on a Man After He Has His First Son (Npe Laus) – [I love this recognition of the responsibility of having a child] A man gets a “mature” name after becoming a father, that is bestowed upon him by his in-laws.
Funerals (Kev Ploh Tuag) – A funeral typically lasts at least three days and involved the extended family and friends. The funeral rites are intended to allow the deceased soul to travel back to his birthplace before continuing on to the otherworld, and for the non-Christian (H)mongs, to be reincarnated as a member of the same clan.
Welcoming Visitors (Tuaj Los) – Food and welcome are extended to guests.
Healing Rituals (Ua Need Ua Yaig) – Traditional (H)mongs believe that physical and mental illness is the result of the loss of soul. Healing rituals are intended to return the soul to the body. These sacrifices are usually a family affair, where a pig, cow or farm animal is sacrificed in part to thank the shaman (txiv neeb), but also to feed the family which has gathered to lend support.
Honoring and Protecting the Family Spirit (Ua Neeb Kab Plig) – A kind of cleaning ritual to honor the family ancestors, rid the house of bad spirits and bring prosperity in the future. Family is very important for this event so the extended family collects and the day culminates with a feast.
New Year (Xyoo Tshiab) – A large public gathering, complete with music, food, cultural displaces, costumes.
Tying Strings on Wrists to Protect Loved Ones (Khi Tes) – Traditional food is provided to family and friends as they gather to ties strings to loved ones about to have surgery or embark on a journey. A red string guards the soul and protects against health concerns and a white string binds the soul to the body and keeps the person safe as they travel. White string also signifies good wishes. (Source: Cooking from the Heart]
When Reality Does Not Align with Dreams in the Promised Land
The Hmong like many people abruptly transplanted to a new and foreign country had trouble assimilating, some of the problems, to varying degrees their troubles are shared by other immigrants and citizens. Some of the problems include traditions related to:
Clans and Strong Family Ties
Family is vital in (H)mong culture, and extensive family is the norm, with large networks of cousins and other relatives working and residing together. Eighteen clans are recognized with lineage carried through the male bloodlines. Each clan has a unique surname; there is the Vang clan, the Lee clan, the Moua clan, etc. The clans address the needs of their members and form a network that brings many families together.
Random question, did you know the average age to marry around the world is 17? Like many developing countries with shorter lifespans, the average age to marry is earlier that advanced nations, in (H)mong culture it is even earlier, where girls are marriage about 13 to 14 and they often marry older men with a proven means of support. Given the legal age of marriage is around 16 years or later, a cultural conflict is created for (H)mong living in the United States. While family ties are quite strong in (H)mong culture, there are some aspects to family life that cause conflict and even serious legal problems for some (H)mong people in the United States. Further, (H)mong marriage is mainly performed under (H)mong law and so is not legally sanctioned so they can have a hard time asserting their rights. Some of the problems include:
- Legal issues with marriage at such a young age
- Marriage not recognized outside of (H)mong society
- Girls miss career opportunities by marrying so young
- Other cultures frown upon marriage arrangements and marginalize (H)mong
Not all marriages take place this early and as the (H)mong assimilate into American culture they are learning the advantages of waiting.
Prior to coming to the US, the (H)mong understood that the wilderness usually belonged to everyone. The idea that open land might be private property is a foreign concept. On the other hand, private property and personal freedom are essential to (H)mong culture, which was a reason why they opposed the Communist in Laos.
Great reads on the Hmong culture:
Hmong Oral History Project at Concordia University
Gary Yia Lee – Hmong Anthropologist
Taking Root – Hmong bring centuries old agrarian wisdom to California’s Central Valley from Andrea Nguyen in Saveur
Hmong Food and Recipes
(H)mong for “Let’s Eat” is peb noj mov – literally “let’s eat the rice” in case you cannot guess what is the most important staple of their meal. (H)mong cooking is typically very lean and healthy. Most of the meat and vegetables are usually boiled and served in the cooking liquid. Few items are fried because the oil to fry the food came from rendering fat from the farm animals and that was both costly and rare. Beef was not common, and so neither was dairy. Food was livened up with the addition of herbs such as mint, basil, cilantro and lemon grass. They also made a version of fish sauce to spice up the flavor.
Coconut Lemon Chicken Soup – Nqaij Qaib Hau Xyaw Kua Mav Phaub Quab
This recipe adapted from Cooking From the Heart – The Hmong Kitchen in America Serves 4 Ingredients ½ boneless, skinless chicken breast 2 c cubed chayote squash 1 lemon 2½ c chicken broth 1″ fresh ginger root, sliced 3T fish sauce 3T minced lemongrass (just the tender parts, please) 1 c coconut milk Fresh cilantro sprigs, for garnish Directions Cut the chicken and squash into 1/2″ cubes and set aside. Cut the lemon in half, and take one half and divide into eight wedges. Share thin strips of the lemon peel from the other half and cut them into matchstick size slices for garnish. In a 3-quart sauce pan heat the chicken broth, lemon wedges, ginger, and fish sauce. Turn the temperature to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the soup and return it to the pan. Discard the solids. Return the mixture to a simmer and add the squash and lemongrass. Cook for 10 minutes until the squash is soft but not mushy. Add the chicken and coconut milk, cook for about 3 more minutes until the chicken is cooked. Serve with cilantro and lemon peel as garnish. peb noj mov – Let’s Eat! Other recipes from the book:
* For the sake of simplicity, as developed by ethnologist Jacques Lemoine, I used the term (H)mong to refer to both the Hmong and Mong. ______________________________________________________________________________________
I would never trade my years in 4-H for a million bucks. I learned to be more self reliant learning new skills (the fundamentals of landscape architecture), tackled new challenges (sewing without drawing blood), learned about healthy competition (taking the blue ribbon for my jam), and tried things that I never would have done otherwise (acting in a play, studying rocketry). Now they even have programs on clean tech and other scientific areas for kids to explore. Many people associate 4-H with that photograph of the prize winning pig or calf shown with pride at the county fair, but stopping there, sells this wonderful organization short. Durning much of my formative years, this club made a lasting, positive impact on me that I wish others could experience. Here’s a simplistic look at this organization and what it stands for [source: 4-H website]: The 4-H emblem is a four-leaf clover with an “H” in every leaf.
The letters stand for HEAD, HEART, HANDS, and HEALTH; the foundation of all 4-H programs. Through 4-H programs youth develop:
HEAD – clearer thinking and decision making, knowledge useful through life;
HEART – greater loyalty, strong personal values, positive self-concept, concern for others;
HANDS – larger service, workforce preparedness, useful skills, science and technology literacy;
HEALTH – better living, healthy lifestyles.