For me as a Hmong American born child, life in this country was tough growing up. I had little interaction with the Hmong community and culture, so because of this, I lost the ability to speak the language fluently. I was surrounded by Caucasian and Hispanic people, so on a full-time basis, I spoke only English. I learned in English, I wrote in English, and I read in English. It was inevitable that one day I’d lose my ties to my Hmong heritage. It became a struggle to find my identity within these two different cultures.
I would ask myself, “Why couldn’t I be a white kid? Why did I have to be born Hmong?” I just wanted to fit in with the rest of the kids. I was tired of being made fun of.
“Hey Steve,” my friend would ask me. “Did you know your people killed many Americans back then?” I would go ahead and laugh with his joke, while deep inside, it truly hurt me. I would smile and reply, “I’m not Vietnamese, I’m American.” I tried my best back then to act as white as I could, so that the other kids would accept me. All I wanted was to be treated like a human being, and to stop being stereotyped as a “Gook.”
Kids are cruel, but they didn’t know any better. Now that I’m 20 years old and finally reconnecting with a culture that I pushed aside all those years ago, I’ve come to understand many things.
James Emery, an anthropologist and journalist who has studied the Hmong people, says that “With the erosion of traditional certainties and wisdom comes a more serious crisis of identity.” Dr. Yang Dao, the first Hmong person in the world to ever receive a doctoral degree, says that “Hmong culture is the soul of the Hmong people,” says Yang Dao. “If the young people lose their culture, the Hmong soul will die.”
Everything was so black-and-white when I was younger, I was either Hmong or American, and there was no gray area. I will always be an American. I was taught American values and beliefs, and I went to American schools, but no matter what happens I will always be Hmong. My goal in the future is to help Hmong Americans, learn the importance of understanding and embracing their cultural heritage.
If the young people of our generation lose their culture and don’t know who they are, they will never learn to respect themselves or other people. To learn and teach the Hmong community about the importance of preserving our cultural traditions and history is my goal, but it’s also important that we learn to embrace the Western culture as a community as well, because despite what anyone says, this country is our home. May we all find the joy and happiness of growing up in the best of both worlds.