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Portland News

Preserving presence The Hmong try to maintain their culture through the younger generation



This is how the melting pot looks when it's being stirred: Kimberly Cha, a Hmong teenager in denim shorts. She is 15. Her English is accent-free, though she speaks only Hmong with her parents and three younger siblings.

On a warm summer night, Kimberly is in the basement of the Portland Baha'i Center, teaching traditional Hmong stitchery to younger girls. She knows the Hmong word for what she's doing: paj ntaub. But she can't remember how to spell it.

In another room, her mother, Tzer Vue, 32, is trying to organize a cluster of Hmong students to learn basket weaving. Instead of traditional bamboo, the children use colorful strips of plastic.

Their names are Richie, Ken, Mary and Sarah. Their names are also Tou, Xiong and Neng. They read Dr. Seuss ("The Cat in the Hat") and study TriMet bus schedules.

They are learning to be American and remembering what it means to be Hmong.

"They know they must carry it on," Vue said.

Vue and her daughter are on the crest of the change that eventually comes to every immigrant group in America. For the Hmong, who had farmed the highlands of Laos and had no written language, the change has been more like an earthquake that tumbled them out of their fields and into an urban world for which many were unprepared.

Almost three-quarters of them didn't have a high school education, said Blong Xiong, an assistant professor of social science at the University of Minnesota.

"You had a mostly illiterate population," Xiong said. "That's made it a very difficult process for the Hmong to integrate into American society."

Despite that, he said, the Hmong apparently have integrated more quickly than any other Southeast Asian immigrant group, although no one has done a national study of the group.

Originally from China, the Hmong were often in conflict with the Chinese and eventually moved to other countries, including Laos. They were known as warriors, and some served with the Royal Laotian Army during World War II. Later they were recruited by the United States to fight during the Vietnam War.

After the U.S. troops left Southeast Asia in the 1970s, many Hmong fled to Thailand, where they were crowded into refugee camps. Eventually, some were resettled in the United States and other countries.

"Most Hmong came here without any knowledge of life in the United States," said Kou Yang, associate professor of Asian American studies at California State University at Stanislaus. "The culture gap between the two is so huge. The Hmong became totally disoriented in the first two years."

The language and culture barriers forced them to stick together after they started arriving in the mid-1970s, said Yang, who came to the United States in 1976 and has written extensively about the Hmong experience.

In the past five years, however, the Hmong have become more self-sufficient, he said. They've started to marry non-Hmong. They are elected officials, school principals and professors. They're buying houses.

Xiong estimated that about 30 percent have converted to Christianity. And, he noted, the second generation is having a distinctly American problem: juvenile delinquency.

Estimates vary on the number of Hmong in the United States. Based on the 2002 Census, the Census Bureau estimates that 132,500 Hmong live in the country, including about 1,400 in Oregon and slightly more than 400 in Portland.

Hmong National Development, a Washington, D.C., group that promotes Hmong self-sufficiency, estimates that between 170,000 and 283,000 Hmong live in the United States, including between 2,000 and 3,000 in Oregon.

Their small numbers make it more likely that Hmong will marry outside their culture, Yang said.

Several factors have helped them maintain that culture. One is their clan structure, still strong more than a quarter-century after the first Hmong arrived.

Xiong said the clan's role is to preserve conventional morals, which works against integration into the larger society. Cultural touchstones such as the Hmong New Year also help preserve traditions.

Although the Hmong had no written language, their culture is rich with tradition and shared values. Vue, who is on her own journey to becoming an American, wants her children to remember that.

"I want to keep as much tradition as possible," she said.

She and her husband and their four children speak only Hmong at home. So while Kimberly, her oldest daughter, speaks flawless English, Vue's 3-year-old son speaks no English at all and probably won't until he goes to school.

Vue's parents died in the Vietnam War, and she came to the United States when she was 13. She learned English more quickly than her older siblings and attended Portland Community College for two years. Now she's working on a social work degree.

The part of her that cherishes Hmong tradition brings her to the Baha'i Center on Wednesday nights. It inspires her to teach her daughters intricate Hmong stitchery and to show a group of squirming children how to weave baskets.

The program, called the Roses After School Mentoring Project, was started by a handful of people who originally wanted to send help to war-torn Liberia in 2000. Frustrated at trying to make a credible connection there, they turned to the needs in their North Portland neighborhood.

"We realized the key was having something right here in our back yard that we would learn by," said Loie Mead, a retired schoolteacher who coordinates the Roses program.

The Hmong were looking for tutors for their children, and half a dozen boys were already meeting in the Baha'i Center basement to learn the qeej, a bamboo flute.

So for six weeks in the summer of 2001, Mead and others in her small group brought in storybooks and art material for the boys to use after the music lessons.

It was a small beginning. Since then, the program has grown to serve 21 students whose ages range from 7 to 14. The Roses program has three components, Mead said: academic achievement, Hmong culture and character development.

Students spend the first hour reading with a tutor. Their books might be about Hmong history; they might be Dr. Seuss or Winnie-the-Pooh -- or "Bears on Wheels," "Junior Woodchuck Jamboree," "The Runaway Kite" or "Maybe You Should Fly a Jet."

Or, like 7-year-old Xiong Vang, they might try writing their own book. His is about thunder and lightning. ("Thunder is sometimes scary.")

Nearby, 10-year-old John Vang has finished reading and pulls out a word game book he bought at Kmart. He loves games, he said, and his tutor, Portland State University student Jessie Lucky, helps him negotiate a crossword puzzle.

During a break for snacks, Mead asks the children to name the two most important virtues. They're prepared for the question.

"Respect and love?" ventures one child.

"Moderation? Responsibility?" guesses another.

"What about courtesy?" Mead asks, and she launches into a lesson on being polite.

These children have already learned the lesson. They listen quietly.

During the school year, the Roses program uses volunteer mentors from the community for each child. For the summer program, which runs through Aug. 14, students from a PSU class work with the children.

For PSU student Nina Lee, who came to the United States from Taiwan eight years ago, being a tutor is a good fit.

"I know how important education is, especially for second-generation immigrants," said Lee, 38, who was a magazine editor in Taiwan. Lee was surprised to find that she speaks better English than the 7-year-old she tutors.

"I thought his English would be better than mine because he grew up here," she said. But his parents speak Hmong at home, and like many other Hmong children in the country, he's learning his second language.

The meshing of cultures is obvious everywhere in the Baha'i Center basement.

Ten-year-old Mary Vang wears a bright orange T-shirt with the word "Naughty" in bold letters. Her 9-year-old brother, Gary, has his arm in a cast from a roller-skating accident.

Soon they will be American teenagers. For now, however, they turn eagerly to the basket weaving and the sewing.

Sheri Venema:

©Copyright 2003, The Oregonian (Portlan, OR, USA)

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