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Zua Vang-Kong


readingWorth Preserving

As I lifted my voice in worship, I couldn’t help but feel light and happy. “Christ alone, cornerstone, weak made strong, in the Savior’s name, through the storm He is Lord….” The words were so powerful and beautiful, I’d forgotten all my troubles. It took me only a few seconds to realize why I felt so uplifted. The words were in English! I really didn’t have to think about the meaning of the words to understand them.  The words came easily.

In the past ten years, the Hmong churches have changed. As the millennials grew, their desire for English speaking services increased. Many started to attend other churches, leaving their home church and aging parents behind. This, too, has been an issue at our church, and as a solution, we started an English speaking service a few years ago. However, due to internal changes, that session was eliminated, and, as a result, a huge number of our younger members left. However, about a year ago, that session restarted with another young group of people interested in having an English speaking session. Leaders rose up and started taking turns leading their own service in the old sanctuary. The group got larger, and the Board of Elders at our church had no choice but to recognize this. So on Sunday, July 19th, 2015, our church welcomed the newest addition to our church family, a Hmong pastor for our English speaking population. It was exciting!

However, as I sat there listening to the senior pastor talk, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss. What are we really doing? This is a Hmong church. Shouldn’t we be speaking Hmong? And if we’re not, shouldn’t we be learning?

We in the field of education appreciate and respect the many diverse cultures of our students. We encourage our students to speak in their native language, to be proud of their experiences, and embrace their authentic selves.  We build immersion programs and put up amazing cultural displays, and have students perform beautiful cultural shows in our schools. But do all of these really matter at the end of the day?

The fact is that we will continue to lose our beautiful culture and language if we don’t put more effort in teaching our children and the younger generation about it, and in their native tongue. Only a small number of our Hmong population attend Hmong immersion schools. These students are the ones to be exposed to the language on a daily basis and learn about the culture. But for the majority of our children, they are living in households where the grandparents may speak in Hmong to them, but their parents are speaking primarily English.

My household is a great example of this. My husband does a wonderful job of speaking Hmong to our children, as well as my parents and mother-in-law, but I, on the other hand, am usually speaking English to them. Because of this, our children are very comfortable speaking English, understand most Hmong spoken to them, but have a hard time articulating in Hmong. The two older daughters are very eager to learn Hmong, and I have been consciously making an effort to speak more to them in Hmong. 

In some households, the grandparents not only speak Hmong but can also read and write Hmong. Many others don’t. They may be like my parents who speak mostly Hmong and expect us to learn Hmong by talking to us, but weren’t literate enough to teach us how to read or write. My parents represent a huge number of Hmong immigrants who came here with no formal education because they were farmers. They lived in huts and worked hard every day to live off the land in Laos. So growing up, Hmong was for home and English was for school. And then it just became Hmonglish, where Hmong and English become intertwined.

One of the saddest things upon reflecting now is how my parents never took the time to tell us stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. As a child, I only got the chance to hear these stories as my parents talked about them with visiting adults. I can’t even recall a lot of them as they were so long ago, but many were related to ghosts and spirits as Hmong people are very animistic and believe in close family members coming back for revenge or other things. My mom once told me that they believed that the reason my grandma died and left my mom motherless at a very young age was because her old boyfriend came and took her. They were so in love that they vowed to follow each other into the afterlife by licking each other’s blood. So when he died, he came back as promised and took her.

Maybe this is why my parents chose not to tell us these stories as they are scary and go against our Christian beliefs. I remember, one night, as my sister and I were driving home with my girls, the moon was so big and low, almost orange in color. My girls were talking and pointing at it very excitedly. My sister started to tell them an old superstition but I immediately stopped her. I didn’t want my children’s natural curiosity of the moon to be forever scarred by something that is not true. The saying goes that if you should point to the moon, it will slice your ears while you slept. Since hearing it as a little girl, I never dared point at the moon even though I believe the saying isn’t true. I’m only suspecting that a lot of other Hmong people may have similar experiences because I don’t ever hear my husband or Hmong friends talking about stories they heard growing up either. So with no real artifacts to pass down to our own children, it makes it hard for our children learn about how awesome their culture is.  

My fear for our next generation is that there will not even be Hmonglish or memories of stories they might hear by chance. Without us actively working to preserve our culture, in which language plays an important part, our children will not really understand their cultural heritage. My daughter once came home and told me her friends asked her if she was Chinese. She told them she was Hmong. They asked her what is Hmong. She told them she didn’t know. 

The Hmong have lived in the United States for about 40 years. It is inevitable that like so many other cultures before us, we will lose our language and much of our cultural identity. The name is going to be an empty shell, a way for us to say we belong to this group, but beyond the name we can easily be mistaken for another Asian group. So as I sat there listening to the pastor talk and welcomed the new English speaking pastor, I could not help feel a little sense of urgency. This is now the time for my generation to start asking questions and learning from our elders, so that we can preserve what little we have left of our culture. We need to learn more about our traditional background and keep speaking our language as much as possible so we can pass them down to our children. We can live in the present, balance what our host country is so graciously willing to share with us, without forgetting that we are a people without a country, so we must put more effort to save our cultural identity—being Hmong.