Photo Attribution: By Brian Snelson from Hockley, Essex, England (Flower Hmong women) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In the month of July, I continued my Armchair Geographer fun and decided to learn more about Hmong
culture. I chose the Hmong people for the same reason I chose Somali culture last month: there is a significant immigrant population in Wisconsin
and learning about these cultures before and during my stay in Wisconsin would make learning about them more practical and enrich my visit. Admittedly, my time in Wisconsin flew by and although I had the best of intentions on reading two books that focus on Hmong culture and making some of my own Hmong food, kayaking and family reunions seemed to take up more of my time than my self-directed studies. Between that and continued travel, it took me a little longer than I’d expected to gather some of my resources and the information that I’d learned throughout the month. Still, I wanted to share what I learned.
Save Face Facts
So that we don’t feel super silly in conversations with real geographers or Hmong people themselves, we’re covering a few of the basics that we really ought to remember.
Save Fact Fact #1: How to Pronounce it.
First things first. If this is one of the first times you see it written, you might be curious about how to pronounce the word Hmong. The “h” is silent. This young lady explains her frustration with people insisting on the wrong pronunciation.
Alright, now that we can pronounce it and won’t forget it, let’s learn a bit more.
Save Face Fact #2: Hmong is a people group, an ethnicity, but not a country.
The Hmong are a people without borders. The Hmong people are spread throughout several Asian countries, as well as the United States and France. Throughout their history, they’ve been a minority population and do not have one country.
Save Face Fact #3: Here’s where you’ll find Hmong people.
Originally, the Hmong were thought to be found in China. Throughout history, they’ve been forced to migrate to different countries. 95% percent of Hmong people are currently located in Asia, spread between Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, China, and Vietnam.
In the second half of the 20th Century, some Hmong started leaving Asia, and many are now found in the United States. Hmong immigrants tended to settle in California (about half of them here), Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
Save Face Fact #4: Hmong people speak the Hmong language.
In the world today, there are over 4 million native Hmong speakers. There are several different dialects, but most Hmong Americans will speak either the green or the white dialect. The dialects are named this way because of the colors worn by the women who speak the different dialects.
The language is written with the same latin alphabet as English, but there are actual several writing systems for the language. The most popular were developed in the 1950s. It’s also a tonal language, meaning your tone isn’t used just to change meaning, but actually changes the entire word.
To hear a bit of the language, check out the Hmong 101 language video here:
Save Face Fact #5: The Role of the Hmong in the Vietnam War
After the Vietnam War, the United States began to see a wave of Hmong refugees. There’s a reason for that. During the Vietnam War, many Hmong sided with the CIA and worked with US against Pathet Lao. After the US withdrew, many Hmong faced threats of genocide, and many had to flee to refugee camps in Thailand and look for new homes to avoid persecution. The Hmong who fought against Pathet Lao are often referred to as the “Secret Army.” This is an extremely important part of recent Hmong history, and helps to explain why we see more Hmong in North America.
Dinner Party Conversation Points
You probably aren’t going to go straight to talk of the Vietnam War if you meet a Hmong person. In most situations, that’s probably culturally insensitive. In fact, you probably want to have a normal conversation with a Hmong person, as you would anyone else. But still, if the subject of Hmong culture comes up, you want a few, generally uncontroversial, topics to pull out at dinner parties, the following subjects would make a base for conversation starters and questions.
The Hmong have strong farming roots, stemming from their farming practices in Asia. Their society was heavily based on farming, hunting, and gathering. When this is such an important part of one’s lifestyle, it’s no surprise that those who travel halfway across the world might still be interested in farming. The Internet is absolutely full of interesting stories about Hmong immigrants adapting their farming practices to their new homes: in Alaska, in North Carolina, in California, and in Minnesota. You can also learn more about Hmong farming at the Hmong American Farmers Association website.
Farming helps Hmong people preserve their culture. Not only the actual farming lifestyle, but also through producing foods that are used in Hmong cuisine.
Personally, I was thankful for this while visiting Wisconsin and Minnesota. The farmers markets I visited were filled with wonderful produce, much of which was produced by Hmong families. Sure, there are the usual veggies you might expect at a Midwest farmers market, but you’ll also be able to try fun things like longan and bundles of fragrant herbs.
Hmong embroidery is intricate, beautiful, and unique. The dresses are marvelous. I loved so many of those that I saw at the St. Paul market. If I actually had a wedding to attend this wedding season (okay, it’s basically over now), I think I would have talked myself into buying one. Unless you’re attending a wedding with many Hmong people, you could bet that you wouldn’t match anyone else there.
The embroidery is of course not limited to dresses, or even clothing. You can find pillows, decorative wall hangings, and some small embroidery pieces. My sister gifted me a tiny piece of embroidery work that was made by one of her Hmong friends. It will be perfect as a tiny framed piece.
When you hear Hmong cuisine, think soups like the famous Vietnamese pho (pronounced something like “fuh”) and other curry soups. Think a delicious papaya salad (pictured in the foreground of the second photo beneath this section), larb, a Laotian minced meat salad (also pictured, just below the papaya salad), delicious egg rolls, spicy (but not too spicy) Hmong sausage, perfectly steam rice, and bamboo soups.
I never really got around to doing much Hmong cooking this month. Sad, especially considering I purchased a cook book this month specifically to steer my farmers market purchases. Still, I was able to slip in a few food experiences and learn about the cuisine, even if I didn’t make much myself. My first experience was Hmong egg rolls at the Barron Farmers Market. Hmong egg rolls come with vermicelli noodles and cabbage (among other vegetables), but can be vegetarian or meat-filled. Throughout the month, I most often saw pork egg rolls. To make your own, try this egg roll recipe.
The three next photos are from my sister date to Egg Roll Plus, an authentic Hmong restaurant in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. How lucky is Eau Claire to have this population and cuisine readily available! If I lived there, I think I’d have a standing Pho Tuesday dinner date with the husband.
Visiting the Hmong Marketplace in St. Paul, Minnesota, with my dad was one of the neatest outings I had while being home. We were venturing to the Twin Cities to pick up the husband and decided to make a day of it. We started by browsing the shops and eating at the food court. Later, we visited the Somali mall and picked up some Somali teas at a coffee shop in the area. Lovely day of trying tasty food and drink.
We bought some Hmong sausage with steamed rice, a small portion of sour bamboo soup, and three egg rolls. We resisted eating all of the sausage and egg rolls so that we could share a bit with Jordan when he arrived. The soup was, well, easier to save for others to try. Initially, the soup tastes good, but then you’re hit with a unique, bitter aftertaste that seems like it might take more than a few attempts to acquire.
To learn more about Hmong cuisine, check out two of my favorite Hmong food bloggers or consider checking out or buying the cookbook below.
- Annie Vang: This blog (lots of recipes, but not exclusively) was recommended to my sister when she worked at a Hmong school and she passed on the recommendation to me. Love browsing it.
- Hmong Cookbook: A simple food blog with traditional recipes, a cooking glossary, and some information on Hmong culture.
- Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America: This cookbook is much more than a cookbook. It tells the story of two neighbor families whose lives were joined together through Hmong cooking. It explains cultural interactions and teaches you more than just recipes. Kindle version will save you about 12 dollars.
“Black hmong women sapa vietnam 1999“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
If you do the least bit of Pinteresting using the word Hmong, you’ll find tons of photos of beautiful jewelry. Jewelry tends to be silver, very prominent (no tiny pendant here!), and lovely. Must of the traditional Hmong jewelry is what I might equate with “statement pieces.” It’s definitely worth your time to take a look.
Hmong have a history of oral tradition. Many of their traditional stories have been passed down this way for generations. Thanks to the Internet, many of these are being written down and shared with not only the next generation, but also others from outside the culture who are interested in learning about it (me, for example!).
The DC Everest School District in Wisconsin offers the school website in Hmong, and has uploaded two traditional stories on the web: The Promise (a story about a warrior returning home to learn that his beloved had been killed) and The Frog Prince (a story of a woman’s loyalty to her Toad husband).
The Hmong Association of Long Beach also has a PDF with illustrations and two folklore stories available for free. What I like about this PDF is that they also provide a biography for the storytellers themselves.
If you do a bit of internet searching, you’re sure to find even more. My favorite is the Magic Fish story, by the way.
Hmong Celebrations and Rituals
Within North America, these traditional may be practiced differently, or not at all, depending upon the family.
Hmong New Year
If you live near a Hmong community, you’re probably a bit familiar with the festivities which occur during the Hmong New Year. The Hmong New Year takes place in November or December, marking harvest time (refer back to the farming above!). Kinda like a Thanksgiving in a way. For immigrants it marks as a general celebration of Hmong culture as well. Think dancing, traditional dress, traditional foods, and maybe music and storytelling depending upon how the community near you celebrates.
Calling of the Soul Ceremony
Three days after a child is born, they are given a first name by the caller of the soul. According to my cookbook (see above), “it is customary to kill a pig or a cow and prepare many dishes using the meat to serve the guests who attend.”
I’m going to quote my old trusty cookbook again here (obviously, this cookbook delves a lot into culture, not just food.) “Hmong weddings consist of a series of events that take place over several days: negotiating the…contract, welcoming the bride.., and celebrating the union. Each event includes a meal with traditional food and beverages.” If you’re interested in viewing some photos of the events and learning more about it, check out the photo gallery and article (My Big, Fat Hmong Wedding) by Joe Nguyen.
When a family member or loved one is preparing for surgery or a long trip, friends and family come together to tie a single string around their wrist in order to protect their soul. Red is for health concerns. White is for safe travels, good wishes, and blessings.
Tread Lightly, Neo Geo
You guessed it, things that are normally uncomfortable to talk about will be: politics and personal religious beliefs. But here are some more specific topics that may be controversial or sensitive depending on the person:
- The Vietnam War: No surprise here. Obviously, if the subject is mentioned and someone is sharing, listen to what they have to say. Know that any opinions you might have on the issue could be taken in a different way if you aren’t expressing yourself correctly.
- Cute babies: I’m not kidding on this. The Hmong 101 presentation does a good job of explaining that some traditional Hmong families might be offended to hear this. Read the presentation for a bit more info.
- The decision-making process in families (clans): It’s complex and deeply-ingrained. It’s not the way I do things and I don’t understand its complexities. If you don’t either, maybe don’t weigh in, but instead listen without judgment.
- Religion: While it is relatively common to meet Hmong Christians, even more still practice their traditional religion. As always, it’s best not to assume what religion someone practices, and simply ask politely instead once you get to know someone.
- Persecution: The Hmong people have been ethnic minorities throughout their history. Know that this topic could be extremely painful and sensitive to talk about. Don’t assume you have a right to ask about it.
Where can I find out more?
I recommend looking at the following resources to learn more:
Alright, folks, I hope something in here taught you something new or peaked your interest. Do any real experts have comments on what I missed or may have not explained accurately?
I am really happy that I decided to dig a little bit deeper and learn more about the Hmong culture. My older sister is particularly interested and loves celebrating the Hmong New Year. I had a lot of fun talking to her about her experiences working at a Hmong school during one of her practicums. There’s still so much I don’t know, but at least I know a little more than I did. I hope that my gathering the information I learned throughout the month might help some of you understand the Hmong culture a little bit more or be more interested in learning about it as well.
As always, thanks for reading. And being an armchair geographer along with me.
My sources for info:
- All of the learn more resources listed above or items referenced throughout the above text