Most of the children were dead. Some were ripped from the clutches of their panic-stricken parents by the raging Mokong River as they fled Laos in 1975. Others never got the opportunity flee; the advancing Viet Cong slaughtered all of the males, and an even worse fate awaited the female children that were left behind. By the time the tens of thousands of fleeing Hmong families crossed the treacherous river into Thailand, only a handful of children were left among them.
Once inside Thailand, the shattered families waited in abysmal conditions for the American government to fulfill its promise. Before abandoning the Hmong, who helped fight the North Vietnamese, the CIA had promised to relocate all of them to the United States as payment for their service. So the survivors sat in squalid refugee camps, hungry and ill, waiting for the Americans to come for them. Some waited for decades.
Eventually, the American government honored its commitment to its beleaguered allies. Today, there are an estimated 103,000 Laos-born Hmongs living in the United States.
Our commitment to the Hmong didn’t end when they arrived in the United States. The full expression of our promise lies in how we encourage these near-forgotten immigrants to participate in our culture. By learning about Hmong customs, we can support their transition from refugee to citizen without asking them to abandon their culture.
America is a highly individualistic country. Hmong and other Asian cultures tend to value cooperation and teamwork much higher than most Americans. This social perspective is reflected in Hmong farming practices. While it is normal for American farmers to employ the use of large machinery, most Hmong farmers rely upon family members for labor. The American method is quite individualistic, requiring only one person to perform field work. The Hmong method is a much more collective one, requiring more people and more time.
One of the most complicated aspects of American culture is religion. The majority of people in the United States practice some version of the Judeo-Christian tradition. As complex as these theologies can be, they share the same monotheistic beliefs. In contrast, the Hmong are ancestor worshippers, offering prayers and gifts to many different ancestors . Americans often do not understand this practice; add to this the ferocious proselytizing by adherents of America’s most fundamental religions, and you have a recipe for misunderstandings between the two cultures.
The Asian rhetorical strategy reflects the value this group places on the collective. The pace of conversation winds slowly inward until the point is finally reached. The Hmong traditions allow a conversation to progress by asking about family members and their health before getting to the heart of the matter at hand.
To successfully communicate with Hmong readers, writers and editors should keep in mind that English is a second language for these immigrants. For this reason, sentences should be short and include only one thought or action at a time. It would also be best to avoid over-modified nouns because they could lead to confusion.
Editors and writers should revise mercilessly to ensure Standard American English is used when reviewing communication for the Hmong community, because this is the style English these immigrants have learned. Staying away from incomplete sentences and distinctly American euphemisms makes written material easier for non-Americans to understand.
The last of the Hmong refugee camps in Thailand closed in the mid-nineties, but the door on the plight of the Hmong people remains open. Those who were in the camps when they were closed were sent back to Laos where they were tortured by the communist government. There are hundreds of thousands of Hmongs stranded and persecuted in Laos. Many are depending on their American relatives for salvation.
We stand before the world, obligated to fulfill a promise uttered in retreat over forty years ago. They served with honor. Now, we must receive our Hmong friends with honor, and help them in their quest to become Americans.