08 June, 2015

Recognizing The Beauty of Hmong American Culture through a Thai Cultural Lens

Kia performed a traditional Hmong dance with her
Hmong peers at St. Olaf College's International
Night Spring 2014.

Kia Vang is from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She graduated from St. Olaf College in May 2014 with a B.A. degree in Political Science and Asian Studies. She is an English Teacher at Muangchaliang School in Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai where she teaches conversational English to junior and high school students. After completing her Fulbright grant, she plans to establish more professional work experience in corporate business and social policy. She will later fulfill a dual-Master’s degree in business administration and public policy to achieve her goal as a social entrepreneur. 

The US is a melting pot of many ethnic backgrounds; it is a place where people have the freedom to come together to express their unique cultures. I grew up in an environment where I was taught to watch, listen, and learn from others. It was never in my personality to think or talk about myself. Thinking about my cultural identity didn’t occur until five years ago when my Japanese professor told me before returning home to Japan, “You don’t start to see the beauty of your own culture until you witness another.” At that time, I was an inexperienced traveler and his words left me confused. He revealed that I would discover the meaning of his statement when I started traveling outside of the United States and get a profound taste of the world. He was a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) during my freshmen year of college. It inspired me with the curiosity to learn more about the world outside my birth country. I traveled a lot to various countries between now and then, but his statement did not reign true to me until I started my Fulbright teaching grant in Thailand. After multiple cultural engagements with my Thai family, host school, and local community, it was here in Thailand that I began to see the beauty of my Hmong American culture.

My professor’s words were simple, yet very powerful. Part of my initial confusion was the fact that I possess a dual-identity. I was born and raised in a tightly knit, diverse environment of two very different worlds, values, cultures, and languages that coexisted in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One world is Hmong and the other is American. Hmong is an ethnic minority group that originated from southern China, and later migrated to various parts of Southeast Asia. Hmong is a people without a country. My parents were born in Laos, but sought refuge in the camps of northern Thailand when the communist party took over the Lao government during the Vietnam War. Because the Hmong people fought alongside United States (US) forces, their lives were in danger, and like my parents, many had to flee their homes in search of safety. My parents stayed in the refugee camps a few years before immigrating to the U.S. After their settling, I was born as first generation Hmong-American. Although the Hmong language is my parents’ mother tongue, I learned to speak Hmong and English simultaneously. School was a place where I learned about American culture and values, while home was a place where I learned about Hmong traditional ways of living. This intertwined culture of mine was beautiful. Why did I need to see more to know how beautiful my dual-identity is? Craving for answers, I applied for a passport with a determined goal to travel outside the US.

I received my passport at the end of my sophomore year and set out on my first journey abroad to Japan. There, I did a business internship at a company called Education First Tokyo (EF Tokyo). Alongside my regular marketing and teaching tasks, I engaged and worked with EF ambassadors who were university students. They hosted multiple promotional events at the company, and my duty was to represent America and talk about the benefits of earning an American education. After two months of successful work, I returned to the US. Yet, my long-waited question was never answered. I was so focused on my work that my light bulb moment never occurred. The feeling was unpleasant and disappointing. However, I was not ready to give up. The motivation to find the meaning of my professor’s words increased and as a result I applied and got accepted to St. Olaf’s Global Semester program for the fall of my junior year.

Kia (far right) takes a selfie with her local Thai friend and friend visitor (from Fulbright Taiwan)
at Si Satchanalai Historical Park.

Global Semester is a study abroad program coordinated by my college to give students the opportunity to travel and study in eight various countries across the globe within a five-month span. My twenty-nine companions and I made our first trip stop in Switzerland. From there we journeyed on to Turkey, Egypt, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, and South Korea. [Yes, I said Thailand! This was the trip where I first step foot in the country and destined to return later in my academic career.] When we arrived in Thailand, we stayed for only six days. We visited a Hmong village in Chiang Mai, and it was there that my parents’ life stories played out vividly before my eyes. From the stories told by my elders and movies watched as a young child, I saw the dirt roads, bamboo shacks, handicrafts, and half-dressed kids. Simply, I saw the poverty and environment that my parents and my Hmong people grew up in. At that time, entering the village was not permitted, so we only stayed at the gates. During this time, my light bulb moment occurred, yet dimmed before my long-waited question could finish its answer. Before I knew it, it was time to journey on to the next country. And I knew at that moment that I had to return to Thailand. 

During my senior year of college, I applied for the one-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) grant to Thailand. I was ecstatic in tears when I learned my application received principal status. My parents weren’t too thrilled that I was traveling again, but they were supportive of my dreams nevertheless. I arrived in Thailand on the night of September 26th and started orientation immediately the following Monday. That was when our first Thai cultural lesson took place—sabai sabai. It was a lesson that was crucial to my survival in Thailand. Had I not possess the ability to adapt to this cultural lifestyle I probably wouldn’t be here today.

Kia gives food offering to the monks with a retired teacher at a traditional Thai wedding.

Sabai-sabai is a cultural term that is deeply embedded and constantly used in Thai society to express the feelings of ‘no worries,’ ‘have no expectations,’ ‘take it easy,’ ‘be flexible,’ and ‘remain easy-going.’ This Thai lifestyle is the complete opposite of the American lifestyle I grew up in. Twenty-two years of my life, I lived in a society that stressed constantly on the importance of punctuality, deadlines, communication, structure, and control. When I arrived at my host school, all this had to change. Of course, change and adaptability didn’t come easily. For example, for my first day of teaching, I had prepared all class materials and lesson plan for my M1 (Grade 7) students. However, when the time came to teach, I learned that the designated room was occupied and changed to a different building. In addition, I was also given a new student list with new names I didn’t have materials for. Panicked and troubled in sweat, I was forced to solve this issue in a short notice. Later on in the term, there were days where no students would show up to class. Frantic and confused, I contacted my host teachers immediately, yet no response. Why wasn’t I told about these changes earlier? I was flustered, but I had to remind myself I was immersed in the Thai sabai sabai culture. I had to learn to keep expectations low and accept situations I cannot control. It was at that moment when I realize the beauty American culture and how much appreciation I have for it—living with punctuality, good communication, structure, and control. After a few months, I grew accustomed to being sabai sabai in all situations I faced and although it was not (and still not) my preferred way of living, I developed gratitude for living this current lifestyle because there were many moments when remaining sabai-sabai saved me from stress and anxiety.

Kia (left) stands with her Thai host mother on New Year’s Eve at Cha-Am Beach.

The light bulb moment of seeing the beauty of my Hmong culture didn’t occur until I had to constantly educate Thai locals, teachers, and students about my ethnic background. It was through these cross-cultural engagements that I was able to talk about the similarities and differences between Hmong and Thai culture. Our physical appearances may look the same, but our ways of living are somewhat different. When I studied Thai with my host teachers, I learned that a lot of the words Hmong people use were borrowed or loaned from Thai. For example, we share the words: candy, bathroom, go, and fermented fish. This made learning Thai so much easier and fun because of the influence of Thai in my native language. Here my light bulb moment occurred for me to see the beauty of how cross-cultural exchange can help me learn more about another culture while appreciating my own.

During the month of March, I interned at Borderless Friendship Foundation, an organization that works to improve the life and well being of hill tribe groups in northern Thailand. One day, I went with the Director to visit a Hmong farmer’s market in Chiang Dao. I met a Hmong female vendor and ended up having a conversation about life in Thailand versus life in America. We talked about our marital status, and she said she had been married since she was a teenager. Her parents and in laws had arranged for her and her spouse to marry before she gave consent. As the conversation went on, I felt deep remorse for the young lady as she told me of her experiences. Had my parents decided to stay in Thailand and not immigrate to the U.S., I could have shared the same fate. This experience made me see the beauty of being Hmong American—to be able to have a unique ethnic background and the freedom to exercise choice at the same time—a privilege I will never take for granted. After purchasing some bananas, I wished her well and left to continue my work.

Kia sits with the Director of Borderless Friendship Foundation (BFF) at a Lahu-Thai Christian wedding.

This year marks five years since my Japanese professor left me with his cultural insight. It was here in Thailand that my light bulb moment occurred, and where I began to understand the meaning of his words that one will not see the beauty of one’s culture until he/she have tasted another. I realized the reason I didn’t immediately see the beauty of my dual-culture during my previous trips abroad was because I didn’t profoundly engage in the societies I was in. My travels to Japan and countries on Global Semester were so short-lived I didn’t intimately experience, consume, process, and reflect on what I saw, the places I visited, the relationships I built, and the things I learned. Being in Thailand for a one-year duration changed all of that. Through various intimate cultural experiences within Thai society, it allowed me to comprehend the beauty of my Hmong-American culture.

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