Photo by Alice Lacy
The word Hmong is often translated as "free people." In pursuit of freedom, the Hmong have settled in several places in Asia. Although most remain in China, a large group migrated to the rugged, jungle-covered mountains of Laos in the early 1800's. Most Hmong in Laos belonged to one of only 20 clans. Families tended to be large, which was a good thing since the "slash-and-burn" agriculture practiced by the Hmong was very labor intensive.
Like many countries in Southeast Asia in the 1960 -70's, Laos was caught in the struggle between those who favored a Communist form of government and those who opposed it. The United States sent troops to fight alongside the anti-Communist Vietnamese army in Vietnam, but did not send troops to Laos. Instead, the US recruited and trained the Hmong to fight the Communist Pathet Lao. Since the 1962 Geneva Accords guaranteed Laotian neutrality, this part of the war was kept a "secret," even though over 100,000 Hmong became refugees in their own country. Starvation became rampant as farm fields turned into battlegrounds, and tens of thousands Hmong soldiers and civilians were killed.
When the US forces were defeated in Vietnam in 1975, the Communists turned on the people who had sided with the US. The Hmong had to make a choice between staying in Laos and continuing to fight the Pathet Lao or escaping to refugee camps in Thailand and resettling in other countries. More that 100,000 decided to come to the United States, most eventually settling in California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
An America Adjustment
The transition to American life was very difficult for the Hmong. Most had never lived in a house with plumbing or electricity. They were entirely unfamiliar with cars, telephones, televisions, household appliances, and computers. Many were not literate in their own language, so had a double barrier to learning English. Their farming skills were marginalized in a country with high land prices and high-tech agriculture.
Nonetheless, the Hmong are adjusting and succeeding. Such things as the sale of produce grown on small plots at Farmers' Markets, the sale of needlecrafts, unskilled manual labor, and work as bilinguals at schools and health facilities have enabled many Hmong to become self-sufficient. Their cooperative attitude is valued by their employers. Meanwhile, their children are learning quickly and will find their unique ways to contribute to their new country.