Cultural Transition of the Hmong Refugees

Cultural Transition of the Hmong Refugees

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Cultural Transition of the Hmong Refugees


Humans have always demonstrated a remarkable ability to find comfort amidst adversity. Sometimes it is found in the sacred. Many churches in the United States experienced a growth in their congregations after September 11th. Sometimes it is found in action. A person might feel the need to get out and "get away" from pressure for a while so that upon returning the situation can be viewed fresh. And sometimes comfort is found in the most unexpected places. This is the case with the Hmong refugees from Indochina who began arriving in Wausau Wisconsin shortly after the conflict in Vietnam ended. Most Americans had never heard of the Hmong before and wanted to know why they had arrived. Tensions, misunderstandings and many challenges arose as the Hmong began new lives in an established and very different culture. Here, though, they have found some surprising tools to help them cope with these issues: camcorders, and the home video. In order to ease their cultural transition, the refugee Hmong have adopted video technology to continue their communal bonds, document their stories, and improve their public image among their new neighbors.

Hmong social units are large extended families, something like clans in their makeup. In the mountains of their home, Hmong village of a few hundred people each dotted the landscape and provided a structure for trade and social interaction. In her book New Pioneers in the Heartland, Jo Ann Koltyk tells us that when the refugees were moved to the United States, an attempt was made to spread them throughout various cities in order to ease their assimilation into the population. This dispersion separated many friends, and parted extended family units. In many cases, the Hmong people simply began a "secondary migration" within the United States, and trickled back together into larger communities. In many cases, though, this second move was impossible and many Hmong would have remained isolated had it not been for the "Hmong-made videos."

The Hmong tediously document all of their ceremonies and events. They seem to be fascinated by the capability to capture and preserve an event and then to show it to people who were not there and have them experience it also. Though the sharing of videos, a sort of "virtual community" can be maintained throughout separated settlements.

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This is certainly a help in easing the transition process into a new life and society. The videos also provide a climate for the Hmong to discuss their progress--their past and where they think they are headed as a people and community. The ability to share events with each other over long distances through video, and video's tendency to spark analytic conversation about their situation, make an intimidating and strange land seem much smaller, less strange and more comfortable to the uprooted Hmong people.

Not only do the Hmong use video to document the events of their new lives in the United States, but they also us it to preserve their stories and histories. Interestingly, the traditional tool for this--the paj ntaub, or the "story cloth"--has been relinquished to the tourism trade. Jo Ann Koltyk tells how the content of the story cloths have been altered to capitalize on a consumer market. Filling their place as documents of the past are the videos. A small industry has grown up based around filming reenactments of the refugee's escape from their home countries. Also reenacted are some traditional events like "bride kidnapping," and even social situations that the Hmong might face in their daily lives. This last type of story telling bears an amazing resemblance to western. "soap operas." The movies are apparently quite dramatic and sometimes even blur the line between reality and reenactment. The possession of these videos would provide a much needed, cathartic experience for the Hmong refugees--a chance to connect with their fast diminishing past lives, and to analyze their new ones in a communal setting, thus providing much needed psychological and emotional support for the Hmong.

The public's perception of newly arrived immigrants is a delicate thing, and it is often manipulated--consciously or subconsciously--to the benefit of detriment of the immigrants. Leo R. Chavez's chapter from Covering Immigration called "Manufacturing Consensus on an Anti-Mexican Immigration Discourse" is dedicated to pointing out how several high-profile magazines create anti-Mexican sentiment simply through the layout of their magazine covers. Chavez shows how such images promote negative stereotypes and hinder relations between the two communities. It is debatable whether the publishers of such magazines where actually acting with any true malicious intent, or simply aiming for the sensationalism that they knew would sell magazines, but Chavez's underlying point is clear: immigrants need "good press" of any kind in order to ease their assimilation into their new communities, and to promote good relations with their new neighbors.

The Hmong are facing the hardships of any new group of people in a community who are perceived as "different." Interestingly, though, the Hmong-made videos that are only really intended for the Hmong people themselves, might unintentionally provide a healthy boost to the Hmong's public image for several reasons. First, the quality of the videos is rapidly improving. Jo Ann Koltyk tells of how the home-made videos have grown into an industry of semi-professional travel films. The editing and dubbing techniques that Koltyk describes the videos as having display a level of technical ability that most Americans could not duplicate. The very existence of this product will help to dispel the perception of the Hmong as "backward, primitive, mountain people." Also, the Hmong in the videos are apparently portrayed as an industrious, hard working people. They are most always shown working, whether it be in the fields, (tools are never shown unless in use) or weaving, or producing some other craft. This footage could go a long way in dispelling the image of the lazy immigrant who lives off of the welfare system.

So, the Hmong's use of video technology is yet another example of a people finding a way to cope with, and adapt to adversity. People will continue to search for comfort in many places and in many ways. We can learn something special from the industrious Hmong, and their experiences as they arrived in what they hopped was a land of opportunity. That is that wherever relief from anguish is sought for, we must decide to always make it available to others within ourselves.
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