Voting Together
Intergenerational Politics and Civic Engagement among Hmong Americans
Carolyn Wong

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Preface

One of the legacies of the Vietnam War is the story of the Hmong refugees from Laos who resettled in the United States at the end of the military conflict in Southeast Asia. It is estimated that, when the communist forces prevailed in Laos in 1975, 13 percent of the country’s population fled as refugees. Most of the refugees were ethnically Hmong and resettled in the United States in the decades following the war.

The story of the Hmong refugees’ harrowing exodus from Laos has been told in riveting autobiographical accounts, historical narratives, poetry, and spoken-word performances since the war. Their escape to Thailand has been reenacted on the stage in community theaters and performed by children in public parks. The wartime experience of the Hmong was the subject of congressional hearings during the 1990s, when Hmong veterans of the Secret War in Laos, an arena of the Vietnam War, demanded recognition for their service in aiding the US military.

Forty years after the end of the war, however, few Americans know much about the history of this ethnic minority group from a small and distant country in Southeast Asia. In the scholarly literature, little attention is given to what bearing this ethnic history has on the process of immigrant inclusion or the meaning of citizenship to new Americans. Living in small ethnic communities or scattered across urban and suburban neighborhoods, many Hmong Americans are culturally isolated. The Hmong of Laos practiced a subsistence agriculture, and most were preliterate when they came as refugees to the United States. They might easily be ignored and neglected as an “invisible” minority group. Yet in the first decade of this century, the residents of several US cities have taken note of the political energy and acumen of Hmong Americans, particularly the American-educated offspring of the adults who came as heads of refugee families. Running successful campaigns for local and state elected office—primarily in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—a growing number of younger Hmong Americans have called attention not only to their people’s long and compelling ethnic story but also to the community’s more pressing contemporary needs. The spokespersons of a younger generation of Hmong Americans are forging new paths in projects aiming for the Hmong Americans to be fully included and recognized as contributors to the American community. The lessons from their efforts are not yet widely discussed in the national discourse on immigration, but they are becoming part of the political history of local cities and metropolitan areas.

In part, what can be learned from the Hmong American experience is the meaning of citizenship to immigrants of refugee origin. Internationally, the number of persons displaced by other wars and thrust into refugee status has grown to unprecedented levels. In 2015, the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, reported that 59.5 million persons were displaced, forced to leave their homes because of violent conflict and persecution. Among those persons, nearly 14 million had been displaced in 2014 alone, and about half were children.1 Providing safe haven and shelter for refugees is a daunting challenge for the international community. Beyond the immediate crisis, national policy makers and leaders in local communities of resettlement have been called upon to help forge opportunities and assistance for the refugees so that they can rebuild a stable livelihood.

The interviews conducted in the field reveal that leaders and ordinary members of Hmong American communities share and frequently express a yearning for a freedom infused with meaning derived from a collective history of marginalization and oppression as a minority ethnic group in Asia. The identity narratives of the Hmong recount repeated experiences of territorial displacement as refugees. From ancient times, in each new place of settlement in China and Southeast Asia, the Hmong were never recognized as full members of political society or majority social institutions. Some modern-day ethnic leaders have hoped to eventually win a Hmong national homeland, but most members of the ethnic group fight simply for the right to live with some minimum degree of economic security and to practice an ancient culture that defines their identity. Without the protection of a nation-state, the Hmong of Asia had no ground on which to contest the most elemental human rights for themselves. The Hmong in America continue to think of their quest for liberties in this historical context, and like members of other American ethnic groups with refugee origins, they hope to use their settled position as citizens of the United States as leverage in international efforts to gain human rights protections not only for themselves but also for relatives and coethnics abroad.

The notions of full membership in the body politic are also influenced by the egalitarian tradition of the American civil rights movement. Hmong American social activists have expressed support for, and some identify with, the politics of redressing racial inequality, recognizing the contributions of Hmong culture in American society, and attaining parity of opportunity in education and the workforce. In this book these goals are considered within the framework of a theory of social justice defined by Nancy Fraser in terms of participatory parity—or the ability to participate as equal members of society without systematic hindrances.2

A close examination of the struggles of Hmong Americans to attain participatory freedom and parity can shed light on the process by which new citizens become fully included in national and local communities. In the American system, some elementary knowledge of the nation’s history and laws is required of naturalized citizens. For a new American to discover the deeper meaning of being a US citizen, however, requires sustained interaction with members of the political body. The encounters and associations established between immigrants and longer-term US residents and citizens have a reflexive character. The new citizen not only assimilates a political culture but also introduces new energy and perspectives to the political body by engaging in public life. Because of this two-way exchange, the immigrant’s process of citizenship inclusion has the potential for productive synergy: as immigrants learn about and affirm core ideals of democracy, their inclusion in the citizenry holds the possibility of invigorating and expanding its solidarities.

Immigrants, however, frequently face formidable barriers to such a positive mutuality of exchange and interaction. Having come to America with few material resources and low levels of formal education, Hmong Americans have experienced high rates of poverty and linguistic isolation. Poverty increases their vulnerability to fear and prejudice toward foreigners, an obstacle in its own right. In communities where Hmong Americans have settled, the perception of cultural and racial differences among native-born residents too often can extend to distrust, fear, and even open hostility toward newcomers. To advance intercultural understanding and social inclusion, a growing number of young community activists educated in the United States have joined with elders to create projects to claim respect for Hmong American culture and history. In politics, members of a relatively young and US-educated segment of the community have focused on building community-level capacity to participate in elections and field candidates. These young Hmong American activists have spread awareness about the value of political participation as a path toward social inclusion and advancement of the Hmong American communities.

I first became interested in political life in communities of ethnic Hmong in the United States when two Hmong Americans were elected to the state legislature in Minnesota. These events followed the winning of elected office by Hmong Americans on city councils and school boards in other Midwestern states. My colleagues and students in Asian American studies began to ask why the Hmong Americans, who came as refugees of the Vietnam War to the United States in the late 1970s and 1980s, seemingly jumped over hurdles to political participation. They seemed to steer their way through the local electoral system quite handily. Why were the Hmong Americans able to elect their own coethnic representatives in state and local governments less than three full decades after the first arrivals?

In 2007, I helped organize some academic conversations to engage Hmong American students and faculty from around the United States to discuss these questions. The experience of Hmong Americans remained a new subject among political scientists studying Asian Americans. Important progress has recently been made. Although most national surveys do not include sampling strategies or language interpretation in interviews of Hmong-speaking individuals, the 2012 National Asian American Survey included the first sizable subsample of Hmong Americans. In results discussed in Chapter 1 of this book, the researchers found that Hmong Americans have a high rate of voting for Democrats and a high rate of voting among eligible citizens, as compared to other Asian American groups.3 The in-depth interviews reported in this book shed light on some of the underlying dynamics influencing this finding. This research also gives a more detailed portrait of a group that is often neglected in studies, such as that of the 2012 report of the Pew Research Center, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” which examines sociodemographic trends and values among eight Asian American ethnic groups but does not reveal the particularities of experience and political thinking of many smaller ethnic groups, including Hmong Americans, who present a very distinctive picture.4

The research assistants for this project were young Hmong American college students from the Twin Cities in Minnesota; Fresno, California; and Hickory, North Carolina. They were conversant in the traditional cultural practices of their families. As in other traditional Asian cultures, ancient beliefs dictate that the Hmong funeral is the most important ritual and event in the lives of Hmong families. Its importance stems from the veneration of ancestors. I had learned on a summer trip to study Hmong village life in southwestern China that at weddings sometimes parents and elders would toast the newly wedded couple by singing songs expressing the high esteem afforded to a career as a government official. My research assistant set out to listen carefully for similar themes in ceremonial songs. At a funeral ceremony held by a Lee clan in St. Paul during the summer of 2007, an officiating leader sang a qhuab kom, or a song of blessing. This is one type of funeral song that typically has the intent of bringing closure to a funeral. The lyrics included these lines:

You the remaining sons stay focused
And those of you who do well in education
May you become government officials . . .
May you live on to become kings and sovereigns.

Throughout an intercontinental diaspora, Hmong people continue the tradition of using such ceremonial songs to pass on wisdom from the deceased ancestor to the living.5 The intent of the qhuab kom is to inspire the children of the deceased person to look forward and imagine new possibilities for their future. It helps shift the focus of the family away from the hardship and pain felt during the funeral.6 It is common for the officiant at a funeral to perform songs instructing the living sons of the deceased about how to lead their future lives. In the funeral of the Lee clan, for example, the song lyrics including naming careers to which they should aspire. This instruction emphasized building affinity among members of the clan and service to the community. In particular, sons should not hunger for power or fight for government positions; if a younger brother wins a kingship, his older brother must support him. Young men should pursue education, and should they excel, they should go into government service.

There are similar teachings in Hmong proverbs: “If you heed your parents’ advice when young, you will become the village chief when grown.”7 However, the respect for officials is sometimes coupled with a warning about the price government officials have exacted on Hmong families in collecting taxes. In another proverb, children are cautioned, “See a tiger and you will die; see a government official and you will be poor.” These themes reflect the memory of conflicts of economic interests between Hmong villagers and government authorities who represented the ethnic majority. Although the proverbs and songs have roots in ancient history, a “government official” in premodern China is a figure far removed from the democratically elected official or administrator in the contemporary United States. In antiquity, and even in recent history, the residents of Hmong agrarian communities often interacted with administrators of central or provincial governments who came to the village to collect taxes, typically placing an onerous burden on subsistence farmers.

In my conversations with several Hmong American scholars, a few have commented on the historical line of Hmong leadership in Laos throughout the twentieth century to the present day. In the ethnic diaspora, there is a high regard for the talent of individual leaders and the historical precedent of political representation in Laos. The precedent set by these early Hmong leaders in Laos is likely one important factor helping motivate the desire of Hmong Americans to participate in politics and governance in the United States.8 In Hmong at the Turning Point, Yang Dao recounts a celebrated line of Hmong leaders in Laos. Under French colonial rule during the late 1910s to early 1930s, Lo Bliayao emerged as a political leader of the Hmong. He was followed by Hmong who were chiefs of subdistricts in the French protectorate before the Second World War. Three brothers of the Lyfoung family held higher office after 1947: Touby Lyfoung was deputy to the province chief of Xieng Khoung and vice governor of the same province; Toulia Lyfoung was elected to the Constitutional and National Assemblies; and Tougeu Lyfoung was a member of the National Assembly, a King’s Council.9

After Laos’s independence in 1954, a number of Hmong served in the National Assembly, including Tougeu Lyfoung, Touby Lyfoung, Ly Yia, Lao Chue Cha, Moua Sue, and others. In the mid-1970s during the Provisional Government of Laos, Yang Dao was appointed by the king of Laos to the National Consultative Council, the equivalent of the Laotian Congress. A Hmong woman has served on the eleven-member Politburo and as president of the National Assembly of Laos. The country’s current minister of justice, Chaleun Yiapaoher, is of Hmong ethnic background.10

My research team’s interviews of Hmong Americans revealed some of the complexities in the process of adapting traditional thinking about Hmong leaders as it evolved in Laos to the contemporary circumstances of politics in the United States. When Hmong American parents place a high valuation on careers in government, for example, this has helped encourage some young persons among the growing pool of political activists to consider running for elected office or to dedicate themselves to service in government in another way. There are many other influences on the career choices of young Hmong Americans, which vary as they do in any ethnic group, and individuals will decide to enter public service for other reasons, including personal proclivities, talents, and opportunity. To the extent that political careers are well regarded in families, this cultural view is a positive influence on expanded political participation. It also stands in contrast to the attitudes of many American and Asian American parents. More often these parents encourage children to enter careers considered more financially lucrative and freer from the turbulence of politics, such as law, medicine, engineering, the sciences, or business.

Traditional notions of Hmong leadership are problematic. The idea that Hmong leaders serving in government should act principally as brokers for Hmong interests persists in the contemporary American context. Two elected officials, Blong Xiong and Mee Moua, discussed problems with this commonplace viewpoint in our interviews. As legislators, each served a whole district. Their responsibilities were wider than those perceived as appropriate for a “Hmong leader,” as often expressed by some older members of the ethnic community. American legislatures typically consist of members representing different districts and a diverse range of constituency interests. As a result, there is a need for individual members to build political alliances with colleagues across district lines. Educating older Hmong Americans who came from Laos as adults in these realities of governance in the United States and the limits of ethnic parochialism remains a challenge for the community.

In conducting the empirical investigation for this book, the research team conducted in-person interviews of individuals in four principal localities and from a broad cross section of Hmong American communities, including leaders and ordinary citizens and residents. Invited to participate in the study, the research participants were asked to describe their understanding of politics and identity, how they regard citizenship and political participation, their criteria for choosing among political candidates, and concerns about their communities. Our aim was to evaluate responses in light of an analytical framework formed by integrating insights from various strands of an interdisciplinary scholarship on citizenship acquisition and inclusion. Informed by this theoretical scholarship, the history of the Hmong as a refugee group, and the narratives told by Hmong Americans, we sought to learn about the motivation of individuals to engage in politics and how they thought about the experience in politics.

Observing the election campaigns of several Hmong American candidates in St. Paul from 2007 to 2010, the research team took note of the young volunteers’ energy in bringing elders into conversations about elections and to the polls. These activities have continued in subsequent elections, but it is still important to consider that political engagement can deepen and grow. The patriarchal thinking in clans persists. Clans are tightly knit and lines of decision-making authority are hierarchical. Participatory democratic deliberation is not customary. The cultural gaps in thinking between young people raised in the United States and their immigrant parents pose obstacles to community-wide collaborations.

The following chapters examine the evolution of Hmong American politics, which is still in its early phases of development. Already active participants in recent elections in several US cities, Hmong Americans are exploring new avenues for expanding civic and political participation. Some projects are experimenting with the integration of traditional storytelling arts and contemporary spoken word to describe identity narratives. Alongside the community’s political leaders, Hmong American writers, musicians, craft artisans, and visual artists are forming a complementary body of work reinterpreting and constructing narratives of identity. Drawing on recollections of struggles for dignity and recognition in the homeland of their parents, this emerging generation of intellectual and grassroots spokespersons is constructing a living story. Among the most compelling themes is an ethnic people’s move from the status of a minority people living on the margins of states in their homeland to undertake a quest for equality and participation as American citizens.

Notes

1. Somini Sengupta, “60 Million People Fleeing Chaotic Lands, U.N. Says,” New York Times, June 18, 2015.

2. Nancy Fraser, Redistribution or Recognition?: A Political-Philosophical Exchange (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2004).

3. Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, and National Asian American Survey, 2012 Asian American and Pacific Islander Post-Election Survey (2012 AAPI PES). On this survey, see the report in “Behind the Numbers: Post-Election Survey of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in 2012,” April 2013, http://www.naasurvey.com/reports/aapipes-2012.html.

4. Pew Research Center, Social and Demographic Trends, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” 2012, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/asianamericans/.

5. Yang Dao, “The Hmong: Enduring Traditions,” in Minority Cultures of Laos: Kammu, Lua’, Lahu, Hmong and Mien, ed. Judy Lewis (Rancho Cordova, CA: Southeast Asian Community Resource Center, 1992).

6. Vincent Her generously assisted me in identifying the qhuab kom type of funeral song and clarifying its meaning, as its interpretation is often open-ended.

7. Randy Snook, Many Ideas Open the Way: A Collection of Hmong Proverbs (Walnut Creek, CA: Shens Books, 2003).

8. I am grateful to Kou Yang and Gary Yia Lee for offering suggestions about how traditions of Hmong political leadership in Laos influenced contemporary thinking and career aspirations of Hmong Americans concerning politics. Gary Yia Lee commented that Confucian thinking about the high status of government officials in ancient China may still influence the way some Hmong Americans regard public office holding as a well-respected career choice.

9. See Yang Dao, “Hmong at the Turning Point,” in Hmong at the Turning Point, ed. Jean L. Blake (Minneapolis: WorldBridge Associates, 1993), 29.

10. Ibid.