- Hmong Voices and Memories:An Exploration of Identity, Culture, and History through Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans
My voice has come out at last! It is like a raging storm waiting to shower itself over the world. I am not afraid of high pitches anymore. I dive into them, then my voice soars like an eagle, holding strongly onto each chord, each sound. . . .
My peaceful world could never bring a grin to my face as had the satisfaction of hearing my true voice speak out.—May Lee, "The Voice," in Bamboo Among the Oaks
Today, this desire to "speak out" figures prominently in national and local dialogue on what it means to be Hmong. Young Hmong Americans in particular have been keen to see their perspectives taken seriously not only by their own families, but also by the larger community and by other Americans in our multicultural society. They want their "true" voices included in the stories of their communities, to have their feelings and convictions "come out at last." In the 1980s and 1990s, one of the prevalent images of the Hmong in the American popular imagination was that of the unfamiliar, unwelcome "Other." Culturally, they did not fit in. Economically, they were not yet fully American: a majority of them were on welfare. Technologically, they were not sophisticated. Writing in the 1990s about Hmong adjustment to American society, Anne Fadiman observes: "The European immigrants who emerged from the Ford Motor Company melting pot came to the United States because they hoped to assimilate into mainstream American society. The Hmong came to the [End Page 35] United States for the same reason they had left China in the nineteenth century: because they were trying to resist assimilation. . . . What the Hmong wanted here [in the United States] was to be left alone to be Hmong: clustered in all-Hmong enclaves, protected from government interference, self-sufficient, and agrarian."1
New Voices Emerging
In this essay, we intend to present another reality, to highlight transitions and changes occurring in the Hmong American community. A "raging storm waiting to shower itself over the world" is an apt metaphor for the yearning of young people to take part in the social construction of what is Hmong. In our experience, the majority of college-educated individuals do not see themselves as restricted to an isolated Hmong enclave. Instead, many of them are actively developing bicultural identities as they participate in helping to create the ethnic and social fabric of multicultural America. Against the background of race, ethnicity, and social change as interrelated issues in the United States, it seems timely and appropriate to consider the voices of young Hmong Americans in the ongoing interpretation of Hmong lives.
Since the arrival of the first Hmong refugees in the late 1970s, what it means to be Hmong in America has been a subject of family discussion, community debate, and scholarly investigation.2 Today, the idea appears to us to be as elusive as ever; its complexity may in fact be growing. Here, we offer an interpretation of Hmong American life that allows for a fluid range of possibilities. We have three main goals: to consider Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans as a valuable means to explore history and culture; to underscore the significance of memory in the development of individual and collective identities; and to highlight the perspectives of young Hmong Americans who are boldly speaking out about their hopes, fears, and aspirations.
A Changing Community
Within three decades of U.S. settlement, the Hmong American population has grown, according to government and community reports, from [End Page 36] under 100,000 people in 1980 to an estimated 300,000 in 2009.3 States with the highest concentration of Hmong Americans include California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina. Throughout U.S. history, the pressure to assimilate into American culture has been intense and unyielding—and this in our view continues to be true. No immigrant group, including the Hmong, can escape it, as they are well aware. The two proverbs below pose conflicting choices for Hmong Americans...