- Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora
Although there have been a handful of scholarly books and numerous articles written about changes to various aspects of Hmong life in the United States, there has yet to be a work that examines the different ways Hmong refugees have worked to build a sense of community in spite of the massive changes to their lives. Chai Youyee Vang seeks to fill this gap in Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora. Through archival research, oral history interviews, and observations of community gatherings, she provides a sweeping analytical account of how Hmong refugees have managed to construct support systems to confront the challenges in this country. Vang convincingly argues that Hmong community formation has been a multifaceted process utilizing both existing Hmong social organization strategies such as extended family and kinship networks and more formal institutions in the United States such as nonprofit organizations, churches, and the political system.
In examining the strategies Hmong refugees have used to build social support, Vang argues that they relied primarily on traditional means such as kinship networks and family ties in the early resettlement days when refugees began moving away from their initial places of resettlement to more hospitable environments. Once growing concentrations of Hmong were established in states such as California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, refugees turned toward formal organizations such as nonprofit organizations to help provide basic social service needs. These early refugees were able to successfully build alliances across clans, religions, and ethnic groups to form such organizations. However, as the Hmong population grew, dissatisfaction among these various segments emerged, and such alliances became impossible to maintain. New organizations and churches were then created to represent the increasingly varied interests of the growing population. Consequently, ethnic representation by these organizations became problematic as it became increasingly difficult to determine which organizations actually represented the collective needs of the community and not just the particular interests of their constituency or clients.
An excellent example of how community building involves attending to growing interests and evolving identities is found in Vang's analysis of the practices and performances at Hmong New Year celebrations, an annual tradition celebrated by Hmong across the country. Vang argues that the celebrations serve as a site for affirming established Hmong cultural identities and creating new ones. [End Page 137] Specifically, these public events are public spaces that manifest changes in gender relations, identity formation, and citizenship and belonging. In order to attract attendees, the New Year has grown from being just a community gathering centered around traditional practices such as ball tossing and singing folk songs to a lively, commercialized festival filled with food and entertainment vendors, competitive sports, and music and dance competitions. From young adults competing in flag football to performers dancing to Indian- or Chinese-inspired music to elected officials giving speeches, the New Year has come to represent changes in tastes and interests among the growing and heterogeneous Hmong population.
A welcomed contribution of Vang's book is its analysis on the role that religion, particularly Hmong Christian churches in this instance, has played in the adjustment process of Hmong refugees, a topic that has been absent in studies of Hmong Americans and in the larger immigration literature as well. The conversion of Hmong to Christianity was not a phenomenon new to the United States, but occurred even while Hmong were in Laos and dates back to their origins in Southern China. According to Vang, it is estimated that by the year 2000, as many as 50 percent of Hmong Americans were Christian, and that by 2008, approximately 148 Hmong congregations existed in twenty-six states. By failing to account for the experiences of Hmong Christians, previous and continued portrayal of Hmong Americans' struggles as an issue of cultural or religious conflict is oversimplified. While Vang contends that the absence of Hmong Christians in studies of Hmong Americans is because Hmong Christians were not as accessible as non-Christian Hmong who often sought the services of...