The Sacrifice of the Hmong People

In one of my classes we’ve been reading a book about a Hmong family (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman) and their clash with American culture through the illness of their daughter. Even though it’s one of those obnoxious books you have to read for a class, it’s been rather eye opening. We have to do a service learning project with some Hmong people in the Twin Cities, so there are actually practical applications to this. What amazes me the most is how little people know about the Hmong. For example, I’m typing this in Word 97, and the spell checker doesn’t recognize “Hmong” as a word.

The history of the Hmong people is rather amazing. They’ve basically survived for thousands of years against assimilation by fight or flight. They would rather die than compromise their culture, and in their history they have either migrated to escape a threat, or died trying to fight it. They’ve battled the Chinese for ages, and in this century they’ve been fighting the Laos. This all gets into some pretty detailed stuff about Vietnam, none of which I totally understand. But basically in some of the war over there the Hmong were recruited and trained by the CIA to fight the communists. The Hmong faced defeat, and thousands of refugees poured into Thailand (of course that’s the over simplified version). From Thailand many came to the U.S. and began living here. The astounding thing is that they have failed to join the American culture. They’ve managed to continue their worldview, religion, and customs, which makes for difficult relations with Western medicine for example. Many of the Hmong (but by no means all) are living on welfare in America, supporting their entire family (6-10 children on average maybe?). What amazes me is that they get by on so little. Most of them have gone through unheard of atrocities, fearing for their lives and watching others killed and tortured. Most of this happened in the early 70’s. This isn’t something that happened a few hundred years ago. They’ve gone through so much and they continue to survive in American on the most meager of incomes.

Yet here we Americans are, always striving to get more. Maybe it’s all part of the American Dream, but we’re never satisfied. We could easily survive on the smallest amount, but we crave more. We’re never happy. It certainly challenges me when I walk into the Dining Center and fill my plate with food I don’t really care for and top it off with a Pepsi. Some people don’t even have clean water, and I’m filling up on a sugar filled carbonated beverage. We waste so much. It amazes me how much more we have than these Hmong people, yet they are so much closer to happiness.

What’s more is that they’ve been through such horror. They have lived through war. They have lost their homes, their possessions, their way of life, and their families in war. They have been traumatized. Many of them are having severe psychological problems because of this (depression, anxiety, etc). But do they complain? No. A woman in the book saw the brain damage of her daughter in the hands of American doctors (you’d have to read the book for the whole plot) a greater tragedy than the deaths of three of her children in Laos–only because war was a conceivable tragedy. Yet what do we complain bitterly about? My roommate annoys me. I have a headache. My class was so boring. I have too much homework. I don’t have anything to do. I don’t have a (fill in the blank… TV, car, stereo, computer, etc.). And the list just goes on. We manage to complain about everything. When I try to answer why, the only thing I can think of is that we’ve been conditioned to chase the American Dream, and in a sense that means never being satisfied with what we have. We always crave more, we always have something to complain about.

But if you think about it, most of us have it pretty well off. If you’re reading this, you own or at least have access to a computer. That’s quite a privilege. What’s more, a computer hooked up to the internet. I myself am attending an extremely expensive liberal arts college. I drive a ’93 Ranger in near perfect condition and am typing this on a pretty darn good computer. I have enough clothes to cover my body (and put off laundry for weeks at a time), enough food to overcome my skinniness, books all around, and I could keep going. We have so much, yet we complain. I know this is the kind of thing that I can bring up again and again (and I have) and we hear the message so often, but it never seems to sink in, me included. We have no right to complain.

Have you ever seen your parents killed? Have you ever been forced to leave everything you owned behind? Have you had to move to a foreign country and live as an outsider, never knowing the peace of familiarity? Have you watched your children die? Have you left loved ones behind, knowing they would starve to death? No, but I ran out of milk the other day, and you know what, dry cereal just plain sucks.

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