“You can make yourself belong or you can push yourself out… Not that hard to make yourself at home… You just need common sense.” (Toubee Lee)
Background: At the end of the Vietnam war, the United States Congress passed the Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 granting political asylum to the Hmong people from Laos (Hmong also live in Thailand, Vietnam, and China), who were fleeing from military attacks, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing. The first wave was men who had helped the USA in their efforts to defeat the Viet Cong after they invaded Laos. Through the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, a second wave of their wives and children immigrated. Today, the Census shows 260,073 Hmong scattered across America; the largest groups having settled in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina where there are about 10, 864. Asian Focus (AF) interviewed Toubee Lee (TL), a US -born Hmong and here are highlights of our conversation.
AF: Toubee, tell us a bit about yourself. “You can make yourself belong or you can push yourself out… Not that hard to make yourself at home… You just need common sense.” (Toubee Lee)
TL: I am 26 years old, Ijust graduated from college, and I work in the Raleigh area as a pharmacy tech. My parents are Hmong refugees from Laos, who fled after the Vietnam war. They came to California, then to Minnesota, then to Chicago. They finally found work here in NC. I was born a year after their arrival. There’s 4 of us, all boys, I’m the 2nd oldest. I went to East Burke High, to community college, then transferred to NC State where I finished my Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry. I like NC State because there’s a lot of diversity there, I feel like I am part of the group. I don’t stand out. I look to my left, I see people I know. They don’t look at me differently.
My parents are still in Hickory, in the foothills an hour away from Asheville. With all the difficulty they lived through, they really focused on our getting educations, even if it was just a high school diploma. They wanted us to have it because that’s something they did not have (most of the Hmong were not literate). With their jobs and responsibilities of keeping the family together, they could not easily finance our schooling themselves. My Mom has been unemployed for many years now. My dad works for a fabric factory, making fabric used for furniture.
AF: How did you come to Raleigh?
TL: I’m in South East Raleigh. Recently we moved close to Garner. My brother already had an apartment, so I just came and moved in with him. I didn’t really work until my last year of college. My brother did the same. NC State is reasonable in cost compared to other state colleges.
AF: What is it like to grow up in Hickory?
TL: I went to Icard Elementary. We lived in a good neighborhood. I thank my parents for that. My brothers and I could go out and play every day. In Hickory, we had a pretty good house. We
went to a school about 5 minutes’ drive from our house.
AF: Is there a difference in the way you and your parents (who were born in Laos) see and do things?
TL: I don’t see much difference with my generation but with the generation after me, I do see a bigger gap. I’m like a bridge. I still follow tradition but I am open enough to accept new traditions, like celebrating Christmas and Thanksgiving. Since we live here, we celebrate Christmas.
My parents aren’t not used to American holidays. Because Hmong tradition emphasizes respect for elders, they’ve been open to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Birthdays and Valentine’s have been another matter. To them, they’re just another day.
The main holiday for us is Hmong New Year- close to winter (The Hmong traditionally use a lunar calendar and their 10 day “New Year” festival is celebrated at the end of the harvest season. In the U.S. it’s been shortened to 3 days to accomodate conventional work schedules) . There’s a place called Star Town. We just do it around Thanksgiving. We wanted to celebrate our New Year during the winter. They tried the North Playground, but they could not rent it out in the winter so we moved it to around Thanksgiving. Once, there must have been probably close to around 6-10,000 Hmong here, most from farming areas in the hills of Laos.
AF: What is Hmong culture like?
TL: We believe in spirits, we’re animists. (there are also significant numbers of Hmong Christians who were persecuted by the communists after the war) There are like, bad spirits…If you get sick, it means somebody’s spirit is running away, spooking you. When a person dies, there’s a time or a space zone where your spirit gets lost, traditionally the last 7 days after the funeral. We the living must guide the lost spirits. We bury the dead the same way Americans do, but we have our own rituals. We don’t believe in cremation. It’s looked down upon for Hmong people. More recently, however, some are doing cremation like other Americans.
Honorary Titles: I still address my male relatives, “Uncle ____”. It’s a term of respect. Even if we don’t know them, we still call them Uncle. The younger generation now, they just call me by my name. I speak Hmong- we took our languagne from Laotian and Vietnamese, then evolved our own.
AF: Is there anything difficult to adjust to?
TL: Not really because I am still a bridge and usually I can agree with both ways. Sure, if you ask someone else, a generation after me; they might see it differently. I can walk to my parents and do whatever they ask, or go along with my peers.
AF: How do you navigate different cultures?
TL: It comes naturally. My identity is like a Venn diagram – two circles. There’s Hmong, then there’s American. Right next to each other. It’s like a light switch. If I’m with my family, it ticks on, I’m doing that. Next minute If I’m just here hanging out with my friends, I just click. The next minute, I know what to do.
As for food- not much difference. Ours is typical Asian rice-based. My Mom struggled with eating cheese burgers and hamburgers… The first time they went to the grocery store, my Mom said, “I want some veggies.” In Laos, they just picked fruits or vegetables. We make ours a bit spicier sometimes.
AF: What are Hmong weddings like?
TL: Hmong weddings usually last for 2 days. We do “Samka”- the groom gives a dowry to the bride’s family. First- the groom has the best man and the bride has a “green lady” like the #1 bridesmaid, to keep her company. First day, we’ll probably negotiate the dowry. The 2nd day is for celebrating the wedding. On the groom’s side, you are also having a party. The family (clan) is waiting for you.
First, they sit around and talk. A high ranking family member officiates, with more respected elders announcing the wedding. You and your parents leave. Distant relatives talk on your behalf. Her Dad and the other parents make requests…” Alright this is what the groom is requesting, let’s work something out.” That way we work out any deals with the parents. if the parents of both bride and groom like it, then it goes forward.
It’s Just family. They do it at the bride’s house. Negotiating will always be at the bride’s house. The party may be held at a church or another place but it is attended by the whole family. The legal recording is done at the City Register’s office.
So, usually they would say, “We’re done negotiating. It is what it is. Let’s go ahead and celebrate.”
AF: Do they serve alcohol?
TL: Always! Usually an all-day affair. Most people are free on weekends. We celebrate for 2 days. The groom goes, celebrates at the bride’s house, leaves at nine Saturday, comes back Sunday morning, leaves at about lunchtime,or goes and celebrates at the groom’s house.
When you show up, you should be wearing your Hmong clothes- a silk vest. The bride wears something similar. Hmong people are known for embroidery. Both groom and bride wear intricate embroidered vests and sashes. They also wear coins, heavy beads, long earrings and silver necklace jewelry. When the bride and groom move they make sounds. The quarter sized coins are like medals and passed through the generations. They’re not worth anything except as symbols of our heritage- usually the more of it you have, the more money you have. Theyr’e given to both bride and groom and usually handed down by the bride’s parents.
AF: What is child rearing like?
TL: Child rearing? I feel like me, personally, with the family I grew up, the kids have more respect for elders. Just my opinion. I’m from the inside, I think Hmong children are more obedient. When I ask my nieces or nephews to get something for me, they just do it.
You can say I am a navigator of different cultures. I don’t think to this day that I have had to tell my parents, they “hurt my feelings.” If my parents say I did something wrong, I don’t find a reason to disagree. With Dad, he must consider my opinion, but I have never approached them, saying they are wrong. There is a reason why they would be saying stuff like that…
AF: How did you find your work and what do they expect of you?
TL: The company gives on the job training for 9 months, then you take a test. My selection probably had something to do with this being what I really wanted to do. I’m trying to learn as much as I can.
AF: As far as career paths, what do you see in the future?
TL: I am thinking of getting into 2 career paths: pharmacy or nursing. I might go to school while working.
AF: What do your groups do when they gather?
They have like a little beauty pageant for women and for men. Out of the 4 days of the new year. – They raise money, hold talent show, contests. do traditional singing, share Hmong poetry, dance, and play music. I play Keng, a bamboo flute.
Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m a part of the Hmong community. In the Hmong community, they really restrict the younger ones. All their organizations are run by old people. We did a young group once, we tried, but then they restricted us.
AF: Was there ever a moment when you looked around and said, “This is who we are”?
TL: Around high school, I thought, “This is me. Nothing I can do about it.”
Now, I can look back and say it’s because that’s what I grew up with.
As for really seeing who “We” are, I feel it in events like New Year, and at NC State when I was with a Hmong group. That’s when we show who we are Hmongs.
Oh, yes. We vote. (I did not vote for this president… I don’t agree with his logic or his policy. He’d be promising one thing but he is doing something else.)
AF: What are some of the ways you cope that you can share with Asian Focus?
TL: My ways of coping? Mainly, common sense- Either you can make yourself get along or you can push yourself out. Not hard to make yourself at home. Not let people push you around. You’re not satisfying all people.
You can come from outside, yet you can still belong.
We all want to get along, make yourself belong to a group or push yourself out.
You can come from outside the country and still belong, unless you just want to do your own thing.
AF: Are your folks ever going back to Laos? How about you?
TL: My parents would like to go back, to see what it is like now. My father is always watching YouTube from people who visit or tapes shot by others. I have never been there. I want to go too.
AF: I hope the Hmong community will come represent at the Dragon Boat Festival at Koka Booth Amphitheater on September 23.
TL: I’ll get the word out.
Gregoria Smith for Asian Focus. June 20 2017