For centuries, the Hmong have recorded their rich history of culture and problem solving through oral narrative. In the tradition of the Hmong people, a storytelling approach guides this dialogue to provide you as reader, rather than listener, with a full understanding of the nature, importance, and scope of what it means to be a Hmong, Hmong-American, raised in South Stockton in a low-socioeconomic community, to refugee parents with no formal education in a family of 10, and a product of the public school system. In doing so, I hope to contest the concept of “model minority” and give voice to Hmong students, who are frequently missing from national conversations about college access, retention, and completion rates.
The individual stories of a single event that altered the course of history for an entire people’s life and culture has been part of my consciousness for as long as I remember. This consciousness has humanized me with the craving to search, reflect, and understand my parents’ story about their journey of displacement and loss. My parents came to “teb chaws Amelika” or “homeland America” and left the refugee camps of Thailand on December 18, 1979. Their struggles parallel those of hundreds of Hmong refugee families in America and have shaped their children’s identity.
For me, to be Hmong, I relived their struggles and years of trauma, but ironically I was a beacon of hope to them for the future. My generation of Hmong will be conflicted and challenged to explore what it will mean to be Hmong in America. The following Hmong proverb captures the deep consciousness of another “teb chaws” or homeland my parents long to return to, and to know of this homeland has exposed me to their sense of displacement.
Hla dej yuav hle khau Tsiv teb tsaws chaw yuav hle hau.Cross the river, you’ll take off your shoes; Flee from your country, you’ll take off your status (Miyares, 1998).
Throughout my decade in higher education, I often wondered about my eldest sister’s journey from a kid born in the refugee camps, married at 16 years old to a traditional Hmong family with two young children, to completing medical school at University of California Davis to now practicing as a family physician. Did her determination pave the road for my second oldest sister to relocate across the nation to complete her Master of Science in Nurse Anesthesia from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.? What was the key ingredient for my third sister with two young children to complete her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Sacramento State, and my fourth sister with a one-year-old daughter to complete pharmacy school at University of Southern California? What was their inspiration, or was it just grit and self-determination? These questions became my driving force to continuously be inspired and motivated with aspirations to speak in a strong and clear voice about the unique educational stories Hmong students experience in college.
Things slowly came together when both my fifth sister completed her undergraduate degree at Sacramento State and sixth sister at Stanislaus State. It was happening in my family and my community. I was witnessing the academic success and professional attainment of my sisters, including the visibility of Hmong female trailblazers, who in their own right were counter storytelling about a culturally arbitrary set of gender norms.
Has the very culture that I value turned the Hmong daughters in my family to excel academically and yet simultaneously created the chasm in academic gender achievement among the larger Hmong community? If so, there must be great resentment, hurt, and loss that is suppressed because of the deep love for their parents Hmong daughters feel. This cultural dissonance resulting from a patriarchal structure has always intrigued me as a traditional Hmong son. To enter into the academic arena I had to waive my cultural obligations. To go to college and become a stellar student became my deeply felt goal as a Hmong son in America.
As an emerging young Hmong male scholar, I was perhaps more conscious of my place in the Hmong community and the role I might play in the larger society than I otherwise might have been. I know my male privilege as a Hmong son was a catalyst to begin courageous conversations that question the cultural norms in my community. I recognize the rarity of where I am from my community to be a doctoral candidate in the field of education. It is my moral responsibility to use my knowledge and access to information to help address educational, social, health, and economic injustices in order to shape responsive policies and to change the cultural discourse and scripts about what it means to be a Hmong student in college. When I decided to pursue a doctorate in education, I became both a cultural broker and cultural straddler.
Chao Danny Vang will complete his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies May 2016, having already earned his bachelo’’s degree, teaching credential, and master’s degree from Sacramento State. He currently is a career counselor and experiential learning coordinator in the Career Center at Sacramento State. He also is an adjunct faculty member for the Department of Ethnic Studies where he teaches in the Asian American studies program, including the Hmong American and Southeast Asian American Experience course.