When Lee Pao Xiong helped launch the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University-St. Paul, he hoped it would become a destination for not only scholars worldwide, but also for non-academicians curious about Hmong people and communities.
The center has evolved into a unique resource. Xiong, its director, and his staff have been hosts to more than 8,000 visitors since 2004, including many residents of St. Paul, which boasts the largest urban contingent of Hmong nationally. Minnesota has more than 60,000 people of Hmong descent, according to the 2010 census; about one-third live in St. Paul. Hmong Americans make up about 5 percent of Concordia’s student body of 2,800.
The center houses a museum and an archive of more than 2,000 books, historical documents, videos and artifacts related to Hmong life and traditions. Events open to the public include frequent film screenings and book-signing parties by Hmong authors.
The majority of U.S. Hmong claim roots in several Asian countries; their exodus began in 1975 after communist forces prevailed over U.S. troops in Southeast Asia.
DI: Tell us about the conferences held at the Center for Hmong Studies every two years.
LPX: We’re supporting research in Hmong studies in ways other entities aren’t necessarily structured to do. Many aspects of the Association for Asian American Studies, for instance, are organized by country of origin, but, because Hmong are in diaspora with no single homeland, it’s difficult for scholars to secure slots to present a paper at their annual meetings. Hopefully, we’re pushing boundaries of the ethnic studies field. Our next conference is in March, and attendance always fills to capacity at 500. We have to take ownership of our history because about 90 percent of scholarly works in Hmong history are still authored by non-Hmong who, unfortunately, often write with an unfair Western bias. There are fewer than 25 full-time U.S. Hmong college faculty teaching in the field, so it’s imperative we mentor young people to join the ranks.
DI: What topics are explored at conferences?
LPX: Political participation, intergenerational issues and business endeavors, to name a few. Scholars come from as far as Australia, Thailand and Germany.
DI: Concordia offers what may be the first U.S. undergraduate minor in Hmong studies. How popular is it?
LPX: Currently, 15 students are enrolled in the minor through the College of Arts and Sciences; another five have already graduated. One student transferred from a Milwaukee college just because we offer the minor. Another transferred from a Seattle school. We have seven core courses devoted to Hmong topics, like arts and literature, history and the Hmong language.
The demographic we’re seeing is primarily U.S.-born Hmong who are hungry for their heritage. Their parents don’t know much about customs and traditional society because they weren’t interested in learning about them in the 1970s and ’80s amid pressure to learn English, to assimilate.
DI: Do you envision a Hmong studies major?
LPX: We’re developing a major in Hmong language, culture and history in the College of Education. Parents in local K-12 school districts are demanding these subjects be taught, but there’s almost no one certified as a full-time teacher. Earlier this year in the neighboring city of Minneapolis, there was an outcry from Hmong parents because a Caucasian teacher was tapped to teach these subjects. Eventually, a Hmong teacher came out of retirement to teach on an interim basis, but the whole situation underscored the urgency for an undergraduate major here.
Concordia’s minor enhances the undergraduate experience; a major will better legitimize Hmong studies as a profession. D