Onstage, Kevin Yang’s voice rises and falls as he gives his spoken-word performance about being young and Hmong.
“So ask me,” Yang beseeched a crowd of more than 1,000 at an event at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, “who we are.”
His poem, “Peb Yog,” which translates into “We Are” in English, is a roiling take on the harsh and humorous ways his generation is mixing the old with the new — teenage marriages, ancient superstitions, racism, poverty, perseverance, hope, flaws and the future.
Yang, 23, who graduated from Hamline University with a political science major and urban studies minor, makes a living helping young people develop as artists at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. His freedom to live as an artist isn’t lost on him, given that so many first-wave Hmong refugees were hillside farmers who arrived in a foreign land lacking language, education and skills.
“The generation before us were explorers,” Yang said. “We are creators.”
Yang’s parents were relatively young when they arrived in America from Southeast Asia. They met in the States, married and had five children, all boys. His parents speak English well, and Yang, the middle son, said the family’s ongoing assimilation meant he spoke less Hmong and more English starting when he was in middle school.
“It’s a tug of war of retention and loss, retention and loss,” he said of the gentle erosion of cultural traditions. With the spoken word so central to his work, Yang said, he tries to “be intentional” and speak Hmong with his parents and elders as much as possible.
“My younger brothers can’t speak Hmong,” he said. “It’s a very real thing. But I think it’s important to not judge folks who don’t have the ability to speak Hmong. That doesn’t make them any less Hmong. But I highly value that ability to have the intergenerational conversation.”