‘Millennial” isn’t a label 25-year-old Kao Choua Vue embraces.
“Hmong 2.0” is a better fit to describe the U.S.-born children of Hmong refugees, who face a jumble of expectations and pressures, she said.
“My white friends who are millennials, they have leisure time,” said Vue, a documentary filmmaker. “We have so many obligations — to take care of our parents, to give back to our communities.”
Families from war-torn Southeast Asia began arriving in Minnesota in the mid-1970s. Now, a rising phalanx of young Hmong adults is charting a new course as the first generation to grow up immersed in Western ways.
They’ve mastered the English language, stoked the rise of the digital age and are pursuing careers and lifestyles unimaginable to their parents and grandparents.
But they face the tension of straddling two cultures, trying to make their own way while shouldering the expectations of elders whose values were forged in the old country.
“Even 10 years ago I felt I was more limited culturally,” said Vue, a University of Minnesota graduate whose films aim to bridge the generation gap between older and younger Hmong. “Today I have more opportunities to dream. But I have been educated and am expected to be a role model in my community.”
The history of the Hmong people can be traced back 5,000 years, to the cradle of Chinese civilization. They began migrating to Southeast Asia in 1800s. To many Minnesotans, they are best known for fighting the CIA’s “secret war” in the mountains of Laos during the Vietnam War.
When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, tens of thousands of Hmong fled their homeland for refugee camps in Thailand. The Hmong now are scattered on five continents. About 66,000 Hmong live in Minnesota, which is home to the nation’s largest urban population.
With nearly 22,000 millennials, young Hmong are destined to become a force in the state as they launch careers and raise families.
But while this group of young people (ages 18 to 34) have many similarities, University of Minnesota Prof. Mai Na Lee sees Hmong students from very diverse backgrounds in her Asian-American studies classes.
Some have parents who are doctors or lawyers. Others have parents who are poorly educated, live in poverty and rely on their children as translators. Many students are married, she said, evidence of a culture where “women marry young and marry quickly.”
“On the surface, they seem assimilated,” said Lee, who was born in Laos and came to the United States when she was about 11. “They have their iPhones and iPads; they are very comfortable using English. They know the system. But if you dig deeper, they have psychological and mental stress because they have to maneuver these cultural lines much more than the ‘immigration generation’ did.”
Lost in translation
Their world is so bicultural that the “Hmonglish” gets tossed around to describe the mashup of languages, dance styles and wedding ceremonies. (There’s even a Hmonglish hashtag on social media sites.) Many, however, are concerned about what — and how much — of the old traditions they should preserve while shaping a future uniquely their own.
“We don’t have a good memory of what our parents went through,” said Maplewood Realtor Hongkong Vang, 28, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and has lived in Minnesota for 15 years. “But now we want to buy a house with granite countertops and a trampoline in the side yard.”
Because their parents and grandparents rarely speak of their journey out of Laos, younger generations often feel disconnected from their past, said Noah Vang, 34, co-creator of the “We Are Hmong Minnesota” exhibit at the Minnesota History Center.
“Growing up here in the U.S., I learned that many Hmong adults my age and younger often question their sense of identity and history,” he said. “Many were afraid of being Hmong because we lacked this knowledge.”
That rings true for Shawn Xiong, 25, who describes his childhood in suburbia as “whitewashed.”
His mother remarried a Mexican man when Xiong was young, and English was the common language at home. As the only Hmong person in his Woodbury neighborhood, Xiong knew so little about his ancestry that he turned to Wikipedia for answers.
“I joined the military to get away from being Hmong,” said Xiong, who spent six years in the Air Force and lives in Bloomington. After striking up a friendship with a fellow Hmong airman, however, Xiong found himself unexpectedly yearning to understand his heritage. “I’m just now getting back in touch with my cultural identity,” he said.
Mainstreaming in America
In addition to facing stresses from blending cultures, Hmong millennials face economic hurdles.
They were harder hit by the recession nationwide and have experienced a much larger wage and gender gap than the broader population or other Asian-Americans, according to Hmong National Development, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. In Minnesota, 25 percent of Hmong families live in poverty.
Hmong millennials are much less likely to have earned a high school diploma or college degree, and a scant 2 percent have earned a graduate or professional degree, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center.
And then there are social pressures for the first made-in-America generation.
“When we went to college, we didn’t think about fitting in,” said Lee, 44, the U professor. “We felt we were so far behind academically, we focused on that. Our socializing was cooking, going to a movie, getting a video.” Students couldn’t afford a car, she said, and joining a fraternity or sorority wasn’t on their radar.
“This generation feels much more pressure to fit into mainstream kids — the fraternity culture of drinking, partying,” she said.
Winona Yang, a 23-year-old senior at the U, acknowledges those burdens, but is hopeful her generation can challenge stereotypes. The Hmong 2.0, she said, are ready to write their own history.
“We are social activists,” she said. “We have so much we want to say and do. Our parents didn’t have this opportunity in America. We are just waiting for our chance.”