One people spent centuries in the tropical mountains of Southeast Asia, leading a traditional agrarian life rooted in animism, with its blending of the spiritual and natural worlds.
Another people spent generations building a technological civilization amid wintry forests and windswept prairies, establishing a Scandinavian-influenced culture of industriousness and Lutheran reserve.
It isn’t obvious that two such cultures were made for each other. Thus, in these times of racial tension and wariness about refugee resettlements, the story of the Hmong journey to success in Minnesota offers an encouraging example.
I come to that story as a small-town, Minnesota white boy who took a job two years ago at a Hmong-focused St. Paul charter school — Community School of Excellence (CSE). My job there: to share updates on the school’s news and activities with its families and community.
Within a few weeks, I was already in over my head — dressed in Hmong regalia crown to shin for our school’s Hmong New Year celebration. With such occasions to publicize, I delivered school newsletters to area businesses in St. Paul’s North End neighborhood. On one walk along Rice Street, I spotted a familiar sign: American Family Insurance.
Inside the small office was more familiarity. It seemed my grandfather’s interior designer had been there ahead of me. Mounted deer antlers hung from the walls beside hunting photos. Yet this lake-cabin look sported one nonstandard element: the large, square, color explosion of a Hmong story quilt nailed to the wall.
The proprietor sat at one of two desks, a middle-aged Hmong man who was there beside his hunting buddies in blaze orange in those photos. At first, it all seemed to clash (rather like beholding myself in Hmong garb) — this man from the Asian tropics in the warm, woodsy hunting gear I was used to seeing on people who looked more like me, my family and friends Up North.
But this sense of dissonance has disintegrated over these past two years, as I’ve had the chance to meet Hmong people in the Twin Cities and beyond and hear their stories of arrival and assimilation.
• • •
Within a minute after meeting Khai Xiong in our school’s computer server room, we were talking fishing. Xiong, an IT consultant, loves fishing the way only a Minnesotan can.
For that matter, dressed in bluejeans, a T-shirt, and a Mossy Oak baseball cap covering his buzz cut, the 29-year-old Hmong man looked every bit the “good ’ol boy” walleye warrior — sounded it, too, with a sharp smile embellishing his loud Minnesota accent. He’d fit right in at the American Legion hall in Blackduck, my hometown an hour south of Canada.
Weeks later, sitting in Xiong’s office, the computer network specialist shared how his angling passion began. On a cool fall day five years earlier, a friend had simply asked Xiong to come along fishing. He went and didn’t catch a thing.
Didn’t matter. “I fell in love with it like that,” he said with a snap of his fingers.
Soon, evenings found Xiong in his backyard practicing casting with the rod and reel his friend had given him.
“You start understanding the specs, the reel, the lure, the lake, the line …” he said, listing all the fascinations of the craft.
Five years later, the passion remains — and burns year-round. “It’s what gets me through the winter,” Xiong said.
“Are there many Hmong out on the lake ice-fishing?” I asked, intrigued that the love of fishing lures these tropical people out to the middle of an ice sheet.
“You’d be surprised not to see one,” Xiong replied.
According to Tong Vang, Southeast Asian community liaison for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, there are more than 10,000 Hmong anglers and hunters in the state. So, while the largely white base population of Minnesota hunters and anglers has been slowly tapering over recent years, the Hmong have helped fill the gap, allowing the total number of licensees to remain steady since 2000.
Outdoor sports is only one arena of assimilation. Hundreds of businesses are registered to Hmong proprietors. Dozens of Hmong-language churches dot the Twin Cities. And while large urban school districts struggle to fill niches, more than half a dozen Hmong-focused charter schools, including CSE, have sprung up.
And to return to the world of sports, several of my Hmong colleagues sport purple jerseys the Friday before Vikings games.
• • •
In many ways, the Hmong experience seems to ease common concerns over refugees not peacefully assimilating or not contributing to their new communities. Yet there is also no question that the Hmong, too, have suffered frictions.
Tou Ger Bennett Xiong, 42, somberly recalled his boyhood in St. Paul, where his family had found refuge in the early 1980s amid the early waves of Hmong resettlement here.
“When we first came here … the racism was very blatant,” Xiong said, sitting at a CSE library table. “‘You gooks. Go back to your country!’” he continued, repeating remarks he says his family heard from locals — of all colors.
Bennett Xiong is a diversity trainer and advocate for the Hmong in the Midwest. He works as a youth leadership consultant at CSE. At first and for a long while, he said, lifestyles clashed. Traffic lights, the need to obtain a license for hunting and driving, the workings of insurance for automobiles and health care — these and many other features of American life were truly foreign concepts to these newcomers.
“Not only did we cross over the Pacific Ocean. We crossed 100 years,” he declared.
The submersion of a traditional, kin-centered agrarian society within a vast, ever-changing, individualistic and technological one has profoundly challenged the Hmong community.
Members of what’s called the “1.5 generation” (neither truly first- nor second-generation Americans, but Hmong such as Bennett Xiong who moved to the U.S. as a child) grew up stuck between two worlds, not always feeling at home in either.
Bennett Xiong watched some of his peers withdraw, becoming “lost,” and adds that Hmong culture in some ways accelerated isolation.
“We weren’t brought up to express our feelings,” he said. “Especially boys.”
As a result, he said, Hmong youths began to group together for support. Then many Minnesotans overreacted, quickly labeling such groups “gangs” when many were nothing more than circles of friends.
This combination of Minnesotans’ wariness and the Hmong’s unfamiliarity with Minnesota norms has led to tension and to well-known instances of conflict between the Hmong and other groups.
And while such clashes (as well as genuine Hmong gang activity) have decreased with an improved sense of belonging, cultural controversies remain.
A defined patriarchy within Hmong culture, featuring polygamy and dowries — explained by Bennett Xiong as rooted and reasonable in traditional agrarian life — has turned out to be generally incompatible with modern American life.
Residual customs of that centuries-old hierarchy — and a general cultural pressure that limits female potential — can stymie and frustrate Hmong women. Meanwhile, the freedom America affords Hmong women to divorce or to emphasize career over family can distress Hmong men, who see their standing in their culture dropping out from beneath them.
“I’m not going to judge what the older generation acts like,” said Bennett Xiong of the traditional patriarchy. But last year, by strongly countering a well-known Hmong TV host who lectured Hmong women for leaving their husbands, he has made clear his sense of how his people’s culture needs to progress.
Sometimes change is forced by Minnesota statute, as certain traditional Hmong practices — high school-aged brides, shamanism, or corporal punishment — violate legal boundaries.
“You can’t spank your kids like you used to,” Bennett Xiong said of Hmong parents being brought before judges for leaving marks on children. Yet Minnesota institutions have shown a willingness to learn about and work with the Hmong community. Tribal elders and others speak on behalf of defendants in court to explain their behavior.
• • •
Meanwhile, the blatant racism Bennett Xiong remembers from his youth has largely disappeared, he said.
According to Hmong-Minnesotan businessman Va Tou Her, 53, Minnesota Nice is now world-renowned.
“This state is more welcoming to ethnic people,” Her told me in his insurance and real estate office on University Avenue in St. Paul. “Hmong people around the world, they talk about Minnesota.”
In the mid 1970s, it was Minnesota’s religious institutions that welcomed the first Hmong to our state. In 2015, the Minnesota History Center celebrated the Hmong’s 40th year in the U.S., featuring the “We are Hmong MN” exhibit. The “Great Minnesota Get-Together” did the same by declaring the last of its 12 days as “Hmong MN Day at the Minnesota State Fair.” Hmong MN Day was celebrated in 2016 as well.
Hmong today are to be found among the ranks of police and firefighters, artists and performers, among political candidates and elected officials in the Legislature and on the city councils of both Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“We make Minnesota a little more spicy, a little more colorful,” said Bennett Xiong. “In that sense, we have arrived.”
• • •
The success of the Hmong in Minnesota, it appears to me, results from their striking a balance between adapting to the surrounding culture, preserving the pillars of their own way of life, and taking advantage of the natural common ground they have found with their new and improbable neighbors. Perhaps no story more fully embodies that combination than that of the Yangs of Walnut Grove.
In 2000, Harry Yang wanted out of urban life in St. Paul.
“Our children got themselves in gangs,” said Yang, now 60. “So we moved in this town. …They finish school. Most of them finished college.”
“This town” was Minnesota’s iconic prairie hamlet, Walnut Grove.
Soon Harry’s brother Terry and his family followed, along with others.
In the 2000 census, there was officially one Asian resident in Walnut Grove. Today, about 70 Hmong families live in the area, and Hmong make up more than a third of the town’s population (850 in 2013).
From the start, Terry said, Walnut Grove welcomed them.
“Honest people. Nice people. Friendly people. We built our leadership to have a relationship with city, county and school.”
The Hmong’s presence benefited the shrinking municipality, whose school has since enjoyed growing enrollment and whose only grocery store is now owned by the Yang brothers — standing as a symbol of the Hmong in Minnesota.
The side of the old brick building is covered in a painted mural. It depicts Walnut Grove’s famous author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books, Laura Ingalls Wilder, standing alongside a Hmong woman, a latter-day settler on the same archetypal American landscape.
“The Hmong and local folks have farming backgrounds,” said Walnut Grove City Council Member Xiong Yang, 35, who organized the mural effort, completed in the summer of 2012. “That ties into the entire community.”
In July, Walnut Grove celebrated its Summer Family Festival. Food and merchandise booths lined the walkways in the town park. A bookseller’s table stood not far from a Hmong-run food service, where white and Hmong townspeople lined up together for egg rolls. An interracial mixture of children giggled as they slid down the spiral slide of the nearby playground.
Not all integrations are as successful as the Hmong in Minnesota. That’s all the more reason their story can serve as a hopeful example — for our country and the world.
Brandon Ferdig is a writer in Minneapolis. He shares his stories and presentations about culture and humanity at ThePeriphery.com.