My friend Marion really loves to travel. Reading his most recent post here on Where The Pavement Ends I was reminded of my adventures with the Hmong Laotian tribes-people living here in America. For several years I worked with the United Hmong Association of N.C., even serving on staff for a year or so. During that time I learned a great deal about the importance of going to faraway places.
For those who missed the Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino, a few years ago, or who never heard of the Secret War, here’s the very short version of “Who Are the Hmong?” (pronounced “mung”). They are one of the indigenous tribes who lived in northern Laos, were recruited by the French during World War II, then recruited by the CIA during the war in Vietnam. Hmong soldiers fought proudly for the U.S., interrupting supply trails along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail and rescuing many American pilots who went down behind enemy lines. When we pulled out of Vietnam, guess who we did not take with us? All these years later, the Hmong are still hunted and murdered in Laos.
The good news is that a great many of them made it through harrowing treks across the Mekong River into Thailand, lived for years in refugee camps there or in the Philippines, and eventually emigrated to a handful of western countries, including Australia, England, France and the U.S. North Carolina is home to one of the larger concentrations of Hmong population in the country, but most folks don’t even know they are there, assuming that these brown-skinned people of small stature must be Mexican.
It’s difficult to overstate how much I learned about culture while working with the North Carolina Hmong. These very misunderstood people opened their hearts and lives to me, embraced me as part of their community, and patiently answered every one of my thousands of questions. I had lots of those:
What is this food?
Why do you grow the garden in scattered places, not rows?
What is the shaman doing with the tray full of rooster feet?
What is the storyteller singing about?
Why are Hmong people so loyal to the country which deserted them after the war?
I found out that my ideas about animal sacrifice were all wrong. I learned how to notice the difference between names from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. I got where I could say Happy New Year, Hello and Thank you.
Oh, and about the travel – every year there are Hmong festivals all over the country, particularly around the new year (October and November), and particularly in the states with heavy Hmong settlements: Wisconsin, California, North Carolina, Oregon and Minnesota. Festival time was always fascinating to me, with so many colorful costumes, native foods and very loud Asian music. As an American, I was intrigued to see that even the teens sporting hip-hop attire would alternate between cruising with their friends and hanging out with family. No one seemed the least bit annoyed to be watching a younger sibling, or sitting with an elderly grandparent.
Many in the festival crowd would have filled up a car and driven cross-country to reconnect with their clans for a few days. Sometimes, in doing research for a grant, perhaps, I would mention a possible out of state Hmong contact to someone in the office. An answer always came back, “Oh yes, he is in my mother’s clan, I last saw him in 2005,” or some such. These community ties are something fragile that many of us in the U.S. have either taken for granted or allowed to dissipate. My Hmong friends taught me many things, but among them was that travel is not just a vacation. It is good for the tribe and good for the soul.