What's Hmong?

Feb 16, 2011
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A Hmong American woman attempts to explain what her ethno-linguistic group is about.

When I was younger, I always dreaded the question, “What’s Hmong?” I dreaded it not because I wasn’t proud of being Hmong or because I was ashamed, but because it was and still is a bit complicated to explain to others what Hmong is.

Many people are programmed to identify an ethnic group with its country of origin. People want to know where you’re from to find out what or who you are (although many of us know that what country your ethnicity is from doesn’t necessarily identify who you are). For example, Germans are from Germany, the French are from France, Vietnamese are from Vietnam, Japanese are from Japan, and so on. So, what happens when you tell someone that you’re Miao, Mien, or Romani? When I say I’m Hmong, others automatically try to figure out what country I am from. Hmongland? Hmonga? Mongolia? “I didn’t know the Hmong people were from Mongolia. I always thought Mongolians were from Mongolia.” Or “Was there a country that we did not learn about in geography class?”

It saddens me that Gran Torino is the only reference others have of the Hmong.

There are three typical and awkward conversations that I go through when people ask about my ethnic background.

The first situation is when I tell them that I’m Hmong and they go, “Gran Torino”. Or “You’re from Gran Torino!” Or “I heard about the Hmong people from Gran Torino.” Or, “Do you know anyone from Gran Torino?”

I don’t get offended when people talk to me about Gran Torino to me this way. I am actually proud that the Hmong kind of made it to the big screen, even if it is just having our name and deeds for the US government mentioned. However, it saddens me that Gran Torino is the only reference others have of the Hmong. But mostly, it’s annoying.


442 A scene from Gran Torino


The second situation: when I tell them that I’m Hmong, they just start asking questions and don’t give me time to explain or elaborate. So I just try to answer as best as I can. And the more I answer, the more I confuse them. “What language do you speak?” “Where were you born?” “What country are you from?” “What do you mean you don’t have a country (because all ethnicities should have their own territory named after them)?”

The third situation is the most awkward. People ask you a question not because they want to know, but because they just want to be polite. Similar to the question, “How are you?” You start to tell them how your day was and then they either cut you off or their eyes start to wander. Only except the question isn’t “How are you?” it’s “What’s Hmong?”

Rarely do I hear others say that they know who the Hmong people are. I believe that has to do with where I live. I live in an area with not too many Hmong people. Now, if you were to drive 30 minutes south a few cities over, where there is a higher population of Hmong people, you wouldn’t get into these types of situations. Here’s a video of situations 2 and 3.



This post was originally published on A Hmong Woman in January 2011.