By Ingrid Remak
Minnesotan’s pride themselves on not only their tolerance for cold – but for an actual fondness for winter.
While Nordic skiing has its roots in the Scandinavian heritage of the state, today the Minneapolis community is made up of thousands of residents that are new to ice and cold. Experiencing winter and its sub-zero highs for the first time can be both an enchanting and brutal experience.
But imagine if it is not just “winter” but the concept of winter that surprises you at your doorstep. How do you describe that?
Such has been the conundrum faced by many Hmong families and their youth as they tried to get to know winter, snowy sports and numerous new ideas that are part of a Minnesotan way of life, but have no direct translation into Hmong.
The Hmong people come from the dense tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. The historically isolated and traditional people were far removed from any snow capped peaks, and it was not until families resettled as refugees in Minnesota that they encountered winter, in all its glory, for the very first time.
“My mom says, ‘it’s too cold’,” laughed Anwatin Ski Team member Kao Zong Vang when she tried to describe her mother’s reaction to the sport.
Kao Zong is one of four Hmong youth on the Anwatin Ski Team that have been paving the way for their families to embrace this winter wonderland.
It is not uncommon for the kids of immigrant families to become the ambassadors, translators and interpreters of the new host culture and language – however many Hmong youth have found that the Minnesota Hmong translation is not that easy.
“There are simply no words for many ideas and concepts you have here,” remarked Kayeng Vang who works at Head Start and aids Hmong families in cross-cultural communication. “Words like computer, counselor, and permission slip – they don’t exist in Hmong. Therefore translation often becomes an explanation. This takes much longer because we need many words in Hmong to get across a single American idea.”
That has left the Hmong youth on the Anwatin Ski Team facing two challenges: how to explain why they liked this strange self-propelled gliding sport with planks and poles so much, and secondly – what to call it?
What has organically evolved to describe the activity they have grown to love is “gei-snow”, which translates into “riding snow” a hybrid term using Hmong and English to bridge their multicultural worlds.
“Sometimes we say, ‘gei-naking’ said Mike Xiong who participated on the team as a seventh and eighth grader. “That means ‘riding-ice.”
“Ba!” Kao Zong shouted from across the group as she lifted her pole into the air, “stick!”
This past year there were four Hmong youth who participated on the team year round. All competed in the City of Lakes Loppet and the Midwest Junior Championships. They continued their ski training into the summer, competing in anywhere from three to six mountain bike or running races with great success.
Currently there are not many Hmong athletes participating on high school cross-county ski teams, but that may all change soon. Many Hmong children are now being exposed to Loppet youth programming in their elementary schools, as well as through one of the Foundation’s two middle school programs.
“These kids are not only enthusiastic, they are good!” remarked program coach Allie Rykken who already projects a changing guard on the Nordic front. “They are being exposed to skiing before most people who learn in high school. Given their technical and physical bases, they are going to enter these teams with a leg up on other students. We may see a Hmong state champ before we know it.”