Augsburg College – Asian American Women’s Group student participants of an Australian seminar to learn more about the Hmong refugees there, in back row from left: Mai See Vang, Nou Chang, Jenny Yang, and MaiChoua Thao. Front row from left: Ka Youa Vang, MaiYer Vang, Nou Yang, and Padao Yang. Not pictured: Mai Zoua and Che Yang. (AAP staff photo by Tom LaVenture)
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS (November 16, 2010) – In June 2010, nine Augsburg College students visited Australia to learn about the Hmong refugee experience in the land down under. The students reported what they learned about the Hmong communities in Australia, with personal presentation, a Q & A and a Hmong language documentary video in November at Augsburg College. They came back with stories of new-found relatives and similarities and differences in cultural adaptation, livelihood and educational opportunities of their American counterparts.
“We were first Hmong women’s group to visit Hmong in Australia, and they were pretty excited about seeing us,” said MaiChoua Thao, a group participant who served as the event emcee.
Members of the group ranged from first year to fourth year students. The idea began in the Spring 2009 Semester after a discussion with Ilean Her, executive director, State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, who went to Australia to meet with Hmong in 1999. They learned that the Hmong experience there seemed quite a bit different that the American story – and that it would make a good study.
“Hmong people rarely visit Australia to learn about and learn from those living there,” said Thao. “We wanted to increase our own awareness and have a better understanding of their country.”
The Asian American Women’s Group, an Augsburg student organization of mostly Hmong students, coordinated with the Penh Lo of the Global Connections Project of the Pan Asian Student Services Office. They put together goals for the trip to learn about the Hmong living in Australia, gaining a better understanding of the country, its socioeconomic and political and educational institutions and its impact on the approximately 3,000 Hmong people that now make Australia their home.
“We wanted to create a global dialogue between the Hmong there and here,” Thao added.
The group had to fund their own trip. They began fundraising with a December 2009 trip goal, but fell a little short and postponed the trip until June until they could raise more funds and the students came up with the rest.
The group visited the three primary areas wehre Hmong have resettled, Queensland, Sydney in New South Wales and Melbourne in Victoria. The group already had one invaluable contact, Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D., a social anthropologist in community development in Australia, who in 2006-2007 was a visiting scholar at the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul.
They began in Queensland, visiting Cairns, Innisfail and Brisbane.
In Innisfail, the group learned that many Hmong went to Australia to meet up with relatives already there or when they were did not get refugee status in America. The Hmong refugees received welfare money at first and the seniors still rely upon external support.
The elders for the youth without Hmong role models or friends of their own culture to encourage them into higher education. It is not just a Hmong issue, and they said barriers to higher education are the comparable pay for occupations not requiring a degree.
The rural elders are more traditional and took in the young American women as their own daughters. In return the closeness helped to better gauge their lives and issues.
The group visited a successful Hmong banana farm where the owner said that the Hmong succeed in this area because they are willing to run a labor-intensive business – whereas the mainstream farmers don’t find the model profitable from having to hire out most of the work.
Rural youth are not as interested in college but those who are didn’t seem to aware of the process. There were no youth programs designed to inspire higher learning skills or outreach from the schools.
Australia operates on a track education system where by grade 10 the students decide on a vocational direction. At age 16 they feel the Hmong there do not know what they want to do yet and so they track to something they think they would like or they drop out.
“The top five percent make it into the colleges and universities,” said one participant. “When they are failing or losing motivation it makes it quite hard.”
“The youth don’t go to school because they have to help out on the family farms when they have 50 acres or more,” said another participant.
The group said the rural Hmong were more traditional but have greater flexibility with their culture given low numbers of Hmong community. They said the city Hmong in Brisbane and Sydney were very modernized but that the youth struggle with language.
The elders seem to like Cairns with its climate more like Laos and Thailand, they can farm and live more simply than in Brisbane or the colder south.
The elders Cairns has the atmosphere, trees, mountains and farming that reminds them of home. Initially they wanted to return but said they are now settled. Other Hmong families living in Tasmania moved to the mainland to be in a warmer climate.
Brisbane is an 18-hour drive from Cairns. The group said they were more concerned with how Hmong culture is slowly disappearing with this generation, and many do not even speak the Hmong language.
They said the Hmong of North Australia tended to be more traditional and urban South were more modernized.
In the north, the youth still speak and write some Hmong, where in Brisbane and the south they didn’t much at all. They said a part of it was the availability of jobs in the south where they lived the urban family life. In the north, the farmers and small town life made it more cohesive for Hmong community to maintain a way of life.
“Here the parents supported their children,” said one participant.
In the cities the families are more entrepreneurial, with several owning fast food restaurants, retail and grocery stores along with doing some part-time farming to make money.
There are no clan affiliations, which they found most apparent in Sydney, which contrasted Hmong clan society in the United States. Leaders said the relatively low Hmong population prevented clans from developing as well as institutional support mechanisms found in larger Hmong American communities.
There are small nonprofits that assist with Hmong funerals and annual New Year events, but not as much in the social services. Despite the lack of cultural cohesiveness there is a sense of pride in their Hmong identity.
The group felt that the Hmong language is important to understanding the elders and through them their culture. The elders said the low numbers of youth means they expect many to marry non-Hmong especially in the cities.
The group said city youth are more interested in preserving their culture but don’t have the resources and instead focus on working and earning money.
The participants said that there was a consensus that it is not their place to judge the Hmong in Australia, with their own experiences and new goals and lives shaped by their life that differs from America.
Two of the participants knew they had family in Australia and visited them. Two others learned that they were related to people there through conversations.
They pointed out that Australian schools don’t have women’s studies or social justice programs yet and it is apparent with the race issues that continue to impact its society.
Each student filmed for a day to “see Australia through their own eyes,” and the footage was compiled and edited into video compilation. They are also putting together an official report that will be released soon – noting that a two-week trip is not a scholastic endeavor and that some will organize a return trip to focus on some areas they learned about from this trip.
For more information, please contact Jenny Yang at 612-330-1294 or email [email protected]