(April 4, 2011) – As someone who’s branded myself as a Hmong comedian and entertainer, I’ve been performing culturally related humor for the past 15 years and to over 1500 audiences in 45 states. I have appeared on local and national TV and radio. I strongly believe in the saying that “if we can laugh together, we can talk about anything”. Furthermore, when done right, I believe humor can be a great medium to build cultural understanding among and across ethnic communities.
However, if used inappropriately, we can create more cultural divide and perpetuate bigotry and ignorance.
I believe in the freedom of speech and the spirit of humor. And although I’m sure your intentions were for entertainment purposes, I hope that the wave of mixed reviews will give you some things to reconsider in your career as a radio producer.
As an entertainer, first and foremost I poke fun of myself. If I want to poke fun at any person or group, I do my research on the history of my subjects to make sure that I am not contributing to any more hurt, misunderstanding, or suffrage that that person or group has already endured. In other words, know your material. I’m sure that had you realized or had a little more background about the Hmong in Minnesota you would have thought twice about your choice of entertainment.
First of all, it is grammatically incorrect to refer to more than one Hmong as “Hmongs”. It’s a word that can be used singularly or in plural–for example, “one Hmong” and “many Hmong”.
Secondly, I’m sure that had you known the cultural and historical reasons why Hmong households are larger than the national average, you would think twice about a song entitled, “30 Hmongs in a House”. It is because in an impoverished, agrarian society where physical labor is required for survival, large families are a necessity.
A first-generation refugee group many Hmong still live in these multi-generational households where a close-knit family cares for one another and share in the responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for the elderly and the young. So instead of a comfortable Temporpedic king-sized bed for two, we’d rather make room for more if space is an issue, albeit a little uncomfortable.
There is a popular Hmong saying that goes, “Tsev ti los neeg tsis ti,” which essentially translates that, “even though the space is crowded, one’s heart can never be too crowded.” In other words, love will make room for more. If history serves me correct, many earlier immigrants groups lived in small compact spaces in large numbers as they began their new lives here in this great country. You might want to ask your grandparents if your ancestors did the same.
“One big group of Vang’s…” In case you didn’t know, there are only 18 major clan names in a population of hundreds of thousands, and Vang is a popular name. So maybe to you, 24 Vang’s may seem like a lot, but there are over 10,000 Vang’s in St. Paul alone. Furthermore, being affiliated with a clan means there is a sense of identity, strength in numbers, and support in times of need. This is apparent in how we conduct our traditional marriages, funerals, and spiritual healing practices and rituals.
And yes, you are correct that “kids work in St. Paul…” In fact, St. Paul is the largest concentration of Hmong Americans in the U.S. But what brought us here?
During a time when very few people knew about the Hmong’s role in the war, the late Congressman Bruce Vento and former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, were among a few that understood the Hmong story. They were so moved by the fact that over 30,000 Hmong, some as young as 8 years old, died during the “Secret Wars of Laos” protecting American interests as covert American allies and that we were facing a genocide in revenge for helping the Americans, that they along with a few supporters pushed to have some of the first Hmong families settle in St. Paul.
Thus, Minnesota became our new home, not by choice but to avoid political persecution. Immigrants come to this country by choice, refugees come here by necessity. Hmong are political refugees. It sure wasn’t ice-fishing that brought us here.
“Kids work at the mall…” True, indeed. Many young Hmong children are expected to contribute to the family’s well-being in any way possible. So as early as 6 or 7 years old, they are assigned household chores and duties. For those who are old enough to earn a wage, they are encouraged to work and contribute financially to the family income.
At 14 years-old I remember giving my checks to my parents for groceries. This is another practice and sacrifice that many Euro-Americans had to do to make ends meet long before we got here. You might want to check with grandma on this one also.
Your line about “Hmongs get pregnant early…”? True, not just for Hmong girls but for many young people across all ethnic groups, particularly those who lacked sex education and the proper resources in their schools and communities. A large number of these groups happened to be of minority descent and live in poor, socio-economically challenged areas.
I can see why some might take this as singling out Hmong teenage girls when these are the experiences of a nationwide trend. To do so is careless and it continues to sexually stereotype minority women as promiscuous.
In essence, although your Hmong parody was an attempt at humoring your listeners, it also succeeded in perpetuating and reinforcing stereotypes that further divide communities at a time when we need to build more cultural tolerance and understanding. And although you broke no law and many would say “it was just a joke,” as a fellow comedian and entertainer, please consider the repercussions of your material and its impact on some of your “not-so-informed” listeners, especially the younger demographic.
I would even go as far as to say please consider the dangerous subtext and why some may view it as degrading, demeaning, and dehumanizing of a particular group. I’m sure you are fully aware of today’s pop culture and its role in educating our young people, for better or for worse.
In September of 1998, in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, Pa Nhia Lor, a 13-year old Hmong girl was raped, choked, and later stabbed. Her assailants then tied plastic bags around her head and watched as she took her last while they stood on her arms to prevent her from ripping it off. After she stopped moving, they went out to buy cigarettes then later called more friends to come help dispose of the body. They wrapped her body up in a blanket and went to the Elk River landfill.
When they realized it was closed, they dragged her body 150 feet to a bulldozed area, stripped her clothes off, and threw her naked body into a ditch and covered her body with sticks. The five young people involved in the crime were ages 17 through 18.
I believe Pa Nhia Lor would have been alive if her assailants had seen her as a human being and not as a helpless sex object or an animal.
In October of 2007, in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, while on a hunting trip, Cha Vang, a 30-year old father of five, was shot at, severely beaten, repeatedly stabbed in the face and throat with a hunting knife, and buried in the woods under a log. The killer had shoved a 4-inch wooden stick down his mouth with so much force that it broke his teeth and pierced his tongue. In police reports, his assailant, James Nichols was quoted as saying, “Those Hmong people are bad, mean…”
Nichols did not see Vang as a human being and a fellow hunter.
Last month, March of 2011, in Vinita, Oklahoma, Neng Yang, a 42 year-old Hmong man was brutally beaten and battered by Scott Osborn, a former member of law enforcement. Yang is 5 feet tall while Osborn stands 6 feet, one inches and weighs 250 pounds.
Yang was beaten after he accidentally ran over Osborn’s dog. Although Osborn claimed he’d only hit Yang once, Yang suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs, bruises on his leg and now requires metal plates inside his face to hold his cheek bones together. He also requires a walker to get around. This case is still pending.
It is my opinion that had Osborn saw Yang as a fellow human being, he would have chosen otherwise.
So Mr. Steve-O, no one is saying that you or your radio station is responsible for any of these malicious acts towards Hmong people. However, the type of humor that you choose to broadcast over the air does little to improve racial understanding and tolerance. And when presented without the proper background knowledge, it can often times be dangerous to young and uninformed minds. As I said, I believe all the malicious acts above would not have taken place had the perpetrators saw their fellow Hmong in a more positive light.
In essence, when you choose create humor that, in the words of scholar and historian, Dr. Dan Hess, “attack, demean, and degrade using caricatured references and images of poverty, vermin, child sexuality, promiscuity, physical unattractiveness, child neglect, and ignorance.” (Asian American Press, March 31, 2011), you are far from funny. In fact, because your message can reach hundreds of thousands of young minds, IT IS NOT ONLY TOXIC BUT DANGEROUS!
Please consider why the St. Paul Schools immediately ban your station from being played on school buses following the incident. And why Health Partners and AT&T pulled their ads from your show.
Thanks for listening.
Tou Ger Xiong,
A fellow Comedian and Entertainer