Hmong teens and young adults find ways to bridge surprising cultural differences

When Wang Chong Vue and I showed the movie “The Best Place to Live,? about the first wave of Hmong immigrants to America, we expected questions from the non-Hmong viewers in the room – not from young Hmong immigrants.

Wang and I chose “The Best Place to Live? because it highlights many aspects of traditional Hmong culture, and we thought it would be a good starting point for the cultural exchange that is the true passion of the Jane Addams School for Democracy.

I am a college student volunteer with the Teen Circle at the Jane Addams School, a place where people of different cultures come together and celebrate diversity in learning, teaching, and interacting with each other. Cultural gaps are bridged as everyone is given the opportunity to voice their opinion and contribute a different cultural perspective in a comfortable setting. At the Jane Addams School, the philosophy is “everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner.?

teens.jpg Teen Circle participants (l-r) Mai, Mai Vang, Pao Yang, and Tria Yang.

The Teen Circle is made up primarily of college students who are bilingual in Hmong and English and Hmong teens who came to the U.S. in the last few years. We meet weekly to socialize, learn and do work together. Recently, we decided to have a regular movie night.

College student Emily Peterson had brought her mother for our first movie night, and I don’t think anyone was surprised when Ms. Peterson showed curiosity about the dowry and engagement processes of traditional Hmong marriages and weddings. What did surprise me, and I think other second-generation Hmong immigrants in the group, were the questions from the teens. Many of them noticed the change in practices between the immigrants in the movie and Hmong people they see in the Twin Cities. For example, one teen did not understand why a funeral was held at a church, because traditionally Hmong funerals are held in a funeral home, usually over three days. What the group was able to tell him was that Christian churches had sponsored a majority of Hmong immigrants, and many of these immigrants converted to Christianity when they came to America.

Boun Tan Moua.jpg Teen Circle participant Boun Tan Moua is shown here in traditional Hmong dress.

Another teen noticed that many of the immigrants in the movie dressed differently compared to people today. During the discussion afterward, another teen noted that clothing trends were different depending on the region people emigrated from, because some regions in Thailand had access to television and some didn't.

The movie really helped make for an interactive culture exchange and a learning opportunity for all of us, and we plan to have another movie night, maybe showing some kind of art film to stimulate discussion.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs