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"Many may say that living with the collision of two cultures is a burden, but I find it a blessing in disguise."

- Seexeng Lee -
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2015 Legacy Day Mural

2015 Legacy Day Mural

The Blake School

The tunnel linking the Hopkins Lower School to the Middle School is undergoing a colorful transformation thanks to art teacher Seexeng Lee and a group of Blake student-artists. Look for more on this project in the months to come! (Video by Nadia Lee) [read more]

Post on: June 8, 2015 9:56:00 AM

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New generation writes of what it means to be Hmong

New generation writes of what it means to be Hmong

Post on: December 31, 2011 5:43:00 PM

Article by: PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN, New York Times Updated: December 31, 2011 - 5:43 PM

Parents had no written language, so the children write the stories.

FRESNO, CALIF. - In many ways, the preoccupations of the young writers who gather here every week over supermarket cheese and crackers are those of young people everywhere. They grapple with loneliness, the mystifying behavior of siblings, being gay, the parents who do not understand them.

But as the first generation to grow up with a written language, English -- rather than the traditional spoken Hmong -- the members of the Hmong American Writers' Circle are addressing a new kind of coming of age in America. It is one in which living-room sofas are moved for the arrival of a shaman on Saturday mornings and in which Fourth of July fireworks are avoided because they elicit terrifying flashbacks among their parents.

Mai Der Vang, 30, a poet and a project director for New America Media, an ethnic news organization, writes about the lives her mother and father could not have:

And what you learn on back-to-school night, when your mother does not know how to write your name on the chalkboard of your fourth grade class.

They call themselves the 1.75 generation, mostly born in the United States but still strongly identifying with their Hmong roots. They are the sons and daughters of the hundreds of thousands of Hmong villagers in Laos who were covertly trained by the CIA to repel communist forces during the Vietnam War. Although the oldest writers were born in Thai refugee camps, most grew up in California's Central Valley or in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

In the United States, traumatic memories of wartime atrocities are often compounded by language issues, poverty and social isolation.

In monthly workshops and in "How Do I Begin?", an anthology of their writing recently published by Heyday Books, Vang and her colleagues try to make sense of the dualities of growing up Hmong American, especially the hidden inner lives of parents often expressed as a profound sadness.

In Laos, only one child -- usually the oldest son -- was chosen to attend school, said Pos Moua, 41, a creative writing and English teacher at Merced College. When his father was younger, he spent his days "taking food to his older brother, a long journey by donkey," Moua said. Now 74 and ailing, Moua's father had deeply wanted an education; when his son read him a poem he had written, he wept.

"They have an urge to talk about feelings," Moua said of his father's generation. "But the limitations in the new world changed the way they perceived life."

The limitations have been profound: About a quarter of Hmong families nationally live in poverty. And in California, nearly 43 percent of Hmong ages 25 and older have less than a high school diploma, according to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census.

In a study of the Hmong community by the Center for Health Disparities of the University of California, Davis, poverty was cited by families as a major contributor to mental illness. In the 1990s, a wave of teen suicides in Fresno cast the challenges of assimilation into bas-relief, with truancy among boys still a major issue.

"In the U.S., the family power structure gets switched around," said Shwaw Vang, a clinical social worker at Khasiah House, a Hmong mental health clinic in Madison, Wis. "It's the young who are able to communicate with the larger community, which gives them authority, while parents are relegated to religious and healing ceremonies and taking care of the house."

Writing is a way to reinforce "Hmongness," said Burlee Vang, 29, the circle's founder, who is not related to either Mai or Shwaw Vang. He started the group seven years ago "out of loneliness," he said.

Coming to terms with their parents' experience and preserving it in the printed word is the major impetus for some. "Our parents will never write," Mai Vang said. "So we write for them."

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