Textbook Update Could Give Hmong Youth Cultural Pride

New America Media, Commentary
By Connie Vang

Editor’s Note: A new California bill that would require that the refugee history of Southeast Asians be included in the next textbook curriculum update may have the side-effect of instilling cultural pride in young Hmong Americans. A vote for California Assembly Bill 2064 is a vote to help all children take pride in their cultural identity, writes NAM contributor Connie Vang. She is a freshman at California State University in Fresno, Calif.

FRESNO, Calif.—One day, while slipping through a crowd of students at a bus stop, I overheard someone say: “I don’t think Hmong people have a country. They decided to come to America to use up its resources; they aren’t even contributing to society. It’s so embarrassing.”

To hear this from a Hmong student around my age shocked me. It made me realize that the majority of people in this country, both Hmong and non-Hmong, especially youth, have no clue as to why Hmong people are here.

But, if Governor Schwarzenegger signs Assembly Bill 2064 into law this month, it could change that and increase the cultural knowledge of many high school students in California. A.B. 2064 would require that the war and refugee history of Southeast Asians be included in the next textbook curriculum update.

I was once in that situation, feeling like I didn’t care about my Hmong culture. As students, many of us believe that if we don’t learn something in school, it’s not important enough to know or care about in the first place. We are taught that education is the key to success, so why would we question the school system? And if we do question what we’re learning, we’re given the quick answer: “It’s California standards.”

In school, I did not learn anything about my Hmong culture, so it made me think that being Hmong was not important. I tried my best to separate myself from Hmong people.

I didn’t go to cultural events. I refused to speak Hmong. I even said I would never date or marry a Hmong person. I succeeded in separating myself from Hmong culture, but from sixth through ninth grade, my self-esteem lowered drastically.

It grew worse each year, along with my grades. I started fighting with my parents, about my grades and social life.

Then, before my sophomore year, my mother dragged me to volunteer for Hmong Voices, a youth video program with a goal to document stories of Hmong leaders and veterans. At first I didn’t want to be there, but a friend encouraged me to stay and give my culture a chance.

After working with others and learning why Hmong people came here, I was changed forever. Hanging out at the movies, gossiping, and buying clothes was no longer important.

I wanted a fresh start. I started to try harder in school. One night, my parents caught me doing homework and stared at me in confusion. When, for the first time, I hung out with another Hmong girl, my mom took pictures. People laugh about it, but it was a huge step.

Now, it pains me to know I hurt my parents in the past. After hearing the tragic stories of how the Hmong arrived to America, I developed more respect for my parents.

Many young Hmong do not know about the Secret War. They do not know how their parents and elders ran through treacherous jungles and escaped Laos by crossing the Mekong River. They do not know that in Laos today, some Hmong are still hunted and tortured by the government.

A.B. 2064 could change that. It would require that all high school history textbooks in California include teaching what Southeast Asians provided to the Americans during the Vietnam War. In 2003, A.B. 78 was signed into law. It was similar to A.B. 2064, but it only encouraged history teachers to teach it, rather than requiring it.

When people don’t know their cultural history, they don’t know a part of themselves. As a result, they may react negatively, even resenting their culture. After discovering my cultural history, I started educating others. Often, in my classes I ended up educating my teachers and classmates about the Hmong and how they helped in the Vietnam War. Afterwards, some non-Hmong students even came up to me and asked more questions.

No one seemed to know how the Hmong helped during the Vietnam War. It wasn’t just in my American and world history classes, but also in my American government and Spanish classes. It came up during discussions on the Vietnam War, the economy, terrorism, and genocide.

Some students saw me as a terrorist after General Vang Pao was arrested in June 2007 on charges that he was trying to overthrow the Lao government. Other students assumed that Hmong people had no hardships and came to America from China or Mongolia, strictly for economic reasons. Most teachers didn’t have a clue either as to why Hmong people were in America. But they were open to learning from me and having the class learn along.

Some Hmong students tell me A.B. 2064 won’t pass because Hmong people are a small percentage of the population and America does not care enough. I think they react this way because the Hmong have received little recognition.

There is more to the bill beyond Hmong people. A.B. 2064 will also include other Southeast Asians that allied with the Americans, such as the Lao, Mien, Cambodian and Vietnamese. I didn’t even know that other ethnicities were recruited for the “Secret Army,” but I learned that through A.B. 2064. These other groups are just as important, and should also be recognized for their contribution and sacrifice during the Vietnam War.

I hope people will contact Governor Schwarzenegger’s office and urge him to support A.B. 2064. I know it will help many students who are struggling to understand who they are. Not just Southeast Asian students, but anyone with that same resentment of their cultural history.

When we know our cultural history, we can feel proud about who we are. When we know the war and atrocities that happened to our cultures in the past, we can prevent it from happening in the future.

Mai Der Vang contributed to this article.

To learn more about Hmong culture, visit www.hmongnet.org.

This article was previously posted on the New America Media website here.

The kNOw Youth Media
The kNOw works to support and equip young people with the journalism and advocacy skills they need to tell their stories and the stories of their communities.

In 2006, over 25 youth began participating in weekly after-school writing workshops where they congregated in the hallway of a two-story building in West Fresno and learned the essentials of creating media and telling their stories. The group evolved over the next five years and is now proudly recognized as The kNOw Youth Media.

Through our program, we create opportunities for our youth participants, who in turn create long-term positive change in their communities. Our approach weaves youth development and youth media innovation to produce our biannual youth publication, multimedia projects, and community forums.

The kNOw began as a project of New America Media, which was the country’s first and largest national collaboration and advocate of 2000 ethnic news organizations. In 2018 The kNOw became a project of Youth Leadership Institute.

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