I never learned how to read and write in Hmong. There are times when I thought, should I take my time to learn to read and write in Hmong? Will it be crucial to my future? Will it benefit me in life? Will it make me feel more Hmong? Truthfully, this is a reflection of me as a Hmong teenager and the decision I have made based upon the historical facts about our culture. I believe that I do not need to know how to read and write in Hmong, though it does not mean I do not have pride in my heritage.
Like many young people in the world, we made promises to ourselves as children to accomplish goals that we have set for ourselves. Mine was no different than any other. At seven years old, I realized that my Vietnamese teacher was literate in Hmong, a language that was not her native-tongue.
Throughout elementary, I would stare into the papers of Hispanic students and admire their abilities to write in Spanish to their friends and families. I have to honestly say that I began to feel the urge to finally have a goal. Soon enough, I became envious of that simple fact. But I knew that I was not alone; like many Hmong students, I was illiterate in Hmong and made a dire decision that one day I will learn how to read and write in Hmong. Eighteen years have gone by and it comes as no surprise, I am still illiterate in Hmong.
I have reasons. First, I strongly believe that the ability to speak Hmong is more important than the skills of reading and writing. Our history is passed through stories in the form of paj ntaub (flower cloth) and though many will say that the Hmong people did have an original form of written language, it has since ceased since the exile of many Hmong during the migration from China to Southeast Asia. My parents and all the Hmong were unable to learn the language, therefore, making it irrelevant to this article. Paj ntaub has, since the 1950s, been made to be sold to non-Hmong at markets. It is a commercialized art form.
The second reason is the writing system we mainly use now, known as Romanized Popular Alphabet, was created by a group of French missionaries along with Hmong advisers in the 1950s. As it may come to no surprise, more Christian faith Hmong teenagers are able to read and write in Hmong than those who are not, like myself. This is the reason why I find it alarmingly unimportant for me to learn how to write or read in Hmong to prove to myself and others that I am Hmong.
The third reason is growing up in the American school system taught in English made it a crucial factor in my inability to read or write in Hmong. Education is more than just at school — it needs to be continued at home. I feel as though I have only experienced one part of education. My parents didn’t offer me education at home because of their misinterpretation of the entire concept of education and only left it to the teachers. They expect me to just be great without putting much effort in and giving me the confidence and support I need. Am I just supposed to teach myself Hmong in a school with only two language courses, both European? I do not think so.
I know that I am not alone because there are many out there who feel the same way. These are not excuses but reasons I believe that Hmong is more than just being able to speak, read, and write but to be able to fully appreciate your culture for the beauty of its people and its works of art. The simple fact that because I listened to the rules of my parents and grandparents (for examples, not doing drugs and joining gangs), I am a good Hmong person who just happens to be illiterate in Hmong. A Caucasian man who is literate in Hmong is not “more Hmong” than a kid who was born in a Hmong family and grew up from the moral values of our culture and the ethical paths of our people and Elders.
To truly understand a Hmong person, you must truly be a part of our fascinating culture and experience the ways of our parents and the ways of our Elders and ancestors. The stories that we are told as young children sleeping next to our grandparents and the stories that we will tell our grandchildren one day truly mark on what Hmong is and how Hmong is defined. And in my defense, I do not feel as though I have to take my time to learn how to read and write in Hmong when I am fully capable of communicating verbally.
However, being literate in Hmong would make my parents proud, being illiterate doesn’t make me less a proud son of theirs and certainly not less Hmong than others.