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Students explore Hmong culture during immersion trip to Southwest China

February 19, 2013

Editor's note: The term Miao has different connotations around the world. Here, the term Miao is used to refer to the Hmong of China, who are one of four distinct ethnic minority groups referred to by the term Miao in that country. While many Hmong Americans find the term Miao problematic, many Chinese Hmong identify with the term.

UW-Eau Claire students, faculty and guide pose for a photo in the Hmong/Miao exhibit at the Yunnan Ethnicity Village in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. Left to right: Chee Yang, Choua Xiong, Kelly Wonder, Crystal Vang, YuYou Xiong (guide), Denise Lee, Ezra Zeitler, Nou Vue, Cindy Yang, See Yang, and Becky Vang.

EAU CLAIRE — Lush green vegetation, mountainous landscapes and hillside farms set the scene as eight Hmong American students from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire set out to research Hmong and Miao culture in Southwest China during a summer 2012 immersion trip to the Yunnan Province. The students will present the results of their research this spring, both on campus and at a national conference.

The trip, funded in part by the UW-Eau Claire Center for International Education's International Fellows Program and partly by AsiaNetwork, focused on immersing students in the rich history of the Yunnan Province and the Hmong there, as well as immersing students in the Hmong language as they interacted with the local people to conduct their research. According to the grant proposal, the main objective was to trace the origins of Hmong history, culture and society in order to compare the practices of Hmong Americans with the Hmong and other Miao groups in China.

"This project was completely student driven," said Dr. Kelly Wonder, lecturer of English as a second language in the foreign languages department. "They became interested in the idea as freshmen and worked to bring it to life. It's something they were all very passionate about. The trip was significant for them in identifying big-picture cultural differences and developing a connection to their own identities and cultural group."

Kinesiology major Crystal Vang said the inspiration for the project came when the students were asked to go into the community and teach about Hmong culture.

"I realized I didn't know that much about it," Crystal Vang said. "It's difficult to teach others about my history and culture when I, myself, don't know much about it."


UW-Eau Claire student Chee Yang asks members of a Hmong community near Wenshan, Yunnan Province, China about historical and contemporary Han-Hmong relations.

Crystal Vang, Vadnais Heights, Minn.; Choua Xiong, Appleton; See Yang, Madison; Chee Yang, Stevens Point; Becky Vang, White Bear Lake, Minn.; Nou Vue, Combined Locks; Cindy Yang, Stevens Point; and Denise Lee, Stevens Point, discussed and planned the details of the project with faculty and applied for funding. Once approved, they prepared for the trip by taking a semesterlong independent studies class in which they studied Chinese culture and research methodology, discussed topics with Chinese scholars, interviewed Hmong elders in their own communities, attended a Hmong Scholars Conference at Concordia University and presented research topics at the American Multicultural Student Leadership Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Accompanied by Wonder and Dr. Ezra Zeitler, an assistant professor in the geography and anthropology department at UW-Eau Claire, the students spent three weeks traveling to various Hmong villages in the Yunnan Province and interviewed and observed people in each community on such topics as clothing, mythical figures and education.

Crystal Vang's research focused on how traditional methods of the art of sewing work differ from more modern ones.

"Paj Ntaub, meaning flower cloth, is a form of embroidery containing symbols that distinguish what clan you belong to," Crystal Vang said. "Traditionally, Paj Ntaub was done by hand by the woman of the household with a needle and thread. Now, patterns are entered into a computer program and the embroidery is done by a machine. The tradition of the Hmong dress is lost because of modernism. Women no longer have the time to stay home and sew a dress by hand."

Crystal Vang also explained that hemp, a plant that is now illegal in China, was traditionally used to make the dress, and even though it is very beneficial in the fiber, oil and seed, it can also be used as a drug that gives the same "high" as marijuana.

"Hmong elders want to pass the tradition on, but it's hard because hemp is illegal now," Crystal Vang said.

Xiong, a liberal studies major, chose to research the mythical aspects of Hmong culture and history regarding King Chi You.

"In Chinese and Hmong mythology, King Chi You is a mythical war deity and leader of the Miao people," Xiong said. "My research led me to believe that it's difficult to discern if the Miao people share a consensus about King Chi You's role in early Hmong history. However, in areas where Chinese tourists and others are entertained by Miao ethnic groups, a clearer sense of King Chi You's role in early history is evident as they seek to introduce their culture to others. There is no evidence supporting Chi You as the Hmong king. Hmong acknowledge that Chi You was a king of the Miao people, which includes subgroups Hmu, Qho Xiong, Ahmao and Hmong."

Xiong's liberal studies degree emphasizes critical culture studies, communication and art analysis, socio-cultural analysis, and critical Hmong studies. She said this trip helped her gain confidence in doing research and also gave her a sense of empowerment regarding her culture.

"It was an emotional experience for me," Xiong said. "I've always wondered why we don't have a country. Visiting the Hmong villages in China taught me that we do have something different and special as a culture. This trip has encouraged me to do more things and ask more questions. I am going to Thailand in the summer through the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association in La Crosse to continue researching, and after I graduate in 2014, I am going to graduate school for Hmong and ethnic studies."

Comparing and contrasting education differences between the Hmong and Miao people was the focus of social work major See Yang's research, and she said she found similarities between the two groups.

"More prosperous villages in China had access to education so parents had the ability to send their children to school," See Yang said. "Poorer villages that relied on farming for economic support tended to have less access to education, so fewer children attended school. This compares to the experience of Hmong living in the United States. They migrated here from mostly farming areas and didn't have access to education, but now they're in more urban areas and are sending their children to school."

See Yang also said the trip affected her personally and helped her learn more about her own identity and place within her culture.

"Hmong are a traditionally oral people," See Yang said. "And history is passed along in this way. I learned a lot from talking to people and hearing their stories. This experience has made me want to learn more about my culture."

See Yang will graduate in 2015 and plans to enter the Peace Corps.

"This was my first time doing research and my first trip out of the country," See Yang said. "I really liked the traveling and want to become involved in helping communities. After the Peace Corps, I want to go to graduate school and get my master's degree in social work."

UW-Eau Claire kinesiology major Chee Yang attempted to study the current Hmong views about the earliest interaction between the Chinese and Hmong as embodied in tales of the War of Zhuolu and the important Hmong figure King Chi You in order to gauge current Hmong-Chinese relations.

"Through extensive interviewing, I quickly discovered that few in Hmong villages knew much about earliest Hmong history or historical figures, and some chose not to focus on earliest Chinese-Hmong discord at all," Chee Yang explains. "I got a lot of different answers from people based on their differing perspectives and interactions with the Chinese."

Although her research was inconclusive, Chee Yang said she enjoyed seeing how people from the same culture as her do things a bit differently. She said she compared stories from her own childhood to the stories the elders in the villages shared and found they were basically the same with only minor details varying. For example, the character in a story from the village was a dragon instead of the tiger found in the stories Chee Yang grew up with.

Chee Yang said visiting the villages also allowed her to connect with her family's history by seeing how her parents used to live before they left Thailand.

"Seeing the countryside and how people make a living by farming anywhere they can, even on the steep slope of a hill, was amazing," Chee Yang said. "We traveled to a village close to the Vietnam border, and I was surprised to see the people there speaking in the same Hmong dialect we do and preparing similar foods to what the Hmong community does in the United States."

The students said the different regional dialects found in the Hmong language posed a challenge while conducting interviews with villagers.

"It was really interesting meeting different types of Hmong people," Crystal Vang said. "They spoke in a different dialect than we did so we had to figure out how to communicate. We spoke Hmong mixed with English words and they spoke Hmong mixed with Chinese words, so we had to be careful to identify the English aspects of what we were saying to them so they could understand, and they did the same for us. Having this experience was really uncommon."

Wonder said she was proud to see the students gain confidence in their language and interviewing skills and connect with their history.

"It was nice to see the students want to make that connection back to their roots," Wonder said. "They really took control of the trip and developed great leadership skills. Neither Ezra nor I spoke the language, so they had to step up and take responsibility for their projects. We were there to guide and support them, but they were ultimately responsible for seeing the project through."

Zeitler said seeing what the students took away from the trip was memorable.

"I enjoyed seeing them grow into confident young scholars on this trip," Zeitler said. "They conducted research in an international setting, and now they have the opportunity to share what they learned with the Hmong community and the UW-Eau Claire campus community. This trip proves that it doesn't matter what you study. Learning about yourself and understanding where you come from is part of a liberal arts education. Having an opportunity like this really shows the 'Eau Claire Advantage.'"

Chee Yang said she was grateful to have Wonder and Zeitler on the trip.

"I worked collaboratively with Kelly and Ezra to learn how to problem solve in the field and think critically about my research questions," Chee Yang said. "They helped a lot with preparation for the trip and helped us throughout the trip. We debriefed every night about what we saw and learned and how we can improve our research. They were willing to do anything for us and were also learning new things right alongside us."

Chee Yang said she also plans to go to graduate school after graduating in 2015 and believes this immersion experience will help her get into a good school.

"Even though the research isn't in my field of study, it shows that I can do it, and I think that will be beneficial."

All eight students will present their research at UW-Eau Claire's 2013 Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity event held May 1-2. The five students funded by AsiaNetwork also will present their research at its national conference in Nashville April 12-14.

For more information about the Hmong China Immersion experience and UW-Eau Claire students' research during the trip, contact Charles Vue, associate director of UW-Eau Claire's Office of Multicultural Affairs, at 715-836-3367 or; Dr. Kelly Wonder, lecturer of English as a second language in the foreign languages department, at or 715-836-2487; or Dr. Ezra Zeitler, assistant professor of geography, at or 715-836-5186.


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