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My identity puzzle

| Khong Meng

April marks the 4th anniversary of Hmong Heritage Month in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. As I look back at the past years and what this month means to me, it takes me back a few years. Entering college in 2009 as a freshman, I was on a journey like many students out there, I was searching for my identity. Wanting to find myself, I enrolled at the university to search for what was not offered to me as a high school student. As I explored what was offered at Eau Claire, a friend of mine got me involved in planning the first Hmong Heritage Month in 2011. While meeting with staff and faculty around campus to plan the first Hmong Heritage Month, we had one thing in mind and that was to share the Hmong culture and heritage with campus, community, and world.

The first event we ever had was Opening Day and at this event, I was one of the speakers. At that time, I was still young, nervous, filled with stage fright. I was supposed to talk about Hmong Heritage Month and what it meant to me, but with my shaky voice I mumbled my way through and as I looked at the speech I wrote minutes before the event, everything blurred together; I did not get my thoughts out clearly unfortunately. However, here I am four years later still involved in the planning of Hmong Heritage Month. I might not remember my speech from four years ago, but I know clearly now what Hmong Heritage Month means to me.

Being an undergraduate student and current graduate student at UW- Eau Claire, a predominately a white institution, has empowered me to organize events and celebrations like Hmong Heritage Month. The year-long programming on Hmong heritage and this month of April is not just to educate the local public community, but also my fellow Hmong community as we head towards the future together. With every new year, our culture and history is slowly changing and our younger generation is losing our elders’ knowledge. Where my nieces and nephew’s primary language is no longer Hmong and English has become their first language. My younger siblings and cousins finish high school not learning about anyone who looks like them. This is what led to development of Hmong Heritage Month. By celebrating this month we educate each other about who we are. We share our history, heritage, festivals, and food with the community and campus, so we can share our story with each other. To truly obtain diversity within a growing community and campus we must learn about each other’s stories, backgrounds, and cultures to accept our differences.

As I went through my undergraduate years in search of my identity, I chose to study abroad in China to learn more about my ancestors. I became a McNair Scholar and participated in undergraduate research on Hmong heritage. I was inspired to learn more so I am pursuing graduate study to increase my own scholarship and understanding of history and culture. Now I am working to develop a domestic intercultural immersion trip so undergraduates can learn more about Hmong people throughout the United States.

I came to realize that I had an identity, even if it wasn’t represented in my learning about history and culture in my K-12 education, and my journey was finding pieces to add to my identity like a puzzle. I am a first generation Hmong college student and Hmong Heritage is one of the pieces to my identity; it helps remind me every year the things I am doing is for a larger community and not just for me. I hope with this story, others will find their passion and follow it. I encourage others to explore their opportunities by studying abroad, taking on research, and collecting those pieces to their own identity puzzle.

-Khong Meng