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China immersion allows Blugolds to connect with Hmong history, identity

| Judy Berthiaume

As he was growing up, Khong Meng Her and his siblings heard many stories from their parents and relatives about their origins starting in China, including how they migrated to the south after multiple wars with the Chinese, and how they would someday travel back there to their ancestors' land.

With his family’s history in mind, Her spent months studying abroad in Beijing, China, during his undergraduate years at UW-Eau Claire.

While there, he made a point, he says, to travel to Guizhou in Southwest China, the center of many of those often-heard family stories.

During an immersion in China, students spent a week living with host families in a remote village, joining the villagers in their daily chores and activities.

During an immersion in China, students spent a week living with host families in a remote village, joining the villagers in their daily chores and activities.

“I visited multiple Hmong villages and enjoyed the experience of learning about the different villagers, while connecting to my history and identity,” says Her, who graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in history. “Going to China was important to me because it reconnected me with the stories I heard growing up and it helped me find the missing pieces of my identity.”

Now a graduate student at UW-Eau Claire and the associate student services coordinator for Blugold Beginnings, Her is creating similar opportunities for current Blugolds to explore China and, for some students, connect to their own family’s history.

During a Winterim immersion, Her traveled with seven students (six Blugolds and one UW-Stout student) to China, where they learned about and experienced the rich history and culture of the Hmong people and other minorities living in Southwest China. Dr. Joe Orser, a senior lecturer in history, also was part of the immersion.

“Hmong students who grew up as second or third generation probably heard stories like I did growing up,” says Her, who will earn his master’s degree in history in May from UW-Eau Claire. “I wanted to create an opportunity for students interested in Hmong studies or who are, like me, searching for their roots, to be able to travel back to what we know as the beginning in our history.

“I wanted them to learn and hear from those who still live in China, and to see how our experiences are impacted by the environment we live in.”

Pa Zong Vang, a senior geospatial analysis and technology major from Onalaska, welcomed the opportunity.

While she always knew she would spend time abroad as a student, she was drawn to the immersion because she was interested in learning about Hmong history in China, Vang says, noting that she previously had only heard about Hmong history in Laos and Thailand.

Her time in China was exactly the kind of life-changing experience she hoped for, says Vang, who will graduate in May.

“The experience of traveling to China and, specifically, learning about the Hmong people who reside in China, has made me realize how much I do not know about my history and my people,” Vang says. “This experience also made me question how environmental and outside factors have impacted Hmong people throughout thousands of years. Who identifies as Hmong and what makes someone Hmong? Their dialect? Their clothing? Their cultural practices?

“The one thing I do know for sure is that I have expanded my family by eight million people.”

The students who were part of the China immersion are from a variety of majors and ethnic backgrounds, so each of them brought a different perspective to the experience, Her says.

For students who identify as Hmong Americans, visiting the small, remote villages was especially powerful, Her says.

“Their parents and grandparents probably grew up in a village lifestyle in the mountains and told stories to them about their journey to America,” Her says.

Other students, those who don’t identify as Hmong Americans, learned from people whose histories differ from their own, and explored how a person’s identity is shaped by their environment, he says.

All of them, he says, learned lessons that can’t be found in a classroom.

“It’s one thing to learn and hear about different cultures and traditions in the classroom, but to physically be there is a whole different experience,” Her says. To be where you’re strongly encouraged to engage with the locals and learn from them is an experience the classroom cannot provide.

“These experiences help students grow as individuals, but also as global citizens by expanding their views and understanding of the world.”

That is certainly true for her, Vang says.

“After traveling to China and adapting to new experiences, I’m more interculturally competent,” Vang says. “For example, I learned that by not having predetermined expectations about places I visit or people I encounter, I was more open-minded, willing to try new things and desired to learn more.

“I gained valuable professional and personal skills, but I also empowered myself to not limit the amount of knowledge I think there is in the world. I broadened my own horizons and those of the people I encounter now that I’m back home and sharing my experiences.”

In China, the Blugolds were welcomed everywhere they went, but they felt especially connected to and comfortable in villages where people spoke the same Hmong dialect as theirs, Her and Vang say.

“The joy I saw in students’ eyes when we could communicate with the villagers was amazing,” Her says. “It goes back to history. It’s the joy of finding the origins of your roots, finding the evidence to say this was your ancestors’ home and it’s a part of your history.”

Vang agrees, noting that her favorite part of the immersion was traveling by foot to remote Hmong villages, where she was able to understand the local Hmong dialect.

“By being able to communicate with the villagers, I was overwhelmed with this familial connection toward people I have never met before,” Vang says.

A homestay in Upper Langde Village was an especially meaningful experience, Vang and Her say.

Students stayed with host families for multiple days and joined locals as they went about their daily activities, including catching fish that became their dinner.

“Being part of these activities allowed students to build relationships with their host family and to understand what a day might be like in the village,” Her says. “By staying in the village for a week, they had time to learn about their host family, but also to learn to play a bamboo instrument (Lusheng), teach English to the children and learn to embroider.”

Vang, who says she’s typically an anxious person who often worries about her personal safety, was surprised by how safe she felt during her homestay.

She’s still reflecting, she says, on what it was about the experience that created a sense of peace that often eludes her.

“Everyone knew everyone, and there was a strong sense of community,” Vang says. “During the day and even at night, many villagers didn’t feel the need or worry to lock their house doors in fear of intruders. It makes me wonder what the potential influencers were that made me feel safer in those seven days than I have ever felt in my entire life.”

By experiencing everyday life in Chinese villages, students observed the diversity of cultures, languages, values and practices within Hmong and other minority ethnic groups, Her says.

As they connected with the locals, they also considered their own place in the global theater — as Americans, as international travelers in China, as consumers of cultural performances on display, and for students who have Chinese or Hmong heritage, as members of their respective diaspora, he says.

In both Upper Langde Village and Xingwen, Sichuan, the students spent time helping schoolchildren practice their English vocabulary.

Working with the youth gave her an up-close look at the education system and how it compares to her K-12 school experience, says Vang, who was surprised by how rigorous and competitive academics are for even young students in China.

“I also was impressed with how purposeful the school is with integrating the students’ cultures into their academics,” Vang says. “Students practice traditional music, wear traditional clothing and learn their native language.

“The schools value their students’ academic success, but also their health, wellness and culture. Personally, I wish I learned about my own culture and traditions while attending grade school.”

When planning the immersion, Her worked to create opportunities for students to better understand the national and global forces — economic, political and cultural — that have shaped the experiences of minority ethnic groups in China, including the Miao/Hmong people.

For example, many of the villages they visited have local economies that revolve around the performance of “authentic” cultural traditions, Her says.

“These performances are shaped by local practices, governmental edicts on what is permissible or desirable and what is not, and on the demand created by Chinese and international tourists,” Her says.

As they explored the region, students compared the performances of cultural heritage in villages whose local economies depend on ethnic tourism, with the lived cultures of other villages that are off the beaten track, Her says.

Through these and other experiences and analyses, students discovered perspectives and histories that differ from what most of them have seen or heard before, Her says.

“When we imagine China, we envision the Great Wall, some kind of symbol,” Her says. “We don’t really see China for what it is; we only see what the media or people tell us. This immersion allows students to expand their knowledge, debunk misconceptions and better understand that China is more than just Chinese food or the Great Wall.

“By going to Southwest China, a place where many of our students probably would not travel on their own, we are giving them an opportunity to actively engage in deconstructing stereotypes by focusing on the local community and what matters to them. We saw how the tourist industry has reshaped their cultures and identity based on mainstream consumers, and the effects of not following the trend of the tourist industry.”

Vang, who plans to attend graduate school in the fall, says the immersion has given her a new sense of awareness, as well as new knowledge and skills, all of which will help her succeed after she graduates.

It’s also motivating her to keep exploring Hmong history.

“I am so thankful for the faculty who led the immersion program, specifically Khong Meng Her,” Vang says. “We traveled to meaningful locations with very rich history of the Miao/Hmong population. He challenged us to not stay within our comfort zone, which made the immersion much more impactful.

“As a Hmong-identified individual, I was always limited to only focusing on Hmong history during and after the Vietnam War. However, coming back from China, it has made me realize that I have only been scratching the surface of Hmong history.”

Top photo caption: Blugolds spent time exploring small villages in the southern part of China during Winterim, immersing themselves in Hmong and other ethnic cultures.