TouCia Thao is looking at the world a little differently thanks to an immersion program that took him to Fresno, California, during Winterim.
Among the highlights of the immersion was meeting the first Hmong person to be elected mayor of a city in the United States, says the UW-Eau Claire freshman, a materials science and engineering major from Eau Claire.
Meeting Steve Ly, who was elected mayor of Elk Grove, California, in 2006, has helped him see that it’s possible to make positive change for the Hmong people and other ethnic groups by working to strengthen an entire community, Thao says, noting that Ly also taught him that Hmong people have a place in mainstream politics.
“If you can help the most people in your community, that allows you to aid your Hmong community, which also will support your work to help all ethnic groups,” Thao says of the message he took from his visit with the mayor, who came to the U.S. as a young boy with his family as refugees from Laos after the Vietnam War.
Meeting the mayor was a highlight for many of the Blugolds who participated in the immersion, says Dr. Ka Vang, the associate director of UW-Eau Claire’s McNair Program and the co-lead for the immersion program.
“They seemed a little ‘star struck’ meeting him and his family as they learned about his journey to becoming the mayor,” Vang says of the Blugolds. “His story struck a chord with the students as they continue to learn more about their identity and the notion that anything is possible if you want it badly enough.”
The “Cultural Practices of the Hmong in Fresno, California” immersion program, now in its fifth year, was created to help heritage and non-heritage students to learn more about the Hmong culture, Vang says.
Vang and Dr. Kaia Simon, assistant professor of English, served as the faculty leads for the immersion. Touger Bill Lor, a UW-Eau Claire senior from Elk Mound, was the student leader.
This year, 21 UW-Eau Claire students participated in the immersion, the largest number of Blugolds to ever enroll in the program, Vang says.
“Heritage participants are eager and seeking opportunities that allow them to learn more about who they are and where they come from,” Vang says. “Throughout their educational experiences, there hasn’t been much opportunity for them to learn about their culture, identity and heritage. This immersion gives them the opportunity to do just that.
“The large number of participants shows how starved marginalized students are to learn more about their own culture and identity.”
Thao studied some Hmong history in high school and in college, but was eager to learn even more about Hmong culture, history, traditions and customs during the immersion.
Lor and Bee Yang, a faculty member at California State University, Fresno, were tremendous teachers during the immersion, Thao says.
For example, he learned for the first time about a Hmong funeral event called “Tso Plig.” According to the custom, the deceased is buried after the funeral service, but 13 days later they are told to visit their “home” and “family members” so they can be guided to be let free into the spiritual realm with no returns, Thao says, describing this custom as “interesting and amazing.”
“These important people showed me that my culture is beautiful and that in the United States, we have changed some of our traditions to accommodate U.S. laws,” Thao says. “So, having them talk about the difference from back in Laos-Thailand to now is good to reflect on.
“I’ve learned more about the Hmong culture and tradition, but I also learned that it’s OK for a younger Hmong person to not speak the language fluently. If I know the history, culture, tradition and Hmong systems, then the language will follow.”
Vang plans the annual immersion so the Blugolds will be in Fresno during the Hmong New Year celebration, one of the largest outdoor Hmong celebrations in the country.
Students attend not as visitors, but as participants who take part in events and dress in traditional Hmong New Year regalia or clothes inspired by the Hmong New Year celebration, Vang says.
They also learn about the cultural rituals performed during the new year and about the styles of kwv txhiaj (traditional Hmong folklore songs), Vang says.
“The Fresno Hmong New Year was an amazing opportunity for students to see all the various changing fashion of Hmong clothes,” Vang says. “In addition, singing a kwv txhiaj and being on Hmong TV live while participating in the ball toss was nerve-wracking but gave some students the opportunity to shine as they sang their kwv txhiaj. One student was brave enough to be on the big stage, performing in front of a large crowd.”
Thao says the immersion experience has given him a new appreciation for and understanding of Hmong culture and traditions.
“The immersion taught me a lot about my people and how I can apply this knowledge,” Thao says. “I will let others know who I am, who my people are, and how I identify myself as being of Hmong descent.”
His new understanding of his Hmong heritage will help him personally, and perhaps professionally, Thao says. For example, if he can help his employer understand the importance of Hmong rituals, they may be more understanding when a Hmong employee wants to attend an event such as shamanism ceremony, he says.
“My overall experience during this immersion was truly remarkable,” Thao says. “The people I met and the experiences we had have impacted my knowledge and maybe my future career and life.”
Top photo caption: A Winterim immersion took UW-Eau Claire students to California, where they participated in Fresno’s Hmong New Year festivities. Blugolds include (from left) Billy Lor, Pa Jai Moua, Ka Zoua Vang, Yee Leng Thao, Chanda Yang, Mary Xiong, Oliva Khang, Seng Xai Yang, Chelsea Vue, Natila Thao and Angel Lee.