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Immersion inspires Blugolds to appreciate importance and beauty of Hmong culture

| Judy Berthiaume

How do you help Blugolds better understand and appreciate Hmong language and culture?

Immerse them in Hmong cultural experiences and surround them with native speakers, say several UW-Eau Claire faculty and students who recently returned from an immersion in California, a state with one of the largest Hmong populations in the United States.

“In a classroom, you can learn about a certain culture and the language of that culture, but you can’t experience the culture and truly understand the beauty of a certain language until you use it with native speakers or apply it naturally outside of a controlled environment,” says Touger Lor, a junior from Elk Mound and the student lead for the immersion. “This program offers students an opportunity to hear, see, taste and experience the Hmong culture, which is something the classroom can never provide.”

The Winterim program — now in its fourth year — takes students with a demonstrated interest in Hmong culture and language to Fresno, California, for a weeklong immersion, says Dr. Ka Vang, associate director of the McNair Program at UW-Eau Claire and the faculty lead for the Fresno program.

Vang says she purposely plans the timing of the immersion so the Blugolds will be in Fresno during the annual 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 learn about the cultural rituals performed during the new year and about the styles of kwv txhiaj (traditional Hmong folklore songs). They practice singing kwv txhiaj and sing at the Fresno Hmong New Year during ball tossing.”

In addition to the new year celebration, they also visit the Hmong Cultural Heritage Center and Museum to view the Hmong 40 exhibit, one of the largest collections of information about the Hmong community in the U.S.

While these events were powerful experiences, it was the time spent with the people they met during their journey that made the biggest impression on them, several students say.

“The highlight was learning from Cher Teng and going to his house where he welcomed all of us as if we were his family,” says William Xiong, a senior from St. Paul, Minnesota. “He made the experience better because there was a sense of belonging. He made me, personally, feel like I was welcome and at home.”

Learning about Hmong culture from people who live in other places — like Fresno — can help students grow their understanding of diverse experiences, says Kalia Lee, a junior from Greenville.

“I think going there and meeting people is important,” Lee says. “It is a different community and environment. People’s experience there is different and, as people of color, it could be very different.”

Students also say another highlight of the immersion was spending time at the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, a nonprofit that serves the needs of nearly 10,000 refugees in the Fresno area, primarily refugees of Southeast Asian, Slavic and African origin.

At FIRM, students learned about the refugee process and had an up-close look at how systems and institutions work.

“It’s not every day we see behind the scenes of the refugee process,” Xiong says. “Going to FIRM made everything real. We see it on TV, but we do not really know until we go out there and see how things work in the system.”

Lee also appreciated the time spent at FIRM, noting that in addition to learning about the refugee process, they also participated in hands-on activities and interacted with various people who are part of the organization.

“We were able to do a lot of stuff there,” Lee says. “We did a mural painting, so we got to leave our own mark, which was meaningful. We also had a Syrian lunch, which I don’t think we could have done here.”

Students from any major can participate in the Fresno immersion so long as they’ve demonstrated through classwork, research or other experiences that they have an interest in Hmong language and culture, Vang says.

In addition to recruiting 12 students for the program, Vang invites faculty and staff who have an interest in Hmong culture, history and assimilation to co-lead the program with her.

As the co-lead, they get to learn alongside their students, helping everyone gain knowledge that they can then share with other students, faculty and staff across the UW-Eau Claire campus, Vang says. 

This year, Dr. Kaia Simon, assistant professor of English, served as the co-lead.

Simon was a good fit for the immersion because her research on Hmong women and literacy led her to learn the Hmong language, and to learn about Hmong culture and communities in Wisconsin.

She was eager to be part of it because immersion experiences give everyone a perspective on new places and people that they can only get by visiting or living there, Simon says.

“They learn by experience, from new teachers of all experiences, professions and ages, as well as from each other in community,” Simon says of students in the program. “This isn't learning ‘about’ a place or a group of people, it's learning right alongside them.”

It was impressive to see how willing the UW-Eau Claire students were to immerse themselves in new cultural experiences and to make the most of opportunities to interact with people they met in Fresno, Simon says.

Hopefully, she says, the students now see themselves and their identities as part of wider national or global community.

“I also hope that students experienced some sort of personal transformation or insight about themselves as individuals — something that they could only learn by putting themselves outside of their usual life circumstances,” Simon says.

Lor says students gained an even greater appreciation for Hmong culture and the challenges that come with assimilation from their immersion in Fresno.

“I hope they take away how beautiful the Hmong culture is, but at the same time understand how much is being lost due to assimilation,” Lor says.

Xiong is among those inspired to help others see the importance of and beauty in Hmong culture.

“I brought to the immersion the willingness to learn, but also a push to keep the knowledge of the Hmong culture sustained in the future,” Xiong says.

Photo caption: Blugold faculty and students were immersed in Hmong culture and language during a recent immersion in California, which included participating in the Hmong New Year celebration in Fresno.