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Summer immersion helps Blugolds learn about history and culture of Hmong living in France

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

Growing up mostly in Wisconsin as the youngest in her large family, Malee Yang has some understanding of the history, culture and experiences of Hmong people living in the United States.

However, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior didn’t know how her family’s experiences in the U.S. compared to those of Hmong people who resettled in other parts of the world.

A faculty-led international research project that took her to France this summer is helping Yang think about Hmong history and experiences through a wider, more global lens.

“Growing up, I learned about Hmong culture and Hmong history from my parents,” says Yang, who was born in Thailand and came to the United States with her family in 2004. “But what I learned was from their lens not a world lens. In college, I’m getting more of a view of what it means to be Hmong and about Hmong history from a world lens.”

During the summer program, titled “Critical Hmong Studies in France,” Yang and UW-Eau Claire senior Julia Lee traveled to France to interview Hmong people about their experiences there.

The research project was designed to help the Blugolds learn about the linkages between diasporic Hmong populations from Thailand and Laos that spread across the globe after the Vietnam War, says Dr. Jeff DeGrave, UW-Eau Claire’s intercultural immersion coordinator.

France immersion

From left, Malee Yang, Julia Lee, Jesse Yang and Dr. Kong Pheng Pha posing after attending the Bastille Day parade, French’s Independence Day.

“This is a great opportunity for students to share cultural experiences, differences and similarities,” DeGrave says of the international research project. "While engaging in the shared experiences within Hmong history and culture, students also gain insight into French culture as part of and in addition to their research. The students are immersed in an entirely different culture while simultaneously working within a more familiar one — yet still different from their own.”

Dr. Kong Pheng Pha, a UW-Eau Claire associate professor of critical Hmong studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, and Jesse Yang, a videographer in the Integrated Marketing and Communications office, are co-leading the immersion program in France.

Calling the research project “special and unique,” Pha says their time in France is giving Yang and Lee — both students in the university’s critical Hmong studies certificate program — a chance to “learn about a nation that was instrumental in why Hmong people are scattered around the world.”

Valuable learning experience

In France, the researchers are conducting oral interviews with Hmong people to learn about Hmong history, culture and experiences in that country.

“We get to talk to participants, hang out and spend a day with them,” says Pha, calling it a “privilege” to talk with those willing to share their stories with the researchers. “We are visiting Hmong homes and businesses as a way to employ and conduct research for the project.”

Through their research, they’ve found that resettlement patterns in France look different than in the United States, Pha says. Community-building efforts also are different in the two countries, he says.

“We also found that Hmong people in France have big dreams,” Pha says. “They have dreams to live their lives and pursue entrepreneurship, businesses and art and politics. Learning about Hmong refugees and their dreams even 40 to 50 years after resettlement is a significant part of the research project.”

Spending time in France has been an eye-opening experience, one that’s helping them think more globally about Hmong people and their experiences, the student researchers say.

Lee knew Hmong people live in France, but she didn’t know anything about their lives or why they resettled there. The interviews are helping her understand their history in that country, and how their experiences compare to her experiences in America, she says.

“Since I grew up in the United States, I want to learn more about how they adapted in France, how they resettled here and how it’s different from the United States,” Lee says. “It’s interesting how successful they have become even though they don’t have a big community in France like we do in the U.S.

“I’ve really enjoyed learning more about their language and cultures and how different it is from what I’m used to. Just learning about how they live is interesting. I’m very excited and enjoying it and learning a lot from it.”

Her time in France also has her reflecting more on her own Hmong identify, Lee says, noting that the research project is “a great way for me touch roots with my Hmong culture, heritage and language.”

For example, Lee, a studio arts major with an emphasis in photography from Wausau, was confident in her Hmong language skills but still found herself struggling to communicate in Hmong during the interviews in France.

“I thought I definitely was very good at speaking Hmong, but coming here, I found that a lot of the people are fluent in Hmong and it’s difficult for me to speak Hmong to them the way I’d like,” Lee says. “Also, as a Hmong American woman, I have reflected on how different Hmong French women are and how successful they’ve been here.”

As a Hmong American born in a refugee camp, Pha says the stories people are sharing with the researchers during their interviews in France are especially meaningful.

“The things we’re learning are really moving,” Pha says. “I’m always on a journey to better myself by learning about my own people's history. So, learning about and hearing these stories has changed me.

“It’s made me reflect on what it means to learn about history and to learn from history and to create better and positive changes for myself as a person, as a teacher and as a scholar. I will bring these experiences back to the classroom to teach my students about Hmong people’s lives in France and the U.S. and around the world.”

Critical Hmong studies certificate program

Yang and Lee say they enrolled in UW-Eau Claire’s critical Hmong studies certificate program because they are eager to learn more about Hmong culture, history and language.

“I’m Hmong but want to know more about what it means to be Hmong,” says Yang, a business administration and creative writing major from Eau Claire.

Critical Hmong studies focuses on Hmong history, Hmong culture, Hmong politics and changing Hmong communities, Pha says, adding that the pillars of the program include social justice for Hmong people in America and around the world.

It’s important for Hmong students to learn about their history and culture and to understand the experiences of Hmong people around the world, Pha says.

“Hmong history and language aren’t taught in mainstream education in the U.S., so having these courses and programs at UW-Eau Claire is very important for Hmong and non-Hmong students to learn about Hmong experiences,” Pha says.

Lee says the critical Hmong studies program offers incredible learning opportunities in and out of the classroom, including the international research project that took her to France. What she’s learning through the program, she says, is life changing.

“If not for the critical Hmong studies certificate program, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to come to France,” Lee says, adding that traveling to France on her own would not have been possible. “It’s a great opportunity to travel and do research and so much more. I’m learning about Hmong culture but I’m also able to take the experiences and learn a lot more about other cultures as well.”

Leader in global learning

Calling UW-Eau Claire a leader in global learning, Pha says campus initiatives like the International Fellows Program, which provides funding for international research projects like the one in France, offers Blugolds unique and powerful learning experiences.

Conducting research while immersed in another country helps students to grow their knowledge and their cultural literacy, which will help them in their future lives and careers, Pha says.

“UW-Eau Claire is an institution that allows us to come to France to do this program and to learn about different people around the world, and that is something that is absolutely needed now in this moment as the world becomes even more connected,” Pha says. “Hmong people are global people, so it really aligns with the mission and vision of UW-Eau Claire.”

DeGrave agrees, saying he encourages every Blugold to participate in an intercultural immersion program in the United States or in another part of the world.

“As they say, there’s no experience like personal experience and that is what immersion programs are all about — to get folks out of the classroom, out on their feet, interacting with local communities, understanding different perspectives,” DeGrave says.