Hmong youth not preserving traditions, professor says

March 29, 2010 

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Dr. Chai Charles Moua talks to an audience at Merced College during a panel presentation on preserving Hmong culture in the United States.

In Hmong culture, it's believed that chickens foretell the future.

If chickens could talk, they might say that in 20 or 30 years Hmong culture may only show itself in small ways in the Merced County Hmong community.

During a panel discussion Friday at Merced College, professor Chai Charles Moua discussed how Hmong leaders have preserved the culture since their immigration to the United States.

Moua warned that today's youth are not following these traditions, which could lead to the culture's demise.

A crowd of about 50 listened as Moua talked about the early Hmong immigration to the U.S. from Laos via Thailand in 1975.

The Hmong people originated from southwest China, but faced persecution and fled to Northern Laos and Vietnam in the 1800s.

During the Vietnam War, several Hmong left Laos after the country's communist takeover and sought refuge in Thailand.

According to a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau report, 188,000 Hmong have settled in the U.S., with the largest concentrations in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

There are roughly 8,000 Hmong residents in Merced County, according to the Lao Family Community, a nonprofit organization that addresses the needs of the Laotian community. Merced county hosts the third-largest Hmong population in California, behind Sacramento and Fresno counties.

The three main cultural distinctions for Hmong people are their new year's celebrations, weddings and funerals, Moua said.

For the Hmong, weddings and funerals both come with high price tags, Moua said.

The groom's family pays the bride up to $5,800 for marriage -- a payment that serves the same function as an engagement ring.

Funerals, which contain a long list of rituals, can cost a family an average of $35,000, Moua said.

Cultural traditions are passed to male children, and Moua said many young men aren't that eager to learn the traditions of their parents. Instead, male youngsters have opted to adopt the traditions of the mainstream culture.

Immigrating to any country naturally causes a person to shed some of their homeland's cultural traditions, Moua said.

Hmong traditions could end up forgotten, like some of the Native American tribal rituals, he added.

Heather Ybarra, 22, attended Moua's lecture and said she was saddened to hear about the culture's fading importance among their youth.

"I'm happy they are bringing awareness to the culture disappearing," Ybarra said. "I love diversity, and I wish the people who come to our country weren't pushed into submission, because I feel our culture is very dominant."

The key to preservation is reaching out to younger generations, Moua said. He ended his talk with an invitation to the community to continue educating people together.

Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or joppenheim@mercedsun-star.com.