By Elizabeth Wang
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Nyob zoo xyoo tshiab!,” Hmong for “Happy New Year,” echoed through the halls of the Seattle Center Armory as hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the Hmong New Year on Saturday, Nov. 3.
Hmong visitors from across the Pacific Northwest, from Portland, Ore. to Vancouver, B.C., came together at a “kev sib zeem,” Hmong for union of families, to observe the holiday. The event was hosted by the Hmong Association of Washington (HAW).
The celebration typically takes place at the end of the harvest season. It’s a chance for families to come together and spend time with one another.
“Every year, the leaves fall and everybody has been really busy working … It gives folks of the Hmong community [the opportunity] to really get together, whether it’s developing new friendships or seeing old friends and reconnecting,” said Seng Vue, president of the HAW.
HAW has hosted this annual New Year event in Seattle since 1983. The celebration is filled with food, clothing vendors, and entertainment, such as Hmong dances and traditional performances, including the ball toss, a form of courtship. Some came dressed in colorful robes and hats, jingling as they walked due to the silver coins that are traditionally sewn on to the shawl.
Jerry Yang, 2007 World Series of Poker Champion, and Ling Lee, Hmong Chinese vocalist, were present as celebrity guests. They performed a duet on stage of a song Yang wrote in the native language.
“This is a very harmonious event for people to come together and celebrate and have a happy spirit together,” Yang said. “And that’s why I’m here today.”
The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group from regions in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Due to political unrest in the 1960s and 1970s, many Hmong families were forced from their homes and into refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Yang was one of them. Born in a small village in Laos, Yang and his family escaped to Thailand after the communist takeover. He was 7 at the time. After four years of what Yang described as brutal, unhealthy conditions at the Ban Vinai refugee camp, which included the loss of his brother and sister, he was finally able to come to America in 1979.
“That was the happiest day of my life,” he said.
While it was tough learning the language and earning minimum wage — $2.35 during that time, Yang recalled — he was still grateful to have left the refugee camp. He was able to graduate from high school as valedictorian and went on to study biology in college, eventually practicing as a clinical psychologist.
Though Yang is known for his success as a professional poker champion, he said nothing would ever beat the feeling of when his family was able to leave the communist-stricken areas of Southeast Asia.
After he had won the poker championship, Yang recalled, ESPN asked how that moment compared to any other moment in his life.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “But this day can never be compared to the day when they called my father up and said, ‘Hey, you can go to America.’ That was the happiest day of my life. To experience freedom and to live freely, and you don’t have to worry about someone coming to your home to burn your bibles or burn your church is really an amazing feeling.”
Because much of Hmong culture and history was not written but passed down orally, it is difficult to trace the true origins of the race. To many Hmong people today, events like the Seattle Hmong New Year are one of the few ways to keep their heritage strong.
Yang and his wife have six children and he enforces one major rule: the minute they step into the house, it’s all Hmong, including the language.
“I think it’s so important, so vital, to keep that tradition going and that is something that I intend to do in my lifetime,” he said. “I want to pass that onto my kids and hopefully, they will see the value and do the same things for their kids.”
This is the same for many Hmong families. GaoSheng Moua, vice president of HAW, remembers being a child and wanting to play with her American friends, but having to stay in and do chores or practice writing letters in Hmong to her aunts and uncles back in Laos. She was born and raised in Missoula, Mont., but her parents were assertive about practicing Hmong values.
“My parents are very, very traditional. Very strict,” Moua said. “We grew up learning how to read and write Hmong. They didn’t want to speak any English at home.”
After hearing stories about her father fighting in the Secret War, Moua was glad her parents had her learn about her culture and the importance of preserving her Hmong heritage.
“It’s a very deep realization about my parents that they went through all that, so we can have what we do today,” she said. “I think it really pushed me to be where I am today and I just wanted … [to] keep the culture because that’s your roots. My parents literally left everything, their house, their farm, animals, everything. [They] carried only what they could on their backs. And to me, that just means a lot.”
There is a growing fear among the Hmong community that their past might be lost due to the disconnect between Hmong and Hmong Americans. But people like Moua, who has volunteered with HAW for six years, are doing their part to pass on their culture to the next generation.
“It’s really unfortunate,” she said. “We’re a group of people from nowhere in particular. You can’t pinpoint it anywhere. It’s really hard for me, but at the same time, I do value the culture. So the least we can do is teach our children.”
HAW’s celebration of the Hmong New Year is not just a way for the Hmong community to feast and socialize, but a chance to spread awareness to others. With approximately 2,000 Hmong residents in Washington, engagement and involvement is important, so that their ancestry isn’t lost.
Vue relates to a lot of the values of the Hmong and hopes to share them with those around him. Because many written records of Hmong ancestry do not exist, Vue hopes to capture and digitalize his family’s story and create a family tree before it is too late.
“It’s important to understand the culture and preserve it and to be able to pass it on,” Vue said. “I think of it as when I have kids, I’d like to take them to the New Year. I’d like to dress them up and really have them understand the history and understand the language as well, so that when somebody asks them where they come from, they’ve got an answer.” (end)
Elizabeth Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.