Hmoob Mekas (HMong-American)

As a daughter of HMong refugees, it is monumental to have witness the first HMong-American, Sunisa Lee, win Gold in the 2020 Olympics. And, it wasn’t just any HMong-American. She was a HMong-American girl. It felt like the HMong community was finally acknowledge. During her highly-anticipated press conference, a HMong reporter asked Lee a question in HMong. Lee responded, “Do I say it in HMong or in —,”…before laughing. “I don’t think I can say it. You guys are going to laugh at me.”

Immediately after, many HMong critics came online to voice their opinions about how Sunisa isn’t a true HMong since she couldn’t speak the language. This is a long-time sentiment felt by many of the HMong elders. And to try to understand where this rhetoric comes from, we have to examine what it means when we use the word, “HMong.” Often, we hear the words, “I am HMong” and “I speak HMong.” The term HMong is used to describe our ethnic background and also our language–interweaving our identity. Without a country nor a clear ancestral origin, our language is one of the last concrete things that connects us to our heritage. I can see that there is a lot of pain and suffering when our elders see that our language is dying. Though, as I watch the younger HMong generation grow–here in the States and abroad–our loss of language is a universal experience. Even as someone who is fluent in both dialects, I sometimes find myself stuttering when speaking HMong. It wasn’t until I came across a facebook post by Dr. Ia Xiong, a licensed psychologist, that I started to heal.

“When we understand that losing the Hmong language is not a personal failure, but a real consequence of historical trauma and needing to survive in the mainstream world, we can have more compassion for the struggles that our younger Hmong generations face. ”

Dr. Ia Xiong

Serendipitously, a meeting with a new friend brought on a timely discourse about the experiences of learning our HMong language. His story illuminated the stark contrast of what it was like to grow up American as a HMong man. This excerpt is from my conversation with Tou* (*name has been changed to protect his identity) from the West Coast. Although he grew up in the 90s, his experience is one that I believe the current HMong generation can resonate with. As someone who once felt disconnected from the HMong culture, he is now taking deliberate steps to reconnect with his heritage and has some tips on how he has made his transition easier.

Tou: a story about coming back home.

When many of the Hmong refugees arrived in America starting in the 1970s, they resettled in different major USA cities. Tou’s family along with his cousins resettled in apartments located in the projects. His family follows a traditional Animism religion (Shamanism); therefore, he spent many weekends over at this cousins house for those religious ceremonies.

The increase in gang-related activity in his area forced Tou’s family to move out to the suburbs–a good distance away from all of his cousins who still resided in the projects.

Due to this move, Tou became friends with the (Caucasian) boys in his new neighborhood. “When you don’t have HMong friends, you don’t associate with them. You assimilate with your new friends–learning their social structures, listening to their music, playing their sports, and speaking their language.” His new life was a stark contrast to his old one. He recalls only having one other HMong person in his school–his brother.

Compared to the other HMong families, Tou’s parents had opportunities that allowed him to live a more lavish lifestyle. So, he became comfortable and didn’t have any concrete intentions on attending college. Tou said, “In the 90s, HMong men didn’t really attend college.” The common sentiment was that they were even lucky to have graduated from high school. However, one of his friends applied to college in the southern part of his state, so he decided to also give it a shot. He ended being accepted and was one of the first HMong boys to graduate college during his time–a true pioneer for many of his HMong cousins. He felt like he had assimilated successfully into the American culture. Tou recalls, “Growing up, I just wanted to fit in and be popular.” And he had thought he had it all. He dated the Caucasian girls in his social circle, played football, wrestled, and ran track. Yet, he still felt displaced.

Shortly after Tou graduated college, he moved back home. To his surprise, his relatives welcomed him back with open arms–as if no time had passed. That was one of the most pivotal moments for him when he returned. “Family is family; you are never treated different or as an outcast even if you were absent from ua neegs/birthdays…etc.” He also started to hangout more with his grandmother (pog), but realized they couldn’t communicate; his pog didn’t speak English and he no longer could speak HMong. Although his grandmother is an important figure in his life, when he moved away he had missed out on making memories with her. Tou remembers thinking, “It would have been selfish for me to wait for her to learn English to speak to me.” So, after not speaking HMong for nearly fifteen years, Tou decided to re-teach himself the language so he could get to know his pog better. It first started with asking his pog simple questions in butchered HMong–you know, small talk. Then the topics ranged from fishing, humor, to describing his late grandfather’s personality. These conversations not only opened an outlet to learn more about his late grandfather (who passed away in 1984) but also helped to rekindle their bond.

Tou acknowledges that there are many flaws about the HMong culture. Even as a HMong man, he has his own struggles. Compared to the Western culture, in the HMong culture “if you are single, your words don’t hold much power. An 18-year old boy who is married and or has children would have a seat at the table and their word would be as good as gold.” Juxtaposed to someone like Tou–who is a college-educated, business-owner, HMong man currently in his 30s and single–is still viewed as a child. Tou has also witnessed how his cousin, an Officer in the military, came back home after over a decade of service just to hold the same social status as Tou–largely due to them both being unmarried.

As he is re-learning what it means to be a HMong man born in America and his space within his heritage, he is opening up the conversations to his HMong brothers and sisters on how to re-connect with their culture while being more intentional about cultivating a more equitable and inclusive space. One way he is re-teaching himself and his HMong cousins how to speak Hmong is via Hmonglish.

  • For example: How to say phonetically say “Coconut” in Hmong: Dad (in HMong), Ma and the word for “paternal aunt” (in HMong) = Txiv + Ma + Phauj (understanding that the true spelling is txiv maj phaub).

Although, he admits this is not always correct. For example, once at dinner, he asked his grandmother for qaib mis (chicken boobs) instead of qaib lub hauv siab (chicken breasts). It still makes a great memory for a story. For Tou, making a joke out of stories like these helped him get past the feeling of being “embarrassed” of speaking HMong out of context and in turn gave him a new perspective. He tries to keep an open mind and also reminds himself to have fun. Even though he has missed out on 15 years of contextual linguistic practice, he now has one rule for his family: to constructively correct him if he speaks out of context.

Tou’s message to others who may feel like they resonate with him:

“No matter what you do in life, don’t forget who you are where you came from. Don’t forget your family. Work on yourself. Be the best person you can be. Our culture is…disappearing quickly. [In order to preserve it] with the new HMong generation, we can’t be too strict with how to learn HMong. There is no correct way to learn.”

While it may seem like our identity is still deeply interwoven in our ability to say we are HMong and or speak HMong, my hope is all our growing HMong children know that they are not alone in their struggle to find their place in this world.

It’s not shameful that you cannot speak the language when you have had to find ways to survive. When the time comes for you to thrive, I do hope you give speaking HMong a chance as it has been called one of the most musical languages in the world.

We come from a long line of warriors and fighters. Through the persecution and war, our people still manages to make a home out of nothing. So thank you for choosing “HMong” as one of your homes in whichever way you celebrate it. Thank you.

I wish you courage on your own journey leading to your own satori.

Until next time,


Today, Tou is a successful business owner, has his own house, and routinely hosts many of his friends and family when they travel to visit. His five year plan is: to retire. He has a fun personality, is very outgoing, and very hospitable. And, he is in the market. Although it should be noted: he has stopped drinking since the Pandemic. He still enjoys going to bars/functions to hangout with his family and friends. If you are finding it difficult maintain sobriety while attending HMong functions, his experience has taught him that: it’s not easy–since a lot of the HMong functions revolve around food and drinks. But it is possible. Once you make your decision, don’t turn back. If you are interested in learning more about Tou or connecting him with a HMong sister who is also in the market, please direct message me. Serious inquiries only.


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