A couple of times I have referenced the Hmong people that our mission serves. We have four missionaries who speak some Hmong. In February there will be four more. Sometimes there are two Hmong speaking missionaries together and sometimes they are divided so an English speaking elder is with a Hmong speaking elder.
I am fascinated by this third language in our mission and have spent time asking missionaries questions and reading online. This is what I learned: Hmong people historically split off from one of the (approximately 3 dozen) ethnic groups in China, where millions still live. They settled in mountainous areas of countries such as Thailand and Laos. Some were resettled in the U. S. beginning around 1970, toward the end of the Viet Nam war. Hmong immigrants achieved refugee status largely because of their war efforts on behalf of the Americans as well as their need to escape the communist regime in Laos.
The only city in the U.S. that has more Hmong people than Fresno is Minneapolis-St.Paul.(~66,000 in MN in 2010) California has the highest Hmong population among the states (~91,000 in 2010) and Fresno has the highest population of any city in CA. (around 40,000 now?) There are also several thousand in Merced, which is in our mission. Immigration has been fairly limited for years, but Hmongs also increase because they have larger than average families.
Hmong students took longer to learn English and to seek higher education than other immigrant groups due to having parents who spoke little English. In addition, until the French became involved in the 1960s no written form of the Hmong language existed, and many of the Hmong people were unable to read or write their own language.
The lack of formal education among Hmong immigrants is also due to the fact that many were once farmers in the hills of Laos or were refugees from war who fled into remote jungles, and had little or no access to schools. More than 30% of Hmong families in the United States live under the poverty level. They have struggled with high incidence of mental health problems, which have been attributed to traumatic past experiences and problems adjusting to life in the United States. Things are so very different here and important passages such as death – which, in their pasts, meant a week long funeral beginning immediately after someone’s demise, are simply impossible and in some ways, illegal here.
Now many Hmong Americans are rapidly blending into mainstream American society. Primarily, the older people are the ones who speak Hmong. The younger people very often make little effort to learn or understand the language. This is causing some of the younger generation to lose aspects of their cultural identity at a faster pace. For example, Hmong New Year used to be a major family event of several days – a celebration with aspects of family reunions and opportunites to meet extended family. Young people in the U.S. often now use it as an event to take a date, or go with friends. Marriage outside their ethnic group is increasing.
In the Hmong community there have traditionally been values of honoring age and education. Missionaries who learn the language gain some acceptance because of the efforts they make to communicate in Hmong. According to some missionaries, learning the language also helps them learn the culture and understand the Hmong ways of thinking. They love the Hmong people and are very glad for the opportunity to get to know them well, to serve them, and to teach them spiritual truths that can make their lives better.