Languages of an Hmong American

Second Prize Red RibbonJamie Xiong
Second Prize, Fall 2017 Essay Contest

Languages of an Hmong American

I grew up singing poetry in my first language, Hmong. My grandma always had video cassettes playing of men and women courting each other in rhymes and poetry. In Hmong, it’s called kwv txhiaj. It is a musical method of courtship, where the singers would begin their verse by holding out a note for what seemed like centuries. They would also swing their voices as most of the lines were poetic and figurative. I don’t quite remember this, but my family members told me that as a child, I always ran around the house singing kwv txhiaj. I learned it all from my grandma. She was like a second mom to me when my parents were away working. Thus, my grandma watched over me my entire childhood. She spoke Hmong with me all the time since she did not know any English.

However, when I started going to school, I began to talk less in general. I was already an introvert to begin with, but now I was forced into a classroom full of people that did not know how to speak Hmong. Even though I went to Pre-Kindergarten with my younger brother, the only person I ever talked to in that class was him. Thus, I never really spoke in school until I was in the third grade. As I became older, going to school got me to speak more and more English, a lot more than Hmong. By the end of elementary school, I was not even able to hold a fluent conversation in Hmong with my grandma like I did years ago. English had become my second language, and primary one. However, my fluency in English has allowed me to succeed in school, graduating in the top ranks of my high school, and soon with my bachelor’s degree majoring in political science and minor in peace studies. However, why do I feel unworthy of all this success? As if I have not truly accomplished anything?

I never really realized how far I grew out of speaking Hmong until I came to college. My lack of familiarity with my native language left me feeling like a failure. I met other Hmong students who spoke such fluent Hmong and then there were some who could barely understand it. However, I was in between that mix. I learned and met so many influential and inspirational Hmong leaders in my community while at Gustavus that I became empowered to re-introduce myself to my first and native language again. Over the summer, I had my mother help teach me the vowels of the Hmong alphabet - which is pretty much the core to reading, writing, and speaking Hmong. Without learning my second language -English, I would have never truly appreciated my native language as I do now.

For a short-term goal after I graduate, I plan to use my proficiency in English to further my education so that I can give back to the community. I want to work in a career field that will help represent my Hmong community and attend graduate school after. I want to be able to communicate with the Hmong elders and help them adjust to the American customs easier. I want to pave a pathway for people to grow and follow their dreams. However, to do all of that, I must better myself. I have already started by teaching myself Hmong, but I still have much to learn. I get so excited about learning it that I literally just want to buy a Hmong dictionary and learn every single word starting from page one. Overall, there is still much room for me to grow so that I can effectively help others in the United States.

I have also always considered creating an online blog where I can tell the world about myself, my battles, and achievements. Like stated earlier, I am an introvert so I keep a lot of things to myself. However, I believe that everyone is unique with their own experiences, but are also not too different from anyone else. Starting a blog would allow my story to be read, known, and understood. I would be able to write it in Hmong, English, and even a bit of Mandarin and characters. It is important to be proud and representative of oneself, and I believe that a blog would have always been a nice medium to share a bit of myself to the world.

Coming to Gustavus Adolphus College has allowed me to find my identity again, and cultivate with it. Learning English has helped and supported me so much academically, so I wish to use it to my advantage of representing myself as a Hmong person and woman. I also learned the basics of Mandarin when I came to Gustavus. Being able to learn another language like my native one impassioned me to learn even more, with hopes that one day I could travel to the Hmong villages in China and converse with them. It’s always been a dream of mine. Along with that, I was taught by a professor that genuinely cared for and loved to teach the language and its culture. Speaking English and Mandarin has further pushed me to grow and keep learning about myself, my culture, and this passion of expressing myself. I am constantly using different outlets to convey thoughts and ideas, whether it be in Hmong, or through a song sung in Mandarin, writing something down in English, or just having a conversation with someone. I am now capable of expressing myself in multiple platforms that I was not able to do before. And I believe that it is a big step towards my dream of being a role model for the community.

I really hope that being multilingual will help me grow more each day, not just academically, but also as a person that represents bigger things other than myself. I want to speak out for others who struggle with expressing themselves like I once did and still do sometimes. Whether that may be through music or just speaking out freely, I want my voice and many others’ to be heard. It does not matter whether they speak Hmong, English, Mandarin, or another language, but what is important is that that they have a chance to say something or have something they can relate to. As I graduate from Gustavus Adolphus College and move onto bigger things in my life, I am going to use this passion of expression and being “multi” to propel myself forward. I said it in my FTS class four years ago and I still say it now, it is a beautiful thing to be multilingual and I plan on making this world a better place by expressing myself in all these three languages. Ua tsaug. Xiè xiè/谢谢. Thank you.