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Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – Learning to Appreciate My Heritage

Cheng Yang

Cheng Yang is a Competitive & Business Intelligence Research Specialist in the Milwaukee Office.

When I meet someone new, I'm sometimes asked, "Where are you from?" My first and usual response is, "Sheboygan, Wisconsin." But many times, what people really mean when they ask this question is, "What's your culture or heritage?" I'm proud to say I am Hmong.

I've received some blank stares before when I tell people I'm Hmong. With a worldwide Hmong population estimated between four to five million, on a planet with over seven billion people, it doesn't surprise me that not everyone is aware of who the Hmong people are.

In a culture where the written language wasn't established until the 1950's, early origins of the Hmong people has been hard to trace. It was originally believed that Hmong origins began in Siberia or Mongolia and they immigrated south, however, recent evidence places the Hmong people in Southern China and Southeast Asia, at least for the past 2,000 years. What can be tracked of the Hmong people, is how and why they immigrated to the United States and other western countries. In the 1970's, the Hmong were recruited by the CIA to help fight in the Vietnam War against the Communist, in what is known as the "Secret War". After the war, thousands of Hmong fled through the jungles of Laos and crossed into Thailand to avoid persecution. My family was part of a group who made the trek into Thailand and then immigrated to the United States in 1980. Today, the Hmong people have resettled all over the world, the majority of them in China, Vietnam, Laos and the United States among others. In the United States, the majority of Hmong people live in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Living in the United States has brought me and my family opportunities that my parents could have only dreamed of. However, as my family assimilated into the American culture, my parents have adapted and some of the traditions that they followed have fallen away to new customs and beliefs. Growing up in the United States, there were definitely times when I was embarrassed or would roll my eyes at my cultural traditions. In my teens, I dreaded wearing the traditional Hmong clothing for the annual Hmong New Year celebrations held during Thanksgiving weekend. I thought the clothes were too heavy and my mom would squeeze and tie everything together as tight as she could. I would spend two or three hours wearing the clothing and then rush home to take it off. I haven't worn traditional Hmong clothing for years, but I can appreciate them now, just as I've come to appreciate other aspects of my culture, from the food to the language and even the customs that my family no longer practice. I also am especially thankful for the sacrifices my parents made.

As we celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage this month, it's my hope that we all will continue to remember and to celebrate our heritage. Are there cultural traditions that have been passed down in your family that you no longer celebrate but can appreciate also?