Faculty Mentor: Jacob Hickman, Anthropology
Hmong are an ethnic minority group from southeast Asia who were displaced as refugees after the Second Indochina War. Before the war, Hmong lived in kinship-based, highland, semi-nomadic, subsistence-based farming communities. In these traditional villages, Hmong developed various means of social mediation and problem solving based on hierarchies of kinship and village or clan leadership. As they have been displaced to locations like the United States and France, however, legal structures of these new communities have challenged traditional structures of authority.
We spent three months in a French village where approximately 60 Hmong families of first, second, and third generation immigrants made up 5% of the total population. There, we did ethnographic field work to understand what new power structures had formed, how they were affecting Hmong life, and how the French government worked with Hmong communities. I lived with the family of the Hmong community leader and was able to learn about his life and his leadership duties by shadowing and observing him as well as through semi-structured interviews.
We attended Hmong cultural rituals and social events, as well as spending time with Hmong research participants as they went about their daily lives. We gathered data through interviews and through observation by taking notes in the field. I analyzed this data with a qualitative data analysis software (MaxQDA) by marking themes in the data that were relevant to my interests in civic engagement and Hmong cultural systems.
Hmong in this small village live, for the most part, as French citizens. In the French national and legal culture, it is important to fit in with the rest of society. Hmong do this by speaking French, working in French jobs, sending their children to French schools, living in French homes, and even using French table manners. Meanwhile, they continue to practice Hmong cultural rituals privately and frequently. The older generation, the first immigrants, often practice other aspects of Hmong life such as speaking Hmong to each other and listening to Hmong music.
The Hmong community leader, Npisi, sets an excellent example for how to balance Hmong and French life. He acts as the local Hmong Association President and the President of the Union of Hmong Associations of France, as well as serving as a councilman on the local municipal council. With his national and local Hmong leadership positions and his local French leadership position, he is often looked to as a mediator for French-Hmong relations.
Often times at Hmong public events, the local French mayor can be seen by Npis’ side. She spoke at the opening ceremonies of the annual Hmong Festival which celebrates Hmong culture and is attended by people from all over Europe. She was also a prominent figure at the French-hosted celebration of a local Hmong memorial that recognized Hmong who died while fighting for France. Her attendance as a local French official at these events act as a type of French recognition of the local Hmong community. This is significant among the French tendency towards nationalism and secularism.
The people in this community will tell you that they identify as French-Hmong, or HmoobFabkis. They are able to navigate this balance through organizations like the Hmong Association. The association acts like a support system. For the first generation of refugees, that meant that they had a system they were familiar with—a system of elders who can advise you on how to solve your problems—that helped them to understand French life. Now it helps them to raise their families in their new country. It also helps Hmong with problems that are unique to their lives in France. Npis can aid people in his community if they have legal issues by helping them find a good lawyer, by using his connections to talk to other local leaders, or by counseling troubled youth on the dangers of drinking or drugs.
The Hmong Association also helps the French government to understand Hmong people and serve them better. Through Npis, they have a solid connection, and French leaders, such as the mayor, know that if they need the Hmong community members to know something, they can communicate it to Npis and he will disseminate the information.
The Hmong Association system is used throughout France. The local association is very similar to the old traditional cultural structure of hais plaub councils that was used in Southeast Asia, prior to Hmong displacement. It acts as a familiar cultural structure and allows Hmong to better understand their new political, social, and cultural environment in France.
i Names have been changed to preserve anonymity