This essay is shared with permission from the author
6 November 2017
The Little Hmong House
It was Friday night. I was up in the Twin Cities spending the night at a friend’s house since we both had early morning dance practice the next day. He was always kind enough to offer the option of staying over at his place the night before instead of commuting unreasonably early on Saturday mornings for practice, so there I was at his place on a Friday night, helping him set the dinner table. Just as I was about to lay the spoons into the rice bowls, I heard him shout out quickly and scramble over to stop me. “Don’t lay the spoons in there,” he hollered. Stopping in my tracks, I began to wonder why that was. As it turns out, in the Hmong culture he came from, utensils are only set in rice bowls as an offering to the dead. The majority of my friends in the Twin Cities are Hmong, so having been exposed to so much of their culture already, I was interested in exploring more. I had the honor of growing closer to these friends who were very passionate and knowledgeable of their Hmong roots, and I found myself delving even deeper into their heritage through conversations and experience. In the past month, I’ve collected knowledge on Hmong perception of family and power distance, the effect of Hmong language on views of the world, and Hmong nonverbal and verbal communication.
As I interviewed XXX, one of my Hmong friends in St. Paul, I learn more about their perceptions on family and power distance. Because traditional Hmong families value collectivism, people outside of their family are perceived as negative forces. For example, a lot of Hmong families that have immigrated to the U.S. are still very reluctant to trust the American medical system or rely on prescriptions. They would much rather use people within their families as resources for treating medical conditions and providing herbal medication (Nancy, 2017). The Hmong and their perceptions on family are even more complex in that they are separated into clans by last name, and each of these clans have developed perceptions of people, events, truths, or decision making based on their history as explained in the book (p. 218). One day, my friends told me common behaviors about certain families do or not do such as “…members of the Yang family are not allowed to eat chicken heart” or some families feud for more than hundreds of years based on name (XXX, 2017). These perceptions on family also play a role in the power distance in Hmong families. Status in the families are described as a hierarchy. As explained in the book, people of hierarchy-based cultures believe “power and authority are facts of life” in families or societies (p.227-28). Americans do not have huge power distances amongst people because growing up I’ve been taught about “equality”, but according to Teng Moua, elders have more power than the youth and the men have more power than the women (2003). An example of keeping this hierarchy would be how family members are addressed. When a family member enters the home, they are respectfully addressed by their relation (Aunt, Uncle, Cousin, etc.) then addressed by their first name. Subtle it may be, the detail reinforces the hierarchy system. Perception, values, and power distance in the Hmong community affect their social life through language.
The language spoken by the Hmong changes their views of the world. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, language is not a way of reporting an experience, but language is a way of defining an experience (p. 271). I find it true when two languages have an abundance of words that cannot translate to one another. This epiphany helped me understand the concept between language and perception, for they are used interchangeably to define experiences happening to an individual. For example, Americans have a strong belief system in science and can gather the facts, statistics, and data to define “sleep paralysis”, but due to their spiritual roots, in Hmong, the word is nonexistent and the Hmong therefore have a different definition for the experience. Two different cultures with two different perceptions define the same experience in their own way. Since traditional Hmong families practice Shamanism, the religion contributes to the language. Shamanism involves people connecting, perceiving, and interacting with the spirit world. As I mentioned America’s definition of “sleep paralysis”, Hmong Shamans would define the experience as “an evil spirit sitting on your chest.” I also had the opportunity to visit some Hmong households who practice Shamanism, and their shrines can be a simple table or a massive shed. According to several of my Hmong friends, the slightest mispronunciation in the Hmong language could cause miscommunication. Not only does the Hmong language differ from other cultures, they also have different dialects. They have dialects such as “Hmong Red”, “Hmong Blue”, “Hmong Green”, or “Hmong Black” in the community, and each dialect has their own rules or pronunciations. However, it is not uncommon for speakers of the same language to have difficulties understanding each other (p.273-74). The Hmong language has sensitive vocabulary that can have one word contain five definitions by the slightest pronunciation. I’ve been told the best example is to say,” My mother likes to steal money” to see the tongue twisting phrase. Even though the language contributes to their worldview, knowing the combinations of Hmong nonverbal and verbal communication should be an expectation in families.
According to my interview with Nancy, Hmong nonverbal and verbal communication is passive-aggressive. When I started dating my girlfriend, I had to meet her parents for the first time. Although her mother never directly expressed her disliking of my silver hair at the time, she did make sure to get it across that “black hair is the most beautiful hair color”. The Hmong are less apt to verbally express their personal thoughts and opinions openly, as they are very cautious of ruining their reputation. Instead they carefully choose their words to discreetly let someone know of their intentions. With the situation with my girlfriend’s mother, she never once uttered a derogatory comment pertaining to my hair color, but I was still able to understand that she was not the biggest fan of the color. Just as it states in the book, a person’s definition of attractiveness can be related to the “particular culture in which they live” (pg.297). In the Hmong culture, black hair is preferred because it is considered pure and authentic (Nancy, 2017). While passive aggressiveness is a reoccurring theme with verbal communication, it is also present in nonverbal communication. In this case, it can be displayed with the nonverbal tasks that are expected from the younger generations by elders. If you are a man at a social gathering such as a wedding or funeral, you are expected to deliver a proper greeting and handshake to every man older than you. To not follow through with these actions would send the unintentional message that you do not respect the elders (Nancy, 2017). Actions like these are expected without any instruction, so there may be cases where failure to act could come across as an “unintentional act” of disrespect. In fact, “nonverbal messages are most often produced without a conscious awareness” which often leaves room for misunderstanding (pg.297). The elders would take the inability to greet as a sign of disrespect when really it could have simply been ignorance.
Since discovering the Hmong community thriving in the Twin Cities, I’ve gathered knowledge on Hmong perception of family and power distance, the effect of Hmong language on views of the world, and Hmong nonverbal and verbal communication. I’ve learned how much a single culture can impact a means of communication, and it’s brought out an understanding inside of me when conversing with people. Everyone comes from a different background. What I may view as a polite gesture might actually be rude to another person due to their cultural upbringing. Although my cultural awareness has broadened, this is only a mild stepping stone to learning even more about how cultural roots play an important role in the way someone may communicate.
XXX. “Hmong Culture.” 4 Nov. 2017.
Moua, Teng. “THE HMONG CULTURE: KINSHIP, MARRIAGE & FAMILY SYSTEMS.” May
Samovar, Larry A., et al. Communication between cultures. Boston, MA, Cengage Learning,