Have you heard of Hmong?
We wouldn't knock you if you haven't. Hmong (commonly pronounced Mong) are a very small subset of people found in the mountains of Laos and scattered all throughout Asia. Unfortunately, throughout history they have remained mostly a mystery as they have remained hidden away in the mountains from other cultures.
The history of Hmong people is complicated more so by the fact that because of their isolation in the mountains for many centuries, writing and adapting to other cultures, was mostly skipped in favor of storytelling and artwork to pass down history. While there are few instances of some Hmong people who received a formal education, this was very rare. This has made it extremely difficult to trace back how far back Hmong history goes, with only some old Chinese text mentioning Hmong people in passing.
In these texts, one of the greatest accomplishment and contribution to society that Hmong people helped with was the cultivation of rice, a primary dish in any Asian cuisine. Outside of this, Hmong people primarily disappeared from history until they re-emerged during the Vietnam War.
Hmong Involvement in Southeast Asia
During the 1960's and 70's, Southeast Asia was very contentious with the rise of many communist factions. The US had a difficult time dealing with the growing threat and needed additional help more local to the region. Additionally, the unfamiliar terrain and region made it difficult to identify friend from foe. It was then the US and CIA enlisted the aid of Hmong people, building up a resistance group commonly known as the Secret Army, to help combat these factions.
Image courtesy of https://vietnamveterannews.com/.
Why the Hmong people when there were other ethnic groups in the area? The reason was due to the fact of the familiarity of the mountainous area and knowing hidden routes to navigate the mountains in order to cripple the enemy supply line. Additionally, being born and raised in the mountain area, they were better suited at carrying out stealth attacks as the high altitude did not impact their conditioning. However, for a small group providing as much help as they could to a world power in the US, it still wasn't enough against the communist factions of Laos and Vietnam. What was known as the end of the Vietnam War for the US, was the start of massive persecution for the Hmong people.
Fleeing Southeast Asia
Due to the involvement of the Hmong people in assisting the US during this period, Hmong people were persecuted by the new governments. Many were sent to concentration camps, where they were worked to death or were brutality murdered, leading to a mass genocide of the Hmong people. It was during this time, where a large number fled to the borders of Thailand in hopes of seeking asylum from these oppressive regimes. Unfortunately, due to the status of the Secret Army mostly remaining top secret, they were not granted protection by any world power.
There are many recollections from Hmong people of the fear of having to pack what little they could and flee to the borders of Thailand in the middle of the night. Taking days by feet and traveling mostly at night to avoid too much suspicion. Additionally there are stories of being robbed along the road while also not knowing the status of other relatives was frightening for many.
Image courtesy of https://khampoua.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/hmong-searching-for-a-home/.
Luckily, the UN eventually granted Hmong people the status of political refugees allowing them to flee to other countries such as Australia, France and the United States and escape these oppressive regimes. While this provided them safety from prosecution it presented many new challenges in of itself.
Life in the United States
Early generations of Hmong people in the United States had an extremely difficult time adapting and assimilating into the United States. Coming from an undeveloped region and suddenly being thrust into a developed country is an understatement to the term a "New World". To make matters worse, in hopes of not re-creating a region for only Hmong people in the US, the US government spread them out throughout the US. Further complicating their communities in hopes it would allow them to adapt quicker, but creating extreme anxiety as close relatives were no longer within walking distance of one another, instead across the country (many Hmong people had never been on a plane until their escape from Southeast Asia and were extremely scared of flying).
What also made it difficult was the lack of skills for many older Hmong who only knew farming or housework. This along with a huge language barrier created a lot of angst as to how they would succeed in the US.
While initially this was a big detriment to many in the community, eventually many started picking up on the opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have had in Southeast Asia. While the previous generation struggled and had to leave everything behind, they persevered in hopes that the next generation will take up the mantle and use our past to make us stronger.