Hmong Children: A Changing World in Ban Vinai

"Camp culture" has become a familiar term to foreigners working with children in the refugee camps of Southeast Asia It refers to that particular blend of influences both modern and old world, local and global - global that plays such a dominant role in the children's lives.

A generation has come of age in refugee camps in Southeast Asia since the end of the Indochina War. At Ban Vinai Camp in northeast Thailand, the influence of camp culture has caused an increasing rift between young Hmong tribespeople and centuries-old traditions that have defined the Hmong as a people throughout their migrations from China to Laos and to Thailand.

Ban Vinai lies in a small valley amid rolling dry hills 15 miles south of the Mekong River. It is currently home to about 45,000 Hmong and other tribes people from the highlands of Laos, who fled because of their association with Hmong General Vang Pao's guerrilla army. Vang Pao's forces fought the "secret" war for the United States against Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces in the 1960s and early '70s. They came to Thailand in several waves following the pull-out of US forces from Laos in 1975 and a campaign against the remnants of the guerrilla army in 1979.

Prior to their involvement in the war, the Hmong, always separate from other Laotian groups, lived a largely peaceful life, migrating from mountain range to mountain range following the dictates of an animist spirit world and the fertility of soils they farmed in the slash-and-burn method. Hmong social order has traditionally been maintained through a strict system of patriarchy with obligation due in turn to elder brothers, fathers, village chiefs and clan leaders. "[Hmong] are likely not be believe in anyone except their clan leaders," wrote Xeu Vang Vangyi in a paper for a national Indochinese conference in 1980. "When they decide to do something, only their clan leaders can convince or stop them from doing it." Now, the hierarchical social order of the Hmong is under pressure from the new influences of life in the camps.

In the early 1980s, the door to resettlement in the United States was wide open but the flow of Hmong out of the camp slowed to a trickle. Knowledgeable Hmong said word had come down from General Vang Pao in the US that the Hmong should stay in Thailand until they were strong enough to retake Laos. The message from the supreme leader, coupled with a general reluctance among older Hmong to face the trauma and dislocation of a new life in an industrial society, meant that even those with the most to gain from resettlement did not offer their names to the refugee agencies.

Now it appears all that has changed. Since the early part of the year, more than 10,000 camp residents have applied for resettlement, according to a Bangkok-based refugee worker. The dam of the old system has broken, and we found in a recent visit to the camp that many Hmong now putting their names on the rolls are second generation refugees whose ideas about the world have been shaped as much by camp life as by knowledge of the elders and the old ways.

What has caused second generation Hmong at Ban Vinai to break so suddenly with Hmong traditions? Fr. Ed Brady, a Jesuit priest who supervised the education programs in Ban Vinai until 1985, says the effects of "internationalization" have indeed been strong.

Through refugee workers and programs from such diverse countries as France, Holland, Japan, the Philippines, the US and Thailand, to name a few, Ban Vinai's children are exposed from an early age to a larger world than their parents ever knew. The second generation of Hmong refugees has developed a different set of norms because of this exposure. Fr. Brady asks, "If they do return to Laos, can we assure they will resume life as farmers?"

Ban Vinai displays an international consumer culture in direct contrast to the tribal cultures of isolated mountain villages. Many youngsters now play, guitars instead of bamboo pipes; wear slacks, sneakers and sport shirts instead of traditional handmade clothes; and prefer videos to learning the skills of storytelling and folk tales.

Only during the two-week Hmong New Year celebration can a visitor to the camp still get a good sense of what life must have been like for the Hmong before the war. Yet, even at the New Year's celebration changes among the youth are apparent. Hmong boys and girls still play the gentle ball-toss game by which they meet future spouses. But tennis balls are often used instead of balls hand-stitched by hopeful brides, and boom-boxes are everywhere in evidence to record the love songs to prospective mates.

Education, a new opportunity for many Hmong youth, has perhaps been the most disruptive. "Being situated in the mountains in remote, isolated villages...few, if any, Hmong had any schooling," wrote Xeu Vang Vangyi. Then, around 1961 when the US military began recruiting Hmong as fighters, the Agency for International Development started building schools for the Hmong. Those Hmong who benefited from the schools (and who often worked for the US) made up the first and second waves of Hmong refugees. But the bulk of those at Ban Vinai are those Xue Vang Vangyi describes as "the soldiers, the peasants, the farmers, and other working groups who had no formal education, no language training, no experience with Western societies." It is the children of these people who are swelling the schools at Ban Vinai.

In the refugee camp large numbers of Hmong are receiving a basic Western-style education for the first time. Fr. Brady describes these children as having "a thirst for education. They want in on what's happening in the world."

Vang Ger is an example of this new-style Hmong. Now 20, he has lived in refugee camps since the age of nine. A keen intelligence and connections in the camp have landed him jobs as a translator for several Western organizations. What Vang Ger really wants is to learn about history - not just the history of Southeast Asia, but the history of the world, "from the beginning," he says.

Like those of many other bright young Hmong in the camp, Vang Ger's ambitions are curtailed by a directive from the Thai Ministry of Education. Concerned lest refugees receive a better education than children in nearby rural Thai villages, the ministry has prohibited general education at the camp beyond the sixth-grade level. The ministry also has limited the teaching of English - which Fr. Brady says the Hmong view as "a handle on the future" - to those refugees already selected or resettlement or for whom a special case can be made, such as paramedics. Although some advanced courses are available on a private, correspondence-school basis, Vang Ger believes he can help his people most by coming to the United States to continue his studies. He is prepared to do this alone, if necessary, leaving behind the older brother who brought him to Thailand and who still believes the Hmong may someday be able to return to Laos.

There is another far-reaching effect of education in the camp. Hmong girls now make up an increasing number of the 8,000 primary school students at Ban Vinai. While many girls continue to marry and bear children while as young as 13 and 14 years old, others are breaking with the tradition of early marriage, and risking being labeled "old maids."

Mai Vang is one such 17-year-old. She has decided she wants to go to the United States to continue her studies. Asked what she thought of her daughter having such ambitions, Mai Vang's mother explained she was happy for her daughter, because she herself never had such an opportunity. Another young woman 19-year-old Youa Yang, has been able to continue dying because she is an orphan and has not had to face parental pressure to get married. She, too, sees resettlement in the United States as the key to her dreams. Most older generation Hmong women have never held a pencil or a pen. Access to education will certainly mean a change in the role of women in Hmong society.

Vang Ger, Mai Vang and Youa Yang - all intent on leaving Ban Vinai, perhaps in defiance of the positions of those normally considered their "elders" - typify the pull of new cultural influences on the second generation in the camp. That pull has only been accentuated by the changes in the Hmong economy. Once self-sufficient hunters and farmers who grew opium poppies for cash, the Hmong must now rely on handouts of rice, meat and vegetables. What cash they obtain derives from gifts from overseas relatives, wages earned in the employ of international agencies in the camp (which the Thai government will soon severely curtail) and sales of quilts embroidered by the women for an international market.

There are those among the older Hmong who fear the migration to the US may result in the death of a separate Hmong tradition and identity. Lee Si, head of the Hmong church at the camp, says his father - also a spiritual leader - once prophesied, "If the Hmong go to America, in 50 years there will be no more Hmong."

But there are others who see that process already taking place at Ban Vinai.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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