Culture’s complex patterns

by Robin Huiras

Mastering needlework technique requires lessons from an experienced teacher. And, for a sewing class, no one has more experience than elderly women who have been creating the art for decades.
Textile arts in the Hmong culture is a vital component in retaining tradition, which high school students in St. Paul are ensuring will survive.
“I wanted to learn something from my culture, something I want to carry on that’s precious to me.” said Som Kong, a senior at Harding High School in St. Paul.
The program, funded by the University Extension Service, brings eight Hmong elders into the classroom at Harding High to teach the intricate methods they learned as children in Laos. In addition to teaching arts, the elders talk with the students — both boys and girls — about Hmong tradition, to ensure the oral histories do not near extinction as sewing almost did.
Ma Vang, a Hmong elder, said her mother taught her how to sew a long time ago when she was a little girl in Laos. She’s teaching the class because she wants to pass the tradition to a new generation.
The sewing class is the cultural component of the written Hmong language class taught at Harding. Fifty students, many of whom are already fluent in speaking Hmong, also learn how to read and write.
The written language class is the nation’s first and only daytime class incorporated into high school curriculum. Although the written language class is now in its third year, the cultural aspect is a new addition. It was included as the result of research conducted by Masami Suga, the director of the Refugee Studies Center at the University.
Suga said many people were complaining that the young women were not learning to sew — the art was dying with the older generation of people. She interviewed young Hmong women and discovered they were not learning to sew in their homes, as tradition dictates. The reason for this, said Suga, is mothers would rather see their children get an education than learn to sew. The in-home time does not exist.
Naly Thao, a sophomore at Harding, said it was her first time sewing. Her mother doesn’t know how and she doesn’t have grandparents.
Many of the girls Suga interviewed indicated they would like to see the arts taught in school by women other than their mothers. Suga submitted to the University a grant proposal and was given $45,000 from the University Extension Service to implement a program.
“I’m hoping the interaction, communication and respect between the two generations is restored,” Suga said.
And so far, she said, it’s gone beyond her wildest expectations.
The class is held twice a day on Fridays. The elders sit in desks and the students form a circle around them. The elders begin to sew and the youths lean in close to watch the intricate stitches. It begins quietly, the students focused, but as the class progresses, talking and laughter fill the room.
“The class is fun,” said Larry Yang, a senior. “You do all the designs and it looks pretty cool when you end up with the finished product.”
In addition to benefiting the students, the class helps the elderly women, many of whom do not have other social outlets.
Bo Thao, the executive director for the Women’s Association of Hmong and Laos, said there are other programs for elderly Hmong women, but this class gives them an opportunity show youths they do have expertise and skill and to share their knowledge.
The class also allows the women to learn where the younger generation goes every day and what they do with their time.
All of the elderly women say they enjoy teaching the class and want to continue with the instruction next year.
“It’s something I have to do,” said elder Chia Vang. As long as the students are here, she’ll be here, Vang said.
And with that determination, program participants hope to carry on Hmong culture and tradition.
“As an outsider, when we look at other people’s cultures, we think that tradition is something that is fixed in space,” Suga said. “But change does occur — it may be slow, but it is a constant negotiation of how to adapt and preserve at the same time.”