The pain of making a home

The Hmong experience is revealed as complex, troubled and hopeful in a new play

Greg Corradini

Once there was an orphan boy living in the charred jungles of the East.

One day, the Dragon of the East sent him to seek the Dragon of the West’s help. But the Dragon of the West swallowed him.

The orphan boy is just one of the many Hmong folktales portrayed in the Center for Hmong Artists and Talent’s play, “Hmong Tapestry: Voices from the Cloth.”

But to understand its significance you have to understand Hmong history.

Cy Thao, an actor and current Minnesota state representative for District 65A, said the orphan boy folktale symbolizes the Hmong’s displacement from their Laotian homeland.

“The orphan boy is a recurring image,” Thao said. “It resonates with the people, many of whom grew up in poverty. It summarizes the war and the move from East to West.”

After helping CIA forces during the Vietnam War, the Hmong became the target of violent retribution by Vietnamese troops. To escape this violence, many Hmong migrated across the Mekong River into the refugee camps of Thailand. Later, some of them came to the United States as political refugees.

“Hmong Tapestry” mixes these personal stories of migration, recent history and magical folktales to produce a collage of theater rich in symbols.

But the real focus of the play seems to be the cultural chafing that happens in the United States between traditional Hmong culture and American individualism.

Cultural divide

Director Lee Vang (who is married to Thao) said adjusting to this cultural clash is a concern for Hmong parents and children.

“Parents are reduced to children because they rely on their kids for interpretation,” Vang said. “The parents are now dependent on the children for the reversal of roles. With the children it is hard for them to take on such a huge responsibility.”

One skit in the play focuses on the problems of the young Kong, who is bullied at school because he is not American enough.

But at home, Kong is not Hmong enough either. He can’t explain to his parents in Hmong the cultural significance of a PTA meeting. When Kong doesn’t call home for dinner, a sign of his new individuality, his parents can’t understand why Kong forgets his family.

This clash is nothing new for Thao.

For his father’s generation, Thao said family and clan ties are important for survival in Laos.

“Everybody depends on everybody,” Thao said. “The good of the group is paramount where my father grew up.”

By contrast, Thao said he believes that in the United States, individual freedom and happiness are the overriding principles.

“So, conflict comes into play when people like my father are stressing cohesion within the group and then you have a couple of young guys talking about individual freedom,” Thao said.

One area of tension is revealed by Vang and Thao’s own family. The couple has two daughters, Cyanne and Sienna, and no sons.

By traditional Hmong standards, two girls and no boys in the cradle is a hazardous position to be in.

“People keep saying that I need to have a boy to take care of me when I get old,” Thao said. “I say, ‘I am putting money away for the traditional 401(k) retirement plan.’ “

Vang said that such a change in cultural individuality is also reflective of the gender-role reversal that has taken place in the Hmong community.

“Women are now rising up and having more equality, access to education and resources,” she said. “That is something that is very hard for the more traditional guys to accept, who can’t see that things are changing in America.”

While “Hmong Tapestry” doesn’t touch heavily upon the gender difference, it draws the lines of conflict with scenes such as one where a teacher practices English with Hmong students by reciting “America, money, McDonalds, General Motors.”

By highlighting these tensions, the play preserves a moment in time when the pressures of assimilation were of paramount importance to the Hmong community. Thao offers some solace to those who worry about the corrosion of traditional values, while striking a balance between individuality and tradition.

“I am not so worried,” he said. “Our culture and tradition is what we make of it. Each generation will have their input in the direction that our community is going. Some people say that is moving too fast, others say that it is not moving fast enough. But it is really up to us to decide.”