The Hmong Community - Letter from MPA President, Dr. Willie Garrett

June 9, 2020 

The recent COVID-19 death of St. Paul School Board Chair Marney Xiong, age 31, highlights the plight of the Hmong community during the pandemic, racism towards all Asians due to prejudice towards China, and the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. Ms. Marny Xiong was a respected leader and professional educator for all the children in St. Paul, and all of Minnesota.

All cultures and communities have been affected by the recent crisis. Today, I want to spotlight the impact on the Hmong community. As you know I am not Hmong, and therefore will present this topic from the perspective of a non-Hmong person. I have over twelve years of experience serving the Hmong community and know that there are many intricate cultural details that I do not know or understand. However, it is very important for all psychologists to learn about other cultures as it broadens our frame of reference for all clients. In my practice I have used many Hmong stories with non-Hmong people as a metaphor for meditation, awareness, clarifying priorities, grief, and the importance of intergenerational families. 

As you know, a culture is more than holidays and celebrations; but a system of problem solving, how to love and nurture relationships, express our faith, and make sense of the world and the universe. Often, when problems seem impossible to bear or solve, our culture offers hope and calmness. With culture, our ancestors become our teachers.

Hmong people have lived in the U.S. now for over 40 years. They are originally from China but were persecuted due to their refusal to comply with communist Chinese political doctrine. So, they fled China for the mountains of Laos and neighboring countries. American presidents in the 1960s recruited Hmong soldiers as a secret army to fight in the Vietnam War. The revered General Vang Pao, led the Hmong army in fierce battles with the communists. However, America was in political and moral turmoil over the war and the communist’s tenacity. The U.S. then abruptly pulled out of South East Asia in 1975.

Hmong allies were then abandoned, and began a great exodus to Thailand. They were hunted and systematically exterminated by the communists in Laos and over a million died, and then exploited when in Thailand refugee camps. Thousands of Hmong died from starvation, biological poisoning, disease, and gunfire. The traumatized survivors lived in Thailand refugee camps under harsh conditions until coming to the U.S. and other countries.

Hmong-Americans have attempted to retain their key cultural practices in a country where people know very little about them, and tend to lump all Asians into one group. The pandemic and social unrest has required adaptations of traditional cultural supports that may result in a loss of practices that buffer stress.

Some of the cultural impacts are:

  • Hmong funerals are usually three (twenty-four hour) days of morning. Culturally determined funeral rituals are very important for the journey to the afterlife, intergenerational bonding, and community cohesion. As the family is defined from the great-grand parents on down, and clan relationships, there are many family members. Others in the community will also attend; cows and pigs are butchered, and all must be fed. Social distancing disrupts this process and causes considerable distress for those already in grief, who must have a respectful send-off for their loved one.
  • The annual July 4th soccer tournament and cultural fair at Como Park in St. Paul. An international event, comparable to a Minnesota State Fair, gigantic family reunion, and mini-Olympics. Thousands of Hmong people from around the globe attend over the 3-4-day event. Vendors display their wares, dancers and entertainers perform, athletic team competitions, and of course young person’s seeking romantic partners. A critical community-building event, that cannot be virtual.
  • Hmong weddings are the joining of clans and families; a blessing for their future and a marrying of the souls of the bride and groom. A dowry (bride price) is paid and respectful rituals are performed. Plentiful food and traditional dancing make it a joyful event. Multiple generations are usually in attendance.
  • The Hmong New Year occurs at the end of the last harvest, which is approximately mid-November in the U.S. It is not a set date but the people know when to celebrate. It is a celebration of the past, and a time of forgiveness and reconciliation. In large gatherings there are traditional romantic rituals of singing and ball tossing between young people.
  • Telehealth may be challenging or impossible as many Hmong families live at or below the poverty level and do not have the technology, or technology skills. Privacy is also a factor as many Hmong people live in a small space, in large intergenerational families.
  • Many Hmong people meet the criterion as coronavirus high-risk, due to high rates of pre-existing conditions and living at or below the poverty level. There is the double risk of needing to go to the doctor in-person for serious health conditions such as kidney dialysis and increasing their exposure to COVID-19.
  • Hmong children are at a severe disadvantage with the school closures and having uneducated and non-English speaking parents at home. Also, many families do not have the internet or technology for virtual schooling. The easy answer for American children is on-line education, that is essentially unavailable for Hmong families.

As therapists we must keep in mind that solutions for one group may be unhelpful for another. That we have to be open to the realities of our clients and curious about their priorities. As part of the psychotherapy process, I have learned to always ask Hmong clients “What does this mean to you?”

Willie Garrett, Ed.D.
President, Minnesota Psychological Association
[email protected]