“I am Not Hmong. And I Don’t Speak Spanish!”

Sep 24, 2010

A Hmong-American mother keeps her peoples’ story and traditions alive for future generations.

A few years ago, my husband’s niece exclaimed, “Auntie, I know how to say ‘door’ in Spanish.”

“Dora, the Explorer” was one of her favourite children’s television shows at that time. I wondered if she had learned that from Dora.

“How?” I asked.


I gasped in surprise, “Athena, that’s not Spanish! That’s Hmong. And the correct way to pronounce it is ‘qhovrooj.’”

Two years ago, the same Athena got offended when I told her that she is Hmong. “I’m not Hmong. I’m American and I speak American,” she stated.

She does have a point; she is American. She was born here. She lives here. She goes to an American school. She learns about the American culture, history, and language at school. But she can’t deny the fact that no matter how American she wants to be, she will always be Hmong. Even if she labels herself as “American”, others are going to label her as either “Asian (Asian American)” or “Hmong”.

Athena is not the only one. I have witnessed too many small Hmong children who are ignorant about their culture. Too many Hmong children don’t speak their native tongue and don’t even recognise the Hmong language when they hear it. Too many Hmong children don’t know what the essence of being “Hmong” is about nor do they have pride that they are Hmong. Who is to blame for ignorant Hmong children who believe their grandparents speak Spanish? Who is to blame for Hmong children refusing to claim their heritage? The parents.


Hmong couple


Growing up, I didn’t have cable TV or watch American movies like my peers. My mom bought Hmong movies and Asian movies dubbed in Hmong for my siblings and me. If it weren’t for those Hmong movies, I believe I would’ve lost my ability to speak Hmong a long time ago.

My mother taught me how to do cross-stitch embroidery when I was eight. We would spend every year embroidering new clothes for the Hmong New Year. And once New Year came around, my mother would not hear that I did not want to wear the new Hmong clothes she sewed. No matter how much I complained, I ended up going to the Hmong new years in our traditional clothing.

KLS was a very popular Hmong band during my pre-teen and adolescent years. Like many other Hmong girls who crushed on them, I learned how to read and write in Hmong by singing along with the lyrics that KLS generously provided along with their albums. It’s funny because I can’t even remember the band member’s name whom I crushed on.

These are just a few examples of how much I was immersed in the Hmong culture growing up.

I guess, my mom just accepted the fact that we are in America and no matter how much she tried, our traditions are slowly melting away in this huge melting pot.

My baby sister is very different from me. We have the same mother, same family, almost same living environment as children – except for that, my mom stopped trying to “Hmonganize” us in my late teens (My sister was six/seven). I guess, my mom just accepted the fact that we are in America and no matter how much she tried, our traditions are slowly melting away in this huge melting pot.

And because my mom stopped trying, my sister hardly understands when anyone speaks to her in Hmong. And like many Hmong children nowadays, she doesn’t want anything to do with the Hmong culture. All she sees are the negative aspects of our Hmong society that stick out so much more than the rich and beautiful culture hidden underneath.

That is why I try my best to immerse my daughters in our Hmong culture so that even though they see the negative, they know that there is also a positive. I teach them as much from my knowledge as possible. I speak to them in Hmong 90% of the time. I introduce them to Hmong movies and Hmong music. And once they’re older, I would love to enrol them in a Hmong class as an elective.

Whenever my daughters have questions, I try to answer them to the best of my abilities.

“Mommy, nwsua dab tsi nab (what is that person doing)?” Jade asked when she saw a Shaman for the first time.

“Oh, he is called a Shaman. And the little table he is jumping on is his horse. He is travelling to the spirit world,” I responded in Hmong.

“Why does he do that?”

“Because they just had a baby in this family. They are doing it for the baby and the mommy.”


It’s hard to hold onto our native culture when we live in America. We, especially our children, assimilate too fast to the mainstream American culture. I am trying my best, as a mother, to make sure my daughters get the best of both worlds. I want them to know at least something about their culture, even if it is just to be fluent in Hmong.

I know that learning and speaking English is inevitable. I worry that once pre-school and kindergarten comes around, Jade will lose her ability to speak Hmong (like many Hmong children I know). However, just because I don’t speak English to my daughters doesn’t mean I am preventing them from learning English. In fact, Jade has started speaking English from observing everyone around her. And when she does, if her grammar is incorrect, I correct her. “It’s ‘Mommy, is that mine?’ Not, Mommy, that mine?”

I am cherishing the days when Jade would rather watch Hmong movies over cartoons. When she says KwvTxhiaj and carries her kawm around. I know they will go by fast because I have already started to see the changes.

I don’t want my daughters to be ignorant of their ethnic culture. I don’t want them to say that they’re not Hmong and that they don’t understand “Spanish”. Too many Hmong children don’t know what Hmong is. I am proud that my daughters know how to speak Hmong and love to be Hmong. Little kids may ask me why Jade is speaking “Spanish” to them. I just laugh and reply that she is speaking in Hmong, not Spanish. Grown-ups may say that Jade is very MTT (a FOB)*, but I just shrug and say, “I didn’t know that was a problem.”


Jade in Hmong costume

My daughter, Jade in Hmong costume


*MTT stands for “HmoobThaibTeb (Hmong Thailand).”

FOB stands for “Fresh off the boat.”

A FOB is an immigrant who is “fresh off the boat” and is ignorant or not up to date with mainstream culture or not “Americanized.” It is sometimes used as a derogatory term. MTT means the same thing, only it is a specific term for Hmong people.