How an American Hmong Woman Preserves the History of Her People
After the Vietnam War, Annie Vang’s parents escaped persecution in Laos and crossed the Mekong River at night to seek refuge in Thailand. “My family had no choice but to flee or die,” she says.
Vang and his family are Hmong, an ethnic and cultural group who lost their land and way of life after siding with the United States in the fight against communism. Like so many other Hmong, Vang’s family relocated to a refugee camp before coming to the United States in the late 1970s. Growing up in Iowa, Vang recalls being bullied. because he had an accent and “looked different” from others. “I was told to go back to my country every day,” she says. “I just wanted to be like everyone else and assimilate and forget my Hmong roots.”
Yet in adulthood, the 44-year-old does everything in her power to preserve her cultural history. For over a decade, the app developer has digitally documented the Hmong language with HmongPhrases, an app she created to teach the Hmong language to English speakers. “It is essential that we capture this, so that our language, our heritage and our stories can endure,” she says.
The Hmong people, widely regarded as one of the most marginalized Asian American groups in the country, have been in the United States for almost 50 years. But until gymnast Sunisa Lee competed in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they rarely made headlines. After Lee won gold in the all-around competition, there was renewed interest in the ethnic group, with Google reporting an increase in searches for the word “Hmong” and the phrase “Where are the Hmong from? ”
The answer to this question is complicated. Hmong American leader Chef Yia Vang (who, like Vang, lived in a Thai refugee camp) recently said Vogue teens that the word “Hmong” literally means “we have no land of our own”.
The Hmong people are mainly from Southeast Asia and remote areas of China. During the Vietnam War, Hmong child soldiers were recruited to fight in a CIA-sponsored operation known as the “Secret War”. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam, essentially abandoning the ethnic group, more than 120,000 Hmong became refugees in their own country, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Many fled to Thailand, and later to the United States, where there is are now at least 18 Hmong clans scattered across the country, the largest in Lee’s hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
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Although Vang does not know Lee personally, she says the gymnast’s success has also brought Hmong history back into the news. “A lot of people in America had never heard of the Hmong before,” she says. “It warms my heart to read articles detailing his journey … because we all think of each other as being connected in one form or another.”
When Vang’s own family arrived in the United States, they settled in Pella, a small town in Iowa southeast of Des Moines. Her father, Seng Fong, got a job as a welder, and her mother, Mang, stayed at home with Vang and her five younger siblings. No one spoke English, so Vang learned himself by watching Monsieur Rogers neighborhood on PBS. Then she taught her family.
The Hmong have a long history of oral speech, but for centuries there had been no written language other than the images that appeared on traditional tapestries which Vang translates into Hmong as “paaj ntaub”. This changed in the 1950s when William Smalley, an American linguist, reportedly set out to help the Hmong of Laos develop a permanent writing system, which is now used all over the world.
Vang says that because many Hmong did not learn to read or write in their own language before coming to the United States, their native Hmong dialect is in danger of disappearing. “Much of our rich cultural history and our stories are lost because they have not been written or recorded,” she says. “We, as the Hmong people, have lost so much in our journey in search of freedom. ”
The best way to ensure that it was not forgotten, she realized, was to digitally document the language and encourage younger children to learn to speak it too.
After some of Vang’s friends asked her how to say basic phrases like “hello” and “goodbye” in Hmong, she decided to create a Hmong-English language app. “There was no online resource for Hmong audio phrases, so I decided to write a list of commonly used phrases and record all the audio myself,” she says.
In 2011, these recordings became the first iteration of HmongPhrases, an app that allows users to search for a Hmong phrase, play a sound explaining how to pronounce that phrase, and then practice saying it out loud. “My goal is to leave a digital imprint of our Hmong language for future generations,” says Vang.
Since then, HmongPhrases has been downloaded over 2,000 times. Last January, Vang re-recorded all new audio content and added new features to the app, which is aimed at students, teachers and non-native speakers so they can have conversations with their Hmong friends. She downloaded 3,000 translations and created flashcards to help users memorize sentences.
In July, Vang attended Apple’s Entrepreneur Camp, an immersive lab that provides female entrepreneurs with advice on their apps and mentorship from cutting-edge tech experts, to further develop the app.
By adding more words to HmongPhrases, Vang ultimately hopes to save a language that has traditionally only been spoken in tight-knit communities. “Our language fills the communication gap between young and old, so that we can communicate and share stories,” she says.
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