Local Hmong experience cultural tensions as modern generations confront old traditions
Hmong people make up the largest group of Asians in Milwaukee. In fact, the Hmong population across Wisconsin is the third largest in the country, behind California and Minnesota.
Chia Vang, a historian at UW-Milwaukee, said the difference about Wisconsin’s Hmong community is that the population is spread across the state and not concentrate. So, why did Hmong people decide to resettle in Wisconsin and not cluster together like other immigrant communities?
“They actually don’t choose where they want to go. In fact, most refugees have no idea where these states are and no frame of reference. For the refugees, in order for them to come to the United States, they have to have a sponsor. Sponsors typically are individual families or churches that have a number of families that would volunteer to help the refugees,” Vang said.
Vang is also Hmong, and her family was resettled in the Twin City area in the mid-1970s. While Hmong have been in the United States for more than a generation now, the average family size remains larger than that of typical Americans.
“The immigrant generation and the second generation as well tend to have larger families. It’s pretty typical to still have Hmong families that are four or five children,” Vang said.
There are many reasons for that, like high infant mortality rates. In their home country, couples have more children in hopes that they live long enough to take care of them in old age. And like with other cultures, the more educated the mother, the fewer children she has.
In the 1980s, about 60 percent of Hmong refugees received public assistance. These days, it is about 20 percent. When comparing Hmong people to where they started, the number of those considered middle class has increased drastically. However, there is still more work to be done. Hmong are considered one of the poorest among Asians in the United States.
Change for the Hmong people has been coming from the younger generations. People tend to think of the Hmong community as insular, because they often turn to each other for help. That too is changing.
“You had a lot of elders who couldn’t seek outside support because of language barriers, so they tended to rely on family and the Hmong community,” added Vang. “But the new generation of younger Hmong Americans grew up here, speak the language, and are more comfortable reaching outside the community for help. So they are able to connect with mainstream society in a way that older family members couldn’t.”
Originally published on Milwaukee Public Radio as A Historian Shares Insight About The Hmong American Experience