When I was younger, I always dreaded the question, “What’s Hmong?”  I dreaded it, not because I wasn’t proud of being Hmong or because I was ashamed, but because it was and still is a bit complicated to explain to others what Hmong is.

You see, many people are programmed to identify an ethnic group with its country of origin.  People want to know where you’re from to find out what or who you are (which many of us know that what country your ethnicity is from doesn’t necessarily identify who you are).  For example, Germans are from Germany, the French are from France, Vietnamese are from Vietnam, Japanese are from Japan, and so on.  So, what happens when you tell someone that you’re Miao, Mien, or Assyrian?

When I say I’m Hmong, others automatically try to figure out what country I am from.   Hmongland?  Hmonga?  Mongolia?  “I didn’t know the Hmong people were from Mongolia.  I always thought Mongolians were from Mongolia.”  Or “Was there a country that we did not learn about in geography class?”

There are three typical (awkward) conversations that I go through when people ask about my ethnic background.

The first situation is when I tell them that I’m Hmong and they go, “’Gran Torino.’” Or “You’re from ‘Gran Torino!’” Or “I heard about the Hmong people from ‘Gran Torino.’”  Or, “Do you know anyone from ‘Gran Torino?'”

I don’t get offended when people talk to me about “Gran Torino” to me this way.  I am actually proud that the Hmong kind of made it to the big screen, even if it is just having our name and deeds for the US government mentioned.  Wonderful!  However, it saddens me that “Gran Torino” is the only reference others have of the Hmong.  But mostly, it’s annoying.

Scene from “Gran Torino.”

The second situation: when I tell them that I’m Hmong, they just start asking questions and don’t give me time to explain or elaborate, so I just try to answer as best as I can.  And the more I answer, the more I confuse them.  “What language do you speak?”  “Where were you born?”  “What country are you from?”  “What do you mean you don’t have a country (because all ethnicities should have their own territory named after them)?”

The third situation is the most awkward. People ask you a question not because they want to know, but because they just want to be polite.  Similar to the question, “How are you?”  You start to tell them how your day was and then they either cut you off or their eyes start to wander.  Only except the question isn’t “How are you?” it’s “What’s Hmong?”

Rarely do I hear others say that they know who the Hmong people are.  I believe that has to do with where I live.  I live in an area with not too many Hmong people.  Now, if you were to drive 30 minutes south a few cities over, where there is a higher population of Hmong people, you wouldn’t get into these types of situations.

Updated April 23, 2011:
I have removed the video I posted with this blog.  Thanks for reading.  Have a wonderful day!

9 thoughts on ““What’s Hmong?”

  1. I’m still not 100% clear what is the definition of Hmong….without going into wikipedia (as if that’s totally reliable). I’ve identified it as an ethnic-linguistic minority group.

    Guess it’s wrong to say minority?


  2. Hi, may we re-post this on thesiamag.com? It would be good to tell as much people as possible that Hmong is not just Gran Torino, and definitely not from Mongolia!

    Thanks and best regards,


  3. Yup, I hear you about that question. What bothers me is most people associate an ethnic group to some land/country. And it’s hard to describe what Hmong is when we really have no “true” land to call home. When I explain that the Hmong origination was in China, people would say, “So then, you’re Chinese?” That’s not true of course. Some people don’t realize that there are ethnic groups that don’t have a land of their own, but just living in a country with other group being the majority. Yes people, even China has a lot of different ethnic groups that don’t speak Chinese.

    Regardless, I found the best way to explain what Hmong is from Gran Torino, that we’re just a group of people, not a land. A land doesn’t define us, we define who we are.


  4. I could definitely relate to this! This was very well written. It had me laughing inside because I’ve been through the same thing. I have gotten the “Gran Torino” movie a lot. It does get quite frustrating trying to explain to people about what “Hmong” is. I start to confuse myself sometimes. I’d like to reblog this on my tumblr, would that be okay?


  5. I asked one of my teachers what is Hmong and he couldn’t answer it. It took him about 5 good minutes to answer me..and all he got was our history. This question sure is hard to answer..


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