“Where are you from?” she asked me with great interest when I told her I am Hmong.
“It depends on what you’re asking.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you’re asking where I live, I’m from the US. If you’re asking where I was born, that’s Thailand. If you ask where my parents came from, that’ll be Laos. However, I am neither Thai nor Laos. My ancestors migrated from what is now China, but I’m not Chinese. It’s complicated.”
My ethnic identity consists of my people’s history. If I say I was born in Thailand, others are quick to assume I’m Thai. If I say my parents are from Laos, they may think we’re Laotian. If I say that we originated from China, they may think we’re Chinese. And we may be all of the above. Our Hmong culture and identity has been greatly influenced by every country we’ve come in contact with–the food we eat, language we speak, and traditions and customs we practice.
The Hmong have a long history of wandering from country to country, not because we are nomadic, but due to war and oppression. From the time of our ancestors in Ancient and Imperial China to the French colonization of Laos to the Vietnam War, we’ve experienced major trauma and loss. And this we carry on our backs and pass on to future generations.
I struggled with my identity as a child in 90’s USA not understanding the Hmong diaspora. Where are we from? Where do we belong? What country do we call home? If we need to return home, where is home? Is it China, Laos, Thailand, USA, or some other country from before our ancestors made China our home? If the US is our home, why do we not feel like we belong? Why do our parents teach us to behave because White Americans may not like us? Why do our elders yearn to return to the only country they know of (Laos)–so much that individuals financially exploit them?
There are many ethnic and indigenous people with complicated histories and identities like the Hmong. Histories of loss: fighting for cultural perseverance and against cultural erasure; being forced to flee home due to war and oppression; loss of culture and language; and loss and/or confusion of cultural identity. With such history comes heartache.
Some time ago, I came upon the Welsh word, “hiraeth.” There is no direct English translation, but the meaning behind the word resonated with how I feel about Hmong history and my sense of belonging or lack thereof.
“Hiraeth” illustrates a meaning of “homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” This word was able to capture all emotions and feelings I feel about a group of displaced people, how I can never return to the land of my ancestors figuratively.
Our grandparents and parents long to go back to the only country (Laos) they know as home. Even if we were given a huge chunk of land and call it “Hmoob Teb Chaws (Land of Hmong / Hmongland),” would it be the same? Or would we hold feelings of disappointment because reality is we romanticize about having our own country (or returning to our “country”) and in the end it does not live up to our imagination.
So, where is home for the Hmong? Today, the you can find the Hmong all over the world, from the US, Canada, France, to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, China, and even Australia, Argentina, and French Guiana. This is home.