Have you ever been asked why you can’t speak or understand your own language?
Let me tell you something, I don’t speak my native language either!
Well, well okay, I can when I try, but there are a few words that I can’t remember or pronounce correctly. There’s this thing we call speaking “Hmonglish”. Hmonglish basically is a made-up term when you start speaking a mixture of the Hmong language and putting English into it, hence the name. Your Hmong speaking skills are no longer as fluent as is it should be or once was so you may have to put one or two English words in to replace a few.
Or there’s the other speaking term, in which we call “txhav” which translates to “stiff”. Your Hmong accent and or pronunciation isn’t so good, you can speak it, but the tones are way off.
Recently my son and I went to the store and was checking out. I happen to be next while this scenario played out. An older Hmong woman asked the teenage cashier about how much their dragon fruits were since they sold it by the pound. The cashier looked at her then looked away. She rung up the total and moved to the side so the Hmong lady could see the price, and yet the lady asked her again how much it was, but now asking why the total was so much.
Cashier now embarrassed turned to the register and just waited, like literally had her hand out waiting for the women to hand her the payment. Unlike me, I felt uncomfortable for the girl so I had to chime in telling the Hmong lady,
“You’re one dragon fruit there was almost $10.00”
She turns to me and says in Hmong,
“Yes, I know they sell it by the pound, but I kept asking her and she didn’t say anything. Kids these days don’t even know how to speak Hmong!”
I smiled, she paid and left. I really felt bad for the cashier, I don’t know if she really understood what was being said about her, but in my heart, I’m sure she knew. As it was my turn, I said to the cashier,
“Don’t let anyone ever make you feel like that just because you can’t speak the language.”
I hope that teen learns to carry that line with her.
How does this happen?
Under the Catholic Diocese, our family was sponsored to Wisconsin while we transitioned and learned the religion to convert to Catholic. I was 6 years old when I was baptized, went through first communion, first confession and studied the Bible every day at school, on Sundays during mass and an extra Monday night session where a group of the Hmong families studied together. I was young back then and didn’t pay attention to what was talked about during those night studies, but they had Bibles and literature all written in Hmong.
All along while attending school being taught in English, reading English and writing in English, basically all academics in English, Hmong was only spoken at home. Back in those days, like any other child whose family had the privilege to own a TV, our favorite shows were also English. English was now becoming more of my first language as the years went on. Once the teen years hit, the only time I spoke it was to my Hmong friends when we didn’t want others to know what we were saying. Many times, we were getting told by the teachers to not speak “it.” Then there was this one time, being told by law enforcement not to speak Hmong because it was rude. All the events that I had experience, it became confusing and frustrating not knowing how to communicate the way I wanted to.
Teenage years itself was confusing enough, but just like any other skill that I have learned along the way, I started to lose it because I was no longer practicing it as much. By this time, most of my communication to my parents were still in Hmong, but I could tell it was getting harder for me. I became my parent’s translator at an early age for medical appointments and they would always scold me to make sure I was telling the doctor or nurse, what they were saying was properly said. Often repeated again and again because my mom’s one long paragraph explanation of symptoms could be translated into English in one sentence.
It wasn’t until High School that we moved yet again to be my now home. We moved to one of the largest Hmong population city. I have never seen so many Hmong people, all from different families in one school. They were everywhere, but this city happened to be the most racist cities I’ve ever lived. (This is a fact) The tension, the little wars that came along with it, the way to stand your ground and talk was in English, while still being able to talk in Hmong among my peers. All I’m saying is, you can’t teach knowledge and hope to overcome ignorant people or white supremacist points of view in Hmong.
Where I am now
My Hmong is Hmonglish and I’m okay with that. I can understand it and speak it enough to get my point across. I still hesitate to speak Hmong sometimes, because unlike before when it was teachers or law enforcement telling me not to speak Hmong, it’s now the Hmong telling me not to speak English. Or like the teenage cashier, joking or criticizing me saying how come I’m Hmong, but don’t understand it or know how to speak it. That’s not even the worst of it, because my dialect is Hmong white, there are many who speak Hmong green that will make fun of the dialect on how we say our words or what our words mean to them. Even friends who poke fun saying,
“I bet you don’t even speak Hmong!”
Hmong communities have the same hate, same bullying, and the same wars as any other. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it’s true and I can only hope for change by making small steps.
My daughter, who is now a teen herself doesn’t speak or know any Hmong, raised on English her entire life. She probably knows all the bad cuss words (profanity), but probably about a handful of actual proper Hmong words. Her grandparents have never mentioned anything about her not being able to speak Hmong, but they will talk to her even if she doesn’t understand. I help guide her so she can answer independently. My son, however, first words were in Hmong. To me, he has the best Hmong accent ever. If you say something to him, he can echo it back perfectly. He is now going to school and has therapy every day. I do notice that he is starting to not use as much Hmong anymore besides letting staff and teachers know he needs to use the bathroom. I can only hope that he will hold on to it as much as we provide it.
Both my voices aren’t heard much anymore by choice but don’t get me wrong, I will and know when to speak up when needed. Which in my culture, probably not the best trait to have and will be looked down upon especially because I am a woman, I don’t come from the best stable family line, and in their eyes still just a child. I hope to raise my children in a way to believe that your “knowing” or not knowing your Hmong language does not mean anything about being Hmong, we’re all human.