Through the looking glass with the Hmong of Laos

The most disadvantaged of the Indochinese refugee groups are the 130,000 Hmong who have left their remote mountain villages of northern Laos. Like Alice falling down a rabbit hole, they have suddenly found themselves in a strange wonderland where nothing is the same.

Their pre-literate society has been dropped into the age of technology.

The Hmong language is extremely simplistic, monosyllabic, and exclusively oral. As recently as 15 years ago, Christian missionaries imposed the Roman alphabet, but that means little. Only 3 percent of the Hmong population are literate in the sense that they can apply it to their language. Even the 10 percent (increasing to 25 percent in the last five years) who have gone to Lao schools (there are no Hmong schools) are only mildly acquainted with the curved Laotian script.

What does this mean to US schools which must deal with the 20,000 Hmong who have immigrated here? Plenty!

First, for the 75 percent who have never gone to any school, the regimentation of being at the same place at the same time every day is asking a lot. Few understand that there are penalties for not complying to a fixed schedule. The comfortable flexibility of their village life is gone forever.

Add to this that the large majority has never seen a book before and cannot conceive of needing one. To many, it is incomprehensible that a mark on a page could represent a sound and that a combination of sounds can represent a word with a fixed meaning.

The Hmong are a nonsymbolic people. For an individual who had never seen a book, there is no connection between a picture of a tree and a real tree or a map and a land area.

Imagine teaching history to a person whose language has no past tense. There is no concept of the passage of time. Twenty years ago, 200 years, even 2,000 -- all merge together in indistinction. Even the educated Hmong have little perception of their own history beyond a vague notion that they "came from China a long time ago."

One teacher remarked, "For a people whose valued abilities lie in raising livestock and growing rice, to assume they can easily accept the need for learning Western history is ludicrous in its smugness."

Outside a few factual accounts of their own family's history, the Hmong have no oral tradition of literature. The concept of fiction -- of saying something that may not be true -- is foreign, meaningless. Apparently no folk tales exist.

It was during their fearsome exodus that most Hmong saw their first car, paved road, city. Most were flown to receiving nations. Never having seen a globe and having no idea of distance, it's not surprising that for their first months here, many didn't know where they were. Alice's rabbit hole again.

Suddenly everything changed. Their old culture didn't fit. For example, their traditional marriage customs are now illegal.

In Laos, a marriageable Hmong boy (aged 15-18) organizes his male friends to kidnap the chosen girl (aged 13-14). After keeping her secretly for three days, he informs the girl's parents and pays the family three silver bars. A village feast without ceremony or formal declaration marks the marriage. When the man can afford it, he does the process again, commonly having three wives, all sharing the same household, bedroom, and all working together in the fields.

The assimilation process is a delicate one for schools and community agencies to handle. A basic question for the Hmong is how to know what to change and what to preserve.

Generally, teachers are sympathetic, taking an interest in the Hmong way of life while introducing the new ways. Some report Hmong students to be learning, adjusting, smiling, and eventually writing.

Others see them as deferential and wary but eager to please, and conscious of their group impression on Americans. One teacher laments their initial disadvantage:

"All other Indochinese students have dictionaries, but the Hmong don't. They can't look up a word when the others do." Above all, they've got to do two things at the same time -- learn a new language and learn how to write -- "but they're doing it! It's a miracle. It'll be slow, but they'll ma ke it. They're an amazing people."

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