Assistant Professor of Social Work Pa Der Vang.
Pa Der Vang advances understanding of the Hmong-American experience.
By Pa Der Vang as told to Christina M. Cavitt
Assistant Professor of Social Work Pa Der Vang is devoted to advancing society's understanding of the complexities of the Hmong-American experience. She's not only studied her people's history; she has lived it. Her mother was pregnant with Pa Der when Saigon fell to Communist rule and the Americans — with whom the Vangs were aligned — withdrew from Laos. The family fled to a military camp established for the first wave of refugees in Thailand, where Pa Der was born in 1975. Nine months later, the Vang family came to the United States.
Pa Der and her big brother grew up in Missoula, Montana. They spoke Hmong at home and English at school. She was shy and studious — and felt isolated in Missoula's predominantly Caucasian community. Raised with Hmong values and expectations for females, Pa Der was married in a traditional ceremony at age 17 and moved to the state of Washington. She became a mother one year later. In 1993, she shocked a youth assembly by volunteering to run for group president. A deafening hush fell on the group as several dozen stares locked on her as if to declare, "But you're a girl!" —Christina M. Cavitt
Needless to say, I was not nominated. It was the first time it hit me that my journey as a Hmong woman would be tough. I can laugh about it now, but back then, it stung. I longed to voice my ideas and value as an equal. Six years later, after leaving my traditional Hmong marriage, I began a journey that culminated in developing St. Catherine's Critical Hmong Studies minor. The minor's introductory course, "Critical Hmong Studies," began this autumn. The program includes three electives and two other required classes: "Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity" and "Asian American Identities."
I came to St. Kate's as a junior faculty member in 2011 and was immediately intrigued by the University's commitment to inclusiveness. St. Kate's was already engaged in efforts to attract Hmong students, so I approached my department leaders in social work about creating a Hmong studies minor. I found the administration very open to exploring ways to better meet the needs of our growing numbers of Hmong students.
Most of their lives, Hmong young people have experienced environmental micro aggressions — situations where there is no reflection of who they are. The subliminal message is often: "You're not important enough for us to notice you." St. Catherine University clearly and boldly tells them: "You are important."
Hmong have been a migratory people for centuries. Always attached to a larger culture, we've never had a country or even a government to call our own. To maintain identity, our elders hold fast to traditions when our clans emigrate to a new land. Of course it's natural to cling to the familiar, but completely resisting change is not always the best way to go about gaining acceptance from host countries. It is especially difficult for the children caught between two worlds. I am optimistic that St. Kate's new program is the beginning of an era that perpetuates understanding between and among diverse cultures.
Critical Hmong Studies centers on the Hmong diaspora — a group's shared history and memory of a homeland. We want to help students make sense of their traditions and the world they live in. When non-Hmong students join us, they will gain insights into what the rich Hmong culture brings to America's diverse population.
Even though I don't have a true recollection of Laos, my parents have a very clear memory of that home. They passed on their memories, and I'm carrying those memories on to my children and students.
Critical Hmong Studies is content-heavy by nature. There's a lot to cover. I'm excited to usher students through the Hmong journey and how we ended up in the United States and other parts of the world. As the semester advances, we'll delve into what our colorful history means to individual identity in contemporary society. I'm really interested in helping students develop critical thinking skills. We'll debate about cultural identity and what can be done on campus to reflect the ever-increasing Hmong student population. We'll also examine ways the media can more accurately reflect Hmong in America.
I hope to inform and create greater understanding of the Hmong community for non-Hmong students who take the class. And I am hoping that Hmong students will come away with the ability to articulate, "That's what being Hmong-American means to me." When students of all cultures better understand one another, they can become confident and effective leaders.