The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

November 20, 2010

Hmong New Year recalls historic connections

MANKATO — Among the southeast Asian farmers who celebrated the Hmong New Year in decades past, the month-long event was a time for relaxation, song, dance — and finding that special someone.

Tending to and harvesting the crops left little time for socialization, so the courtship process in Hmong clans became ritualized.

It started with total strangers tossing a small ball back and forth, getting to know each other as they did so. By the end of the month, they’d be married. One rule: the couple could not have the same last name, which is the same as their clan name.

Mee Yang, a 2007 graduate of Minnesota State University, said those marriages, seemingly based on so fragile a  bond, far outlasted the typical union today.

The Hmong New Year celebration Saturday at the university wasn’t about the harvesting of any crops, and it may not have persuaded strangers to get hitched.

But it preserved at least the symbolic content of the celebration of the Hmong people, who live in southeast Asia and emigrated to the United States in large numbers following the Vietnam War. Yang said her people’s military assistance during that conflict left them persecuted by the communist leaders of Laos and Vietnam who took over following the U.S. defeat in 1975.

Yang was born in a Thailand refugee camp, where she spent the first 12 years of her life before emigrating to St. Paul. She struggled to make friends in her 6th grade classroom, and her parents learned to drive as well as read and write English.

Yang is the past president of MSU’s Hmong Student Association, which celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Saturday’s celebration included short skits, Hmong love songs and dances that were part traditional and part American.

The Hmong New Year is set by a complicated calendar with details that Yang leaves to her elders to figure out. She said the new year typically falls in November around Thanksgiving.

Current president Cheng Thao, whose garb was covered in French coins that jiggled as he walked, said there are about 100 Hmong students at MSU.

But there are only a handful of families here, perhaps five at most.

Yang said she didn’t want to speak for the whole Hmong community, but the reason she moved back to St. Paul was to stay connected to Hmong culture, community and food.

Association co-advisor Vang Xiong said he’s one of two Hmong staff people at the university. He’s managed to adapt to this life, having spent his undergraduate years in Marshall.

“I love Mankato,” he says.

 

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