7 questions with ‘Hmong Voices Series’ advisor Kao-Ly Yang

Kao-Ly Yang

When the Hmong minor program launched in 2016, over 100 students enrolled in the first semester. Dr. Kao-Ly Yang, Hmong minor advisor, started the Hmong Voices Series a year later in 2017. Each event in the series focuses on a different aspect of Hmong culture and is designed for students and the community to gain further insight into Hmong folklore, practice and traditions.

Now wrapping up the fourth year of the series, we caught up with Kao-Ly Yang to reflect on the success of the series, even during the pandemic, and to look at what is in store for next year.

1) When did the Hmong Voices Series begin? What is your vision for the Hmong Voices Series?

The Hmong Voices series became a reality in 2017, one year after the creation of the Hmong minor. 

The purpose of this series seeks to propose lectures, readings, and cultural and artistic events, and to promote a better understanding of Hmong issues, to foster cultural awareness and appreciation of Hmong culture, language, literature, and arts and to preserve the Hmong cultural heritage.

The Central Valley has an important Hmong population. We are the second-largest immigrant group after the Hispanic and Latino American group, and this series will help strengthen cultural awareness of one of the region’s important communities.  

Following Lao Tzu’s quote, “knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment,” my aim is for students to learn—in a global fashion—the Hmong language, culture, and literature and articulate their understanding of real situations and current issues. Otherwise, I want my students to have a strong foundation in the Hmong culture and language, and at the same time to be able to “read” the globalized world around them, to connect their life to the one of a whole community, and to feel belonging to a collective destiny. 

My vision of the Hmong Voices Series at Fresno State is to bridge knowledge and experiences, both academic and traditional, and to give opportunities to participants and organizers to empower themselves for family and professional successes. Because of recent anti-Asian events, I profoundly believe that promoting minority issues will contribute to more understanding, appreciation and tolerance toward the American cultural diversity and migrants’ journeys through America.

2) How did the pandemic, with all events being virtual this year, affect the Hmong Voices Series?

As the Hmong Voices Series depends on volunteer work, its programming has slowed down during this Covid-19 pandemic because its organizers have been occupied with other concerns: some by the creation of virtual courses, some by the need to adapt to new learning styles, and some by illnesses. 

We have also unfortunately lost some of our prominent speakers in our presenters’ pool. We are deeply saddened by  the loss of Pos Moua and Dr. Kou Yang, Emeritus Professor at CSU-Stanislaus. The latter was our first guest speaker in 2017.

3) Two recent events in the series have included “Reinterpreting the Hmong Culture during the Covid-19 Pandemic: The Funeral Tradition” and “The Role of Certified Shamans in a Hospital.” What factors inform your choice of topics? Have you had any favorites so far?

This spring 2021, our first Hmong Voice event, “Reinterpreting the Hmong Culture during the Covid-19 Pandemic: The Funeral Tradition”, was associated with the LING 121 course (Hmong Language, Culture, and Identity). Concretely, students wanted to know about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Hmong funeral practices. In the effort to connect class learning to real-life situations, I related the learning of Hmong funerary rite to the pandemic. This event has received an IRA fund.

As for the second Hmong Voice, “The Role of Certified Shamans in a Hospital,” it came out as an attendees’ curiosity in a previous Hmong Voices Series event in spring 2019. With a follow-up discussion with the Hmong Voice Series Advisory Board, we decided to invite Pa Lee Moua to share her experience at training shamans to work in hospitals in Merced County. In fact, this presentation was scheduled for spring 2020, but it was canceled due to the pandemic. We had to wait until March 2021 to know that our guest speaker, Pa Lee Moua, would be able to present. For this spring 2020, Chia Thao, our co-organizer, has requested her department of Public Health to sponsor the event. She has received an IRA fund for this event.

Themes or events proposed for the Hmong Voices Series are chosen in relation to students’ wishes and/or course requirements, attendees’ recommendations, and current issues experienced by the Hmong American community.  Hmong Voices Series has its Advisory Board Committee that has a consultative role and makes wise suggestions of topics. 

Our current board members are (2019-20):

  1. Chia Thao, M.A. Lecturer, Public Health Department
  2. Franklin Ng Professor Emeritus, Asian American Studies
  3. Kao-Ly Yang, Ph.D. Lecturer, Hmong Program coordinator, Linguistics Department
  4. Lee Pao Khang, Ph.D. Lecturer, Public Health Department, CSU-Fresno
  5. Maider Vang, M.F.A. Assistant Professor, English & Creative Writing
  6. Malee Lor Undergraduate student, Liberal Studies, Hmong Minor
  7. Maiyer Vang, M.A. Graduate Student, Nursing, FCC
  8. Moua Vang, M.A. Hmong Teacher, Sanger High School
  9. Nathalene Vang President, Hmong Language Club (2019-2020)
  10. Phong Yang, M.A. Director, Admissions and Recruitment
  11. Vang Vang, M.A. Senior Librarian, CSU-Fresno

As the Hmong Voices Series is attached to the Hmong Studies Program at the Linguistics department, with students majoring in very diverse subject matters, I think that the chosen topics should reflect this diversity as well. I always make sure to include topics on culture, language, literature, arts, contemporary issues, and especially health – because most of the students major in pre-nursing or public health.

4) How have your students responded to the series? Can you give an example of a student who was impacted by an event?

Based on participants’ comments, they positively react to this series. For our last event on the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on funeral practices, more than 90% of the participants would recommend the series to others.

Concretely, the impact on students is mainly intellectual. However, there are cases of students whose participation in the Hmong voices as presenters have helped them in a positive way. This is the case of Sheng Thao.

After my chair, Dr. Brian Agbayani and I met with our Interim Dean Dr. Honora Chapman and Interim Associate Dean Dr. Sergio La Porta to discuss challenges that Hmong American students at Fresno State have experienced (which explains why the Hmong American students take longer than four years to complete their bachelor), I decided to choose the theme of “Challenges at Studying in College” for the creative writing assignment in my Hmong 100 course in fall 2019. In spring 2020, some of my students’ interesting and insightful stories were presented in a Hmong Voices Series event.  Sheng Thao was one of the presenters. Her story was later published by Hmong American Ink & Stories (HAIS). Such an extra-curricular experience has helped in her job search. Sheng Thao was hired by Duncan High School as their Hmong Community Liaison this spring 2021.

5) How has the Hmong Voices Series been received by the local Hmong community? The broader community?

Most of the attendees have been students from Fresno State. However, I have observed a “fan pool” with attendees from the Central Valley and out of state. 

Community leaders like Brandon Vang, Sanger School Board attended several events. I also received offers from traditional experts of Hmong culture to present. So, I think the Hmong American community is very aware of this series and its contribution to make Hmong issues known and shared by a broader community.  

In addition, on the Facebook Page “Hmong Minor at Fresno State,” some of the Hmong Voices Series flyers advertisements have reached far beyond 10,000 viewers.

When the presentations were conducted virtually, we gained a few attendees from France and Canada.

At the academic level, I have to say that the Hmong Voices Series marked by its four years of longevity and thematic diversity carves a milestone in the growth of Hmong Studies in the United States because it gives people the opportunities to see Hmong culture as “thinkable” — in a more critical way — in the academic world and in their everyday life.

Most of my heritage students know about Hmong socio-cultural practices because they live within the Hmong American community. However, they did not have the experience of analyzing their culture in a global fashion and in connection with other cultures and traditions. I think the Hmong Voices Series offers them a space where they can hear different voices on the same issue that they live and study.  Learning the Hmong heritage in this way suddenly reveals to students their precious culture and its infinite possibilities to help them grow into maturity, and the need to preserve it for their children. I believe that the Hmong Voices Series contributes to lift their pride and sense of belonging to a fluid and thick culture that until then, they only saw the first layer through the practices and not the deep representations.

For some academic topics such as shamanism, there has been more participation of the broader community.  Currently, due to students’ requests to learn more about the traditional Hmong culture and its sociological and anthropological explanations, the presenters are mostly Hmong speakers.

6) What’s next for the Hmong Voices Series? Can you give us a sneak peek for next year?

For the academic year of 2021-22, we have planned a few events.

In fall 2021, there will be two Hmong Voices Series events, one on dating and social norms and the other on the impacts of major problems (such as the Covid-19 pandemic) on one’s life. This second event will take the form of short-story reading: the fall 2020 Hmong 100 students will read their stories. 

For spring 2022, I am discussing with the Hmong Nurses Association to co-organize an event on women’s health and cancer. As suggested by Nathalene Vang, former President of the Hmong Language Club, we would like to focus an event on virtual games

7) How does it feel to share your culture? 

As a French anthropologist of Hmong descent, specializing in Hmong Studies for more than 30 years, having done research in China, Laos, Thailand, France and currently in the United States, the Hmong Voices Series offers to me an avenue of understanding and appreciation of such a powerful, resilient and sophisticated culture. I always learn something new during each Hmong Voices Series event, and it humbles me. At the same time, it makes me so proud to belong to such an ethnic group that had survived genocides, wars, rebellions over the centuries, from China to Southeast Asia and to the West. Hmong people living outside China have lost a lot of their cultural heritage, but they never cease to exist. They keep adapting, and they thrive, even if wherever they migrate, they live immersed in dominating societies.

Such a culture of a stateless group, with its sturdy resilience to all kinds of hardships, and today with the Covid-19 pandemic, has to be shared and celebrated. There is something to learn from it, for sure. 

Is there anything I missed? Anything you’d like to add?

The Hmong Voices Series as a platform to voice Hmong issues is only possible due to the support of many people, especially Dr. Saul Sandoval-Jimenez and Dr. Honora Chapman. They have honored the Hmong Voices Series with their presence.

Also, without the love and care of many organizers, especially Chia Thao, Lecturer at the Public Health Department, Vang Vang, senior librarian, both event assistants, A Xiong, undergraduate student in English, and Mailee Lor, undergraduate student in Liberal Studies, and the officers of the Hmong Language Club, this series would not be able to continue for so long. As its Planning Committee Chair, I feel deeply indebted to their unconditional support.

For Fall 2021, we will invite Dr. Ma Vang,  Assistant Professor from UC Merced, to present her book “History on the Run. Secrecy, Fugitivity, and Hmong Refugee Epistemologies.” https://www.dukeupress.edu/history-on-the-run.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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