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Hmong New Year in America

[Left] Annie Yang [Right] and President Mary Kong working behind the desk at the Hmong Center of Green Bay

[Left] Annie Yang [Right] and President Mary Kong working behind the desk at the Hmong Center of Green Bay

The annual Hmong New Year celebration put on by Green Bay’s Hmong community center might be worth your time December 26 and 27. It’s a fusion of old world tradition and American adaptation by a people who, not that long ago, were half a world away.

Mary Yang, President of the Green Bay center told us that it is just one way to maintain traditions. Traditionally, the festival came after the harvest, in one of the most prosperous times of the year for traditional agricultural communities.

This festival contains traditional competitions, for singing and dancing in styles carried from Laos and China, and new evolutions. There will be a beauty pageant, and perhaps more interestingly a freestyle dance contest, which Yang says tends to attract break dancers. The young teens often train with the local Big Brothers, Big Sisters chapters and enjoy showing their skills from their own culture on stage.

A ball tossing ritual carries shades of older days, where boys and girls would line up to play catch. Handing over a token if they dropped a ball before the opposite sex, and having to sing to earn it back. They would sing of their lives, and make promises. One song they often sing is called kwv txhiaj, and the opportunity for courting is there much as it was before, bringing the young together under the watchful eyes of the adults.

Many wear traditional outfits. Today they are made by parents and grandparents, but Yang said that back in Laos each outfit would be the labor of a year for the wearer, just to be worn for the ritual.

As an added bonus contestants win prizes for categories like distance and steady hands, as the coins they’ve sewn in their outfits jingle with the music.

Everyone is welcome Yang said. In addition to the contests there will be vendors for food and clothes, both ceremonial, and with contemporary modifications. Yang explained that in Laos, the festival was the one time a year where everyone could have meat, and while the dishes had changed to preference finger food like sticky rice and fried chicken, traditional favorites could be found as well.

homong

The Hmong community is an increasingly visible component of the Green Bay area. But how many of you know more than the basic facts about your neighbors? According to migrationpolicy.org the Hmong people came in three waves.

The first of these came in 1975 after fleeing to Thailand on the losing side of a CIA backed war in Laos. By December of that year approximately 3,500 Hmong had come to the U.S. The largest group came following the Refugee Act of 1980, allowing family members to join the fighters who were already stateside. This would not be the last large scale emigration on the part of the Hmong people. The closing of the Wat Tham Krabok monastery protecting the remaining refugees in Thailand in 2003 resulted in another 15,000 people coming to the U.S.

Initially, upon settling the people, the U.S. government decided to disperse them, hoping for a better cultural immersion. However migrationpolicy.org states that due to racial tensions in the often black neighborhoods, the refugees were settled in and with the Hmong people’s strong clan and familial connections, the people quickly regrouped around certain cities and areas. California, Minnesota and Wisconsin are currently the states most heavily populated by the Hmong people.

The 2010 Census reported 260,073 people of Hmong descent in the United States. The largest number of Hmong live in the Twin Cities and Fresno, California, but by percentage they are most prevalent in first the Twin Cities (10 percent) followed by Wausau, Wisconsin (9.1 percent).

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