Hmong Language and Culture Camp Offers a Self-Centering Immersion Experience

Due to politics and military conflicts, the Hmong have led a somewhat nomadic life for centuries. They had a written language almost 5,000 years ago when they lived in Southern China. But they were forced to move into Southeast Asia by the Chinese and lived a rather isolated existence in the highlands of Laos, at least until the Vietnam War spilled over into adjoining countries in the 1960s and the Hmong eventually fled to Thailand and then the U.S.

“When in Laos, we were pretty much independent by ourselves,” said Mai Zong Vue, one of the organizers of the Hmong Language and Culture Camp held at Badger Rock Neighborhood Center June 10-July 28. “There was no need for literacy. Formal education was not well-known to our community. So in this country, parents who came here do not know much English. Not many can write in their own language and so forth. And so, they can’t help their students doing the work although people like my mom and dad are interested in promoting education for their kids. They are always telling their kids, ‘You have to study hard. You’ve got to study hard.’ They may not know how to give them the tools and the skills, but they know the value of education.”

There are also many cultural adjustments that the Hmong students — and their parents — must make.

Photo by Jon Gramling, Capital City Hues
Photo by Jon Gramling, Capital City Hues

“Many weren’t familiar with educational institutions because they didn’t have access to education in Laos, so they don’t even know what a school looks like let alone what they teach in school,” Vue said. “The other factor which I think is big barriers to our students is in the system in Laos, for those who went to school, the teacher has the full responsibility for teaching and disciplining. So the minute you send your kids to school, the teacher is responsible for behavior as well as academics. And so, coming into this country, some of the parents still think that is the system. That becomes a barrier to our kids too where the parents don’t go to the school. And that is taken by the teachers that the parents don’t care. And the teachers don’t do much about it thinking, ‘Their parents don’t care.’ In this country, it is the parents who show up who are the ones who receive more services because the teacher feels the parents’ eyes are on them. For the Hmong kids, most of the parents don’t go because they still have that mentality that the teacher is supposed to be responsible to discipline their kids when they misbehave.”

Photo by Jon Gramling

Hmong students, too, are taught to behave differently, almost becoming invisible to the American educational system.

“The Hmong students are taught to be quiet and not make a lot of noise and have perfect attendance,” Vue emphasized. “But then they are very invisible in the classroom. They show up. They go home. They graduate. And so, on paper, we look very good. Our attendance is high and we have high graduation rates. But substantively, we’re not achieving. We don’t get the attention we need in school because of our behavior and high attendance and graduation rates. Therefore we’re not problematic students.”

Yet Hmong students are experiencing severe academic deficiencies.

“We looked at the Madison Metropolitan School District’s data showing that 94 percent of our kids cannot read at a fifth grade level,” Vue emphasized. “Out of 10 students, only one can read at grade-level. So we are very concerned. It’s the same thing with math. In 2012, 76 percent of our kids couldn’t do math at grade level. As parents, we are very concerned about the future work opportunities for our students. If they don’t perform right now, how are they going to perform in high school and in college and become productive citizens? We’re very concerned about their academic performance right now.”

There is little Hmong culture that is reflected in the Madison public schools curriculum and due to the desire of the Hmong refugees to fit into American society by assimilating, many lost their Hmong language and culture. That is a concern to Vue.

“We need to work with them on their background,” Vue said. “They need to know who they are, where their parents come from and what kind of barriers they are facing.”

And so five years ago, Vue and other Hmong parents cobbled together the six week Hmong Language and Culture Camp.

“It is designed to give a very safe place to the Hmong students to learn the native tongue as well as the culture,” Vue said. “The afternoon is focused on academics, reading and math and science. We want to help the students improve in science as well. In the morning, it’s classroom style. You learn the culture and Hmong literacy. After lunch, you do the whole academic piece. After snack in the afternoon, you do the Hmong culture and language enrichment piece.”

The camp also invites Hmong professionals to come in to talk about their careers.

“I think it is very important to see someone who looks like you doing a job that you would like to do,” Vue said. “A light bulb might go off. ‘If so and so can do it, I can do it.’ What I have seen is that the kids are so confident that they don’t mind asking those hard questions like, ‘How much do you make?’ That’s important. I think that is a component that I think really helps the students to start asking that question, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’”

Photo by Jon Gramling, Capital City Hues
This is the fifth summer that we are doing Hmong Language and Culture Enrichment. Again, this is pretty much a parent-led community effort for the Hmong students. Photo by Jon Gramling, Capital City Hues

While the camp doesn’t have any quantitative indicators of success, it now has five former students acting as volunteers in this summer’s camp. And some of their students are already making a name for themselves.

“We have also seen students who make a big impact at their schools,” Vue said. “One little girl who isn’t with us this year — but I have heard from her teacher and her teacher talks greatly about her — was shy and didn’t talk much. But after she came to our program, she is now the leader of the club. She is teaching Hmong to the other kids. She is like a rose that has blossomed. That is just so great to see. Stories like that really make us feel that what we are doing is really working. And at the district wide spelling bee in May, one of the winners was one of our students.”

It is a testimony to the grit, desire and determination of the Hmong parents that this program — put together with a lot of in-kind services from the Center for Resilient Cities and other partners and some funding here and there — has continued for five years. Where there isa great need, there will be a way.


For the RPA, the Hmong Romanized Popular Alphabet that we are teaching right now, it has only been around for 50-60 years. But legendary stories have it that we had a written language 5,000 years ago. But because of fighting and the whole issue of land expansion back in China before China was China, we lost all of that.

The parents who came here are Hmong who came from Laos. If you trace the history back, the Hmong who came from Laos are the Hmong who didn’t want to comply with the Chinese in China and so they moved to Southeast Asia.

“I think there is a strong correlation between the 10 percent of Hmong children reading at grade level and the level of their parents’ involvement in the school system and advocating for their children,” Vue said. “When you really look at it, I always say, ‘Our kids face a double-edged sword where we teach them to behave, not to be rude, to be quiet and respectful and don’t raise your hand if you don’t know the answer because to us, that’s not valued. For us, it’s an embarrassment if you don’t know the answer. In this country, it’s the opposite. Raise your hand.’ ”

There is absolutely nothing in terms of Hmong curriculum. The summer immersion program organizers have driven some of the talk in terms of dual language immersion for Hmong that is coming up in the fall. The program is serving as an example and the push from the Hmong Education Council sparked its creation. The summer program is considered the pilot for the Hmong dual language immersion that will be offered by the Madison Metropolitan School District this fall.

The Hmong Dual Language Immersion (DLI) will be at Lakeview School. ALthough it’s good that theschool took on the program, but realistically, Hmong students from the west side and other places will need to travel by bus over an hour to get there.  The needs will require a larger scale program in multiple locations to benefit all Hmong students.

“Most parents feel like we have to give up something in order to really gain the mainstream,” Vue said. “And so, when the parents assimilate themselves in that mindset, then yes, the kids are losing all of the opportunity to hear the language and learn the language at home because they are so focused on the mainstream that they forgot that their native tongue. If you can speak your native language and you know how to write it, the other language will come much easier. That oversight happens to many parents who don’t see that. We’re losing the language a lot faster. And if you look at our community, we are a very young community. Forty-seven percent of our population is under the age of 18. And only 2-5 percent are elders. So that means we don’t have a lot of parents at home to teach the language to the kids. That’s another big factor. Our resources are not there.”

Photo by Jon Gramling, Capital City Hues
Photo by Jon Gramling, Capital City Hues. The  summer program is run strictly as a collaboration between parents, volunteers from the university, volunteers from the community and local business partners who donate money to us. Badger Rock gives us the space. And the Center for Resilient Cities is a strong partner in supporting us. It is a six-week program held every day, Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

This year, we have about 40 students registered. We’ve been averaging 30-40 students per day. It’s very interesting. As we go on, we’re getting more boys and younger students compared to the first two years where we had more of a balance between younger and older kids. Now we are seeing younger students and more boys. This is a good time for them to start learning the language and culture.

And we also continue to have our career speakers. Dr. Xa Xiong who interned at Kajsiab House came to speak. His whole family is in the health care field, so when he comes, he brings his sons and daughter who are doctors and nurses. We welcome our own Madison Police Officer Lore Vang. He will talk about what it means to be an officer. Attorney Annabelle Vang, a family law attorney, will also speak. The kids always have a good time with the speakers.

For the first time this year, we have alumni who graduated from the program volunteering with the program. We have four alumni. That’s a great impact on the program. They are serving as a staff and not as a student. We are very proud of them. We’re seeing lots of different impacts. It’s hard to give quantifiable evidence. But when you hear these stories, it’s really rewarding to me, especially to watch them and then hear stories like this.

We still have parents volunteering to make the food along with our full-time cook. The kids continue to eat the food. They also started our garden today. We’re teaching them to eat healthy and not eat the greasy fast food. We’re introducing them to boiling their vegetables with meat and eating healthy food. They are enjoying that and the parents are helping to cook it. They are eating traditional Hmong cuisine on a daily basis for the summer. And they love the hot peppers. Even the little ones who didn’t initially like them now want hot peppers. I think the most important part for the meal is that peer support, peer influence for eating their veggies. Some kids may not do that at home. But when they are here at the lunch line and their peers are taking the greens, it makes them feel like it is okay to take some greens when offered them by the server. This piece is important because you can’t always make your own kids eat their veggies at home, but if everyone at school is eating them, then you eat it too. Peer influence is very strong and it is good.


Posted with permission of the original publisher, the Capital City Hues.