Great expectations: The struggles of hmong American high school boys

Bic Ngo, Pa Nhia Lor

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations

Abstract

For journalists and researchers, the culture of Hmong refugees has been of central importance to understanding their transition to the United States. Beginning with the first wave of refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Hmong have been incessantly characterized as traditional, patriarchal, preliterate, and rural in contrast to an exceptionally modern, educated, urban U.S. society. As Fass declared, the Hmong are the most "culturally distant" group to have immigrated to the United States (1991, 1). Even after more than two decades in the country, in a 2005 Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune special series, newspaper journalists continued to emphasize the differences in the cultures of Hmong immigrants and that of U.S. society. In a story about the struggles of Hmong adolescents, Louwagie and Browning assert, "Adapting any non-Western culture to the United States is a formidable task. For the Hmong community, which hails from isolated mountain villages in Laos and refugee camps in Thailand, settling in urban areas such as St. Paul has meant a bigger change" (2005, 11A). The identities and cultures-beliefs, behaviors, and values-of Hmong youth and families are portrayed as traditional and rural, irreconcilably distinct from contemporary U.S. society. In education, this emphasis on the difference of Hmong culture has especially focused on the detrimental impact of culture on the achievement of Hmong girls and young women. (Despite the overemphasis on the adverse effects of Hmong culture on the education of Hmong girls and young women, a few studies indicate that Hmong women are transforming Hmong cultural practices [e.g., Ngo 2002] and making gains in education [e.g., Hutchinson 1997; Lee 1997]. See Ngo and Lee [2007] for a thorough review of Hmong American education.) Early research by Downey et al. (1980), for example, estimated that 90 percent of Hmong girls in Minneapolis and St. Paul Minnesota dropped out of school. Similarly, Goldstein's study found that "girls who dropped out for domestic reasons won community approval by moving into valued gender roles" (1985, 276). In cases where girls pursued education rather than following prescribed gender roles, they were considered unsatisfactory marriage partners (Donnelly 1994; Goldstein 1985; Walker-Moffat 1995). As Donnelly pointed out, "Traditional parents wanted obedient daughters-in-law and urged their sons to choose compliant girls" rather than educated girls (1994, 139). In much the same way, Walker-Moffat (1995) argued that the cultural disparities between Hmong patriarchal beliefs and U.S. educational institutions are responsible for the low achievement rates of Hmong girls. According to Walker-Moffat, "The gender role assigned to Hmong girls is not compatible with current educational practices in the United States, [and] a high level of academic motivation is generally irrelevant" (117). Indeed, teachers and staff in Lee's study alleged that the primitive or "backwards" practice of early marriage prevented Hmong female students from taking advantage of educational opportunities. As one educator shared, Hmong female students who married early were "doomed to economic failure beyond the control of the schools" (Lee 2002, 239). While research focusing on the role of Hmong gender expectations on the education of Hmong girls and young women has been critically important, this attention has left a significant gap in the knowledge base on the education of Hmong American boys and young men. Within the current research literature, there is evidence of an urgent need to address this gap in Hmong studies. For instance, some researchers have noted that Hmong parents have greater educational expectations for sons than for daughters (Goldstein 1985; Walker-Moffat 1995). As Yang explained, this is due to the expectations of men in Hmong culture, where they "are perceived by family and society to be the breadwinners, protectors, leaders, and pillars of the family" (1997, 5). Consequently, Yang argued that Hmong parents typically have higher expectations of sons, who receive "special treatment" because they are expected to contribute to the family and carry on the clan name, while daughters are expected to marry out of the family (6). Of the few studies that highlight the educational experiences of Hmong American male students, there is indication that Hmong boys and young men are facing challenges in their academic pursuits. For example, Stacey Lee found that Hmong American girls are more likely than boys to have positive relationships with teachers (2001) and Hmong girls generally have higher levels of academic achievement than boys (2005). Addi tionally, Lee pointed to the influence of different forms of masculinities in the educational experiences of Hmong male adolescents (2004). In her research with Hmong high school students, Lei found that non-Hmong students perceived Hmong boys as not as "Americanized," "invisible," and ignored (2003, 171). The teachers in Lei's study remarked on the refusal of Hmong male students to speak up in class, even though they knew answers to class questions. While teachers perceived the quietness of Hmong boys as a problem due to culture and limited language proficiency, the Hmong boys shared that their lack of participation in classrooms was also due to the existing racial tension between Hmong, black, and white students at the school. In this chapter, we seek to contribute to the current gap in research that focuses on the experiences of Hmong American boys and young men. We draw on ethnographic research with Hmong American male high school students to examine the expectations and responsibilities of Hmong boys. We illustrate the ways in which these students must balance family and school obligations. Our work illustrates the need to move beyond a singular emphasis on the gender role expectations of Hmong women. Such a focus neglects the pressures faced by young Hmong men to contribute to the economic, social, and cultural maintenance of the family. Our chapter highlights the need for more research on the experiences of Hmong American male students and the implications for their academic achievement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationDiversity in Diaspora
Subtitle of host publicationHmong Americans in the Twenty-First Century
PublisherUniversity of Hawaii Press
Pages151-164
Number of pages14
Volume9780824837778
ISBN (Electronic)9780824837778
ISBN (Print)9780824835972
StatePublished - 2013

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