For the past two years, my family has been members of the Fox Cities Hmong Branch in Appleton, Wisconsin. Before the Hmong Branch was created, the Hmong people in the Fox Cities area of Wisconsin were in the Appleton Second Ward, where I had been serving as Bishop. I came to greatly love the roughly 150 Hmong members in my ward, and learned much about their tragic history. I was nervous when they were made into a branch, but hoped for the best. Things went well for a while, but recently the branch has suffered severe setbacks, much of it related to clashes between Hmong culture and the Gospel or clashes between Hmong culture and US society and law.
While we are no longer in the Hmong Branch, we still love the Hmong people and continue to work with them unofficially.
The Hmong people are proud of their culture that comes from the hills of Laos and neighboring parts of southeast Asia, but there are parts of Hmong culture that have to be discarded to be a faithful member. Hmong culture includes shamanism, involving many things that strike Americans as superstitious and pagan, but there are also good and praiseworthy elements, like the closeness of families and respect and care for the elderly.
For Latter-day Saint Hmong people, though, life is tough. Becoming a Christian is often viewed by others as renouncing your culture, because you will no longer respect the guidance of a shaman or perform the rituals, altar ceremonies, and other practices recommended by the shaman. For Mormon Hmong members, giving up alcohol will be offensive to Hmong relatives, because it is very important for the men to take part in drinking ceremonies at weddings and other occasions (a part of Hmong culture I really don’t like is getting the groom stone drunk at weddings, with goal of getting him to pass out).
One part of Hmong culture that I think has been very difficult for some Hmong families in the US is teenage marriage. In Hmong culture, even here in the US, it is not uncommon for girls to get married at 14 or so, and some women marry even younger. A lot of US Hmong girls are waiting these days because they want to graduate from high school or even go to college (hurray!), but young teenage marriage is still far too common. These young girls marry guys who are often much older, usually at least 3 years older and sometimes 5, 10, or 15 years older. Even if it weren’t illegal, I would oppose it because of the harm I think it does to the girls in American society: they miss out on so much education and social development, and they generally are too young to hold their own in the relationship with the older man, putting them at great risk.
Let me clarify an issue: Hmong teenage “marriage” usually isn’t marriage at all, according to the laws of this land. In Wisconsin, marriage before age 16 is illegal, and from 16 to 17 requires parental consent. But even if the girl is 16 and the parents consent, the marriage process typically involves premarital relations for a period of time before the ceremony, and the ceremony often is just done according to Hmong custom, without a license or proper legal authority. This is a serious violation of the moral standards of the Gospel, but it’s hard for some Hmong immigrants to understand why. Some see it as an unfair intrusion on Hmong culture.
When an older man, say 19 years old, “marries” a young girl, say 15 years old, we’ve got an especially severe problem in which the man can be prosecuted for having relations with a minor. Our General Authorities take a very tough stand against sexual abuse, as they should. Again, this is difficult for some other cultures to understand. And it’s hard for some of us to understand why other cultures don’t see things our way. In fact, marriage at such young ages even in this country was once relatively acceptable in this country, but society and laws change.
With several big differences between what is acceptable in Hmong culture and what is acceptable in the Gospel and under US law, there are plenty of opportunities for people to be offended. Some of these issues proved to be especially problematic for some of our members. Others have shown remarkable faith and patience, even when they did not understand all the issues, and have held to the iron rod of the Gospel in spite of much turmoil. And there is much hope that many members will progress and become more established as Latter-day Saints – but it’s been a very difficult road.
I am interested in similar experiences that others have had in working with other cultures in the US, or in other countries. Sometimes the chasms just seem so wide! How does one best move ahead?