Past, Present, and the Possibilities of Nostalgia with the Hmong

A Reflection by Mai Nyua Lee


Lately, I’ve been frequenting one or the other Hmong flea markets. I’ve been taking my Mother-In-Law to buy fresh greens, chickens, walk around to see what’s new, or just to get her out of the house for fresh air. Stepping into these places has brought back memories for me.

As a teenager, I would attend the annual Hmong Soccer Tournament where I would walk around the rows of tents  to track down my mother to obtain money for food. My sister or my friend, whoever was accompanying me, we would casually stop to look at trinkets, but never at the clothes since they are mass produced and sold not so competitively.

Now, I find my hands running over black and colorful satin garments, longing for something I can’t seem to name. I stare a little too long at the freshly cooked food and tell myself how it’s terrible for my health. The mother tongue sings around me, yet I’m grasping to understand the interaction, the meaning behind the words, and their intention.

Sometimes I ask myself, have I been so far away from my own people that I no longer know who I am or where I’m from? Recently, I have been questioning my own identity, my purpose, the culture of my people, how all things are connected to me, and the origin where my soul and my people are from.

My answers seemed to be slightly answered when I attended my neighbor, Patricia’s “Mindful Self-Compassion” class at the East Side Freedom Library. She handed me a flyer about Jim Vue’s presentation: “Nostalgia, Memory, and Hmong American Culture.”

Two things stood out to me when I read the flyer. The word: identity. And the question that was posed: To what extent do Hmong Americans sense the weight of this identity? That question struck a chord with me.

Maybe it was the weight of my identity in being a Hmong woman that was bothering me. Or my ethnicity as a Hmong person. Whatever it was, I didn’t have to think twice about attending. I hoped that Jim had the answers. In reading the flyer, it stated that he is an alumnus of Metropolitan State University; I automatically gave him my trust. He had to know something, right?

The day before his presentation, I met with Jim for an interview.  Long story short, I tried to record our conversation for the blog, but it turned out to be dead air. No matter. It was the opportunity to speak with him.

Jim had just returned home from a week-long vacation with his family and was reacclimating himself to our Minnesota weather and time zone. He looked exhausted, but was kind enough to talk with me.

Introductions were made, and we chatted briefly about our academics that segued perfectly about his research. I learned that his research was part of his capstone project. The study was focused on nostalgia and commodification of the Hmong culture.  Presenting this to the community or to those who would listen helps one, such as me, understand a small piece about their own individuality.

But the research focused on a larger scale; having individuals comprehend that the commodifying of Hmong culture effects everyone and the generation after. In other words, it is a ripple effect.

A great example Jim used is the paj ntaub. When a Hmong woman sews paj ntaub for her daughters to hold onto, it has value and meaning. If it was mass produced for any and all to buy, the meaning and value of it has changed.

This reminded me of my own experience. The nostalgia of desiring something that I couldn’t quite name when I found myself looking and touching the Hmong garments at the Hmong Markets. There were so many choices to choose from that it made me turn away.

My Mother-In-Law muttered her disappointment that all clothes from different clans are now intermingling. Although, in my modern eyes, they seemed rather fashionable, she thought all the Hmong garments did not look appropriate and has lost its originality.  

I wondered, could this be nostalgia she is searching for? Or is this considered progress in our fashion? Or our culture? I did not get the chance to ask Jim.

The following evening, my neighbor and I attended the presentation. Much like the conversation Jim and I had the day before, he kept his presentation and information short and to the point. His preference to do so allowed for follow-up questions and discussion afterward.

When he was closing his presentation, it seemed that everyone was sitting on the edge of their seats and holding their breath. Or maybe people were eager to ask questions. I couldn’t tell. It was like watching a terrific and intense movie with an anticlimactic ending. His conclusion, which I assumed would be an analytical, logical, and research related, consisted of one word: possibilities.

Taking a step back from the assumption I made in mind, it dawned on me that Jim Vue’s presentation at the East Side Freedom Library was intended to have his audience reflect upon this. It did give me a lot to think about. And this is the creative writer and dreamer in me summing up nostalgia.

It is a time capsule of memories. A collection of sights, sound, taste, smell, and touch that reels us back into a place and time that is unique to our collective. Others may view that it is a weight which may hold Hmong people back. I disagree.

Nostalgia is what grounds us to our roots. A reminder that we had history somewhere along the way and still do. And no matter where Hmong people land, I like to think that we adapt and progress in times when it is called for. Jim Vue’s presentation at the East Side Freedom Library gave me a lot to think about.

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