For Duluth Hmong family, U-S-A spells education

/ 8 April 2012 / jennifer

Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune, April 8, 2012 –

Their way of life threatened after the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s, See Moua and his parents left Laos and lived in refugee camps in Thailand, where he had little chance for formal education.

See met the woman who was to become his wife in one of those camps, and they eventually had three children before they came to the U.S. in 1994.

Today the Duluth couple has eight children, each on track to become college-educated, a phenomenon that would be unheard of in Thailand, where typically one child — a son — would go to college unless the family was wealthy.

Though much about American ways were strange to See and Chue Moua, they recognized the importance of education to their children’s success, said Sue Kurth, director of the federally funded Educational Talent Search program at the College of St. Scholastica that helps low-income, first-generation students succeed in high school and college.

“Mr. and Mrs. Moua have been very supportive of the kids’ education right from the start,” said Kurth, who has worked with the Moua children. “When, one by one, they were eligible to join, they always readily signed them up.”

The oldest Moua child, Kham, 23, is in her fourth year at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the youngest, a fourth-grader at Laura MacArthur Elementary, will enroll in the program in the sixth grade when she becomes eligible.

“It has given them a head-start over most students,” See said through his daughter, Kham, who translated for him. “In Duluth, we don’t have a lot of Hmong students who have progressed much higher than a high school diploma.”

Balancing two worlds

As the Moua children advance through school, they have struggled to balance Hmong culture and its pressures with the pressures of education.

See and Chue said they have primary school-level educations. Growing up in refugee camps, they weren’t allowed to progress further.

With Hmong families in Thailand, who are typically farmers, girls would either marry young or work in the fields, See said. If there was opportunity to send a child to college, a boy would be chosen over a girl. When Kham, a biology major who is planning to apply to medical school, was accepted at UMD four years ago, her parents supported and encouraged her. But they did not support her choice to move away from the family, which See says goes against Hmong culture.

“It could bring shame to the family,” See said. “Girls are not supposed to do that. Sons can live outside from home, but for a girl you are supposed to live with your family until you get married.”

The decision was difficult, Kham said.

“I was trying to get my parents to understand that living away from home, it gives you a sense of independence. You are depending on the amount of money you make, not your parents.”

Kham said her parents didn’t take her seriously when she told them of her plans to move close to UMD. Kurth and other members of the Educational Talent Search program staff supported her efforts, Kham said, both to get financial aid and in talking to her parents.

Eventually, though, Kham simply moved out and stayed away for a month to give them time to accept the “American way” of living on one’s own in college.

“My parents didn’t understand why I needed to live away from home when I was just going to UMD,” Kham said. But she wanted to experience freedom from parents before marriage.

“I was always trying to live up to the ideal Hmong girl. … I wanted to do this so in the future, if my sisters decided to move out to live by themselves, it would be an easier transition for my parents.”

It took time for her parents to adjust, she said.

“At first, it was very difficult trying to get over the transition, but there was constant trying to fix, trying to understand each other’s point of view,” Kham said.

Kham visits her family frequently to eat dinner and talk, and that has helped mend the rift, she said.

See and Chue feared for Kham’s safety, they said, but have learned that Kham is capable of both supporting herself and keeping herself safe.

As the eldest daughter, Kham was relied on for English translation, which was sometimes a burden, she said. Hmong religious rituals and ceremonies are time-consuming. Taking part in those while keeping up with studies has been hard, the elder children said, especially for the boys, who are required to learn them.

“In the Hmong culture we have higher expectations, and that puts more pressure on us,” said Thong Moua, 20, who attended UMD for a year and a half and now plans to attend Lake Superior College. “Sometimes that’s a challenge.”

“When you have exams … it’s hard to do those ceremonies when you have these things weighing on your mind about school,” said Kham, who also works as a research assistant at UMD.

Only three of the Moua children are bilingual. The youngest five speak English and only some Hmong language. The eldest three worry that they will lose the Hmong language, as their Hmong friends speak English and they only hear their parents speak their native words.

“I’ve lost the understanding of different tones,” Kham said.

Chue worries that her daughters’ generation is losing the Hmong culture.

“They can’t balance teaching us that when we have other priorities,” Kham translated for her mother.

Eye-opening experiences

But the family works to maintain its Hmong roots even as it accepts new things, such as after-school clubs and sports for the kids.

Xai Moua, 18, a senior at Denfeld, plays the cello, something Kurth has encouraged him to do. He will major in music at UMD next year. The siblings, too, have encouraged each other to explore new things outside a traditional Hmong role for a son or daughter. Both Kham and Xai took part in the talent search program’s junior-year trip, traveling to San Francisco and Washington D.C., respectively. Having never traveled anywhere else in the U.S., the tours of the colleges and cities were eye-opening experiences, both said.

Kurth said she admires the Moua parents for their willingness to allow her to work with their children, and for putting their trust in her.

“They don’t necessarily understand or are comfortable with the ins and outs of these kinds of things,” she said, noting the kids all work hard in school. “It doesn’t always come easily, but clearly being good students is important to them. Their parents have done a good job raising them.”

Advisers work with the students, regularly tutoring them and assisting with study skills, college searches and tours and financial aid applications. The program serves 564 students this year at five area schools, including Morgan Park Middle School and Denfeld High School.

Denfeld sophomore Ka Moua is involved in Link Crew and Key Club, and is also interested in a medical career. Before enrolling in the program she didn’t think about college, she said.

“But after going to the first couple of sessions, I realized how important school was,” she said. “It was almost an epiphany.”

See and Chue’s beliefs about education have changed, too, since their lives in Thailand.

“When they came here,” Kham translated for See, “they knew education was important, but they never really understood how important it was until my brother and I went to college. It’s about securing a job and a future and preparing yourself for the real world. … In the U.S. there is no limit to how many kids can go to college.”