Pa Der Vang

Moved by Her Own Experience

My ethnicity is Hmong. I was born in a Thai refugee site for Hmong who were forced to flee Laos in fear of persecution at the end of the Vietnam War. In 1975 my family came to the United States, where we experienced many adjustments including culture shock and the sudden awareness of our racialization in a predominantly white society. I am part of the “1.5-generation,” or one who came to the United States as a child, sandwiched between my parents’ first generation status and the second generation status of my siblings who were later born in the United States. These generational differences within our household created intergenerational conflicts as each of us, from different generations, experienced different acculturation processes. My parents tried their best to teach the Hmong tradition and to reinforce Hmong values to their children, however, my siblings and I acculturated to Western culture at a much faster rate than did our parents. I had one foot deeply entrenched in Hmong values, while the other foot was equally entrenched in Western values.

This awareness of bicultural stress is what sparked my interest in my research topics. I witnessed the response of Hmong and other immigrants to culture shock, acculturation and intergenerational conflict, bicultural stress among children, and loss among elders as they saw their traditions fade away. These experiences shaped my educational journey. I obtained a sociology degree with an emphasis on race and ethnicity studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I then continued to the University of Minnesota, where I obtained my master’s in social work in 2003 while working in St. Paul as a social worker with Hmong clients who struggled with mental health issues and domestic violence. I continued my education at the University of Minnesota and completed my Ph.D. in social work in 2007. My dissertation was titled “Southeast Asian Mental Health From the Perspective of the Bicultural Provider.”

In addition to my social work practice, I cofounded and volunteered with an organization called Hmong Women Achieving Together in St. Paul since August of 2000. The mission of this organization is to be a catalyst for social, cultural, and institutional change to improve the lives of Hmong women. The service focus is to nurture Hmong women leaders through leadership training. This organization continues to actively engage the Hmong community on issues of social justice and social change. My research interest has been focused on early marriage and acculturation among the Hmong in the United States. Traditionally, Hmong married very young in their home country, where Hmong maintained an agrarian lifestyle. Although the tradition of teenage marriage continues in the United States, its rate of occurrence cannot be determined because this data is not typically collected; however, my research shows that teenage marriage among Hmong girls continues in the United States, with dire effects on their future success in the market based economy in America. This is the tension that surfaces for immigrants when long held cultural traditions, once functional, are now deemed out of place in their new homeland. This highlights the challenges in acculturation faced by many immigrants.

I have published two articles on the impact of teenage marriage on the lives of Hmong women. My first article, titled “The impact of teenage marriage on the socioeconomic status of Hmong women,” was accepted for publication in the Journal of International Migration in 2010. In this study, I found that Hmong women who married as teenagers consistently obtained less education and earned less than Hmong women who waited until adulthood to marry. My second article, titled “Early Marriage and the Mental Health of Hmong Women,” was accepted for publication in the Journal of Social Work in 2011. This study found that Hmong women who married as teens reported higher rates of depressive symptoms in their adulthood when compared to women who did not marry early. My current study explores the quantitative nature of acculturation among Hmong Americans. In a recent paper submitted to the Journal of Cultural and Ethnic Diversity in Social Work titled “The Acculturation of Hmong Americans,” I found that second-generation Hmong obtained lower rates of education than first-generation Hmong, which indicates that later generations of Hmong may not embody the spirit of survival often seen in new immigrants. This may be attributed to the idea that first-generation Hmong feel a compelling need to work hard in order to prosper in their new home country, whereas second generation children do not feel that pressure. This is disheartening because according to the U.S. Census, Hmong continue to live in poverty with lower rates of education and lower earnings when compared to mainstream America.

It has been important to have a voice in research that affects my own community. I have worked with a Hmong student at St.Thomas through a Collaborative Inquiry Grant to look further at the relationship between acculturation and well being among Hmong in the United States. The study was completed in May 2012. In addition, I have worked with students in the McNair Scholars Program on research projects that look at the experience of Hmong youth, LGBT in the Hmong community and Hmong feminism. It is a wonderful opportunity to be able to mentor Hmong students.

I hope that my research will be helpful to the Hmong community as we seek to understand our experiences as new immigrants. In addition, I hope the larger community will come to see Hmong as insiders in the multicultural American community. The most fascinating part of my research is being able to contribute to knowledge about the Hmong in hopes of improving the lives of Hmong Americans. It is moving to learn and be able to write about the experiences of other Hmong refugees that mirror my own.

Pa Der Vang is assistant professor at the School of Social Work.

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.