The concept of identity is constructed both socially and historically. What do we consider the most important aspect of identity? How do we personally identify? Some consider their sex, ethnicity, race, or their sexual orientation, nationality, religion, age, etc. however, the question is, does identity change as you change who you are with, your involvement and life stages or is it constant? The connections and interactions we make daily teach us about our identity. For instance, our interaction with peers, at work, and with family enables us to learn about our own identity (Media Project, 2019). An identity facet such as gender, religion, and ethnicity contribute to our understanding and experiences of the world and shapes the challenges we encounter and the opportunities. Ideology, power, and value systems fall under a cultural and social identity (Media Project, 2019). As much as we may look at identity focusing on cultural and physiological matters, it is important to realize that our identities are made up of shared ideas, ideologies, and biases. However, the shared values come from different indefinite sources such as schools, organizations, family, and our peers. Additionally, the media has a contribution to meaning creation, defining who we are, shaping our values, and norm establishment.
Our political, social and economic power can be determined by several factors such as our age, sex, ethnicity and race, gender, disability, religion, and social class. Out identity, therefore, determines how we accrue and experience the power and the obstacles we may face. This paper, therefore, is set to discuss the identity of the Hmong Peoples; The unique cultures, their beliefs, traditions, how they carry out their activities, their behaviors, and everything else that makes them identify as the Hmong people. That is every little aspect that makes an individual identify themselves as the Hmong people and not any other group.
The Hmong peoples of the southeast of Asia make the most of the recent immigrants in the United States of America. The Hmong people, however, are experiencing an erosion of their culture, which they were once very proud of (Livo et al., 1991). They were chased out of their own land by war and forced to be immigrants in different countries. A large number of the Hmong migrated to the United States, where they are facing economic struggles, and this, therefore, leaves them very little to no time for studies and maintaining their distinctive culture. For instance, their language did not have a written form before the 1950s (Livo et al., 1991). They had to fully rely on oral and spoken artistic traditions for their culture, beliefs, history, and legends to be passed through generations. One of the things that they brought with them to the United States was their ancient culture. Their culture was and is characterized by art, poetry, and song and story. However, their culture deteriorated due to the lack of enough leisure time demanded by artistic activities. They had to spend time working in a foreign country to ensure wellness for their families (Livo et al., 1991). For example, when an elderly man was asked why they had no Hmong artists, he replied by insisting that artists need both day and night to dream and the Hmong people only dreamt at night.
One of the major characteristics of the Hmong peoples is the diversity amongst them. Since the Hmong people in the southeast Asia highlands still hold on to their traditional practices, customs, and beliefs, we could identify their diversity. For example, their different tribal groups have unique interpretations of the ancient symbols, with each tribe believing that their interpretation is the closest to truth (Livo et al., 1991). However, their overall belief pattern is the same across all the tribes. The people are animistic and believe that every physical feature, such as hills, trees, rocks, etc., has its spirit. They worship their ancestors and believe that bad spirits dwell in less populated areas, and hence the reason why they do not like to travel in areas that are yet inhabited (Livo et al., 1991). They believe in spirits, and some have the total belief that spirits are everywhere.
The Hmong people believe in animal symbolic power. They believe that some animals symbolize certain powers. For instance, they believe that when a bird flies into your house, and it roosts, that is a sign of warning or a bad omen (Livo et al., 1991). Additionally, they believe that a family member will die soon is f a snake is seen in the house. They respect elephants for their strength and avoid verbally saying hurtful things towards them (Livo et al., 1991). They also believe that the elephants guide the dead into the next world, and the elephant’s black wolf shows whose spirit it is. They believe butterflies symbolize the souls of the dead and believe that grasshoppers were the two living things on earth in the beginning.
The Hmong people have a unique birth and death ritual stories. When a baby is born,they make a necklace is given to the baby that they believe protects it and warns the spirits that she belongs to the family and is not an outcast or a slave (Livo et al., 1991). The Hmong people place the babies in the father’s clan to prevent marriage between siblings. The baby is given a welcoming ceremony and a name three days after birth. The Hmong people have several beliefs about birth and the baby; they believe that the baby’s head is not supposed t be touched as it will make the baby sick, and fussing over the baby makes it want attention and, as a result, the baby’s spirit might be stolen.
On the other hand, the Hmong peoples’ belief of death is very different from any other western peoples’ beliefs. They believe that everyone has three souls after death, the one that does not leave the body, the one that wanders, and the soul that protects the owner (Livo et al., 1991). They believe that then when one dies, the first soul does not leave the body and stays at the grave, the second soul is the one that goes to the descendants, and the third soul goes to be reborn in the spirit world as an animal, a person, or thing according to the actions of the person.
The Hmong value the body of the dead and hold long funerals for them. They believe that the soul of the dead has to return to its original birthplace, and hence the long funerals are to ensure safe travels and passage back to the spirit world (Yang, 2015). They believe that the spirit will also go to meet the ancestors in their other life. In recent days, their funerals have been held from Friday to Monday day and night (Yang, 2015). They dress the body and bury it, wearing ornamental shoes that are made special. They tie the fingers of the dead, as a sign of injury in their afterlife, in case they are asked to perform tasks such as “peeling onions and Garlic” that way, they can say they are injured, and they are unable to help. According to Gran Torino, in the movie, we can see that the Hmong people take burials very seriously (Vue, 2021). In the funeral scene, they are seen wearing their full outfits. Although it may seem like an inappropriate symbolism for their garments, it shows how much they value their death rituals and protocols. They also let their funeral last for days, both day and night (Vue, 2021). This symbolizes their dedication to trying to preserve their culture and rituals.
The New Year’s festival for the Hmong people is always highly anticipated. The event is arranged by the head of clans who constitute the elderly who meet and make plans for the event. Every specific village makes its own plans for the event at specific times to invite the other villages to their celebration and party together (Livo et al., 1991). The festival also symbolizes the beginning of new courtships, and young people select their partners who they wish to court. The festival is marked by the wearing of fine, high-quality embroidery, and the ladies and males pair up and play with balls made from cotton. The punishment for losing the game is singing a folksong (Livo et al., 1991). These activities are what marks the beginning of a new year and a new courtship for the young men and women. The men may later visit the lady’s house to mark the beginning of their courtship.
The Marriage Customs of the Hmong People are another unique culture that identifies them. As per their traditions, girls who hit puberty slept on their own separately so that young men could visit them. The parents, however, controlled and discouraged premarital sex, and if a girl fell pregnant, she has termed a disgrace (Livo et al., 1991). Marriage arrangements included bargaining, and each family was supposed to appoint their spokesperson. The two families would decide on how much the bride price was in terms of silver bars. The bride’s family would have a roast pig and hold a feast for marriage announcement, and this enabled different people from different cans to bond. If the groom had abducted the bride before the wedding, the mom-in-law would insult or cane him, and he would have to pay the in-law to avoid them taking back their daughter (Livo et al., 1991). When the ceremony was over, the souls were wrapped up inside an umbrella symbolically on the bride’s turban and carried to the groom’s house. When the bride was entering the groom’s house for the first time, to symbolize she was now part of the groom’s family, a rooster was waved over her (Livo et al., 1991). If the husband died, the wife was to be married to the younger brother. If decided otherwise, however, the new man had to pay some bride price. They discouraged divorce and stated that a woman, who left the man’s household, had no rights to their children, and they were left with the man’s family. Additionally, the family of the girl had to bring back the bride price, but in the recent times, it is the duty of the wife to pay back the husband everything he had gotten her.
When it comes to farming, the Hmong people have rituals and cultures that they identify with. The Hmong have been growing rice for a long time. For instance, a farmer will wait for an indication sign at his farm to ensure that the piece is not suspicious before planting. A wild pig and a barking deer are bad signs, and the farmer leaves the site to look for a better one (Livo et al., 1991). However, if there are no bad signs, he goes ahead and prepares the site for cultivation. The farmer has to be careful not to shout or talk in loud voices when clearing the land. It will be believed that the spirits are against the farmer cultivating in that site if the first tree’s branch is stuck in the mud. If all is well and the farmer clears the field, he has to dig two holes and put a seed in each, one for the squirrel and the other for the birds, a third for the dead, and the rest of the holes are his (Livo, et al, 1991). After the harvest, the when carrying the rice home, the farmer has to be careful not to drop any in the stream or river. The belief is that, the Lord Dragon will think they have excess and then reduce the produce. They also hold ceremonies for every year in connection to crop growing. They hold four ceremonies of sacrifice and kill a buffalo or a cow in each. They hold one before clearing the land, the second before planting, the next at half growth, and the last after they harvest (Livo, et al, 1991). They hold the ceremonies to ask for protection for the rice and thank their ancestors.
The traditional clothing of the Hmong people is symbolic. The stitching and the art on the cloth take time and a lot of skill. The clothes show how women spend their time, their cultural priorities, and the amount of value in this art form to them. The stitchery symbolizes the perseverance cultural values and hard work (Livo, et al, 1991). Every beginning of the year in January, women started sewing as men went to clear the bushes. At the end of the year, everyone had to wear new clothing to the festivals or otherwise they would have bad luck in the following year. Girls spent a lot of time learning how to sew since the needlework quality counted on the woman’s quality (Livo, et al, 1991). The quality of a girl’s needlework would attract men to her during courtship. However, in the Hmong peoples’ culture, the best stitching was preserved for birth and death occasions. The dead were buried in the finest needlework and the livings were also gifted as a symbol of recognition. The Hmong people highly value babies, and therefore, at the event of birth, a beautiful baby-carrier was made for the mother to use in carrying the baby.
The baby’s hat shows and symbolizes a lot about the Hmong peoples’ beliefs and culture. They believe that the baby’s spirit needs protection with a hat; that is, without the hat, the spirit of the baby will escape out through the head (Livo, et al, 1991). The child’s hat has a base of black fabric in the shape of a skullcap. It is then covered with various types of embellishments including sew-on coins or beads, applique, and cross-stitches. The hats have a vertical appendage sewn on the front to symbolize a rooster which is seen as a protector. Therefore, the presence of the rooster on the hat creates more belief and sense of protection for the child. The finishing touches of the hat are pompoms of bright colors such as yellow, hot pink, green, orange, and bright reds. The Hmong believe that the bright colors make the spirits think the child is a flower while others believe that the hats descend the flower spirits to the child.
Therefore, in a nutshell, we have seen the identity of the Hmong people. We have understood their origin, their culture, beliefs, practices, rituals, norms and so forth. We have analyzed some of their characteristics, which have helped us understand their identity. The paper has covered several unique characters of the Hmong people, for instance, we have seen that that they are animalists, their clothing is symbolic, they take birth and death very seriously, we have learnt about their new year celebrations and courtship, they cultivate rice and perform specific rituals before and after, marriage is symbolic and they value children and work towards achieving full protection of the children. The paper has helped us learn about the Hmong people and understand their identity through different perspectives. We have also learnt that identity is determined by different social and cultural aspects, and shared values and not only by just age, gender, sexual orientation, race, or religion.
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