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A foot in two cultures; Hmong conference opens with sessions on teen girls, changing roles of women

By: ALAN J. BORSUK of the Journal Sentinel staff, April 15, 2002 Monday

Think of the way bamboo shoots grow, KaShia Tasli Moua said Sunday, as a discussion on programs to help Hmong teenage girls came to an end.

In the first four years of their lives, the shoots show little visible growth. But in their fifth year, they burst forth, with growth of 80 feet or more.

"That's what happens to all of the youth in our community," Moua said.

Addressing the Hmong teenage girls in the audience of about 75 at a session that was part of the Hmong National Conference at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee, she said, "There's no stopping you -- you're going to be huge."

Even with Moua's optimism, one of the themes on the first day of the three-day event was clearly the complex issues facing women in the Hmong community -- both adults and adolescents -- as they wrestle with issues common to women across many cultures within the United States, complicated by being part of a rapidly changing group with its roots in a strongly traditional Southeast Asian culture.

The opening day of the conference included not only the session on teenage girls, but also one on the changing role of adult women in Hmong communities and another on coping with domestic violence.

The discussion was hopeful, especially given the generally positive movement of issues facing Hmong in the United States. But it also was filled with references to drugs, gangs and identity crises among young people, young marriage for some Hmong teens, economic and cultural tensions within families, and wrestling with what it means to be a Hmong-American.

More than 850 people from at least 20 states and several foreign countries are taking part in the conference and surrounding events, including a Hmong youth leadership conference that was held Saturday at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Bo Thao, executive director of Hmong National Development, which is sponsoring the event, said up to 300,000 Hmong were believed to be in the U.S., although U.S. census officials put the figure at about 175,000. Wisconsin, Minnesota and California are the states with the largest Hmong populations.

The Hmong began immigrating to the United States in the mid-1970s from Laos. Many Hmong men fought on behalf of the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

Moua's session featured leaders of Hmong Women's Circle programs in Wausau; Sacramento, Calif.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Minneapolis, aimed at providing Hmong teenage girls with a positive social atmosphere, involvement with supportive adults and support with cultural questions.

Leaders of the Sacramento program played an audiotape of comments from some of the girls who are involved.

"I don't think I've managed the two cultures yet," one said.

Another said she was treated as an equal with boys at school but not at home.

Mai Kao Moua, who leads a young women's circle program in its first year in Wausau, said it often was difficult for Hmong teenage girls to resolve the tensions between their culture and American feminist thinking. But girls, as well as adult women, are making great strides in stepping into leadership roles and pursuing the big dreams, including professional jobs, they have.

Exhibitors at the convention include organizations such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. Standing at the exhibit, Yer L. Vang said that when she graduated last year she became one of only about 40 Hmong lawyers in the U.S. She works now as an immigration attorney with the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

She said the need was strong for more Hmong, especially women, to pursue legal careers.

She said that Hmong women need to have a fluid sense of identity as they deal with both Hmong culture and the general flow of American life, but that many are showing increasing success at doing that.

While the details of the conference dealt with some of the difficult issues facing Hmong people, Vang called the conference as a whole "a huge display of the achievements we've made."