Struggles of Immigrant Hmong People in the United States
Cindi A. Knox
Governors State University
The Hmong suffered a great amount of stress before they even immigrated to the United States. Their life before becoming refugees included abuse (physical and sexual), torture, acts of homicide against relatives, and the like, and in the refugee camps they experienced hunger and disease, which made adjustment to a new culture much more difficult, and “also suffered loss of homeland, culture, role, status, and material possessions” (Nicholson).
Once in the United States, the Hmong and the communities into which they moved both had to adapt and adjust. (Goodkind & Foster-Fishman, Nicholson).Complicating the problem, the Hmong didn’t have the social supports to help them in connecting with new “cultural norms and values”, including language, gender roles, and mores (Nicholson).
Despite the already stressful background, Hmong culture offers yet more pressures for youth. In addition to the foregoing stressors, young Hmong contend with greatly magnified peer problems in school. These include differences in faith, language, appearance, and culture (Quang, Lee, and Khoi). And, despite the fact that their parents often assimilate slowly into American culture, parental pressure for success in school is quite high (Quang et al). The amount of stress was quantified and documented by Quang and colleagues using an instrument specifically designed to measure stress in people from Southeast Asia: the Southeast Asian Adolescent Stressful Event Inventory (SAASEI-A), who found that the top stressors for immigrant Southeast Asian adolescents included grade pressure, parental pressure for grades, plans for life after graduation, examinations, and not living up to family standards. These stressors, ironically, often impacted negatively upon the scholastic performance of the students (Quang et al).
Such stressors on both adults and youth can cause psychological issues. Indeed, a study by Nicholson, using instruments that have been checked for validity with this population, found “relatively high levels” of symptoms for “PTSD, depression, and anxiety”. The same study showed a tendency toward financial stress, as incomes ranged from $7,000 to $9,999 per year.
All, however, is not lost. As Goodkind et al note, these are “active, resilient individuals”. They quote a Hmong man as saying:
If I understood English, I have things that I know, that I would like to change, that I would like to make happen, but I can’t share them so I just keep them to myself. Things like how to get along with each other and how to provide for our families. I have a lot of opinions about these things and a lot of other things.
Clearly, this is a population which has hope. So it falls upon Social Workers to see what can be done to support these people.
As regards youth, Quang et al call for working with the family meso-system to support literacy for the adults and helping to bridge the difference between an Eastern educational system with little or no parental involvement and a Western system in which parents are a crucial part of the learning process. They also suggest encouraging youth to take part in non-academic pursuits in school such as athletic and thespian activities.
Nicholson suggests a wider approach of policies and programs to support these communities. These include strengthening cultural ties by building community networks and helping create a social support system within the community, and helping the immigrants adapt to local culture with literacy programs. She also notes the need for adult education and jobs suited to newly immigrated Hmong.
Goodkind and Foster-Fishman agree with Nicholson’s observations regarding community. By bringing these fractured family groups together, a mutual support system that is in tune with both the struggles they have endured and the strengths of their culture will help to heal the problems created by a tragic series of events.
The Hmong has endured much, but they also have strengths from which to draw. When Social Workers focus on the strengths of Hmong individuals and communities, they can empower these immigrants to become self-sufficient participants in society.
Goodkind, J., Foster-Fishman, P. (2002). Integrating Diversity and Fostering Interdependence: Ecological Lessons Learned about Refugee Participation in Multiethnic Communities. Journal of Community Psychology 30:4 389-409
Nicholson, B. (1997). The Influence of Pre-emigration and Post-emigration Stressors on Mental Health: A Study of Southeast Asian Refugees. Social Work Research 21:1 19-33
Quang D., Lee, S., Khoi, S. (1996). Ethnic and Gender Differences in Parental Expectations and Life Stress. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 13:6 515-526