Ethnographic research strives to adapt a viewpoint on its subject matter that is faithful to that which is being studied. In other words, the ethnographer under ideal conditions tries to let the subject speak for him or herself. Since ethnography is dealing with human beings, there is an ethical aspect to ethnography that is underscored by a basic humanity, whereby the ethnographer tries to suspend his or her prejudice, and let the narrative of the ethnographic topic in question develop on its own accord. In this regard, the interview can be viewed as an ideal form of ethnography, since one is trying to let the interviewee express his or her sentiments on the questions asked. This preamble helps clarify what the basic guidelines were that framed the following interview with a 21 year old American of Hmong ancestry. In short, the interview sought to let this narrative of an individual existing at the intersection of Hmong and American culture unfold at its own tempo and volition.
As mentioned, the interview subject, who shall be referred to by the pseudonym Tha Yeeb, which is a Hmong male name meaning independence, is of Hmong ancestry, his parents arriving from Laos after the Viet Nam War. The subject currently works at a convenient store in _____________, at a minimum wage job position. The interviewee is also a high school drop out. I have known the cousin of Tha Yeeb from a friend of one of my own cousin’s, and afterwards in discussing this assignment, the latter suggested that I interview the selected interviewee because of the general articulate character of Tha Yeeb, alongside his own interesting cultural background.
The interview thus took place one week ago at a local cafe. The setting was to be relaxing to both, as though we were merely friends getting together for an espresso. I wanted to minimize the academic setting of the interview, so as to let a more natural flow of conversation take place. Tha Yeeb was, of course, aware that this interview was a part of a class assignment, and I told him that I would both record the interview and make some notes of particularly interesting statements from my perspective that he made. Tha Yeeb agreed with all these methods.
Tha Yeeb’s narrative can be broken into three distinct stages. First, there was the narrative of how his family arrived in America. As part of the Hmong tribe, many Hmong during the Viet Nam War were active on the side of the Americans against the North Vietnamese, performing various forms of guerilla warfare against the latter, according to their familiarity with the terrain and the Hmong legacy as a mountain people used to a rural and Spartan life. However, after the U.S. was soundly defeated, the Hmong were viewed by traitors for having collaborated with the colonialist Americans, and had to escape the country to ensure their survival. Some Hmong were fortunate to receive refugee status from the U.S. government for assisting the U.S. military. Tha Yeeb’s family was one of these families granted refugee status.
The family then arrived in Oakland, Califorina, where many Hmong refugees were sent after the War. The Hmong, as Tha Yeeb explained, were largely a mountain based people, and thus were not used to the inner city life of Oakland, California. Thus, he told me about an interesting phenomenon called dream sickness, which many young Hmong males suffered from after leaving their homeland. These males, most likely because of the shock of difference from an isolated, rural and mountain life died in their sleeps because of dreams. This apparently is a phenomenon that was quite common to the first generation of Hmong refugees in America. Tha Yeeb, himself, lost an elder brother that he never knew to this same disease. Tha Yeeb was himself born in Oakland, California, the third child of his parents. Thus, having been born in America he did not have such problems of cultural shock during his childhood. Tha Yeeb describes his childhood as perfectly ordinary, although the family was on the lower side of the economic spectrum.
His father eventually found a job opportunity in __________ at the turn of this century and moved his family here, Tha Yeeb included. Tha Yeeb was approximately 13 years old at the time, and he found the transition quite difficult. He could not concentrate on studies, and in particular, noticed a profound difference as he got older between his home life and the social or outside world. Accordingly, he attributes his failure to graduate high school to confusion created by these differences. In so far as Tha Yeeb did not experience these difficulties as a child, after discussing with him this change, he noticed perhaps that it was the result of him becoming more conscious during his adolescent years of the society around him and the social roles that exist on racial and ethnic levels. His current job situation is not to his liking, but he understands that he must work to survive, as his parents were quite disappointed in him in not finishing high school and have taken a more tough-handed approach with him. Tha Yeeb still lives with his parents, and does not think particularly much about the future. He even went so far as to say his aspirations were none. He rather mentioned numerous times that it was unfortunate that his family had supported the Americans in the war, thus essentially betraying his homeland for what he termed the “colonial slave-master.”
Tha Yeeb it would appear defines himself according to the intersection of two forces: his American upbringing and his Hmong background. He appears to have trouble reconciling the two, and this would explain the general apathy he has towards his future. The consistent pattern in his interview is basically this difference of cultures, although it is interesting to note that only in his adolescence did he begin to sense these differences. Accordingly, it could be understood as a process of self-identity.
In this case, Tha Yeeb and his family’s life was profoundly shaped by historical and global forces. From the U.S. invasion of Viet Nam, to the Hmong collaboration with the U.S., to the Hmong refugees returning to the U.S., his entire family narrative has been entrenched within the game of grand geopolitics. In a sense, his life story is not his own, but the story of the Southeast Asian region and U.S. foreign policy.
Tha Yeeb in particular begins to see himself as a Hmong. To the extent that he expressed concern at his family choice’s in the past, it would seem that he remains proud of his culture, and views the acts of his ancestors as one’s of betrayal. Hmong culture breathes through Tha Yeeb’s narrative to the extent that this is a tragic narrative, consummated by a small and proud local people thrown around by the tidal wave of global powers and the selfish decision of these geopolitical powers. In Tha Yeeb’s narrative, one can see how ethnic groups, even in relatively small forms such as the Hmong tribe, which do not possess their own nation-state, can become cast about by the geopolitical interests of other nations. Hmong culture and identity on an individual level becomes a victim of this grand strategy, as do the individual lives who have been tossed around in this storm, as evidenced in the apparent feeling of being lost and apathetic that Tha Yeeb conveyed to me.