As Leader Dies, Hmong Culture Continues to Flourish

01/16/2011 09:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

General Vang Pao, the CIA-supported Hmong leader, died on January 6, 2011, at the age of 81 in California's central valley. His influence spans as far and wide as the Hmong themselves, an ethnic group that came down from China to Laos and Vietnam in the nineteenth century and later spread around the world in a global Diaspora.

Vang Pao was a natural and strong leader. He led the Hmong in aiding the United States to defend the Royal Lao government in the 1960s. The majority of Hmong supported the royal camp because they believed that communism was more likely to threaten their most prized possession: autonomy.

After the Vietnam War, the Americans went home and the Hmong were left in a compromised position in Laos. Some fled to Thailand, later making their way to the United States as refugees. Originally spread out in small pockets around the country, they eventually gathered in a few spots in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Fresno, California. Relatively unknown in the US, Hmong culture hit the big screens with Clint Eastwood's 2008 drama Gran Torino.

In Southeast Asia they are known for wearing beautiful embroidered clothing and living remotely in top trekking mountainous destinations. In America, they are known as the ones who bring shamans to the hospitals and raise animals in their homes. But there is a lot more to Hmong culture. I recently had the opportunity to meet two young Hmong women, one in California and the other in Vietnam.

I met Mai Der Vang in her office at a youth media program. She writes for New America Media and is on the editorial board for the first literary anthology compiled by Hmong Americans. I recognized her small but sturdy body and her round face from the Hmong I've met in Laos and Vietnam, but of course she acted and spoke like your typical UC Berkeley-educated Californian.

"I was born in Fresno in 1981, right after my parents came to the States as refugees," says Mai Der. Her parents left Laos for refugee camps in Thailand, eventually making their way to Minnesota. But they couldn't take the cold weather. "They came to Fresno because everyone else was coming and there was good soil," she says.

Mai Der says that it is hard for her parents to talk about leaving Laos. "I can ask my dad questions, but my mom is not able to talk about it openly." She says that her mom still has the tattered traditional jacket she wore the night they left Laos.

"My uncles were involved in the war, but my father was too young. My last name is Vang so I have some sort of affiliation with General Vang Pao. My grandfather was a close associate with Vang Pao and my father was a huge supporter of him."

As she gets older, Mai Der understands why her father supported the somewhat controversial General Vang Pao. In a recent article published in New America Media, Mai Der writes, "Many in the Hmong community viewed him as a leader, but Vang Pao also represented for them their lost homeland...for them, he was the manifestation of a home they once knew and the memories of a life they once lived."

To others, Vang Pao's death marks the end of a contentious era. "People thought he was crazy," says Mai Der about Vang Pao's alleged coup to overthrow the Laos government in 2007.

But despite the death of this man who represented so much for the Hmong community, the era is not over. "If you go to Laos and see Hmong people, you see the ones who have assimilated into Laotian lifestyle and culture. There are ones in the jungle who are still fighting to defend the Hmong culture." For these Hmong, the war didn't end when Vang Pao bid his final farewell to Laos in 1975 and headed to sunny California.

Back in Vietnam, I met with Pan Lee, a 19 year-old Hmong guide from the mountainous region in northern Vietnam. I was trying to find a way to connect what I had learned about the Hmong in California to the Hmong who still live very traditionally in "the old country."

"I learned English from the tourists," says Pan. Sapa, her hometown, has become a favored tourist destination in Vietnam. "Many things are changing because there are differences between the cultures. We can learn a lot and our lives are better now because we have more money."

The influence of western tourists has had an effect on Hmong culture. Pan dresses in khaki pants, a black hoodie, and a trendy scarf. She sends texts messages off with lightning speed and recently bought a cell phone for her mom so that they can stay in touch while she is traveling.

Pan grew up in a family without means. "I speak very well but I can't read and write very much because I never went to school," she says. She started to help with farming at a young age, though now she takes tourists around Vietnam, from the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City to Halong Bay. Hmong are known for marrying very young, but Pan does not plan to marry soon. "I need to work to support my family, so I don't have time for boys," she says.

Her knowledge of the Hmong in the rest of the world is minimal, but she displays a profound sense of identity. "I hear about them, but I don't know very much. I want to know them and I love them, but I am Vietnamese so I just know about myself," she says.

Like her ancestors before her and like Mai Der in California, continuing her traditional cultural practices is important. Pan will return to the mountainous countryside to raise her children so that they grow up speaking Hmong.

When asked about Vang Pao she says, "I heard about him, that he was taking Hmong to the United States. I know that he is really powerful and that he is our Hmong hero. But I don't know how to search him on the Internet."