Hmong Refugees of the United States by stariya


									                      The Hmong Refugees of the United States
               Applying Taylor’s Information Use Environments Theory

                                     Andy Foskey
                                      Tim Hindes
                                   Lynne Bolick Reed


Robert S. Taylor has proposed that “information use environments” (IUE) help to set the
context for studying the exchange and value of information within a group of people
(Taylor, 1991). This paper seeks to consider six IUE concepts, partially from Taylor’s
framework and partially as defined by our course instructor, Dr. Julia Hersberger, as
they apply to the Hmong-American population. The six concepts or categories include
the set of people (Hmong-American refugees), settings where information seeking and
exchange take place, problems which lead to information needs, solutions to problems,
barriers to information, and social networks of the group.

The Hmong People

The United Hmong Association of North Carolina [UHANC] (2007) annual report for
2006 reports that the Hmong originally lived in China as early as four thousand years
ago. The word “Hmong” means free in the Hmong language. This cultural group was in
constant conflict with the Chinese because they had their own culture and language. In
the 1800’s, many of the Hmong migrated to Southeast Asia to flee the Chinese and
eventually settled in Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam (Lai & Arguelles, 2003).
During the Vietnam War, the Hmong were recruited by the CIA to help fight the
communist North Vietnamese and nearly one-third of the Hmong were killed. After fall of
Saigon in 1975, the Hmong were persecuted heavily by the communists and most fled
to Thailand where they were placed in refugee camps (UHANC, 2007). Eventually, the
United States began work to help this cultural group to immigrate to this country due to
their participation in the war and the fact that they were still being threatened with death
in Thailand.

The first wave of refugees were brought to the United States in the 1970’s and early
1980’s. They were assisted in settling by volunteer agencies who tried to disperse the
immigrants around the country so that no government services would be adversely
affected by the group. A secondary and voluntary migration occurred in the late 1980’s
as families and clans sought to be closer together. Many of these groups settled in
California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (Lai & Arguelles, 2003). Miyares (1998) found that
these secondary migrations occurred primarily due to social and economic factors that
are related to how the Hmong kinship/clan structure is set up. This structure will be
discussed in more detail in the social networks section of this paper.
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During the secondary migration, many of the Hmong relocated to North Carolina
because the climate is similar to their home and because of the economic opportunities
that were available in the manufacturing and service industries. The majority settled in
the Unifour area, which includes Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, and Catawba counties in
the Piedmont section of the state. Others relocated to McDowell, Iredell, Rowan,
Mecklenburg, Union, Stanly, Montgomery, Cabarrus, Gaston, Lincoln, Forsyth, Durham,
Richmond, and Surry counties (UHANC, 2007).

The 1990 census counted 94,439 Hmong Americans in the United States and
subsequently recorded a 97% increase in the 2000 census with a total count of
186,310. However, representatives of this group have claimed that a serious
undercount occurred and estimated that the actual population approached double the
official count. Hmong Americans located in the South live mainly in North Carolina with
this state ranked fourth in the top ten states according to the 2000 census. Georgia is
the only other Southern state with a significant Hmong American population and ranked
eighth during the same period with a total population of 1,468. While the 1990 census
recorded only 544 Hmong in North Carolina, the 2000 census showed an increase to
7,093. Hmong leaders estimate that this actual count is closer to about twenty thousand
throughout the state. The Hickory/Morganton/Lenoir MSA showed the heaviest
concentration of Hmong Americans with 4,207 residing in that area. The
Charlotte/Gaston/Rock Hill MSA followed in the ranking with 1,024 Hmong Americans in
the 2000 census (Hmong National Development, Inc. [HND], 2004).

Aside from the population counts, other census data holds valuable information for
information specialists who seek to understand this cultural group. The Hmong are the
only ethnically based population to show a median population age less than twenty
years. According to the 2000 census data, the median age of the Hmong across the
United States is 16.1, as compared to the general population at 35.3. Fifty-six percent of
the Hmong are under eighteen years of age as compared to twenty-five percent in the
general population (HND, 2004).

The average Hmong household in the United States includes 6.28 people vs. 2.59 for
the overall United States population. The Hmong family includes 6.51 people as
opposed to 3.14 across the general population. Thirty-four percent of these households
are categorized as “linguistically isolated” due to the number of family members who
speak little or no English. The educational attainment rate is poor due to the lack of
formal educational programs in their countries of origin, however it is improving. While
only eleven percent had a high school diploma or equivalent and three percent had
bachelor’s degrees during the 1990 census, these numbers had risen to twenty-seven
percent and almost twelve percent respectively during the 2000 census (HND, 2004).

Home ownership opportunities had also improved as only thirteen percent owned their
homes during the 1990 census, but almost thirty-nine percent owned their at the 2000
count. The median household income stood at $32,076 during the 2000 census as
opposed to $41,994 for the general population and the median family income stood at
$32,384 as compared to $50,046 for the general population. In 1990, sixty percent of
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Hmong Americans lived below the poverty level, while only thirty-eight percent did in
1999 (HND, 2004).

In 2000, forty-three percent of male and thirty-four percent of female Hmong Americans
were employed in the manufacturing sector (HND, 2004). As these jobs have been off-
shored during the decade, it will be interesting to see how this group is recovering from
the job-loss epidemic in this industry. The next census should help to clarify how this
has changed. Other significant portions of Hmong Americans are employed in the
service industry (HND, 2004).

Many Hmong women marry young and the dowry system protects women as they leave
their families to live with their husband’s family in another clan. If women have been
mistreated, their families will withhold dowries in subsequent marriages. Since these
women have many children, the older siblings help to raise the younger ones. Families
tend to place great emphasis on the Hmong New Year celebration as clans gather to
celebrate the past year and welcome the new one. Religious ceremonies are also
important family gatherings, especially funerals. The traditional religion is ancestor
worship and shamanism is practiced as a type of spiritual healing. The Hmong believe
that when the soul is lost, physical illnesses occur and the Shaman will try to guide the
lost soul back to the body to heal the illness. At death, they believe that the soul returns
to the land of ancestors and religious ceremonies are held to guide the soul home to the
ancestors. Many Hmong have adopted Christianity and these churches have played an
important part in helping to retain the language and culture of these people (HND,

Settings Where Information Seeking and Exchange Take Place

Many Hmong immigrants and refugees arrive in our country with limited or no English
speaking let alone the ability to read and write, which is a prerequisite to most
definitions of literacy. Furthermore, a great number of refugees come from situations
where public structures were interrupted by conflict and war. Verbal traditions may
prevail. For case in point, the Hmong did not have a written language until the 1950’s,
and educational opportunities were tremendously limited. They do however possess a
strong oral history tradition, and they have used the time-honored story cloth as a way
of remembering their history and sharing information about their past (Cha, 1996). This
culture is known throughout Southeast Asia for their embroidery "flower cloth," known
as pa'ndau (pan dow) (Allen, Matthew, & Boland, 2004).

Vang (2004) says that Hmong differ from other immigrant groups in that they tend not to
obtain information from the library. Most immigrant groups use the library to find
information to help them survive and adjust in their new county. They will seek materials
to learn English and study for citizenship exams, immigration information and forms,
and information on finding jobs, housing, health care and social services. But due to the
oral traditions of the Hmong, most information exchange takes place in group
gatherings when families gather with their clan. They often do not know about the library
and what it offers.
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Problems Which Lead to Information Needs

Illiteracy in their primary language is a large problem for many older Hmong, so libraries
that collect Hmong language materials in print may find that they are underutilized
(Vang, 2004). However, learning English is a prerequisite for adapting to American life
so the Hmong need to find appropriate ways to learn.

In 2004 and 2005, the United Hmong Association of North Carolina [UMANC] gathered
data to complete a needs assessment report for their community and supporters. This
was the first time that such a report had been attempted and the group desired to
provide accurate information to help service providers understand the needs of Hmong
Americans in North Carolina. The UMANC states that their mission is to “improve the
quality of life for the Hmong of North Carolina” (UHANC, 2005, 5). The resulting report
produced specific information for service providers who want to develop services in a
“culturally appropriate manner” (UHANC, 2005, 6). The executive summary presents the
following information to help outsiders understand the needs of Hmong Americans in
North Carolina.

Parents want to help their children be successful in school, but many of them do not
have much formal education themselves and do not know how to help. Schools need to
help these parents through “language access, cultural sensitivity and accommodating
schedules” (UMANC, 2005, 6). Parents also need help in learning how to fund college
for their children.

Service Agencies
Hmong Americans need assistance in “workforce development, civic participation,
family and youth services, cultural preservation, and language accessibility” (UHANC,
2005, 6). Law enforcement and government need to work harder in communicating
effectively with this group.

Culture and Traditions
Hmong Americans are working hard to preserve their language and culture. They
understand the need to assimilate Western culture, but fear that this means a total loss
of their Southeast Asian culture. Above all, the group wishes to preserve peace in their
local communities.

Religion and Health
While many Hmong are now Christian, eighty percent still embrace traditional
Shamanism, a type of spiritual healing. Eighty-four percent do believe in Western
healthcare, but desire to maintain a blend of both of these styles.

Generational Diversity
Many of their young people are becoming very Americanized and do not respect their
elders and the traditions that are the foundation of the culture. Also, the elders do not
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respect the ideas of the younger Hmong and this is creating a generational gap. The
community needs to work within itself to ease the transitions that are occurring.

Discrimination and Prejudice
Over fifty percent of the Hmong believe that they are treated unfairly by community
agencies, especially by public safety officials and the justice system. There is
widespread belief that racial profiling is causing many of their members to be stopped
and questioned for no reason.

Jobs and Employment
Families are finding it hard to live on the wages that they are paid and over seventy
percent would like to start their own business, but need help in learning how to do this.
Most who are employed have health insurance, but those who do not find it very difficult
to obtain and afford health care. They wish that Shamanism could be recognized as part
of their healing practices and want more healthcare agencies to have language

Solutions to Problems

Since the Hmong tend to be very family oriented, members of this group may be less
likely to seek information outside of their close-knit family units. The family ties are also
strong social ties, so this may lead to a mistrust of those outside the Hmong community,
since there are no prescribed social patterns framing these interactions. It also seems
like the Hmong treat all Hmong as a giant extended family. It is likely that a Hmong
person may seek out other Hmongs for information, rather than going to a library or
some other outside source, even if those places had materials in the Hmong language
or relating to the Hmong. Perhaps if a library hired Hmong employees, then they would
be likely to spread the word about library use among their kin group and the larger
Hmong community.

On the other hand, the fact that Hmong associations have made use of the Internet may
mean that members of this group may seek out computers or other technologies found
at the library. Perhaps a library could offer computer classes in the Hmong language.
Again, this would require recruiting Hmong employees to come work in the library.

Yang (2003) says that at Hmong gatherings, group members engage in small talk that
might last more than an hour before other activities begin. During a study conducted by
Yang, participants chatted about family, health, and other political and social issues that
were affecting the Hmong community. Libraries and information agencies who offer
services or programs may wish to allow time for small talk at the beginning and end of
the gatherings.

Information providers may need to consider going out to this group rather than trying to
bring them to the library. Outreach to community groups is an excellent way in which to
establish trust, which later may result in new visitors to the library. However, libraries
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that wish to bring the Hmong into the library should consider some of the following

       Hire a native Hmong speaker or professional interpreter for library programs.
       Offer story programs for young children that model the oral traditions of the
        Hmong by telling stories, as well as reading them. Concentrate on sharing the
        Hmong history, myths and legends.
       Provide digital literacy training and other job skills classes in the Hmong
       Offer for circulation music and DVDs in the Hmong language. A large selection is
        available at
       Utilize the resources of the Hmong National Development organization and make
        sure that the local Hmong community knows about this organization. Visit them
        on the web at
       Meet with clan leaders in the communities and show them what the library has
        and how library resources help to improve lives.
       Heavily publicize library services on Hmong language radio stations and with the
        clan and community leaders.

Yang (2003) also found that there is much diversity throughout the Hmong American
groups across the country. In fact, she states that needs could vary depending on the
experiences and challenges of each group. Therefore, it is important to note that
solutions should be tailored to the group by working closely with local Hmong leaders.

Barriers to Information

According to the needs assessment conducted by the UHANC (2005), barriers for the
Hmong American community in North Carolina include language, culture,
intergenerational conflict, and economic problems.

As mentioned in the earlier section of this paper on the Hmong people, thirty-four
percent of the Hmong households are categorized as “linguistically isolated” due to the
number of family members who speak little or no English. Within the age group of sixty-
five years and older, ninety-one percent of the respondents reported that they speak
English “not well” or “not at all.” That rate drops to thirty-six percent for the eighteen to
sixty-four year old age group and down to sixteen percent for the five to seventeen year
old age group. So language is a strong barrier for the older population (HND, 2004).

Another barrier to library service may be the Hmong language itself. Traditionally, the
Hmong language has had no script, although today there is a written form in Latin
script. The Hmong culture in Southeast Asia is said to be "preliterate" by some, and
Robert Shuter asserts that the Hmong are basically "an oral people (Duffy, 2007)."
Stories and information are passed by word of mouth from person to person, and
generation to generation. Many refugees may only speak Hmong, and thusly have no
concept of written language. This would present difficulties for Hmong people wishing
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to learn English. Since the concept of "book" is likewise alien to their traditional culture,
many Hmong may not see the point of the library at all.

Cultural barriers exist for any group of refugees who enter another country. The Hmong
came to the United States not to begin new lives, but to “recreate the tried, the true, and
the familiar in new locations” (Lie, Yang, Rai, & Vang, 2004, 125). With an expectation
to continue their old lives, practices, and traditions in a new place, cultural clashes are
certain to occur. Many of these cultural clashes cause the intergenerational conflict
which is discussed below.

Intergenerational Conflict
Hmong elders and parents clash with their children over the adoption of American
culture, especially with adolescents. The older generation values the
interconnectedness of the clan and family culture, but many of the young people are
becoming more independent and individualistic which are tenets of American culture.
Parents do not understand why their children often behave the way that they do and this
causes them to be stricter and more punitive (Lie, et al., 2004).

Economic Problems
The Hmong were farmers in Southeast Asia and had little access to formal education.
Since the Hmong language was oral until the 1950’s, older Hmong are illiterate (Vang,
2004). After they migrated to the United States, many Hmong relied on public
assistance to live. Although opportunities are improving, many still live in poverty and
might be considered to be working poor.

The Social Networks of the Hmong

The central social unit amongst the Hmong is the family. Hmong society holds a very
broad, yet complex view of what family means. All Hmong with the same last name are
part of the same xeem, or patrilineal clan (Keown-Bomar, 2004). Members of the same
xeem may not inter-marry, since they are all considered family. Also, there is a strict
social obligation to provide for members of your xeem if they are in need, even if the
relationship is very distant. The larger xeem are then subdivided into groups that share
common ancestors. The more closely related you are the more social obligations you
have to your kin in Hmong society. Marriage is taken very seriously, and is seen as a
formal tie that brings two kin networks together. There are very specific roles and
behaviors that are expected between the two clans after a marriage.

Even Hmong who are not members of the same xeem feel very connected to one
another, simply due to their Hmong heritage. In the United States, the Hmong have
formed cultural associations that promote Hmong culture through festivals, especially
the Hmong New Year. These celebrations offer the Hmong a chance to gather together
to support one another and exchange information (Yang, 2007). An organization called
the Hmong Southeast Puav Pheej, Inc. serves the Hmong communities in Georgia,
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South Carolina and North Carolina. It was founded in 1994 to bring together the
scattered Hmong communities (

Another example of proactive change for the Hmong community is the Hmong National
Development group, which provides leadership initiatives that include training,
networking, educational opportunities, sharing of information and hands-on
development. They recognize that both youthful and mature leaders face special
challenges today in bridging educational, economic, generational and traditional political
factions that are existent in their communities, so they are providing the necessary
training and resources to contend with these issues (HND, 2004).

Christianity also plays an important role in the Hmong refugee community in the United
States. There are many Hmong churches where services are lead by Hmong ministers
in the Hmong language ( These churches provide
social services to the Hmong community, and also bring the Hmong together for a
common purpose. There are also Hmong radio and television stations that members of
the Hmong community can turn to for information (Young, 2007). It seems as though
the Hmong have created a great number of Hmong-centric services to meet the needs
of their community, rather than relying on preexisting, mainstream organizations.

Online social networking sites, such as, are beginning to become a part
of Hmong culture. A Google search using Hmong as a search term revealed a fair
number of MySpace pages in which users have self-identified as Hmong on their
profiles. A MySpace group called “Hmongs of MySpace” has over 1,000 members.
There are even social network sites created exclusively for the Hmong community, such
as and These sites follow a similar format to other sites
such MySpace or FaceBook.


Taylor's concept of the "information use environment" has provided us with a framework
to critically evaluate the Hmong-American refugees. We have examined the history of
the Hmong, from their roots in China and their migrations to Southeast Asia and most
recently, to the United States. We have also considered how and where the Hmong
seek out information. The Hmong have a very unique and complex social system which
they rely upon for support and information.

There are certain key problem areas that lead to information needs, such as illiteracy,
lack of education, loss of culture, discrimination and prejudice. To overcome these
problems, a greater understanding of Hmong culture is needed on the part of
information professionals. Outreach in the Hmong community would also be helpful.
We have also identified language issues, intergenerational conflict, and economic
hardship as further barriers to information. An understanding of Hmong social networks
may bring light to these barriers. The Hmong rely heavily on their extended families for
support. There are also a number of organizations that bring together Hmong refugees
for events such as the Hmong New Year. Online social networking sites have become
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commonplace for Hmong-American refugees, including sites that are exclusively

In order to create library programs that will be of interest to the Hmong, library workers
must take these issues into consideration. We must be willing to take the time to study
this group to gain a more complete understanding of their social conditions and
customs. We need to recruit Hmong workers who can provide library service in the
Hmong language. Also, we need to go out into the Hmong community rather than
waiting for the Hmong to discover the library. When libraries are willing reach out to this
culturally rich group of immigrants, then we will all benefit from the relationship. Libraries
will more fully serve their users and the Hmong will learn to value the American
institution that promotes democracy and can help them to improve their lives.
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Duffy, J. (2007). Writing from these roots: Literacy in a Hmong-American community.
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Hmong National Development, Inc. & Hmong Cultural and Resource Center (2004).
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