KEEPING CULTURE. Vincent Xiong stands near the Eau Claire
Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association office in Eau Claire,
Wisconsin. Xiong is the associationís latest executive director.
He first began working with the association in May as the
community engagement coordinator. (Elena Dawson/Eau Claire
Leader-Telegram via AP)
From The Asian Reporter, V28, #16 (August 20, 2018),
pages 9 & 13.
Wisconsin Hmong leader emphasizes cultural
By Lauren French
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) ó When Vincent Xiong was in college,
one of his professors asked him a question he couldnít answer.
"Who are you?" his professor asked.
Xiong casually replied, "Iím Vince."
His professor pressed further: "Yeah, but who are you? Do you
know your culture, where your parents came from? Can you speak
the language? What religion do you practice?"
Xiong has some memories of the Thai refugee camp in Nongkhai
that was his home from age five to eight-and-a-half years old:
the smell of sewage running down the middle of the street,
expired fish for dinner, violence against women and other
refugees who tried to cross the fence, and fear.
But mostly, Xiong has memories of growing up in Oklahoma City
and later Appleton, where his family was among the first Hmong
families to arrive after fleeing Southeast Asia in the aftermath
of the Vietnam War. Xiongís family was one of only two living in
Oklahoma City when they arrived in December 1979.
As the eldest son in his family, Xiong began working at an
early age to help his parents and siblings fight through
poverty. As the years went on, Xiong adapted to U.S. culture,
and his ability to speak Hmong and Thai slipped. He later went
to the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie to study
"After that conversation I had with (my professor), I
struggled to identify who I was," Xiong told the
Leader-Telegram after reflecting on his upbringing in the
U.S. "... I donít want the kids nowadays to go through that. I
want them, as they grow up, to be able to say, ĎThis is who I
am, and this is who my parents are.í"
Xiong hopes his new role as executive director of the Eau
Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association will help make
sure that happens. As he looks toward the associationís future,
he sees education ó for the young Hmong community and the Eau
Claire community at large ó as a powerful tool for
In his first couple weeks, Xiong said, heís working to put a
stop to a high employee turnover rate and build a solid
foundation. In the long run, heíd like to see the association
hire an in-house counsellor for Hmong community members who
canít speak English, add a human resources department, and turn
the agency into an educational culture center.
With plans for a larger location in the works, Xiong is
starting with projects easily transferable.
In the current entryway to the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual
Assistance Association, visitors can see some physical evidence
of the agencyís background and purpose.
But Xiong wants it to be obvious whenever someone walks into
"From the moment you walk in the door, you can really see
this is a Hmong agency because it has all these representations
of what the Hmong culture is," he said of his hopes for the
Some examples include displays of the clothing worn by
cultural subdivisions of the Hmong people ó such as White Hmong,
Green Hmong, and Striped Hmong ó and traditional instruments
such as the ncas, which is used for courtship.
Xiong is also excited to see profiles of local Hmong
community members hanging in the associationís entryway. The
profiles would detail how the people survived the Vietnam War
and what their transition to the U.S. was like so the younger
Hmong generation and others in Eau Claire would have a better
understanding of how older generations came to be in the U.S.
With help from the Chippewa Valley Museum, that project is in
"Both of our organizations sort of realized that you canít
really go anywhere in town to learn more about Hmong history and
culture right now," said Liz Reuter, an archivist at the museum.
The museum applied for funding from the Wisconsin Arts Board
in January and received $5,400. With that money, the museum is
bringing a folklorist from Madison to interview Hmong community
members. Reuter said after the interview phase is over, the
museum will begin producing a display for the association and an
online exhibit, both of which she hopes to launch next spring.
"I think itís important for folks regardless of their
personal heritage to know more about their neighbors," Reuter
said of the projectís importance.
Xiong said heís also working with the museum to have some
display cases made for traditional Hmong artifacts.
The Eau Claire school district has increased its inclusion of
Hmong history and culture in its programming over the last year,
including an elementary school language club for Hmong speakers,
an upcoming high school history course, and a language/culture
hybrid summer program.
The summer program wrapped in early August. The group of
about 16 students with varying knowledge of Hmong language and
culture prepared a speech in Hmong, which Xiong and the
studentsí parents watched with enthusiasm.
"With the language and culture class, I donít expect them to
go out and be a translator," Xiong said from his second-floor
office, pointing to the floor below him where students were
preparing for their final presentation. "But at least they have
those tools. At least, when they buddy up with their Hmong
friends, they can say, ĎHey, I know a little bit of that
Xiong mentioned that he hopes the association could become a
stronger educational resource for Eau Claire schools inside the
classroom and out. The association could become a field trip
location, he said, to reference artifacts and stories of Hmong
community members. Outside the school, Xiong noted, Hmong
parents could use some communication services, especially when
it comes to accompanying their kids to school events such as
Joe Luginbill, Eau Claire school board president, said he
sees the association as a key partner for cultural education.
"I strongly believe that the Hmong Association and its
community members play a key role in educating, inspiring, and
uplifting the next generation of learners and leaders,"
Luginbill said. "I am excited that Vincent shares in that
Xiong hopes the associationís future plays a role in helping
young people especially.
"In the Hmong community, our youth, we are forgotten," he
said. "A large percentage of them donít know what their parents
went through or what the culture really consists of. So if I
make those visible where they can actually come and see it, they
can tie it together and have a better understanding of what
their parents went through and got them to where they are