As a Hmong comedian and entertainer, I've been performing culturally related humor for the past 15 years. I strongly believe in the saying that "if we can laugh together, we can talk about anything." When done right, humor can be a great medium to build cultural understanding among and across ethnic communities.
However, if used inappropriately, humor can create more cultural divide and perpetuate bigotry and ignorance. Although I'm sure KDWB's Steve-O meant only to entertain with his lyrics about Hmong, I hope that the wave of mixed reviews will give him some things to reconsider in his career as a radio producer.
As an entertainer, first and foremost I poke fun of myself. If I want to poke fun at any person or group, I do my research to make sure that I am not contributing to any hurt or misunderstanding that person or group has already endured. In other words, you have to know your material. If Steve-O had known a little more about the Hmong in Minnesota, he might have thought twice.
First of all, it is grammatically incorrect to refer to more than one Hmong as "Hmongs." Hmong can be singular or plural.
Second, if he had known the cultural and historical reasons Hmong households are larger than average, Steve-O might not have made fun of "30 Hmongs in a House." In an impoverished, agrarian society where physical labor is required for survival, large families are a necessity. A first-generation refugee group, many Hmong still live in these multi-generational households where close-knit family members care for one another and share in such responsibilities as cooking, cleaning and taking care of the elderly and the young.
So instead of needing a comfortable king-sized bed for two, we'd rather make room for more if space is an issue, even if we are a little uncomfortable. There is a popular Hmong saying that translates roughly as "Even though the space is crowded, one's heart can never be too crowded." In other words, love will make room for more.
If my history is correct, many earlier immigrant groups lived in small, compact spaces in large numbers as they began their new lives in this great country. Steve-O might want to ask his grandparents if his ancestors did the same.
The song refers to "One big group of Vangs." There are only 18 major clan names in a population of hundreds of thousands, and Vang is a popular name. So maybe to Steve-O, 24 Vangs seems like a lot, but there are more than 10,000 Vangs in St. Paul alone. Being affiliated with a clan brings a sense of identity. There is strength in numbers, and our system gives us support in times of need. This is apparent in how we conduct our traditional marriages, funerals and spiritual healing practices and rituals.
The song is correct that there are a lot of Hmong in St. Paul; in fact, St. Paul has the largest concentration of Hmong-Americans in the United States. But what brought us here? During a time when very few people knew about the Hmong role in the war, the late Congressman Bruce Vento and former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer were among a few who understood the Hmong story. They were moved by the fact that more than 30,000 Hmong, some as young as 8 years old, died protecting American interests and that we were facing genocide in revenge for helping the Americans. They and a few supporters pushed to have some of the first Hmong families settle in St. Paul.
Thus, Minnesota became our new home, not by choice but to avoid political persecution. Immigrants come to this country by choice; refugees come here by necessity. Hmong are political refugees. It sure wasn't ice-fishing that brought us here.
The song says "Kids work at the mall." True, indeed. Many young children are expected to contribute to the family's well-being in any way possible. So as early as age 6 or 7, they are assigned household chores and duties. Those who are old enough to earn a wage are encouraged to work and contribute financially to the family income. At 14 years old, I remember giving my checks to my parents for groceries. This is another practice and sacrifice that many Euro-Americans had to make long before the Hmong got here. Steve-O might want to check with Grandma on this one also.
As for the line suggesting that "Hmongs get pregnant early," true again -- not just for Hmong girls but for many young people, across all ethnic groups, particularly those who lacked sex education and the proper resources in their schools and communities. A large number of these groups happened to be of minority descent and live in poor areas. Since these cases are part of a nationwide trend, I can see why some might take this lyric as singling out Hmong teenage girls. It is careless and it continues to sexually stereotype minority women as promiscuous.
In essence, although this Hmong parody was an attempt at amusing listeners, it also succeeded in perpetuating and reinforcing stereotypes that further divide communities at a time when we need to build more cultural tolerance and understanding. And although Steve-O broke no law, as a fellow comedian and entertainer I would like to ask him:
Please, consider the repercussions of your material and its impact on some of your listeners, especially the younger ones. Please, consider the dangerous subtext and why some may view it as degrading, demeaning and dehumanizing of a particular group.
In September 1998, in Brooklyn Center, Pa Nhia Lor, a 13-year-old Hmong girl, was raped, choked and later stabbed. Her assailants then tied plastic bags around her head and watched as she took her last breath. After she stopped moving, they went out to buy cigarettes then later called more friends to come help dispose of the body. The five young people involved in the crime were 17 and 18. I believe Pa Nhia Lor would be alive if her assailants had seen her as a human being and not as a helpless sex object or an animal.
In October 2007, in Peshtigo, Wis., while on a hunting trip, Cha Vang, a 30-year-old father of five, was shot at, severely beaten, repeatedly stabbed in the face and throat with a hunting knife and buried in the woods. In police reports, his assailant was quoted as saying, "Those Hmong people are bad, mean." The killer, James Nichols, did not see Vang as a human being and a fellow hunter.
Last month, March 2011, in Vinita, Okla., Neng Yang, a 42-year-old Hmong man, was beaten after he accidentally ran over a man's dog. Yang suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs and other injuries. This case is still pending. It is my opinion that had his attacker seen Yang as a fellow human being, he would have chosen otherwise.
No one is saying that Steve-O or his radio station is responsible for any of these malicious acts toward Hmong people. However, the type of humor that he chose to broadcast does little to improve racial understanding and tolerance. And when presented without the proper background, it can be dangerous to young and uninformed minds.
In essence, when Steve-O chose to create humor that, in the words of scholar and historian Dan Hess, seeks to "attack, demean, and degrade using caricatured references and images of poverty, vermin, child sexuality, promiscuity, physical unattractiveness, child neglect, and ignorance," the result was far from funny. In fact, because his message can reach hundreds of thousands of young minds, it is dangerous.
Tou Ger Xiong, Woodbury, is a comedian and entertainer.