Wendy Xiong with her siblings back in the late 1900's. Ban Vi Nai Refugee Camp.

Wendy Xiong with her siblings back in the late 1900's. Ban Vi Nai Refugee Camp.

When we speak of home we tend to have expectations of how it should look like, depending on who lives there. Ranging from Hmong to African Americans, a picture of the living spaces are stereotyped and we assume to find the same patterns defining the architecture and the person that is inhabiting the space through objects. However, this hypothesis does not hold true to the homes I have researched. Through the lens of ethnicity and identity re-making through social construction, this study interprets what home is to a diasporic population, the Hmong.

My conversations with the Hmong residents and the careful analysis of how they use the built domestic spaces complicated this understanding of home. When they are confronted with the questions about their homes, their response moved into a discussion of their community. Home, to them, was more than the domestic domain of their nuclear family. It is an interpretation of the Hmong residents and how they identified themselves as part of a larger ethnic community. Home was more than the property they owned and the building they resided in. It is part of a larger geography that includes their residence, place of work, community social space, and gardens. This extended systems of settings and sites determines a broader context of the Hmong ethnic community. 

When asked to describe his home, ZongSae Vang, a Hmong refugee now working as a medical interpreter for the Hmong population at Hmong American Friendship Association (HAFA), began with the importance of family in the Hmong culture. “Hmong people do not have friends, they have family,” Zongsae Vang was quick to clarify that to him the term “family” meant more than just his wife and children. He considered his extended relatives and family, friends, and the entire Hmong community as his family.

Nevertheless, the understanding of home is complicated in the way the immigrant generation and second generation respondents approached this topic. While the immigrants saw themselves as a part of a larger ethnic collective, their children, in their discussion of home, tended to focus on their identity within their nuclear family and as individuals. 

Mychoua Vang, the eldest daughter in a Hmong American family and growing up as a first generation Hmong American, explains the contradictions about the Hmong American Identity. She explained “…you’re no longer just Hmong, you’re American and Hmong. You have to learn how to live in two worlds. You have to please your parents and you have to please whatever American standards you have.”

For the Hmong children who were born or grew up in America, they find home as an individualized concept. With one foot in a tradition which values family and one foot in an mainstream individualistic culture, Hmong students set invisible boundaries where they switch identities.  At school, the Hmong kid needs to fit in with the majority white as much as possible. If not you become too “fobby” too Hmong. At home, the Hmong kid lives under his or her parents’ rules, being the “correct” son or “correct” daughter. Home, becomes the domain where their parents are. 

Now in the city of Milwaukee, displaced from their homeland, many of the old traditions and practices of Hmong refugees are re-established in their new abodes in Washington Park. The idea of home branching into the broader Hmong community are re-illustrated in the 20th Century Gothic German Homes. As families began to move into the neighborhood and into these buildings built by Germans who’s culturally different from theirs, these people need to adapt. 

A community member explains, “I think for the Hmong people come to this community, especially for this neighborhood, is very good. I remember my first came to the United States, I lived in the south side but a lot of my friends live around this area. And when we came here, this area was in very bad condition. We called at that time the one-dollar house. A lot of Hmong people own their homes around this area was one dollar. So they remodel it, they move in. So now a lot of the Hmong families who start with the one-dollar house became landlords. Some of them have forty, fifty properties around this neighborhood. It seems like they are taking care of the property very well.”

The devastation and disinvestment of the urban neighborhood allowed for the new immigrants to redevelop the vacant lots and homes. The idea of the “one-dollar house”, is the core to the Hmong community’s demand to define and reshape these city spaces for themselves that brings value to them. The small tactical acts of the local Hmong immigrants is a method of making the foreign space comfortable, and home. These acts leads to a rise in Hmong owned homes and a system of community gardens, providing food and money to the households.

Phoua Vang  and her siblings.

Phoua Vang and her siblings.