The Hmong “Word of the Week” is “Noj Tsiab Peb Caug.”
Obviously, this is not just one word, but it is one idea. It means “to celebrate New Year’s,” but literally translated, it would be “to eat the New Year’s feast.” “Noj” is “to eat,” “Tsiab” is the feast, and “peb caug,” which means “thirty,” refers to the 30th day of the lunar month after completing the rice harvest. That day is considered to be the last day of the old year and the beginning of the new.
One of the goals of this website is to promote the knowledge of Hmong culture through blog posts and fiction. It’s fitting, then, that I bring in a bit of Hmong language learning.
From 2004 to 2012, I taught a Hmong Culture class at BYU. It was designed to allow those students who had learned Hmong during their missionary service to get language credit toward graduation. I structured the class so that we covered Hmong History, Hmong folktales, and the Hmong funeral chant “Tell the Way,” or Qhuab Ke. I also threw in remedial vocabulary sessions to help the students learn Hmong words they didn’t know yet.
Why would you want to learn any Hmong? You could argue that it’s a dying language and culture, and that compared to other languages you could learn, there isn’t much benefit to knowing it. And you may be right.
On the other hand, the Hmong in America are nearly half a million strong now. They live in every state in the Union, with the main concentrations in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Outside America, the Hmong live in many countries, including Southern China, Northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Australia, France, and French Guyana. And, as more and more generations of Hmong in the Diaspora (the lands where a refugee population has settled) adopt the language and culture of their host countries, the need becomes greater to remember the language and the cultural connotations around that language, so that a part of Hmong identity may be preserved.
Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to know a few Hmong words when you happen to meet a Hmong?
Beginning in 1975, Hmong refugees from Laos began arriving in the United States. They settled in locations across America, including Utah. Often, their sponsors were religious, and the Hmong would sometimes convert to the religion of their sponsors.
The Hmong who settled in Utah were exposed to Mormonism and many were converted to the religion in the early 80s. This group subsequently resettled in California, where they make up the backbone of the Mormon Hmong population there.
While I was serving as a Hmong-speaking missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 90s, I learned of Liaj Luv Chaw Tsaws, a publication of the Hmong Community Association of the Hmong of French Guyana. For a young missionary who wanted to absorb everything he could about scholarly Hmong, this little magazine was a super find. Most issues had 60 pages or so of scholarly articles, stories, poems, songs, all in the Hmong language. It was wonderful!
In chapter 53 of the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, the text describes an individual who is “despised and rejected of men,” who has “borne our sorrows,” who has “no form nor comeliness…that we should desire him,” and so forth. The Christians (Mormons included) interpret these verses to be prophecies of Christ and his mission, while most Jewish scholars recognize the individual mentioned as a stand-in for the House of Israel. Either way, these verses are known as the “Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant,” the other three songs occurring in the preceding chapters of Isaiah. The “Suffering Servant” endures abuse and mistreatment, sometimes even unto death, and because of his suffering, redeems his people as a whole.
The Hmong people have their own “Suffering Servant”: The Orphan. In Hmong media, the orphan is front and center. The orphan’s plight is one of the primary motifs running through Hmong folktales, novels, stories, sung poetry (kwv txhiaj), and movies. Like the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah, the Hmong Orphan can be viewed both as an individual, Christ-like figure and as a representation of the Hmong people and how they view their situation in the world.