Written by Louisa Schein.

It was a sunny day in 1983 on the south side of the New England town of Providence, Rhode Island, where a group of us gathered in a church basement for a much anticipated event. I was to show slides from my trip to retrace the roots of the Hmong diaspora in China. My audience were Hmong friends with whom I’d become close over five years of living in the community. All of these new immigrants had arrived from Laos since 1975 as refugees from the Vietnam conflict. Abruptly flung to the west as political exiles for having worked with the CIA in its Secret War effort in their territories, they longed acutely for what they recognized to be their land of origin: China — a place they could not remember leaving, but knew their ancestors had, a few generations previously.

Not naturalized, without passports, funds or other means for trans-Pacific travel, Hmong new Americans harboured a deep curiosity for their people remaining in China, but knew at that time that it was impossible for them to journey there themselves. Perhaps this young white woman, back from a post-college trip through the regions of Hmong migratory history, toting a carousel of slides and some audio tapes, would give them some semblance of connection. But the screen flashed with strange costumes of myriad styles, and the dialect she played on her tapes was unintelligible but for a few phonemes. “You must have been tricked by the authorities,” they hinted to her… “Those are not our people…”

What their suspicion registered was that centuries of southward migration across Chinese territories and into the remote borderlands with what is now the highlands of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma had meant that cultural markers had spun off in many directions, transmuting “tradition,” and exposing that the purportedly conventional was inconstant and contextual. There were indeed standard Miao and Hmong dialects and clothing styles, but these standards were multiple and highly discrepant by region. I too had doubted the unity of Miao and Hmong as one ethnic group but, over seven months, scholars in China had persuaded me that we needed to look at underlying linguistic commonalities as well as specific migration histories and neighbors to grasp their common origins.

As the turbulent twentieth century wound down, diasporic Hmong questing to rediscover their heritage in China would have to look beyond the apparent alterity embodied in the sights and sounds of their people in the homeland, to creatively forge alternate forms of connection. My reflection here relays both the misfires and the eventual strategies that emerged in the last quarter century as a “Fourth World” stateless people struggled to forge transnational identitarian networks across chasms of geopolitical separation that began with the southward migrations within Asia.

Over the 1990s, some Hmong American refugees gathered their resources to take advantage of the policy shifts that had made traveling to China increasingly feasible. The Chinese state started to recognize these emigrees as potential “huaquiao” whose devotion and remittances to their erstwhile origins might support high-velocity development. Miao elites in various locales across the country were encouraged to discount the anti-communist legacy of Hmong Americans and to host “returnees” vigorously not only offering cultural experiences to these guests, but positioning themselves as prime targets for donations, investments and joint venture opportunities. Hmong heritage seekers, however, were often put off by these economistic intentionalities. They had come with camcorders, mythlike memories, and unfulfilled desires for reclaiming their pasts. They sought pastoral scenes of farmers, mountains, ritual practices, culture intact. When their hosts greeted them in business suits or Mao jackets, and proposed material transfers, their dreams became tarnished. They knew of their peoples’ hard lives in China, but as recent refugees themselves, they had not anticipated the officious appeals to their philanthropy. Meanwhile, Miao hosts saw their pseudo-kin from abroad as would so many inhabitants of developing countries – as First Worlders legitimately approachable for remittance-like redistribution.

Some sour memories persist of those years of early interchange. In the West, Hmong still recall traveling to a conference in Hunan where almost no Chinese Miao delegates could speak Hmong dialect. The antipathy with which they experienced encounters, anticipated as blissful seamless reunions, but needing to be pursued through the medium of Chinese-English translation, and the repugnance of having to communicate through those dominant languages, especially given the colonizing valences of Chinese, poisoned the memories for some participants. That Miao readily and unproblematically spoke Chinese, and recognized themselves as Chinese citizens, was itself unnerving, since diasporic identity politics had called for privileging ethnic selfhood and repudiating historical oppressors. That those in China could willingly avow the term “Miao” was also cause for consternation as that ethnonym had the ring of denigration in Hmong diasporic ears.

One Miao professional orchestrated a meeting of Hmong Americans with the Miao governor of Guizhou and was sharply taken aback when the Hmong visitors were more interested in shooting photos with the colorfully dressed Miao female companions than with the high official of the Chinese state. Indeed, the fact of elite status among Miao in China was well nigh unintelligible to many Hmong Americans, accustomed to the narrative of dispossession and immiseration through which they perceived their co-ethnics in China. This made it that much more surprising when years later a young Hmong American was almost condescendingly told, upon meeting with a senior Miao scholar in Beijing in 2012, “you overseas Miao are so pitiable (kelian); you have lost your country and been scattered across the ocean. You always sound desolate when you sing Miao songs. You play the lusheng [bamboo reed pipe organ], but only for funerals. You seem so melancholy…”.

In the recent quarter century of gradual rapprochement between Miao in China and Hmong abroad, there has developed an efflorescence of interchanges – videos about Miao in China made and sold by Hmong entrepreneurs, Miao costumes imported and worn at festivals in the U.S., American-born students taking college tours to Miao destinations, a few Miao brides marrying Hmong Americans, Hmong being invited to teach classes at Chinese universities, Miao scholars and journalists becoming intrigued to document and study Hmong life in America, Hmong social media fans avidly consuming a Miao pop star on youtube, even when she sings in Chinese, both sides partnering in joint venture businesses to import herbal medicines, costumes and other cultural artifacts, even Hmong donations made to development projects in Miao regions …. Most recently, some Miao in China are initiating a project to design a mobile app that would allow travelers throughout the Miao/Hmong world to find each other on the spot. …

That diasporic-homeland community can be actively crafted across gulfs of space and difference is amply underscored by this historical retrospect, as is the fact that disparate geopolitical location cannot but contour interactions among members of such communities, making them sharply asymmetrical. A Chinese state policy to solicit “homeland” commitment from diasporic non-Han will have to reckon with the ongoing productive process necessary for the recognition of homeland, especially when the Chinese nation is seen, perhaps, as dominant antagonist or obstacle to subnational solidarity.  Nor can it avoid the legacy of the Cold War “communist” taint. Homeland and diasporic desires will likely continue to be at some degree of cross-purposes for the foreseeable future, even as expectations are incrementally adjusted.

Louisa Schein is Professor of Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University. Image credit: CC by Jason Powers/Flickr.