WAUSAU – Jackson Yang struggled to figure out who he was as a child.
Yang is Hmong, and his family settled in Wisconsin after fleeing the violence that divided them. his home country, Laos, after the Vietnam War.
The first Hmong residents began arriving in Wisconsin as refugees in the 1970s, after the end of the Vietnam War. Hmong soldiers fought alongside US forces in the Secret War in Laos and have been discriminated against in Laos by a government that sees them as enemies.
Yang was born and raised in Wausau, but never felt like she belonged. He was too Asian to feel comfortable in school with American children; but he’s also “non-hmong” enough to fit in, even at family gatherings where it seemed everyone could speak Hmong except him.
He describes being “caught between two different cultures,” and the teenage Yang responded by deciding to “completely reject” the ancient traditions and values of the Hmong culture.
That was then. Now, Yang, 27, has embraced her Hmong heritage. An educational journey culminating in a master’s degree in design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout coincided with him immersing himself in Hmong traditions, including the art and folklore of the culture.
His thesis was based on the fusion of his lifelong love of art and drawing with his new learning about what it means to be Hmong. He combined traditional Hmong needlework with contemporary design to create his own unique artistic vision.
Yang is now turning that vision toward a young adult book that could help young people like him grow up in the United States.
As a child, Yang found art to deal with cultural and language barriers.
Yang’s struggle to find an identity as a young Hmong-American is so frequent that the National Library of Medicine has a term for it: intergenerational cultural dissonance. The problem can cause problem behaviors in young people and lead to conflict between parents and children.
That didn’t happen with Yang, who was raised by his single mother along with his brother, who is about 10 years older. His mother, Pang Yang, who died a couple of years ago from COVID-19, spoke very little English. And since Yang couldn’t speak Hmong fluently, they couldn’t have complex conversations.
Although he grew up in a Hmong-speaking household and could speak basic Hmong as a young child, as he grew older and attended school, he became primarily an English speaker and lost most of his Hmong skills.
He felt more comfortable with Hmong children his own age, his cousins, and his schoolmates, but he still felt a disconnect due to the language barrier.
It also prevented him from fully understanding cultural events, such as a “soul calling” ritual in which a Hmong shaman would call on ancestral spirits to help someone who was ill.
As a child, Yang recalled not understanding what was happening. His older relatives had a hard time explaining the nuances.
Finally, Yang just gave up trying to understand. And because he was often teased or mildly reprimanded for his poor Hmong language skills, he stopped using the language altogether.
That meant that Yang led a fairly self-directed life, and from an early age he found his place in drawing. When he was a kid, he loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and spent hours drawing the characters.
“I was always trying to draw them… Art was always my way of escaping,” Yang said. “Eventually, that led me to this passion, that I just wanted to learn more about the art.”
In fifth grade, he had the idea that he could do something with art. In middle and high school, he discovered computer design. When he graduated from Wausau West High School in 2014, he knew he wanted to design and illustrate using computers.
He enrolled in graphic design at UW-Stout and said he was interested in designing publications such as books and magazines.
“I was part of a program called tied out (support for first generation ethnic minority students), and it was with a group of diverse students, Asian kids, Latino kids, Black kids,” she said. “It was our little family.”
Mix paj ntaub fairytale fabric sewing techniques with modern artistic vision
Under the influence of other minority students, Yang began to see being Hmong differently. She joined the UW-Stout Hmong student organization and began to learn more about the culture.
He took a new look at Hmong arts and crafts, especially paj ntaubthe term used to describe the sewing techniques performed by Hmong women to decorate fabrics and clothing.
As a child, Yang watched his mother spend hours sewing paj ntaub sitting on a stool, using a simple lamp for light. She didn’t pay attention to him when he was a child. But suddenly, the art form stirred his creative spirit.
He began to find out more about shamanism and the rites he attended as a child, how those beliefs and activities fit into the history of the Hmong people as a whole. He gave her a deeper feeling of understanding and connection, he said.
Yang learned more about the “history of the Hmong people, how much we have struggled, how beautiful art and culture can be,” he said. “I don’t agree with everything about the culture. But the parts that I find beautiful, that makes me proud to be Hmong. I’m also an American. I’m a Hmong-American, and that’s what I want.” be.”
There are parts of traditional Hmong culture that Yang said she still rejects, particularly the strongly patriarchal society that often leads to sexism and the diminishment of women.
He said he also rejects a streak of homophobia that can be part of traditionalist thinking.
“I want to get to a point where we can have respect for everyone in our community,” Yang said. “We’re starting to get to that point now.”
He is more engaged with the culture now that he is an adult, he said, particularly with his family members, who include young nieces and nephews. His goal is to help them avoid the growing pains he went through.
He’s asking more questions, hearing more stories. However, she still doesn’t speak Hmong very well. He would like to learn more of the language, but that will have to wait until he is more professionally established and has more time.
Yang wants to create a book and art to help the next generation
When she enrolled in the master’s program to study design, she used paj ntaub as the basis of her thesis. She combined his youthful enthusiasm for drawing cartoons with her newfound appreciation of Hmong art, and she found his artistic voice.
Yang said he developed a story outline and created illustrations that will offer a semi-autobiographical journey of self-discovery.
At the end of August, he will begin working as an adjunct professor at UW-Stout, teaching two-dimensional illustration using computer programs. As long as he is there, he says that he will continue working on the story and the book.
“Writing is not my forte,” he said.
Yang has an outline of the story he would like to tell, along with illustrations, and thinks he might be able to collaborate with a Hmong writer to help him complete the project.
“If I had something like this at that age that really moved me, it could have helped me fall in love with my culture at a younger age,” Yang said. “I want to do something like that for the next generation.”
Keith Uhlig is a regional reporter for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin based in Wausau. Contact him at 715-845-0651 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @UhligK on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.