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No. 7 – My Hmong American Ancestry

Notes by Naly on Substack

People have often asked, what my Hmong ethnicity is. Where are the origins? How did we end up in America? What is being Hmong American like today?


I’ve been mistaken for Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, and even Latina. 


One of the issues Asian-Americans face is being grouped into one culture, when we’re really a wide net of different Asian ethnicities making a collective. 


In college, I spent time learning about Hmong ancestry and writing a paper on the Secret War in Laos to better understand my background. Hmong history wasn’t taught in school and there wasn’t as much data back then. Today, there’s a harvest of data, research, DNA, and more for us to discover Hmong genealogy.

It’s fascinating and empowering to discover one’s ancestry while molding the future. Many people were introduced to Hmong people through Clint Eastwood’s movie, Gran Torino, and the Olympic Gold Medalist, Suni Lee. It’s heartwarming and exciting to see younger Hmong carve their own paths in America.

America with all our flaws is still a land of opportunities.

Like so many Americans, I come from immigrants with a humble start and today am a business owner. Whatever your idea of success is, technology is accelerating growth for all diasporas in America.


Let me know in the comments what your ethnic ancestry is! Have you ever done an ancestry DNA test kit? What’s one thing about your culture that you appreciate?


Hmong Origins

The Hmong people (pronounced “mung” with a silent h) are an indigenous group that migrated from Southern China into the hillsides of northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam in the late 18th – 19th century. The earliest written account had Hmong people living in China since 2700 B.C. Hmong people are self sufficient farmers that lived on hillsides. They raised chickens and grew rice, poppies, flowers, and vegetables.


During the Vietnam War, the Hmong people were recruited by the United States CIA to help fight a Secret War in Laos. After the war, many Hmong lived in refugee camps before resettling in America, France, Australia, Canada, and Germany.


Today, in the United States there are over 300,000 Hmong Americans living mainly in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. 


The Hmong have two main sub-cultural groups: Hmong White and Hmong Green. This is identified through clothing, which is symbolic of their group and clan. There are 18 Hmong clans with surnames.

Clothing, patchwork, beading, and a variety of fabrics are part of Hmong identity. For example, Hmong White wear white pleated skirts and Hmong Green wear patterned batik skirts. My mom collected many types of Hmong traditional clothes for my sister and I over the years.


Hmong traditions and culture has been passed down through verbal communication, not written. In the 1950s the Hmong Roman Popular Alphabet (Hmong RPA) was developed in Laos with a group of missionaries and Hmong advisors. It’s gone on to be the most widely used system for writing Hmong in the west. 


Below is the first poem in Hmong I’ve ever written.

Hmong culture has traditional ceremonies for births, celebrations, and blessings. My family invited relatives as well as American neighbors to join us throughout my upbringing.


Hmong New Year is the biggest holiday. It’s typically celebrated during Thanksgiving through Christmas around the world. It’s a time to watch sports, wear traditional Hmong clothes, visit relatives, eat food, and hang out with family and friends.

Want to learn more about Hmong people?

Discover more research, writings, and findings on Hmong people. I’ve added some links below with further reading if you’re interested.

My Hmong American Journey

My parents lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for a couple years where my dad was a math teacher. Both my late grandfathers were in the U.S. Military as a general and a soldier. A church sponsored my parents and siblings to America in late 1970s.


They went from a Southeast Asian hillside farm to sunny California, and then snowy Upstate New York after the Vietnam War. My parents said it was jarring, scary, and exciting at the same time. In Laos and Thailand, they built their own home and farm as self sufficient people. In America, they had to go to school and work to survive.

I was born in California and raised in Upstate New York. The church program helped my parents learn English, find jobs, and taught us how to assimilate to America. 

My first language is English, and I learned Hmong at home with my parents. It was the only way to learn Hmong at the time. Today, there are tons of videos online and classes for all ages to learn Hmong.


Growing Up Hmong

I had a not-so-typical Hmong upbringing. Living in New York meant I didn’t grow up in a large Hmong community like California or Minnesota. I’m a Hmong American, part of the Hmong White sub-group, and the Yang clan. I married my husband Chris Rice in 2015 and became part of his American family.


As a child, I was in a traditional dance group called, Starlight. We practiced after school for performances at Hmong and American venues with an audience. I had a suitcase full of performance outfits and sparkly wristlets and anklets. I eventually stopped to join the business club at school.


It was often hard to explain to my American teenage friends what being Hmong was like. At school we were studying for exams with after school clubs or sports. In my Hmong world, teenage girls were getting married, moving to live with their new families, and having children.


In Hmong culture, girls have more cultural rules and less freedom than boys. My parents raised and challenged my sister and I the same as my four brothers. They lectured us to stay in school, not get married, or have kids at a young age.

My parents did their best to balance Hmong culture with being independent American girls. We were still expected to learn how to cook, clean, babysit, and care for a home as a teenager, in addition to school. After high school, I went away for college and became one of the first girls in our clan to get my degree without being married or have children first.

My parents say I’m Americanized.

Growing Up American

In Upstate New York, there wasn’t a lot of other Hmong families. I was often the only Asian girl in class and the few Asians didn’t know about Hmong people either. I grew up summarizing who Hmong people are to practically everyone since there wasn’t many Hmong people.


I had a typical American upbringing with school, work, sports, culture, and music. As a kid, I went to summer camp, watched football games, read tons of books, and discovered the internet. I had American friends of all races, went to ice & roller skating birthday parties, enjoyed the New York State Fair, and loved to read and write. 


Being Asian, I did experience unfortunate moments of racism towards me and my family based on stereotypes. It’s painful to experience and witness to this day.

Those moments turned me into a student, a reader, writer, traveler, entrepreneur, and get into philanthropy.

Trying to find my roots led me to travel around the world. I’ve been fortunate to study, travel, and work abroad in India, Australia, Italy, Canada, and Southeast Asia.

I learned very quickly that although my ethnicity is Hmong, I’m an American and a New Yorker at heart. I enjoy eating rice and homegrown vegetables as much as I do burgers and fries while watching football. I’m Hmong and American. The dichotomy of our nature versus nurture is so interesting and strange sometimes.

Working, studying, and traveling internationally made me realize we’re all global citizens.

Learning about ones ancestry is so interesting and informative. Even researching for this note, I’m delighted by the amount of data available now. It can’t change the past, but it definitely provides insight into who we are and may help us create a brighter future.


Perhaps we can understand people more by asking their ethnicity and geography? 


It may help us gain greater insight into each individual instead of asking race/ethnicity alone. 



I hope you learned a little more about my Hmong ancestry and what it was like growing up Hmong American. 


Have you ever learned about Hmong people before? Have you tried an ancestry test kit? Did you find anything interesting about your family’s ancestry?



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This was a free edition of Notes by Naly, with original publication on Substack. 

Notes by Naly is a weekly collection of notes and musings on an eclectic mix of topics ranging from business, food, travel, beauty, poetry, and more. It’s written by Naly and is a glimpse into her world as an entrepreneur and writer. 

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