Stories of the Iu Mienh
On April 5th, 2014, NWLA’s Language of Food series will continue with “Stories of the Iu Mienh,” offering a rare opportunity to share in the cultural traditions of this remarkable group of people.
WHO ARE THE IU MIENH?
The Iu Mienh originated in the hills of China over a thousand years ago. In the 1800s, as the result of conflicts, they emigrated to Laos, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Living in small villages in the mountains, the Iu Mienh practiced subsistence farming, and generally lived in self-sufficient ways, their identity focused on the group.
Chanting was one important custom. When a guest arrived at a Mien village, it was customary to greet them by chanting. A villager would chant a phrase, another would reply, and another, and so on. This was a way to communicate to strangers without having to know them.
Chanting was also used as a means of courtship. Young Mien boys and girls would travel to different villages to look for mates. When they found someone they were interested in, instead of speaking to each other they would privately chant. In their chants they could arrange a time to meet or simply inquire about their likes and dislikes, how their day was going, or if it would be appropriate to visit. These chants were a language on their own, with ancient and folkloric words that, when translated, did not sound like the everyday Mien spoken language.
In the mid-1950s the Iu Mienh, like the Hmong, began to be recruited to assist in covert military operations in the Indochinese wars — first for the French and later the CIA, working to intercept the weapons supply trail into Vietnam. After the Vietnam War ended, they became targets for retribution by the Pathet Lao communist government, and flocked to the U.S., as well as France and Canada, as refugees.
The first Mien people began arriving in the United States in 1980. Like many refugees and immigrants who arrived before and after, they faced the challenge of adapting to a new language and cultural norms. This was especially difficult though, as the Iu Mienh arrived with no written language, no exposure to formal education, and little experience with wage labor. Their former self-sufficiency has been tested in market economy of urban America, as well as in a culture that places less emphasis on group identity. While chanting use to be a custom among all Mien people, for instance, due to assimilation and lack of use the teachings have largely faded away, and now only a small handful of people can remember the traditional language of chant. In the United States, chanting is usually only shared at weddings on a birthdays, as a form of blessing, greeting, or thanks.
Still, in the Iu Mienh have retained and nurtured an important aspect of their culture: collective or group-oriented action. Major events including births, weddings, funerals, and New Year’s celebrations provide opportunities for the Iu Mienh community to meet and maintain a shared ethnic identity. Join NWLA for one such event on April 5th from 5:30 to 9:30pm for a celebration of Iu Mienh culture. More information is available at our website.
Watch Elaine Velazquez’s Moving Mountains, a one-hour documentary on the Iu Mienh here.