The Southeast Asian Massif is one of the most culturally and linguistically variegated regions in the world. The sheer complexity of different groups living in close proximity to one another--not to mention the geopolitics of the latter half of the 20th century that have both engulfed this region and embroiled it in core geopolitical dynamics that dominated American foreign policy for a good part of the century--make this a unique region to consider when it comes to a variety of issues that are core to anthropologists and social scientists more broadly. These include understanding the rise of nationalism and transnationalism, dynamics of group identity, intercultural politics, social change, and development.
Hmong are one of the more populous upland ethnic minority groups in Southeast Asia and China and comprise a variety of ethnolinguistic subgroups. The Hmong diaspora provides an interesting social context to address many key social scientific questions. Although there are now significant populations of Hmong on five continents, the epicenter of the Hmong diaspora is southwestern China. From here Hmong began to emigrate in large numbers to the Southeast Asian peninsula during the nineteenth century. This diaspora was further globalized after the Second Indochinese war, which (beginning in 1975) displaced hundreds of thousands of Hmong refugees from Laos to camps in Thailand. Most of these Hmong refugees would eventually resettle in third-party countries such as the United States or France. Some of them, however, would resettle permanently in the Thai countryside in preexisting Hmong communities. As a result of these divergent migration patterns, some families became transnational families almost overnight, as some members of the family stayed in Southeast Asia, while other relatives were resettled in places like Minnesota and California. These disparate resettlement circumstances provide a unique context for examining theoretical understandings of how people deal with dramatic social change, and the innovative strategies they develop to deal with some of the most dramatically changing circumstances that humans have faced.
Thus, while this course will focus on the Hmong diaspora in particular, its reach will extend to fundamental questions about what it means to be human. We will thus engage with a variety of social science theories that seek to provide understanding to these questions. By diving deeply into one group's culture, history, and language, we will be able to parse out some of the nuance of scholarly attempts to answer these difficult questions. We will ask how these theoretical frameworks help us understand the vast and complex cultural landscape of Southeast Asia, but reach far beyond the confines of the region to ask what the Hmong story can teach us about ourselves. How do ethnographic data from Southeast Asia challenge predominant notions in social science understandings of the human condition or force us to reformulate the way we understand our own life experience? Thus, this course will be as much theoretically driven and focused as it will geographically, but the point is to create a direct dialogue between a set of theoretical ideas and ethnographic perspectives on groups that lend particular insight into understanding the social processes at hand. In sum, this course is not just for those who care deeply about Hmong issues or the Asia-Pacific region more broadly, but rather it is designed to use this case study to ask fundamental anthropological questions about what it means to be human.
To this end, the language element of this course (constituting about 25% of the course) is designed to offer enough exposure to students who have no long-term interest in Hmong or Southeast Asia to begin to help them grasp how linguistic relativity actually plays itself out in this diasporic language community. These fundamentals will also provide a baseline for students who plan to advance in Hmong studies or conduct research in the Hmong Diaspora Field School in the future.
This course will be a seminar style. I may wax in and out of lecture mode as I share ethnographic examples from my own research or try to situate or explicate particular theoretical points, but student participation and rich discussion is critical. As a result, your participation in the seminar will constitute an important part of the final grade. The syllabus will include an array of reading and multi-media materials, and it is critical that you come prepared each session to discuss your take on the materials for each seminar discussion.