You don't understand the word 'eat' - you just say 'no'.: Becoming Minnesotan

Male silhouette.
  • Name - Cher Vang
  • Age at interview - 31
  • Gender - Male
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 02.03.1992
  • Church class, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1970s.  Photo courtesy MayKao Hang.
    Hmong students at Lao Family Community Center, St. Paul, 1981-1982.


    Essential Question

    Becoming Americans: What does it mean to be an American?

    Assimilation: Does a person have to give up part of his/her culture to become more American?

    Words to look for


    Background Information

    The Hmong lived mostly in rural areas of Laos so education was not widely available.  If Hmong students did go to school, it was usually to attend Laoatian schools where they would be taught in Laotian, that country’s primary language.  Because Laos was once a French colony, the French language is still taught in some schools. 

    Learning English was one of the first challenges that new Hmong refugees faced in the U.S.  Social service organizations (many like Lutheran Social Services that were connected to churches) provided a lot of volunteers and resources to help with teaching English to families.  

    To learn more about Hmong history and culture, visit our Hmong Community page.

    • Chapter 1

    Download Cher Vang 2
    2:11 Minutes | 2.09Mb


    Narrator: Cher Vang (CV)

    Interviewer: Linda Rossi (LR)

    LR:  Obviously you've studied English. Where and for how long?

    CV:  Well, actually I have never studied English back in my country.

    LR:  Did you speak English when you were in your country at all?

    CV:  No. Not at all, not even a word. I studied French and Laotian. That's it. Because English is like a foreign language to us, and at that time I don't see any use of it. Because not a lot of American people working out of the country, or at least I didn't know how or where. So I just don't bother to study. And then when I first came to this country, then they put me into high school, like 9th grade, for like two months. I was sitting in the classroom like a dummy. Everybody asked me, "Do you want something?" and just said "no." Actually you want to eat but somebody said "Do you want to eat," and you don't understand the word "do you want to eat." So just said "no." And they said, "Do you want to go with us?" Sometimes you really want to go, but if you say "yes," they ask you some more questions, so it's easier to say "no," and then that's it.

    During the daytime they send me and my sister, at that time she is probably five or six, and she go to, like, first grade. After I got home from school they have somebody at the church who can teach the whole family, like from 5 to 9, something like that, like every day, just to help us get used to the language.

    LR:  Was that really tough, being in school?

    CV:  Well, for the first two months, like I said, I felt like a dummy. Because you don't know anything what people said. They said, "You wanna go to lunch, you wanna do this, or you wanna do that." And inside you really want to do those things they ask you, but you don't know how to express yourself, and you don't even know what they are asking you for. But now I think back and I say, "Simple, this is easy, ask me if I'm hungry, I want to eat, I want to go roller skating, I want to do this, I want to do that."

    Related Glossary Terms


    Verb:  To convey or communicate; to make known or explicit.  (expresses, expressing, expressed)


    Adjective:  From a different country; belonging to a different culture.


    Adjective:  Of, from, or pertaining to Laos, the Laotian people or the Laotian language.

    Noun:  1. A person from Laos or of Lao descent.  2. The language of Laos.


    Minnesota Historical Society. Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. September 2010. Institute of Museum and Library Services. [Date of access].
    nid: 479