Annie Vang | Madison, Wi
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, thousands of Hmong families were displaced from their homes. The Hmong people were recruited by the American military to fight in the war against the Viet Cong, and in exchange for their assistance, the United States government granted them asylum and protection in America. When American troops pulled out of the war, thousands of Hmong families were left behind in a war-torn country, often living in the jungles to escape the Viet Cong as they made their way to refugee camps. In 1979, my family was one of the thousands of Hmong families to come to America. We first landed in Iowa, then moved to Wisconsin, California, and Rhode Island before making it back to the Midwest. I have lived in Madison for the past 25 years. My husband and I have been married for 29 years and have one adult son who has four kids of his own.
My parents told me and my siblings that they escaped the war and fled to America for us to have a better life. They wanted us to have access to education, job opportunities, healthcare, and safety–everything they could only wish for when living in the old country. They had high hopes for us kids to succeed and build a good life in the land of opportunity. But life in America was not as easy as it seemed.
The Vietnam War brought on a wave of negative perceptions about the Hmong people. I remember as a kid, when people saw me, I could tell they didn’t like me because I was Hmong. I remember people didn’t want to associate their kids with me. Kids didn’t want to be my friend. It felt very isolating. First, I couldn’t speak the English language. Secondly, I sounded funny when I talked. And lastly, I didn’t see many people who looked like me. You don’t know you are different until someone tells you that you are or makes it known you’re not welcomed.
I tried really hard to speak English well so I could ‘fit in’, so I rarely spoke Hmong in public. I thought by doing this, I could assimilate faster into mainstream American culture and be accepted by my peers. I watched television and practiced sounding out words and phrases like the characters on screen. I couldn’t for the life of me pronounce ‘ambulance.’ At the time, I didn’t realize suppressing my Hmong identity would have such a major impact on my adult life.
Growing up, my parents spoke to my siblings and me in the Hmong green dialect (Moob ntsuab). The Hmong language was first an oral language, and it wasn’t until a few decades ago that it became a written language using the English alphabet. In America, Hmong people speak one of two dialects–Hmong green (Moob ntsuab) or Hmong white (Hmoob dawb). The difference between the two dialects is that certain words have different intonations. While I grew up speaking Hmong green, my husband grew up speaking Hmong white. When we married, I had to learn how to speak in the Hmong white dialect so I could communicate with his parents and elders.
I struggled a lot with my Hmong American identity–trying to speak English while also trying to learn how to speak in both Hmong green and white dialects. I felt like I was going through an identity crisis because I wasn’t a proficient speaker in either language. Other Hmong people would look at me and say, ‘You’re Hmong, but you can’t speak Hmong.’ I was constantly judged for not being fluent in my native language.
I have always loved technology. I love creating videos of Hmong recipes and crafts on YouTube and TikTok. When the iPhone first came out, I saw there was so much potential in the world of mobile technology, and this is a field I could build a career.
I taught myself HTML in the late 90s. I attended Madison College to pursue my associate’s degree in web development when I was 26 years old. At the time, I was married and had a son in elementary school. Nobody took me seriously because I didn’t fit the mold of a web developer. I knew I had to build my credibility and work twice as hard as the next guy.
HmongPhrases initially started as a class project while I was in college. I created two separate apps that translated words from Hmong to English and English to Hmong. Throughout the years, I combined the two apps into one and included an audio component for people to be able to listen and learn the pronunciation of a word. Growing up, I struggled to pronounce certain Hmong words and phrases, so it was crucial I included this component so users could learn and practice at their own pace.
Learning how to speak Hmong again was just embracing who I am, where I come from, being proud that I am Hmong, and acknowledging that my Hmong speaking abilities are always a work in progress. The HmongPhrases app was kind of like a gift to myself to celebrate my Hmong identity and to love myself the way that I am.
The Hmong language originated as an oral language, so if you don’t have experience sounding out written words, it can be really difficult to learn. When creating my app, HmongPhrases, I wanted it to be interactive. So, I added an audio component so users can see the written word, hear it and practice out loud with the audio recordings.
There are Hmong apps that currently offer direct word translations from English to Hmong and vice versa. I love that this is available digitally. To date, I believe my mobile app is the only one that offers phrase translations with audio functionality for both Hmong green (Moob ntsuab) and Hmong white (Hmoob dawb) dialects. All you have to do is press the play button, and you will hear how it sounds to pronounce a sentence in Hmong. You will also see the way to pronounce it.
A lot of the feedback I receive about the HmongPhrases app is from non-native Hmong speakers and beginning Hmong speakers. Some write to me saying, ‘Hey, this is really cool that I can learn some simple Hmong phrases to familiarize myself with the language and just to show my peers that are interested in the culture and Hmong people,’ or ‘Hey, I was afraid to speak Hmong to my grandma, but I’ve been practicing silently on my own and surprising my family with words that they probably didn’t think that I could speak.’ I love knowing the positive impact the app is having on people’s lives. It is really heartwarming because I can relate to my own personal experiences with trying to be fluent in Hmong and English, not knowing if what I said was incorrect or pronounced wrong. It’s all about creating awareness and educating people–whether native or non-native speakers–so they can be guided through that learning process at their own pace.
Back when I was creating HmongPhrases, I also created cooking videos of Hmong dishes for my YouTube channel. It was another way to help me discover and celebrate my Hmong identity and tap into my passion for cooking. Hmong food and language are the two most powerful things that connect me to my culture. For example, most Hmong people love eating sweet pork. It’s not our native dish, but Hmong people adapted their own version from another culture. I had to learn how to make it on my own because I had no one willing to teach me their recipe. I worked on it sort of like a science experiment until I nailed it down to the version that I thought tasted good. I wrote down the recipe and created a YouTube video. People started sharing my video and posting photos of their dish, commenting, ‘Oh, I learned how to make sweet pork from you.’ And I thought, ‘That’s great. That’s awesome.’ I thought it was really important to share recipes on platforms with high visibility for a greater audience reach, like a mobile app and YouTube, to give people resources to celebrate the richness and importance of the Hmong people and their culture.
I often gather my cooking video ideas at gatherings where Hmong food is served. I would try to get insight on how to make a certain dish because it tasted so good. But, a lot of times, people don’t necessarily want to tell you their recipe because they want to be the only person recognized for knowing how to make that special dish. People would only tell me half the recipe or process of making it, which was extremely frustrating when my attempts to replicate it didn’t work out. So, I had to learn through trial and error, similar to a science experiment. I make Hmong dishes and write down my recipes and instructions to share through my YouTube channel with the rest of the world.
It has been my thing to share and educate. Together as a Hmong community, and the larger community in general, there is an opportunity to share knowledge and pass it down to younger generations. If we don’t pass down our knowledge, how will the next generation learn, and how will valued traditions live on? I love when people comment to let me know how my language app or YouTube videos helped them learn how to speak Hmong better or connect with the older members of their family or learn how to make a certain Hmong dish. It makes me feel good knowing I was able to contribute and help them in some way.
In this video, Annie makes a sweet pork dish, also known as ‘nqaj qaab zib’ or ‘nqaij qab zib’. Sweet pork is a popular dish in Asia and there are many variations of it. You can find the recipe on her blog.
Annie shared these photos with Love Wisconsin. “Photos of my life throughout the years from a refugee camp to living the American dream.“