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A Cycle of Violence: Hmong Refugees, Household Decisions, Economic Transnationalism, and Identities

  • Author(s): Xiong, Chia
  • Advisor(s): Golash-Boza, Tanya
  • et al.

The question of citizenship and belonging continues to be important in an era of mass displacement as a result of violence and conflict. This dissertation is an interdisciplinary approach in examining the question of belonging and citizenship for war refugees. I examine how war refugees belong and do not belong in different periods: from the journey to “refuge,” in the refugee camps, and the current resettled country. Each chapter in this dissertation addresses a specific question. In Chapter Two, I ask, how do gender and age shape refugee journeys? Chapter Three addresses the question, how does time shape refugees’ participation in economic transnationalism? And Chapter Four addresses the question, how does previous war experience (captured through refugee identity) in conjunction with current experiences (legal status, view on America/n) shape belonging (ethnic and racial identities)?

The Hmong from Laos makes a good case study because they have been in the U.S. for four decades. Their duration in the U.S. is long enough that they can take on new legal statuses but recent enough that they can still recall war experiences. The study consists of a total of 50 semi-structured life history interviews with refugee adult children and refugee parents. Adult children refer to participants who were children during the war or lived in refugee camps, and at the time of the study are adults.

There are three main findings. One, gender and age shape the decisions during the journey to refuge in Thailand. Further, the new economic household decision theory can be expanded to examine refugees if the reasons for migration shift from economic incentives to interests in preserving human life. Two, transnationalism can also be used to understand refugee participation in the global economy through economic transnationalism, namely through sending goods to sell and remittances. I show that Hmong participated in the alternative global market by sending paj ntaub to sell in the United States. This economic transnationalism is made possible through what I consider involuntary transnational networks that consist of other refugees who are mostly kin. I argue that participation in the global economy occurs not only once the Hmong are in the resettled society, but even when they are residing in refugee camps. However, the commodification of the paj ntaub represents cultural violence that justifies the structural violence within the camps. Three, I find that refugee experiences of war continue to permeate into the present, shaping ethnic and racial identities. Specifically, identification with the refugee identity reflects the present attachment to previous war experiences. And detachment from the refugee identity is a coping mechanism to treating war experiences as something of the past. Participants coped with war experience differently, but most identified as Hmong as opposed to a hyphenated or American identity. Therefore, many respondents saw themselves as American citizens, but not as full Americans. I term this notion of simultaneous belonging and not belonging as social liminality. Finally, those who are too young to understand or recall the experiences of war identify more with a hyphenated or racial identity and never saw or no longer see themselves as refugees. Collectively, this dissertation underscores Hmong refugees’ belonging before they became refugees (in the journey to Thailand), when they are refugees (camps) and when they become citizens (in the U.S.).

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