Iu Mien Community in Oakland, California
By: the Wildflowers Institute & Lao Iu Mien Culture Association (LIMCA)
Leadership Structure: There are 12 clans. Each village usually had several clans and a village chief. In the U.S., district council members are equivalent to village chiefs. There are 8 district councils in Oakland and San Francisco with 2-4 members in each district. Above them is a central district council composed of 4 members. Leaders are selected based on the recommendations of the elders. Each district has 50-80 families.
Meeting Setting: Elders usually sit at the head of the table. At the community meetings, leader(s) stand in front and elders sit in first row face to face with the leader(s). The younger women stand in the back. Elder women will sit down, too. Standing up indicates that you are not part of the group. Meetings usually take place in the chief’s house or community center.
Criteria for a good leader: The leader is usually a well-respected elder man. The leader should be loving, caring, humble, and compassionate. He should be able to put himself in other situations and be able to help others. The leader should understand and be capable of dealing with the issues in the community. He should be more interested in accurately representing community opinion than in showcasing his own talents. Leaders are usually elderly themselves or have shown their ability to listen to and respect the elderly. Many have been involved in and watched by the community a long time before being elected.
Leader’s role: To know what peoples’ concerns are and who needs help and be able to seek help for these people and families. He should also know all the latest news, and use assistants to disperse important information to the community. The leader has to be neutral. He acts as a mediator and does not take sides. While the leader uses his authority to help set goals and initiate action, the leadership group determines the means or process to reach objectives.
Assistant’s role: Leaders have two assistants. Although assistants also help solve problems, their primary role is as messengers and communicators getting the word out to the community.
For getting things done: If someone has an idea, he needs to contact the council member (leader). The council member will consult with other elders (especially essential if he is a younger man), particularly those who know the traditions well. After the consultation and approval from the elders, they will raise it as a community issue. The leaders will inform the community what needs to be done and also try to educate the community why it needs to be done in that way. They also ask for suggestions. It’s up to people to decide if they want to contribute to it or not. The community also makes decisions based on a majority vote.
For solving issues: If a husband and wife have disputes, they will inform their parents. The parents sit the couple down, talk and discipline them, solve their problems, and reiterate their responsibilities. If this doesn’t work, the parents will inform the elders and relatives on both sides. The in-laws meet and talk about it. The gathering of the full circle of relatives helps encourage resolution. If the couple still cannot agree, they and other relatives will go to elders or the assistant chief. Finally, they will go to the chief of the village. Things almost always get resolved there. The leaders, (usually two of them), act as a judge and try to equalize the two parties by supporting the victim and pressuring the opponent. They particularly pressure those who still disagree when everyone else has reached consensus. Parents sit on the side during this process listening. Afterwards, they reinforce what the leader has said at home and agree with him because he represents community opinion. People try very hard to resolve conflicts within their families because going to the leader and opening their problem to the community would be shameful as well as expensive (since they have to give money, food, and wine). Thus if a problem reaches the community, it has grown to terrible proportions. In the U.S, the Iu Mien equally do not want strangers, i.e. other Americans, to know about community problems.
People go to the hospital when they are sick. Spiritual healing is also practiced when people are sick. It is believed that the evil spirit took the sick person’s soul because that person or his ancestor did something wrong. The ceremony will free up ancestor so they can help the family.
The spirit of a person must be purified even if he has already died to ensure that he is free to join his ancestors and can reach his destination in the spirit world. This ceremony must happen at home. Most elders want to die at home and may not call an ambulance at the end to ensure that this happens.
Children, Youth, and Family:
Iu Mien households are patrilocal, i.e. women live with their husband’s families.
Iu Mien people always have extended families. They like to adopt other kids regardless of the kids.
The parents are not only responsible for educating kids but also for identifying their future spouses for them.
Daughters-in-law when eating, sit lower than men particularly their father and brother-in-laws. Often they squat.
In the past women were more vulnerable. As a result, they were more modest. Here they are taking more initiative and getting educated, which can make men feel insecure.
The father or eldest brother has the authority to tell kids what to do and to direct the family as a whole. Mothers have more responsibilities with their daughters, fathers with their sons. Most parents retain a large distance from their children and are uncomfortable with displays of physical expression or overt praise.
Children, even in the U.S., need to learn basic role and gender-based skills or their future in-laws won’t respect them.
In Laos, families did not have problems with juvenile disobedience, both because children respected the authority of their parents, and because everybody worked hard together in the fields in order to survive. There was no space for going off and doing individual activities that did not directly support the family.
Privacy was not a word that existed in Iu Mien. Everything was shared and open to other’s inspection. Anything that was kept separated was purposely being hidden and was probably wrong. Not only were attempts at privacy useless in such a close community, but also counter productive. How could others help you with your problem if they didn’t know about it?
Elders were the most respected members of the family and the community.
Grandparents or parents tend to stay with eldest or youngest sons. If there are problems, grandparents will try to address them first, if they are not resolved, then the family goes to the community.
Grandparents were especially involved in transmission of Iu Mien culture and values, often through telling traditional stories.
Respect is shown to guests by presenting them with tea. Refusal is taken to be politeness and tea is brought anyway.
One’s identity and sense of importance in the family and the community comes through the roles one plays.
Houses had three doors, a man’s door on the left, a woman’s door on the right. And a central door used just for spiritual ceremonies. Every household had an altar.
In China, there was a temple where everybody could worship, i.e. women and children could join too. In Laos, villages did not have temples so community-wide ceremonies were only held four times a year and special, home ceremonies when a family member was sick. When strangers, evil sprits and wild animals came to the village it was a sign that something was wrong. The village-wide quarterly ceremonies safeguarded the village and ensured health, protection, fertility and decreased conflict. If people worked during the ceremony, the sprits were insulted and the ceremony had to be done again. Animal’s sacrifice for the ceremony had to be eaten then. Left overs would be thrown away.
Religion binds people together. In the U.S.A, temple is being built again in order to let everybody to have a place to get together.
There are four kinds of spirits that are organized in a hierarchy: evil sprits, nature sprits, ancestor sprits, and Taoist Deities/Buddha spirits. Priest of different levels mediated between this world and the sprit world assisted by many spirits personally attached to them. These spirits took on soldier, guardian, and other roles. Priests were also helped by using a sprit (si-chiane) that paid respect to the priest’s master and ensured his presence during the ceremony.
It’s important to be in frequent contact with your ancestors so you can inform them of what’s happening here and what you did wrong. Then they can help you. Humans cannot totally solve their own problems without this assistance.
Iu Mien has as much responsibility to care for their ancestors as they do to care for the elderly. Elders relate more to the earth. Farming gives them a sense of connection to the land that has a spiritual component. Nature provides energy and force. Traditionally, not only the earth, but also animals especially dogs and horses were important beyond the immediate services they could provide. In a very deep sense, they took care of people and ensured their safety. Chanting has been used as a mean to educate the youth and mediates disputes.
Farming, hunting, trading, and domestic husbandry
Weaving and embroidery among women
The strength of the community is from collectivism. It encourages community efforts and participation through social and other activities.
The community emphasizes unity and working together.
Everybody is related or interconnected in some way.
Appearing fearless so that people can’t bully you.
People take care of each other.
Incidents that happened to the community:
There was a 1994 incident in San Francisco that resulted in a five-week old child being removed by CPS (Child Protective Services) from his parents and being dead 3-4 days later in custody. The removal was due to an accusation of child abuse, which was based on bruises they found in the oldest child caused by a fall at home. All the kids of the family were removed. The older children were held in custody a long time and not allowed to attend the younger sibling’s funeral. The couple asked for Iu Mien community help. This incident depressed and frightened the whole community. It made the whole community feel like they were nothing. the community had a meeting with about 200 people attending the state building and at city hall in San Francisco. This meeting was pulled together by the central council and LIMCA. It also had some cross-community support called in by LIMCA from the Laotian and Vietnamese communities. The Iu Mien felt that the baby was removed before he had been registered with his ancestor (so that his ancestors would not know and protect him) and that was why he died. They hoped to educate the outside community and raise their awareness. Iu Mien had never had an abused child! The community supported the family emotionally, through people who came to help them grieve, through ceremonies, and through money to pay for the funeral.
In 1982, when LIMCA began to discuss its members’ problems and its future in the U.S., they decided that farming was what they can do best. At that time Jerry Thompson in the SF bay area read an article about Mien refugees growing vegetables on the small patches of land available in San Francisco. He offered to lease 873 acres of land near Dawson in his native West Virginia to Iu Mien for $1 a year for 99 years. 37 people moved to West Virginia in the spring of 1983. But Thompson changed his mind and complained that Mien were not working fast enough on land development. He ordered them off the land by the end of November. The community felt that he just wanted them to clean up his land and then leave. They didn’t fight with him because they did not trust him and did not want to deal with anymore. The office of Refugee Resettlement in DC told the group that there was an established Iu Mien community in Montgomery, Alabama. The group decided to move to Montgomery, instead of moving back to California to be on public assistance. However, their jobs in Alabama were not secure, they felt the lack of a leader whom they could trust and believe. They decided to move back to California. The community in California pulled money together to bring them back at the end of April 1984.
There was a drive-by shooting between rival gangs in Richmond and Oakland. An innocent victim was killed. The leaders got together to see how they could help the family. The police had no leads and the community tried to help. After they found the gang members, they arrested and then jailed them. The leaders asked the whole Iu Mien community to contribute 1-2 dollars to help with the funeral. The family was afraid that the shooters would come back again and hurt them. The leaders organized people in the community to go and stay with the family for 90 days after the shooting. This is part of their mental health system. This is the way the Iu Mien always do when somebody dies, but usually it is for 30 days. The shooters were also Mien, but from the Richmond community. The leaders organized and facilitated a meeting between the parents, and organized a parent and community task force to address the issues. The parents actually found out they were related. These get-togethers helped prevent this kind of thing happening again. The city, through its victim of violent crime program, gave the families some money. But basically, the government was not helpful at all.
In November 1996, the Lao Iu Mien Culture Association (LIMCA) purchased a property about 27,000 SF at 485 105Th. Avenue in Oakland, California to establish an “Iu Mien Cultural Center” that will consist a Buddhist (King Pan) Temple and a Community Center. The Community Center will serve as a resource center for the Iu Mien community, consisting of a library and museum, resources for economic development, and health education workshops. Kouichoy Saechao, Chairman of Board of Directors of LIMCA said, “We believe that the Iu Mien Cultural Center will help strengthen our commitment to the preservation and rebuilding of the Iu Mien culture and religion. We need to maintain and preserve our cultural values, our confidence, and our sense of security in order to become productive citizens in America.”