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A single word inscribed in stone at St. Paul’s Changsha China Friendship Garden is rekindling a decades-old debate within the Hmong community.

At issue is the city’s use of “Moob” from one of the culture’s dialects to identify the Hmong community instead of “Hmoob” from a different dialect. The commonly seen spelling, “Hmong,” is a version mostly used by English speakers.

A fight over which dialect best represents the community broke out last September when the inscribed stone was unveiled and St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao, who is Hmong, asked whether “Moob” was inclusive. The city stood by its choice to use “Moob,” and members of the Hmong community from across the country banded together to form the Mong Equality Committee to advocate for the dialect–Green Hmong–that was chosen, saying the incident re-opened old wounds.

About 20 members of the committee and their supporters protested Thao at 2 p.m. Tuesday outside of the St. Paul City Hall offices downtown. They demanded that he resign immediately for his “political bullying” and “discriminatory actions” against Green Hmong speakers, according to the group’s press release.

One protester carried a sign that said, “Councilman Dai Thao has divided Green Moob with discrimination.” Another sign said Thao “must stop promoting hatred against Green Moob.”

“He is not a leader we need in our community,” said Zong Khang Yang, president of the Mong Equality Committee.

Thao issued a written statement in response to the protest: “It is clear MEC’s primary goal is not to meet with me. While I made sincere efforts to meet with them, MEC’s aggressive tactics and intimidations are a smokescreen to hide their fraud of using City parkland and state funds to promote their hidden agenda of creating a Mong nation-state.”

It is the right time to talk about dialect, our name in America … We are supposed to be fair and be a good example, but instead we fight among ourselves.

WangKao herr, vice president mong equality committee

The 1.8-acre garden is a collaboration between St. Paul and its sister-city Changsha, in China’s Hunan province. According to the project website, many Hmong in Minnesota claim Changsha as their ancestral home. Volunteer-led fundraising allowed the city to construct a green and red pavilion in 2018 at Phalen Regional Park in traditional Changsha style, with a roof curved sharply toward the sky. The new stone garden features rocks inscribed in three different languages: Chinese, Dakota, and Hmong.

One of four rocks inscribed in the Hmong language reads: “Moob Minnesota txais tog koj,” or, “Hmong Minnesotans Welcome You.” The phrase is written in the Green Hmong dialect, also called Blue Hmong or Hmong Leng. The White Hmong dialect, also known as Hmong Der, spells Hmong as “Hmoob” due to tonal differences.

Both dialects are widely used.

A rock in the Changsha China Friendship Garden at Lake Phalen is inscribed with “Moob” to identify the Hmong community. Some say the word is not inclusive because the spelling comes from one Hmong dialect. Others defend it and want an apology from St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao, who questioned its use. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The two group of speakers share broad cultural practices and beliefs, differing mostly in their traditional clothing and in pronunciation and vocabulary. The difference is comparable to American English and British English. 

Boosted by social media, the controversy reached a global audience in Laos and other Southeast Asian countries, where many Hmong have roots and where many still live.

“It is the right time to talk about dialect, our name in America, especially in America,” said WangKao Herr, a former St. Paul pastor who watched the debate unfold from his home in Missouri. “We came to the most powerful country in the world, and we come to learn and to educate in this country. We are supposed to be fair and be a good example, but instead we fight among ourselves.”

Project supporters said the garden is meant to serve as a site of multicultural exchange and education. But inside the Hmong community, the use of “Moob” has sparked arguments among friends and strangers alike.

Council Member Dai Thao questions word choice

Hmong speakers can understand the language regardless of which dialect is spoken, scholars said. However, this particular spelling was thrown into question after Thao posted a picture of the rock to his Facebook last September, asking followers: “What is your thought on using the Moob spelling compare to the standard Hmoob/Hmong?”

Thao’s post received nearly 200 comments and set off a debate about which spelling the garden should use. Some commentators wondered if the inscription should only use the English version, each dialect had its supporters, and many people had no issue with using “Moob.”

In a December email to the Changsha Friendship Garden project manager, Thao, said “Moob” was not inclusive because it was written in Hmong Leng. This provoked further ire from some Hmong Leng, who formed the Mong Equality Committee in January to preserve the spelling on the rock.

“Mong” is an alternative English spelling of Hmong, which Hmong Leng speakers say is closer to their pronunciation of the word because it does not have an “H.”

Prior to Tuesday’s protest, Thao spoke to Sahan Journal and said he now regrets how he phrased his initial post. 

“I didn’t know that it would cause this much hurt and so because of that, people were angry,” he said. “And so the focus is on my wording, even though I have no intent to hurt anyone.”

But he isn’t retracting his comments about the use of “Moob” at the Friendship Garden, and he hasn’t publicly apologized despite repeated requests from Hmong Leng speakers that he capitulate.

Thao said he was raised with the understanding that the spelling, “Hmong,” included all Hmong people. Because “Moob” is written in Hmong Leng, he said, it is not as inclusive. Thao’s office has not disclosed to Sahan Journal which dialect he speaks.

But if the complaint is brought up, then it is my job to forward that to Parks and Rec and to ask the questions.

St. Paul City council member dai thao

The rock inscriptions, including the “Moob” spelling, were chosen by the Hmong Advisory Committee (HAC), a group of Hmong volunteers that informed the Friendship Garden Board on the community’s culture and traditions. According to HAC’s president, the committee drafted the inscriptions, which was then approved by the Friendship Garden Board.

The installation of the nine stones at the garden was marked by a ribbon cutting ceremony last year. Thao, who said he was at a funeral and not in attendance, reported receiving calls from residents who were concerned about the use of “Moob.”

The main complaint, Thao said, was that the Hmong Advisory Committee did not gather community input on the stones. Callers were particularly upset that the advisory committee did not consult the Hmong 18 Council, a group of leaders representing each clan or last name in the Hmong community. The council is also viewed by some as an outdated governing body.

“My job is to not regulate how [the Hmong Advisory Committee] does their business,” Thao said. “But if the complaint is brought up, then it is my job to forward that to Parks and Rec and to ask the questions.”

In late February, Mike Hahm, St. Paul’s Parks and Recreation director, announced the city would not alter the inscription. He thanked Thao and council member Nelsie Yang, whose ward includes the garden, for their support helping his office address complaints about the spelling on the stone.

“While unlikely that this path forward is the exact choice of any one individual, it is my belief that it respectfully meets the goals for everyone in the best way possible,” Hahm said in an email to staff about the decision. 

Yang, who is also Hmong, declined to comment on the issue. Her executive assistant wrote in an email that Yang “supports the current recommendation from the St. Paul Department of Parks and Recreation to move forward with the St. Paul–Changsha Friendship Garden project without any changes to the stones at this time.”

Thao publicly supported the move, writing in a March 2 Facebook post that,“It’s time to heal and move on in solidarity.” 

The Mong Equality Committee commended St. Paul for retaining the Hmong Leng spelling. But members said the issue has deeply divided the community, and that more will need to be done to heal reopened wounds. 

A longstanding question

Those against the usage of “Moob” at the garden claimed it was not the correct spelling, or that it was not the most popular. Some said it would be confusing to non-Hmong speakers who searched “Moob” on the internet. 

Hmong language scholars said there is no standard way to spell “Hmong.” People across the Hmong diaspora understand “Moob” and “Hmoob” to mean Hmong people in general, not in reference to one specific dialect, they told Sahan Journal.

“My perspective is, the rock was written in the Green Hmong language,” said Lee Pao Xiong, the founding director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University. “The Green Hmong pronunciation of Hmong does not include the ‘H.” Only the ‘M.’ And so they’re writing how they speak.”

After the issue began gaining traction, the Hmong Advisory Committee asked Xiong and Bee Vang Moua, who teaches the Hmong language at the University of Minnesota, to explain the two dialects’ histories.

The divergence in dialects largely follows where Hmong people live. In China alone, the Hmong people’s country of origin, there are several variations, influenced by the main Chinese dialect of a given region. Speakers of another dialect, Black Hmong, can be found in Vietnam and Laos.

Hmong Leng and Hmong Der are the two most common dialects in the United States. It’s unclear which dialect is more prevalent in America. Scholars disagree which dialect is most widespread in China. Some argue Hmong Leng is the most common while others say there are too many dialects in the country to allow a definitive determination.

Whether you write M-o-o-b or H-m-o-o-b, you’re still Hmong.

Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies, at Concordia University

Xiong teaches Hmong Leng and Hmong Der at Concordia. He also oversees Hmong language exams that test participants’ proficiency. Participants can test in the dialect of their choice. 

“Whether you write M-o-o-b or H-m-o-o-b, you’re still Hmong,” Xiong said.

The issue was blown out of proportion, Xiong said, and distracts from more pressing problems facing the Hmong community.

“It shouldn’t have gotten this far. It shouldn’t have been an issue,” he said.

The problem, said Mai Na Lee, a history and Asian American Studies professor at the University of Minnesota, is that there is no agreed-upon spelling of “Hmong” across the diaspora. The Hmong originated in southern China as a minority group and scattered throughout Southeast Asia due to persecution. After the Vietnam War, many fled to the United States and other continents.

“In the [American] school systems, we only teach one standard, one way to spell,” Lee said. “So standardization occurs through state imposition. And Hmong society, they’ve never developed standardization because they are stateless people. There is no Hmong king or Hmong kingdom that has a national Hmong dialect.”

“Hmong” became the generally accepted English spelling beginning in 1969, Lee said. It was popularized by the late Vang Pao, a general in the Royal Lao Army who worked with the United States during the Vietnam War. Lee said Vang Pao, who is widely considered a leader in the Hmong American community, used the spelling so outsiders would not confuse speakers of the dialects as separate groups of people.

Vang Pao wanted to develop a writing system similar to the Chinese language Cantonese, where Hmong speakers could read the same word on paper but pronounce it in their own dialects, said Xiong of Concordia. Xiong said he advised the former general that this was impossible to do because the Romanized version of the language uses Latin-based characters.

“Him and I, we agree that okay, the White Hmong write it the way they write. And the Green Hmong write it the way they write. And we all respect each other’s writing and respect each other’s dialect,” Xiong said. 

California debate

The community first publicly wrestled with the same issue two decades ago when a California legislator proposed a bill to teach Hmong history in public schools. The community was reeling after several Hmong teens died by suicide. Doua Vu, who worked for the Fresno school district at the time, said she believed the teens’ feelings of low self-esteem stemmed from a lack of community and belonging. 

In 2002, she proposed a bill to teach Hmong heritage, history, and the role Hmong soldiers played in supporting U.S. troops in the CIA’s “Secret War” in Vietnam. The bill “encouraged” but did not mandate that schools teach Hmong history in their curriculum.

The bill’s use of the “Hmong” spelling stirred debate within the community. A group of Hmong Leng speakers identifying themselves as the Mong Federation, Inc. argued that “Hmong” was a product of Hmong Der dominance, even in English. They advocated that the bill use both “Hmong” and the preferred Hmong Leng spelling, “Mong,” in order to truly represent them. In response, some Hmong Der said that the “Hmong” label included both dialects.

According to Lee, the arguments over spelling overwhelmed the original objective of the bill–to help Hmong youth reconnect to their heritage. She believes that in an effort to avoid further controversy, lawmakers eventually erased all references to the Hmong community and passed the bill as a recommendation, not a requirement, to broadly teach Southeast Asian history. 

“I thought it was a great loss for the Hmong,” said Lee. “The whole objective of the bill was really to force the state to pay attention to the Hmong as a non-state, ethnic minority and to teach their history.”

Lee said it’s up to the Hmong community to decide how it wants to be viewed by non-Hmong people. 

“The question is, ‘Do you want a unified front by adopting one spelling?’ Or, ‘Do you want diversity?’ ” she said.

‘Resolve this issue for good’

Herr, the former St. Paul pastor turned small-business owner, said Thao’s post triggered strong feelings from Hmong Leng  speakers like himself. Herr said Hmong Leng have experienced prejudice from Hmong Der.

“Back even in Laos, we heard discrimination like this for a long, long time,” Herr said. “I feel that this is the chance that we have to talk, to resolve this issue for good.”

In December, he hopped on a telephone conference call with people across the country. The group, with an open invite to about 80 people, met weekly to discuss the latest developments. They began to organize and formed the Mong Equality Committee. Herr became the vice president.

Anthropologists have observed an increasing number of Hmong Leng are converting to Hmong Der in Laos and Thailand, said Lee, the University of Minnesota professor. In response, several Hmong Leng scholars in the U.S. have pushed to make “Mong” mainstream, especially in English.

We the Mong Equality Committee and all those members of the Hmong community who have been hurt by him and his accomplices … now we call upon them to help heal our community immediately.

WangKao herr, vice president mong equality committee

Herr said Thao’s comments stoked judgement against Hmong Leng speakers. In response, he’s encouraging his children to take pride in being “Mong.”

“I told them that from now on, do not spell Hmong with an ‘H’ no more. Now we know that there’s no standard,” Herr said. “And we don’t really care … who agrees or disagrees, we don’t really care about that.”

In early March, a few days after St. Paul announced it would not change the spelling of “Moob,” the Mong Equality Committee gathered at Changsha Friendship Garden and demanded an apology from Thao and other community members who they believe instigated the controversy. Neither Thao nor council member Yang were invited.

“We would have preferred Councilman Dai Thao do the right thing without us having to call him out,” the committee’s president, Zong Khang Yang, said in a speech at the garden. “However, since he will not do the right thing, we the Mong Equality Committee and all those members of the Hmong community who have been hurt by him and his accomplices … now we call upon them to help heal our community immediately.”

Thao said his and Yang’s office stepped in to help resolve the complaints at the request of the project manager. This led to his September Facebook post, he said, and later a community meeting hosted by Thao which also drew intense debate.

Thao recommended that the city assign a Hmong speaker to assist the garden’s project manager as the site continues to develop.

Asked by the Sahan Journal if he felt responsibility for starting the controversy, Thao said: “I actually think that the root cause is the committee not doing the work. But I will take responsibility for my own actions.

“And so that is why we want to meet with the [Mong Equality Committee] and their organization and listen to them, and that’s what we do. We listen, and we want to hear them out. And if feelings are hurt, then we want to correct that.”

Mong Equality Committee representatives told the Sahan Journal that Thao’s office canceled their meeting plans three different times. The third time, they said, Thao’s office asked that committee members provide personal information, including their home addresses. Committee members said they initially refused, citing privacy concerns, but eventually provided the information.

Kristin Koizol, Thao’s executive assistant, said his office was advised to collect the information because of threats Thao had received. She declined to provide further details.

Ying Chuyangheu, chair of the Hmong Advisory Committee, said the group did not conduct outreach about the stone installation because it was a small project. But he said committee members informally talked about the garden at community gatherings and encouraged people to donate. 

Regarding outreach to the Hmong 18 Council, Chuyangheu said a representative of the council was a member of the committee throughout the process.

“The people who start the conflict on the Hmong dialect in the China Friendship Garden, they should be shamed because the China Friendship Garden is not the place for changing the Hmong dialect, or, make the Hmong dialect to be standard,” Chuyangheu said. “That … is back to the Hmong community, for the global Hmong to solve themselves.”

The garden’s board is currently fundraising to expand the garden to include a Hmong cultural plaza, moon bridge, and a dry stream bed lined with stones. Chuyangheu said he’s worried the “Moob” debate may discourage people from donating.

“The China Garden—the principle, the philosophy, intent–is collaboration, heritage, tradition, friendship,” he said. “White and Green Hmong is Hmong.”

Sahan Journal multimedia producer Ben Hovland contributed to this report.

Update: This story was updated at 5:43 p.m. on April 12 with additional reporting.

Tiffany is currently a senior at the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared in the Pioneer Press, MPR, MinnPost, the Minnesota Daily, Insight News, and Sahan Journal. Follow her on Twitter @tiffanybu1.