Reading About Asia

Asia is a huge place with varied peoples and cultures, and you can’t cover it in a single year.
Maybe not a single lifetime. Historic, scientific and artistic achievements in Asia are just as remarkable as those in the west. I understand why those in the west focus on the west- it is our story, after all, and I would expect the east to prioritize the east just the same. However, I do get a little frustrated when, from time to time, I will see a criticism of some organization, booklist, institution, program, whatever, for ‘not having enough diversity,’ and when you pull the thin top layer back, they don’t mean ‘diversity’ at all, they mean one sliver of one culture.

Below I share a couple of resources for the study of two different cultures in Asia, from different time periods and sources as well- China at the turn of the 20th century, and the Hmong refugees who came to the U.S. between the 70s and 80s.

China is roughly the size of the continental USA, but unlike America about 60% of China’s territory is land traditionally inhabited by non-Chinese peoples—ethnic groups that today are officially known as “national minorities.” These include a number of groups who are Muslim, most of whom live in the northwestern provinces of Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang. Altogether, China has an estimated 25 million Muslims, divided among a number of different ethnic groups, the most numerous of which are the Uyghur, Hui, Kazak, and Kirghiz. The latter groups live in a land of extremes. The northwest is home to vast deserts—extensions of the Gobi—and to some of the world’s highest mountain ranges on whose slopes nomads continue to graze their herds of sheep and horses. It is a place of quite magnificent scenery; some of it appears as a backdrop in the recently acclaimed film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” directed by Ang Li. But the beauty of this region belies the extreme difficulty of travel and living conditions which still pertain even in the 21st century. Although the topography of the northwest is challenging, a string of oases allowed the development of the so-called Silk Road along which goods moved between Asia and Europe in the days of the Roman Empire. Long distance trade continued over the centuries, as Chinese silks reached Western markets and European glass and gold arrived in Asia. Because the Chinese stages of the Silk Road pass through such arid land, the route is also an archaeological treasure house where hundreds of artifacts have survived to chart the history of one of the world’s greatest trade arteries. 

Today the single largest administrative unit in the arid
northwest is Xinjiang, on China’s border with Kazakstan. Officially called the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region, it covers one-sixth of China, twice the size of Texas. Its name reflects the numeric and historic importance of the Uyghurs, a Turkish Muslim people whose name was added to the region’s official title after 1949…

From Muslims, Missionaries and Warlords by Linda Benson This is an excerpt. Her full book is available here.

It was into the above area that three British women, protestant missionaries who had already worked in China for 20 years, decided to travel and evangelize in 1923.   Evangeline French; her younger sister Francesca, and Alice Mildred Cable worked in this area of China for about thirteen years before the Chinese kicked nearly all foreign workers out.  They returned to England where they continued to promote missions, to speak on their lives and work in China, and to raise and care for the deaf Chinese daughter they had adopted. They also published many excellent books.  The Gobi Desert is one of them.  Here’s the prologue:

“After living for more than twenty years in the province of Shansi in North China, I took the old trade-route and, with my companions Eva and Francesca French, trekked north-west past the Barrier of the Great Wall and into the country which lies beyond. For many years we travelled over the Desert of Gobi and among its oases as itinerant missionaries, and we came to know the country and its people intimately.
We found the desert to be unlike anything that we had pictured. It had its terrors, but it also had its compensating pleasures; it subjected us to many and prolonged hardships, but it also showed us some unique treasures. The oasis dwellers were poor but responsive; the caravan men were rugged but full of native wit; the outstanding personalities of the oases were men of character and distinction; the towns W’ere highly individualistic and each small water-stage had some unique feature. Even the monotonous outlines of the desert, when better known, wore a subtly changing aspect, and landscapes which were similar in broad outline became highly distinctive as their detail was scrutinised. Even the stony flooring of the Gobi varied so much from stage to stage that pebbles picked up on the wide expanse could be located to the actual spot where they were collected.
Once the spirit of the desert had caught us it lured us on and we became learners in its severe school. The solitudes provoked reflection, the wide space gave us a right sense of proportion and the silences forbade triviality. The following record of what we saw and found in the Desert of Gobi may help others to appreciate its unique charm. These experiences were shared by three people, but for obvious reasons the record is written in the first person singular.”

Here we have the story of a project to discover more and hear the voices of Hmong people who came to America after the Viet Nam war ended. It’s a fascinating story:

“In contrast to the numerous Vietnamese American students I have
known, no Hmong students attended any of my classes until 1989,
when I began teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara
(UCSB). One day, soon after I had spent only half a lecture discuss-
ing why the Hmong have come to the United States, one of the two
Hmong students in my large introductory Asian American history
class told me that his siblings and cousins now all wished to attend
UCSB because I had done something that no other faculty member had
ever done: include the Hmong in my curriculum. Deeply touched by
how much such a token inclusion had meant to my student and his
family, I asked him and his friend if they would be willing to help me
interview older Hmong for a study of their experiences in Laos, in
the refugee camps of Thailand, and in the United States. They agreed
to do so.
In time, four students—Thek Moua, Lee Fang, Vu Pao Tcha, and
Maijue Xiong—became my collaborators. At first, I gave them a
set of questions to ask their interviewees, but I learned very quickly
that such a methodology would not work well. In Hmong culture,
younger people are expected to show great respect for their elders,
and since asking questions is construed as a sign of rudeness, my
students felt hesitant to interrupt the interviewees when they were
speaking. So we discarded the formal questions. Instead, I told my
students simply to ask their elders to tell about their lives from the
beginning to the present and discuss with the students whatever as-
pects of their lives they wished to focus on. With this change in
approach, the potential interviewees became narrator…”

This is just an excerpt of one of the stories:

Jou Yee Xiong’s Life Story
as told to Lee Fang, Toek Moua, and Vu Pao Tcha
my name is Jou Yee Xiong and I am sixty-six years old. More
than a hundred years before I was born, the Hmong people had mi-
grated from China into Laos and other places in Southeast Asia.
The Hmong had been fighting with the Chinese; those who were
not taken prisoner moved southward, while the captives remained
in China. Many Hmong were captured and tortured during their
After arriving in Laos, the Hmong lived in the jungles and some-
times fought against the French in Xieng Khouang Province, and
especially on the Plain of Jars. We had a leader named Chao Ba Chay
who led this resistance. The French asked the Hmong, “Why are you
always fighting?” The Hmong responded it was because they were
not allowed to rule themselves. So, the French gave them control of
the region where many Hmong lived.”
From the book Hmong Means Free by  Sucheng Chan, but I read much of it online somewhere.

Jou Yee Xiong became a Christian before he came to America. Most of his family were converts as well. About his conversion, he says, “”I stopped teaching my sons many of the Hmong ways because I felt my ancestors and I had suffered enough already. I thought that teaching my children the old ways would only place a burden on them.””

You can read more about the Hmong people and their lives before and after coming to America online here. If you wanted to use this for school purposes, it’s probably best suited for high school as is. For younger children, read through and rework individual stories or events into an oral story you can tell your children.
For instance, the chicken family story: In their home country the Hmong people were farmers who grew and raised their own food. In their native religion they sometimes sacrificed animals. when they fled their home and came to America, they had to learn many new ways of doing things, and it wasn’t aways easy. One family worked to continue their lives in America by raising a flock of fifty chickens in their basement in an apartment in the middle of the city. They had never had to live in crowded city apartments before. Laws were different in their old home and their new home, and they had trouble with the language. At first they didn’t understand why they were in trouble. They were feeding themselves, and helping others by selling them chickens for meat just as they used to. but once somebody explained it to them and helped them find local farmers outside of town who could take their chickens. Later they were able to move outside of city limits and grown their own chickens again.

The politics and details of social justice and immigration issues can be left for the upper years, IMO. In the younger years, just learn about how people live and the general challenges they face when crossing cultures.

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