Comparison of Hmong and American Concepts of Face Essay
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Losing face and saving face is a distinct cultural trait of the Hmong, a refugee population that traces its history to different parts of Southeast Asia. The Hmong are a group-oriented people with traditional ways that put much significance in family ties, social hierarchy, and personal honor or “face. ” With these characteristics in their culture, it is inevitable that the Hmong come up against the culture of their adapted homeland of America – a culture that values individualism, and one that does not have strict concepts and dictates regarding losing face and saving face.
One of the areas of American society in which this clash is often observed is in the academe. Educational institutions find themselves harbingers of American culture, at odds with the traditional teachings of the Hmong home and homeland. Although children of immigrant Hmong find it easier to assimilate into the norms of America, they are still very much rooted to their traditional culture, especially with the guidance of their elders, who comprise the first wave of immigrants from Laos and Thailand.
Complications are sure to arise when the schools and the teachers present ideas or do things that offend Hmong tradition and culture, or even display a complete ignorance of them. For example, if a teacher is unfamiliar with the Hmong’s value of “face,” and the circumstances that involve personal honor, then he could commit errors that are not only at odds with the Hmong student in question, but also to the Hmong culture in general.
This research shall shed insight into the different facets and views of the concept of “face” both in the American and Hmong culture, and in doing so shall present the similarities and contrasts of the two cultures in the personal, academic, familial and social dimensions. This research seeks to depict the cultural differences between the Hmong and American cultures, in part to improve cross-cultural communication, in part to have a more thorough understanding of this facet of the diversity of American population.
More importantly, however, by comparing the attitudes and beliefs associated with the concept of losing face and saving face in the Hmong and American cultures, the information collected can then be applied to the classroom, to the presidents of ESL environments, the teachers. This knowledge could even encourage parents to become more involved in their children’s education, and their own interaction with the teaching institutions and mentors.
Another goal of the research is to discover how people of different backgrounds and ages would define the concept of “face” and the circumstances surrounding it. Specific social situations shall be taken into account, especially in the classroom, where any disparity between two cultures could create barriers that could infringe learning and personal growth. This information can then be applied to provide better understanding of social situations where the possibilities losing and saving face are high, like classroom lectures, parent-teacher consultations and school conferences.
In doing so, the school can encourage strong parental involvement and further it, benefiting not only their interaction, but their interaction with their students/children as well, making a way to dissipate the lack of communication created in part by cultural barriers. The knowledge on the Hmong concept of “face” could harness a positive self-image in the parents and even promote camaraderie, that they would be comfortable enough to interact with the school and involve themselves further in their children’s educations.
Likewise, the research could guide teachers and other school officials on how to persuade Hmong students to better voice their thoughts and opinions. It will raise awareness on the norms and concepts associated with shame and “face,” instructing school officials on instructional strategies that could be used in order for students and teachers to avoid losing face; and on the other hand, promote instances that could potentially save face. LITERATURE REVIEW
An examination of the cultural differences between Hmong and American cultures shall go a long way in helping teachers gain a better understanding of one aspect of our diverse American population. This knowledge shall improve cross-cultural communication and help in producing and training more effective, culturally sensitive teachers. Thus, sufficient background knowledge is needed to understand Hmong cultural values, especially to fully comprehend their people’s concept of face. It is necessary, then, to have knowledge of the Hmong as a people to have knowledge of the Hmong as a culture.
The Hmong culture in America is a widely overlooked one, and the Hmong as a people have confronted many challenges in their history, and their culture is comprised of a dynamic blend in cultures. In Hmong at the Turning Point, Dr. Yang Dao (1993) describes the settlement of the Hmong small villages in the mountains of Laos, after leaving the banks of the Yellow River of China. In the mountains, they raised animals, hunted, raised crops of rice, corn, and other food crops. They led an ordinarily nomadic lifestyle, not for want of resources, but to be closer to relatives, or because of war.
The people thrived, coming from numerous local skirmishes and wars in Laos, and then several stints in refugee camps in Thailand, where they endured harsh living conditions because of the wars. From Laos, the Hmong then made their way to America to settle and build new lives (Henige, 1988), although not without more challenges. The country’s first wave of immigrants faced the inability to seamlessly assimilate into their adopted homeland. The stark culture shock was a foremost problem for the Hmong people, who discovered that the fast-paced, modern America contrasted so much with the traditional, close-knit culture of their race.
In the generations that followed, assimilation to American culture was more attainable, and yet the problems that then arose were between them and the older generation, who remained steadfast to their culture. This conflict within the Hmong people has not only created obvious disturbances among them; it has made waves in American society, most notably in the academe, where the disparity is most obvious due to the Hmong children who face the brunt of being torn between two clashing cultures.
Teaching Strategies Beliefs and Behaviors of Hmong and General Education Teaachers in the Technical College (Schulze, 1998), is one study that addresses and analyzes the differences between Hmong and American education. The study focuses on the cultural beliefs, behaviors and learning strategies of Hmong students. This knowledge was then used by the teachers and integrated in the classroom dynamics. Schulze found both teachers and students believe in the stable structure of education. Both also expressed the value they placed on building and developing relationships between teachers and students.
In another study, this one of O’Reilly’s (1998), the research found that school holds very little influence on the issues that affect the academic performance of the Hmong students. Basically, any educational institution has no control over things like “economic situations, family size, home language, and cultural differences” (p. 101), which have been known as significant factors in a child’s schooling. However, other studies have shown that it does help if the school is aware of these issues.
For example, another study on the effect of the different education value system is Refugees: Implicating Factors for Adult Education in Cultural Assimilation in American Society (Hammond, 1993), and it focused on the struggle Hmong students have adjusting to American customs and language. In a book about immigrant life and leaning, the author Hones (1999) interviewed a Hmong parent, Cher Shou Cha, and inquired about the immigrant experience. She then detailed the values of Hmong culture, her perception of American culture, and described how the two contradicted each other (p.
21). Proper comprehension of “face,” its loss and saving, and the differences of the concepts in the Hmong and American perceptions, shall be a vital lesson for educators and administrators in America today, particularly in Minnesota. The Hmong cultural values and teaching methods shall be better understood, as this research shall examine the notions of “face” and the circumstances surrounding it, from both the Hmong and American perspectives. The research shall then gather personal opinions and testimonies from members of both cultures.
The knowledge and information collected and gained from the research could then be applied to the educational setting, primarily in classroom dynamics. The act of preserving one’s social standing and outward dignity is commonly regarded as saving face (Victor, 1992). Its cultural definitions range from simply being respected in the community, to saving one’s self from humiliation or shame, and protecting reputations, either yours or your family’s. Face is often regarded as a public presentation of one’s self, and is considered as a display of one’s character, worthiness, industry, and frugality (Victor, 1992).
According to a Hmong colleague of mine, having “face” in the Hmong community is equivalent to having the respect and the admiration of others, as well as genuine praise. “Face” in the Hmong culture has varied aspects, as well as dimensions: personal, academic, familial, and social. These aspects primarily revolve around the family name, the family circle, and the family clan; as well as ascribing to the Hmong cultural ideas and beliefs, views of the elderly; and staying true to the expectations of one’s self and expectations of one’s family or others.
The average worry of a Hmong is that one wrong action by the individual could have repercussions that could ruin not only individual lives and careers, but that of the family’s as well. The Hmong place great significance in protecting the family name. In order to lose face, other people have to have a certain power or influence over you, as is the case of cultures that relies a lot on group dynamics. Sometimes, people intentionally create circumstances for other people to use face, and they do so by citing an shameful incident and using this to their advantage by constantly bringing it up in the community.
Although this type of manipulation of “face” exists not only between families or clans but also occurs within particular families or clans (Thao, 1986), the Hmong still generally make it a rule to uphold the name of the family by being model citizens and law-abiding individuals. For example, in most cultures, if a woman is having a love affair, it would have implications on many different cultural aspects like morality, but it would not be an issue of face or self-dignity – it would very rarely be an issue of overwhelming shame for the family and the culture.
And yet in the Hmong culture, for instance, a woman’s love affair is exactly that, because before anything else, the wrongdoing of that one individual brings great shame and dishonor to the woman’s family. The community will talk about the affair constantly, and talk about what the woman has done wrong, and how she could have prevented such, etc. This kind of talk within the Hmong causes the individual’s family to lose face. With remarks like this, especially if based on truth and reality, it is inevitable that the family name shall be shamed.
In the Hmong culture, the possibility of losing face is a rather considerable influence over a woman’s life. The loss of face could occur when a Hmong woman is too outspoken with her thoughts and opinions, and thinks nothing of saying what she thinks (Thao, 1986). Usually, it is Hmong women who have acquired a post-secondary education speak out more often (Thao, 1986), causing embarrassment for her family and her husband, if she is married. Women do not hold much important socio-political roles in the Hmong. When a situation arises in the family and clan meetings are held, the women are very rarely included, or even not at all.
Examples of such situations are: when someone gets married in the family, the father will call all the closest family members – or extended family members as long as the extended family has the same last name and share the same beliefs – to a meeting about wedding preparations; when there is a death in the family, all of the men take it upon themselves to discuss the funeral; when a child gets into trouble with the law, the men gather and discuss and negotiate among themselves the punishments and consequences.
In all of these situations, the Hmong women are not included. This socio-political set-up could go to the extremes, as seen in other cultures that value “face” as much as the Hmong do. In the research The Chinese Concept of Face and Violence Against Women, author Ko Ling Chan (2006) studies patterns of masculine identity and spousal violence. Eighteen men who had used violence against their female partners were recruited for interviews and audio-taped. The findings showed that the males were acutely sensitive and aware to their social image and the vital saving of face.
As such, the instances that resulted to loss of face made their tempers erupt, and created domestic disturbances, and abusing their female partners. The respondents were highly concerned about their social standing; to be respected was all-important, and anything that causes the loss of this would drive them into violence. Yet another circumstance for loss of face in the Hmong community is the marriage of a Hmong to a non-Hmong, which is currently a topic of heated discussion and controversy.
It is believed that face shall be lost if an individual marries someone who is not Hmong for the very reason that this type of marriage is not widely accepted. Also, this type of marriage implies that the individual who marries a non-Hmong thinks that the fellow Hmong are not good enough to marry. Instances like this affect the families greatly, particularly the parents, especially if the child has a very successful career. Although parents are known not to oppose marriage to an outsider, the community as a whole still tends to look down on it, and at them.
In this case, the Hmong shall talk about this shame and repeatedly bring it up, and would even directly ask the parents why their son or daughter married someone of another race. They may respond with many reasons, and even if all of them or viable, face has already been lost. Comparatively, in American society, interracial marriage and marriage between people of different religions no longer carry the stigma it once did. If viewed negatively at all, it is seen more as an individual issue than a loss of face to the entire family (Thao, 1986), and would never be seen as the shame of the entire race or the entire religion.
The same study done by Chan (2006) identified the need to maintain family respectability and family hierarchy within the community, a characteristic that finds parallels in Hmong culture. For example, another instance of the loss of face in the Hmong culture is if a member of a family commits a crime, or is affiliated with gangs. In this case, the individual and his family and clan are shamed. This would cause him to be looked upon with disfavor, because he is bad example not only within Hmong society, he could also tarnish the reputation of the Hmong among other races or societies.
Not only did the family and their clan members lose face, but the Hmong community as a whole then loses face to other races and ethnic groups which might easily stereotype one individual and associate it with the whole group. Needless to say, most Americans would feel such actions like stated above would reflect only on that individual, and perhaps his family, but not to the extent that one person’s actions could affect other people’s perception of his entire race. For the Hmong, saving the family name – that is, making sure its reputation is unblemished by individual actions – is a goal interminably intertwined with that of saving face.
Upholding the name of the clan is more significant because an individual is not just protecting the living members of the family, but honoring and respecting the ancestors as well – upon whom the family name has been based, given that they were outstanding Hmong citizens in the past, either through heroism or by being a model Hmong citizen. And although the Hmong who migrated to America have, in one way or another, displaced themselves from their natural and traditional cultures, saving face continues to be of great importance.
And in America, upholding the family name is not getting any easier. People of most cultures are concerned with saving face, although with varying degrees, with its significance differing from culture to culture. Saving face as a cultural concept is directly related to the cultures’ “contexting” or the way in which one communicates and the circumstances surrounding that communication. It is, according to Victor, “culturally learned behavior” (1992). Contexting is explained in terms of the amount of information transmitted in actual communication and the amount of information stored or assumed.
And so, cultures can then be rated as a high- or low-contexted culture. In low-context communication, people often explicitly express their messages so that what they mean to say is fully understood. The use of words to communicate is emphasized, rather than the meanings inferred. On the other hand, high-context communication contains a great deal of stored information in interaction. Messages are conveyed implicitly, which indicates that there is a wealth of unspoken information that contains the true essence of the message.
People that belong to high-context cultures often rely on how the message is expressed or conveyed, rather than what is actually said. The stark differences in these manners of communicating are extremely important especially in cross-cultural interaction (Hall, 1983). Another significant implication of cultural contexting is that: the more highly-contexted a culture is, then the more important saving face becomes. Rosch and Segler have devised a ranking order for context among major cultures. The German-speaking Swiss are the lowest ranked contexting culture.
On the other hand, Americans are generally more highly contexted than Swiss-German, German, or Scandinavian. Arabic cultures are second highest in contexting whereas the highest contexting culture is said to be Japanese. It is interesting to note that Americans and their communication style belong to that of a low-context culture, whereas the Hmong are considered as a high-context culture. Americans, because they represent a lower contextual culture, and are in fact in the lower third of the contexting spectrum (Hall, 1983), have a very direct and explicit communication style, no matter the gender or age.
As a people, they place high value on “straight-talk,” believing that the best way to make a point is the shortest and quickest way. Blunt disagreement is widely accepted, and there is a tendency to state their views and voice out their opinions, regardless of any disparity it would create with other parties. Indirect communication, a primary characteristic of the communications styles of higher-contexted culture, is considered less than honest. To them, indirectness is not a way of protecting one’s self-dignity, much less the family name. What opinions one has, one must state.
Arguing is a method of settling differences in the American culture, and Americans consider persuasion or argumentation to be separated from the individual (Victor, 1992). This can be seen as rude or offensive in higher-contexted cultures and is in direct conflict with the concept of saving face. Also, Americans tend to be governed by guilt, rather than shame – an attitude which is at odds with the high-context cultures’ definition of “face. ” The average American feels guilt when he is told that he has done something wrong, whether the chastisement is done in private or public.
In contrast, the people of a highly-contexted culture feels shame, mostly because of the principal trepidation that knowledge of their wrongdoing would become public, thus affecting their standing in the community. Shame refers to a control mechanism of choice with one’s relationships with other people and to the group that determines acceptable behavior. A person avoids losing face or being shamed not only for themselves, but for all the members of the various groups to which they belong, such as their family, military unit, or business associates.
People earn a positive reputation, face, by being a respectable participant in ethical behavior. It seems many circumstances in which saving face and losing face are vital dimensions do not hold the same significance to Americans. A colleague of mine explained that losing face means losing the respect, confidence, and the admiration others – adhering to a group-oriented mindset rather than an individualistic one. “Although most Americans associate losing face with being embarrassed, it is actually much deeper than just being embarrassed.
Being embarrassed will not follow you throughout life or for a long period of time. In fact, many of us can easily look back and laugh about an embarrassing moment, but we cannot do the same with an event which causes us to lose face. One way of defining losing face is: if the incident is something that affects a person only in the present, it most likely will not cause a loss of face. However, if the incident causes someone to be uneasy on future occasions then it has caused a loss of face. ”
A comparison of high-contexted culture and a low-contexted culture further highlights the disparities between the concepts of “face. ” Choi Sang Chin (1991), for instance, compares the Western culture and Korean culture and found that the primary difference between the two is honor, or “face. ” Generally, in Western attitudes, “honor” relates to self-esteem, whereas the Korean concept of “face” relates to social esteem. In a qualitative study on cultural influences on knowledge sharing, Caterpillar employees from Russia, China, and Brazil underwent in-depth interviews using open-ended questions.
Although the results of the study show that these countries could be classified as more “collectivistic” than the United States, they were different amongst themselves. A notable finding showed that in the Chinese culture, it was not deemed acceptable to speak a lot in public, as it is a rather common circumstance in which there is a high potential for losing face. The Hmong concept of “face” finds parallels in Korean culture, another high-context culture. For example, in school and similar institutions, Korean students usually do not ask questions in class.
Busbee (1994) reports complaints about these students’ little to absent participation in English conversation classes. It was discovered, however, that the teachers who officiate these classes promote an interactive, communicative competence that seems threatening to the Korean students, feeling pressure as they do when they are expected to talk. In 1990, the AETK newsletter provided a forum for discussion that encourages western English teachers to better equip themselves with the knowledge of the Korean students’ cultural backgrounds, particularly their concept of “face,” with it being a very complex variable in Korean society.
Without understanding this concept, these behaviors – such as limited class participation – can be misconstrued and labeled as a negative stereotype for a culture. Awareness of the students’ cultural backgrounds could then increase not only class participation but the students’ performance, as well as the involvement of their parents. The Hmong Literacy Project was research of an adult literacy program where the main goal was to help adults develop Hmong literacy skills to help them be better prepared to develop their second language and literacy.
Focusing on learning behaviors, results showed that the American concepts of individualism and self-determination are at direct odds with the Hmong culture when it comes to the concept of face, thus affecting learning styles and methods. The research was carried out using non-participant observation and interviews, and videotaping of the proceedings. The study discovered that cooperative learning was a norm for the Hmong. They asked the help of other students to assist them with the lessons, to help them understand what is expected of them.
They even check each other for the accuracy of their performance. It is interesting to note that this type of behavior reflects the collectivism of the traditional Hmong culture. The class participation of the students were very minimal, and most were incredibly reluctant to ask questions, as being too vocal has implications that traces their roots to the traditional Hmong culture. Likewise, eye contact was generally avoided because this was considered to be disrespectful of the youth.
Other behavior observed was that the Hmong students were acutely conscious with their actions, appearing very humble so as not to make it seem like they were “showing off. ” Looking foolish and making mistakes were also important issues for the students, as these are deemed to be acts of losing face. Interestingly, the common mechanism the Hmong use to save face is laughter. During the study, when the students were asked what made a teacher good or effective, they responded that they wanted teachers that motivated them, but in such a way that they would not embarrass them.
They valued sincere, if not earnest, teachers the most. Evidently, many characteristics of the Hmong students today reflect many of the traditional teachings and norms of the Hmong culture, and the concept of “face” is a foremost facet that has been carried down through generations, and even between countries. The diversifying culture of the United States has brought with it the responsibility to be sensitive to it. The American saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” would be at direct odds to the saying of the highly-contexted Arabic culture, “A sharp tongue cuts deeper than a sword.
” And then there is the Hmong proverb, which places high significance on being constantly conscious of one’s actions, and upholding the family honor: “It takes a lifetime to build a name, but it takes only one action to ruin the family’s name” (Victor, 1992). These expressions rather clearly portray the cultural differences between high- and low-contexted cultures, and the disparities between Hmong and American attitudes, most especially about “face.
” These, along with cultural history, beliefs and norms, must be adequately considered – for the better appreciation and understanding of a diverse American population, to develop cross-cultural communications, and to have an effective educational system that is cognizant of the students’ backgrounds. RESEARCH QUESTIONS What are the implications of “face” in the classroom behavior of Hmong students? What kinds of things cause the loss of face in students and how do these things differ between American and Hmong cultures? For the Hmong, how does “face” affect the parents’ involvement in their child’s education?
METHODOLOGY This research seeks to compare attitudes and beliefs associated the concept of “face” and the circumstances surrounding it – such as losing face and saving face – in both Hmong and American cultures. A comparison and contrast of both cultures shall also be portrayed. The information gathered could then be applied to teachers and administrators in an ESL environment. The information collected will provide teachers with a better understanding of what might potentially cause loss of face in educational settings such as classroom discussions, and even school conferences or parent-teacher meetings.
The knowledge could then be applied to encourage and enhance the stronger involvement of parents in their children’s education. By having sufficient historical and cultural background of the Hmong, the challenges raised by cultural barriers could be kept to a minimum. In doing so, the research could potentially help bridge the gap between school administrators, staff, teachers, parents and students. The research seeks to discover how different people of different ages define the many aspects of “face,” given specific social situations in public or in the classroom.
It would also provide information on how to prevent losing face or save face in situations that call for such. SURVEY DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT Information needs to be gathered in order to get examples and situations in which loss of face would occur. There also needs to be an examination of how the research respondents define face, losing face and saving face. It was imperative that the research and survey be conducted without giving the respondents any preconceived definitions. The objectivity of the survey called for both measurable data, as well as opinions and examples, even personal anecdotes, provided by the respondents.
The Likert scale proved to be the most effective to adequately provide insight into opinions. Survey participants were asked to pick the response that best fit their opinion regarding a statement, on a five-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” (Appendix A). Questions were designed to elicit responses from both ends of a particular spectrum, such as age and culture, so that answers could be validated against each other. Out of ten Likert scale questions, four questions were phrased to reaffirm other questions, as seen in statements #1 and #3 one on end, and #6 and #10 on the other.
The remaining six questions were aimed at determining the definition of the given terms to both culture groups (#2, #4, #5, #7, #8, and #9). The discussion questions were used to discover how people of different ages, from different cultures – Hmong and American – would define the given concepts. Although it is conceivable that the American respondents would find difficulty in understanding the concepts and articulating their opinions, the Hmong could also have trouble, although they are generally more familiar with the concept of face. The circumstances could vary greatly.
Mindful of this, the discussion was conducted with a simple written definition of losing face and saving face, ready at hand (Appendix B). If any of the respondents would ask for a definition of terms as a guide, then the interviewer would read the ready-made definitions, but would offer no further elaboration or explanation. These definitions would also provide a common standard for respondents with a limited understanding of the terms, in which to base their responses to the survey questions. The design of the narrative questions was engineered as to provide specific social contexts to the questions.
For instance, the question “Can you tell about a time when you were afraid of losing face? ” would be followed by “…in a social situation with other Hmong,” or “…in a social situation with other Asian Americans,” or “…in a social situation with other minorities,” or “…in a social situation with Caucasians. ” Using social contexts for each discussion question would focus and emphasize racial relations, rather than just concentrating on the definitions of the concept within and between Hmong and American cultures.
Therefore, the final narrative questions focused on two specific social situations — in public, and in a classroom – and primarily focused on interactions among friends, family, and teachers. RESULTS A total of 142 respondents, comprised of 72 Americans and 70 Hmong, answered a series of ten questions about the concept of losing face and saving face in both American and Hmong cultures. The following data pertains to questions directed to respondents from both cultures:
A majority of American respondents (64%), and a larger majority of Hmong respondents (86%) “agree” or “strongly agree” that saving face is important to them (Appendix 2 and 9). When this question was contrasted with “I do not care about losing face,” (Appendix 25 and 26), fifty-three percent (53%) of the American respondents “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement while sixty-seven percent (67%) of Hmong respondents “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement. Forty-seven percent (47%) of the total number of American respondents reported that losin