In this photo taken Aug. 2, 2018, Vincent Xiong poses in the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association office in Eau Claire, Wis. Xiong is the association's latest executive director. He first began working with the association in May as the community engagement coordinator.
EAU CLAIRE — When Vincent Xiong was in college, one of his professors asked him a question he couldn't answer.
"Who are you?" his professor asked.
Xiong casually replied, "I'm Vince."
His professor pressed further: "Yeah, but who are you? Do you know your culture, where your parents came from? Can you speak the language? What religion do you practice?"
Xiong has some memories of the Thai refugee camp in Nongkhai that was his home from ages 5 to 8½ years old: the smell of sewage running down the middle of the street, expired fish for dinner, violence against women and other refugees who tried to cross the fence and fear.
But mostly, Xiong has memories of growing up in Oklahoma City and later Appleton, where his family was among the first Hmong families to arrive after fleeing Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Xiong's family was one of only two living in Oklahoma City when they arrived in December 1979.
As the eldest son in his family, Xiong began working at an early age to help his parents and siblings fight through poverty. As the years went on, Xiong adapted to U.S. culture, and his ability to speak Hmong and Thai slipped. He later went to University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie to study mental health counseling.
"After that conversation I had with (my professor), I struggled to identify who I was," Xiong told The Leader-Telegram after reflecting on his upbringing in the U.S. "... I don't want the kids nowadays to go through that. I want them, as they grow up, to be able to say, 'This is who I am, and this is who my parents are.'"
Xiong hopes his new role as executive director of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association will help make sure that happens. As he looks toward the association's future, he sees education — for the young Hmong community and the Eau Claire community at large — as a powerful tool for understanding.
In his first couple of weeks, Xiong said, he's working to put a stop to a high employee turnover rate and build a solid foundation. In the long run, he'd like to see the association hire an in-house counselor for Hmong community members who can't speak English, add a human resources department and turn the agency into an educational culture center.
With plans for a larger location in the works, Xiong is starting with projects easily transferable.
In the current entryway to the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, visitors can see some physical evidence of the agency's background and purpose.
But Xiong wants it to be obvious whenever someone walks into the building.
"From the moment you walk in the door, you can really see this is a Hmong agency because it has all these representations of what the Hmong culture is," he said of his hopes for the organization's building.
Some examples include displays of the clothing worn by cultural subdivisions of the Hmong people — such as White Hmong, Green Hmong and Striped Hmong — and traditional instruments such as the ncas, which is used for courtship.
Xiong is also excited to see profiles of local Hmong community members hanging in the association's entryway. The profiles would detail how those people survived the Vietnam War and what their transition to the U.S. was like so the younger Hmong generation and others in Eau Claire would have a better understanding of how older generations came to be in the U.S.
With help from the Chippewa Valley Museum, that project is in motion.
"Both of our organizations sort of realized that you can't really go anywhere in town to learn more about Hmong history and culture right now," said Liz Reuter, an archivist at the museum.
The museum applied for funding from the Wisconsin Arts Board in January and received $5,400. With that money, the museum is bringing a folklorist from Madison to interview Hmong community members. Reuter said after the interview phase is over, the museum will begin producing a display for the association and an online exhibit, both of which she hopes to launch next spring.
"I think it's important for folks regardless of their personal heritage to know more about their neighbors," Reuter said of the project's importance.
Xiong said he's also working with the museum to have some display cases made for traditional Hmong artifacts.
The Eau Claire school district has increased its inclusion of Hmong history and culture in its programming over the last year, including an elementary school language club for Hmong speakers, an upcoming high school history course and a language/?culture hybrid summer program.
The summer program wrapped up earlier this month. The group of about 16 students with varying knowledge of Hmong language and culture prepared a speech in Hmong, which Xiong and the students' parents watched with enthusiasm.
"With the language and culture class, I don't expect them to go out and be a translator," Xiong said from his second-floor office, pointing to the floor below him where students were preparing for their final presentation. "But at least they have those tools. At least, when they buddy up with their Hmong friends, they can say, 'Hey, I know a little bit of that culture.'"
Xiong mentioned that he hopes the association could become a stronger educational resource for Eau Claire schools inside the classroom and out. The association could become a field trip location, he said, to reference artifacts and stories of Hmong community members. Outside the school, Xiong noted, Hmong parents could use some communication services, especially when it comes to accompanying their kids to school events such as parent-teacher conferences.
Joe Luginbill, Eau Claire school board president, said he sees the association as a key partner for cultural education.
"I strongly believe that the Hmong Association and its community members play a key role in educating, inspiring and uplifting the next generation of learners and leaders," Luginbill said. "I am excited that Vincent shares in that vision."
Xiong hopes the association's future plays a role in helping young people especially.
"In the Hmong community, our youth, we are forgotten," he said. "A large percentage of them don't know what their parents went through or what the culture really consists of. So if I make those visible where they can actually come and see it, they can tie it together and have a better understanding of what their parents went through and got them to where they are today."