Connecting Cultures: Ua Ke brings Hmong culture to Mac

By Kristin Riegel

Before I had even reached the kitchen, I could smell the sweet combination of sautéing pork and vegetables. I could hear laughter and one person shouting directions on how to prepare purple sticky rice. As I approached the kitchen in the Cultural House, both the smells and sound of voices grew stronger.When I opened the door, I saw three groups of people-one playing cards, a second cooking, and a third discussing their day while watching videos on YouTube. Although the three groups each had their own focus, they seemed interconnected, with people moving fluidly from one group to the next.

As I entered the room, I breathed in the genuine warmth and kindness of the people there, just as I had breathed in the smell of sautéing food a few moments before. As I put down my belongings, I was greeted with “nyobzoo;” it was then that I knew I was in the right place-I was at an Ua Ke event.

Ua Ke (pronounced “uh-kay”) is a Macalester organization dedicated to promoting awareness about Hmong tradition and culture. Its name, which means togetherness in the Hmong language, has become part of its motto as it works to bring people of all backgrounds together to learn about Hmong history and language, to celebrate Hmong holidays, and on special occasions, to enjoy Hmong food.

Since being founded in Spring 2007, Ua Ke has offered trips to Hmong New Year celebrations in St. Paul, guest speakers on Hmong history, and college application workshops for local high school students.

In addition to the programs they offer, Ua Ke has also developed a close-knit organization whose members are as likely to be seen together at the meetings as they are at Café Mac.

“It’s definitely not exclusive; we don’t say just Asians allowed or just Hmong people allowed,” said Stephan Dumlao ’10, a member of Ua Ke. “It is an organization that is about spreading the word about Hmong people . . . but it also provides a safe space for Hmong students.”

Although Macalester only has 12 Hmong students, Charles Vang ’10, the president of Ua Ke, feels that it is important that all Macalester students be familiar with Hmong people and their history.

“Mac is in the Twin Cities and within the Twin Cities is the largest Hmong population [in the United States],” Vang said. “I think it is important to be aware of what groups are out there.”

For students like Theodore Kim ’10 who were unfamiliar with the Hmong population before arriving at Macaleser, Ua Ke has offered a space in which they can learn about and experience Hmong culture firsthand.

“My favorite event was the Hmong New Year celebration in St. Paul,” said Kim. “There were so many people and all of these colors . . . Hmong dress is very colorful and a lot of the dresses had coins on them so you could constantly hear this clinging which was really pretty. Overall, it was a very cool experience.”

While many Ua Ke members enjoy Hmong holidays, Stone Cha ’10 has preferred Ua Ke’s more intimate events including when Kalia, a local Hmong creative writer, spoke.

“Kalia spoke very passionately about how Hmong students have the duty to preserve Hmong culture, to write a new history of Hmong culture,” Cha said. “It was very moving, very emotional.”

Although Ua Ke’s membership is predominantly Hmong, members like Cha state that their experience with Ua Ke has been valuable to their own personal development. Through discussions, meetings, and events, Cha states that he has been able to gain a better understanding of another culture without even leaving campus.

“Whenever there is interaction between groups of people, such as Mac students and the Hmong, there needs to be a space to learn about one another,” said Cha. “Ua Ke serves as that function on campus. It is a space where the Mac community can delve deeper into that culture. I think that’s the only way that people can avoid misunderstandings.”

Although meetings and events serve an educational purpose, the organization tries to keep a welcoming atmosphere that is fun and relaxed.

“I think this org is more connected [than other organizations]. It’s a friendlier atmosphere, everyone likes to do things together,” said Kim. “I think there is a lot of potential to grow because it is so inviting, it’s so easy to make friends here.”

No matter what types of activities initially attract students to Ua Ke, the friendly and accepting group members is what makes people want to keep coming back.

“We try to build a family-type environment to make everyone feel welcome,” said Vang. “But it’s open to everyone; everyone should come and see what we do.”

Ua Ke meets every Thursday at 10:00pm in the Cultural House Formal Lounge. For more information about Ua Ke, contact Charles Vang at [email protected]