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The Hmong, Education, and Gossip Girl

“Hias cuaj txub kaum txub.”

I thought of that saying (don’t ask me to pronounce it) while I was watching an episode of the teen drama “Gossip Girl.” I don’t know if I should be pleased or alarmed. Maybe a little of both.

The saying comes from the Hmong, people from Southeast Asia, and it means “to speak of all kinds of things.” According to Anne Fadiman in her wonderful book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, it means that everything is connected to everything else. Anne writes:

The Hmong have a phrase, hias cuaj txub kaum txub, which means “to speak of all kinds of things. It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation …

The Spirit Catches You is the “common read” at school this year. Even though I’m not a firstie, the common read books are always worth a serious look. This one is no exception. Its insights come so fast that I can hardly keep up with them.

What made me think of the Hmong saying was a scene in “Gossip Girl” showing a hurtful argument between Serena and Blair, the two central characters of the show. As much as they love/hate each other, they are connected: neither would be the same person without the other. When their relationship changes, they become different people. When their relationship is cut off, both of them suffer.

Our personalities don’t end at the edge of our skin. Part of us is in us, for sure, but part of us is in all the people we know and love, who know and love us. It’s in the people to whom we turn when we have no one else. When those connections are strong, so are we. When those connections are broken, something inside us is broken, too.

Our personalities are also distributed among the people with whom we share experiences. Part of our selves is inherent, but part of them is built from our experiences. Just as our biological families share our DNA, our spiritual families share our life experiences, whether just going to class or being a Big Sister/Little Sister. We are independent people, but also connected: Part of us is in them, and part of them is in us. None of us would be the same person without the others.

The fact that I watch “Gossip Girl” and find myself connecting it to the Hmong and their philosophy shows how much my education has changed me. When I started college, an uncle gave me a book called The Uses of a Liberal Education in which the author, Brand Blanshard, states:

To educate a human mind is not merely to add something to it, but to do something to it. It is to transform it at a vital point, the point where its secret ends reside.  (pp. 42-43, “The Uses of a Liberal Education”)

Real education isn’t about getting a good job, as important as that is. It’s about giving us a deeper, more connected view of the world, society, ourselves, other people, and the effects of how we live our lives.

Real education changes you from what you were before. You see the complex in the simple, and the simple in the complex. You see how important it is to do your share in the human project — in knowledge, in love, and in connecting with others. You learn to recognize and bypass the false barriers that we put up to separate ourselves from each other.

I’m not sure that Serena or Blair on “Gossip Girl” would understand. But I’m pretty sure that the Hmong would.

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

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