On any given weekend, chances are pretty good that John Yang is pulling an all-nighter surrounded by friends, food, and music. But this isn’t the rager you might be imagining: Yang is staying up all night to perform music at Hmong funerals. At these weekend-long rituals, he plays the qeej, an instrument with six reed pipes that resonates deeply like an organ. The traditional songs he plays help to guide the spirit of the deceased into the afterlife.
“For every piece of music we play, there are words and meanings that go along with the song,” Yang says. “I’ve been playing since 2008, and I go to a lot of funerals.”
On Monday morning, Yang puts away the qeej and prepares for work at the U of M’s Community-University Health Care Center where he works as an Interpreter of Hmong. Having graduated from the College of Continuing Education’s Inter-College Program (ICP) in the fall of 2015 with a degree concentration on Health and Wellness and a special focus on Hmong Studies, Yang is well suited for his position at the health care center.
“I really enjoy being a part of the Hmong community in the Twin Cities,” Yang says. “That’s why I chose Hmong as my concentration in the ICP degree.”
That’s also why he chooses to volunteer his precious weekends to attend so many Hmong funerals. And why he helps his family run a watch repair shop located in the bustling Hmongtown Marketplace in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. A self-proclaimed social butterfly, Yang rarely, if ever, spends time by himself. He grew up with 11 siblings, so it’s safe to say he’s used to lots of activity. Keeping busy and social during his studies at the U of M was no exception.
“I stayed active while I was going to school at the U, and I considered different options for a major,” Yang says. “I met with my adviser Karen Moon a lot, and ultimately decided to pursue an ICP degree in Health and Wellness. Karen advised that I register for the ICP 3101W course with Amy Burger Sanchez, so I could develop my ICP Health and Wellness proposal and decide which classes I’d take. I came to the conclusion that I want to research and care for the Hmong community. There aren’t enough medical studies on Hmong health, and I want to focus on that.”
Yang cites hypertension as one condition that’s widespread in the Hmong community. He wants to research the causes for hypertensive health problems and practice preventative medicine.
“The ICP degree in Health and Wellness broadened my view of health care,” Yang says. “I still want to specialize in some kind of medicine, and thanks to the variety of classes I took through ICP, I can better decide what sector of the health field I want to work in.”
Yang’s interests lie in chiropractics, counseling, dietetics, and business. His goal is to one day work independently, serving the Hmong community and helping those he knows to enjoy a healthier life. This aim ties back to Yang’s strong bond with his Hmong heritage and traditions.
“I think it’s important to know your roots,” Yang says. “To know where your parents came from and the struggles they went through. It wasn’t that long ago that the Hmong elders came to US. My generation of Hmong Americans needs to learn those stories.”
By helping to improve the health of the Hmong community, Yang will ensure that those stories and traditions remain in the Twin Cities for a long time to come.
John Yang is a Larson Scholarship recipient.