Ntse is the Hmong word to describe someone who is smart, wise, clever, brilliant, or bright. But, for me, ntse wasn’t always a compliment or positive characteristic. Being labeled smart came with unrealistic expectations and standards that led to years of perfectionism and several mental breakdowns. It was more suffocating than worth celebrating. Pressure from all angles was immense.
I felt I was not allowed to make the same mistakes as my peers or siblings. I struggled to relate to them and noticed the difference in treatment and discipline. “Mee, you should know better. You’re a smart girl.” It was a burden. “Mee, you’re smarter than that. We expected more from you.” It was damaging and exhausting. “You’re an Asian. All Asians are smart.”
Being deemed smart by others can be a really good thing or a really bad thing. From my experiences, being a “smarty-pants” carried more negative connotations than positive. No one likes a know-it-all. I’ve been called all sorts of names for being “smart.” I had to be careful with how much knowledge I shared, how many questions I asked, and my tone of voice. It was viewed as being rude, rebellious, and inappropriate, especially when I questioned Hmong values, beliefs, and practices. Children were not to talk back; instead they were required to respect their parents and elders.
I became afraid of making mistakes and voicing my opinions. The anxiety surrounding that contributed to perfectionism and a need to constantly please people. Grace was seldom offered when smart people made mistakes—or so it seemed. The child version of me thought it was best to keep my curiosity, passion, ideas, and thoughts to myself. Slowly, I stopped expressing and trying to communicate, and received the shy label. This approach was favorable in the Hmong culture, but contradicted the American values in the classroom— where active participation and group work were valued.
The term smart defined and confined me to a certain image and standard. Being smart is not limited to IQ, performance, or good grades; nor is it reserved for a particular group of people. Although I believe I’m exceptional in my own ways, it’s very rare that I’ll associate myself as “smart”. Indeed, I was a fast-learner, very perceptive, and highly inquisitive and empathetic. Therefore, I didn’t believe ntse was befitting for me. There had to be more to it.
At 34 years old, I discovered being smart had little to do with who I was. Being gifted was the magic responsible for it all. Once I understood that, everything clicked for me: the intense curiosity, the intuitiveness, the boredom, the constant need to be challenged and stimulated, the vast interests, the preference to be around older children and adults. Now I understood why I was always reading and writing ahead of my peers.
I had all the classic traits and characteristics of giftedness. However, being Hmong, this meant I was just someone who is ntse. Performing well with desirable results was no surprise at all. All the intricate details of this discovery got lost. The beauty and uniqueness of being gifted was watered down and pushed to the side. There was also a lack of support and guidance for my social and emotional needs. I didn’t have any friends who were my peers, but loved hanging out with my teachers.
Ntse never seemed like the appropriate word because it didn’t capture the essence of which I am—gifted. I have always known there was something different about me and could never describe the word and reason behind this. Ntse is too universal and simple of a word to describe and define the neurodiversity of giftedness and the needs and challenges that can come with it.
The Hmong language doesn’t have a word for giftedness or neurodiversity. Giftedness is still a newer concept and has yet to make its breakthrough within the Hmong community. The best way I can think of to define giftedness would be to explain the differences in the brain and the child. The Hmong word for brain is hlwb while txawv means different.
Despite overrepresentation of Asian American students in gifted and talented programs, there are limited statistics, studies, and research on them. Finding anything on gifted Hmong learners was pretty much non-existent. Besides my two cousins who were admitted into the same gifted and talented program, I don’t know of any other gifted Hmong. It still feels lonely to be gifted in a Hmong household. Growing up, I didn’t have any Hmong leaders, educators, or role models to support and guide a gifted child, which still remains true.
I believe that the lack of resources, support, and awareness is mainly due to the language barrier and cultural differences and gaps. I feel the hardest barrier to overcome will be separating giftedness from ntse; they do not equal each other. Another setback is the Model Minority stereotype placed on Asian Americans. This makes it harder to define giftedness and reach gifted students in the Hmong and other Asian American communities. Being successful and educated is deeply rooted in a lot of Asian cultures.
My goal for the upcoming year is to network and connect with Hmong/Asian educators who work with gifted students, gifted Hmong/Asian American adults, and parents of gifted students. I am currently brainstorming ways to create awareness and initiate conversations about giftedness in Hmong/Asian households. I hope to build a community for gifted Hmong/Asian-Americans.
Mee Xiong, WATG Board Member