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Hmong postpartum care

10 Mar

A woman’s body goes through so many changes during pregnancy and trauma during childbirth that postpartum care for a Hmong woman is very important—more important than prenatal care.  Many Hmong women take postpartum care very seriously.

A woman nyob nruab hlis (stays within the month) after childbirth for 30 days, hence the name.  And this means that she will need to stay home for this duration.  She may go out, but it is taboo for her to enter another Hmong family’s home if they practice Shamanism.  Everyone’s reason for this varies slightly, but this is what I’ve heard growing up: when a woman gives birth, the barrier to the human and spirit world weakens.  Because of this, her [husband's] ancestors roam more freely in the human world.  It is offensive for a woman who had just given birth to visit another Hmong family.  Her baby may go inside another family’s house, but she may not.  If she visits someone who does not worship the same ancestors as she does, she’ll anger the ancestors and bring bad luck to that family.  If this happens, a shaman will need to be called to alleviate the angry ancestors.  Additionally, a woman can visit anyone who practices other religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc).  This is why some women are restricted from visiting their parent’s house until 30 days after her child is born.

A couple of readers commented a while ago that if a woman visits another person during her 30 days, when she dies, she will see blood on the door.  Her spirit will not be able to rest and will constantly come back to clean it.  Nyob nruab hlis is only practiced by Hmong women who practices Shamanism.

A Hmong woman should not be expected to do anything around the house besides taking care of herself and her newborn for the first 30 days.  She is recommended to stay on bed-rest for the first 7 days.  She should not sleep on a soft mattress because that will bring on back pain as she ages.  She should sleep on the floor, padded with blankets.  Her newborn is expected to sleep with her.

It is crucial during this time for a woman to stay as warm as possible, even during the summer.  Because she lost a lot of blood during childbirth, she may feel cold.  It is her responsibility to keep herself warm.  Back in SE Asia, a woman would sleep by the fireplace.  Here in the US, she may have a portable mini heater nearby.  A woman must wear a hat, head scarf, or cloth to cover her hair and wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to cover herself.  She must not let the wind or air blow on her hair.  She also must not let herself get too cold.  If the wind blows on her hair, she will get migraines later in life.  If she gets her hands or feet cold when she nyob nruab hlis, they will ache during the cold seasons.  She must also keep her belly wrapped up tightly.  This is to help her uterus shrink back to its original size so you do not have that pouch.

A Hmong woman’s husband does the cooking for her for 30 days.  Hmong women follow a very strict diet after childbirth.  It consists of freshly-made, warm rice and boiled chicken (ideally free-range gamefowl/qaib mev) with herbs.  I do not know their scientific names and cannot describe them either.  They are not your usual herbs like cilantro, basil, rosemary, etc.  They are special herbs that are planted and used solely for this purpose.  They each have their own Hmong names, but altogether, we call them tshuaj rau qaib (herbs for chicken).  The only seasoning is salt.  And if you’re thirsty, a cup of hot or warm water.  Cold water is not recommended.  Icy cold water is a big NO-NO!  A woman should eat 3 meals a day (freshly made, hot from the stove) and she may not eat anything else.

The warm food and herbs help to cleanse the uterus of the leftover blood, thus making a woman heal faster from childbirth.  My grams say that this diet not only helps a woman lose the weight she gained during childbirth, but also helps her body prepare for menopause.  Many Hmong women have followed this strict diet for hundreds of years and have never experienced any symptoms of menopause, my grams included.  A woman is also required to follow this chicken diet after she has an abortion or miscarriage, although not as strictly.

Did I follow these postpartum guidelines?  Yes and no.  I did not break taboo and go into another Hmong family’s home.  Although I do not fully believe in the basis for this restriction, I do respect those who do, so I made sure I did not enter anyone’s home.  I didn’t cover my hair or skin as directed by my mom.  I delivered my children in spring and it was already warm in California, so I could not and would not cover my head due to the heat.  I did try to put my hair up as much as I can though.  I also tried to cover up as much as I can.  Sometimes, Dear Spouse cooked for me and I also cooked for myself.  Dear Spouse’s cooking was nothing out of the norm because we take turns cooking anyway.  And I did try to stay on the chicken diet.  My experiences with it is this: it was easy at first, but it got hard as the end of the 30 days approached  By the 25th day, I was thinking, “Come on.  I have only 5 more days, there’s no need to stay on the chicken diet anymore.”

There you have it!  Postpartum care for Hmong women.  If I missed anything, please add it in the comments below.

Bride price vs dowry

22 Feb

I’ve seen and heard many Hmong people use bride price and dowry interchangeably, however their meanings are very different.  Merriam Webster defines bride price as “a payment given by or in behalf of a prospective husband to the bride’s family….”  So, basically, it is money or goods that the groom gives to the bride’s family for her hand in marriage.  Dowry is “the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband in marriage.”

When referring to Hmong weddings, the bride price is the nqi tshoob (price of the wedding), nqi taub hau (price of the bride’s head), nqi poj niam (price of a wife), or nqi mis nqi hno (price for the bride’s parents’ nurture and nourishment).  (These 4 terms are the most commonly used Hmong terms for bride price).  Generally, a groom will pay around 3k to 10k for his bride, with the average being around 5-6k.  In the olden days, silver bars were used to pay for the bride price.

Dowry is often confused for bride price.  It bothers me when I hear a Hmong man say that he needs to save up to pay for his girlfriend’s dowry. The groom does not have anything to do with the dowry.  It is the bride’s parents—especially her mother—who gives the bride her dowry.  The dowry for a Hmong bride generally consist of traditional Hmong clothes, ornate silver jewelry and coin-bags, gold jewelry, a traditional hand-sewn baby carrier, and clothes for when she dies.  It also includes new dishes, silverware, and new blankets for the newly married couple to start their lives.  These days, in the US, I’ve seen parents give the bride a new car as her dowry.  The dowry is called khoom phij cuam in Hmong.

Nqi poj niam and khoom phij cuam are very different.  I can’t imagine a Hmong man saying in Hmong that he is going to save up for his bride’s dowry.  This never happens!  However, it is very common in the English language to get bride price confused with dowry and vice versa.  So, before you speak of either one, remember that bride price is what you will be paying for your bride (hence the word “price”) and dowry is what she will be bringing with her when she marries you.

I hated being Hmong

1 Feb

There was a time when I refused to have anything to do with the Hmong culture.

I hated that no one knew what Hmong is. That I had to explain where my ancestors came from.  That I was mistaken for Chinese (or another Asian ethnicity) all the time. Sometimes, I even wished I was Chinese so I wouldn’t have to explain my history.  Most importantly, I hated patriarchal Hmong traditionsMale favoritism.  The strict gender roles.  How a female’s needs were last priority.  How gossip traveled like wildfire within the community, but important issues (e.g., domestic violence, child abuse, sexuality) were either taboo or swept under the carpet.  All in all, I hated being Hmong.  Being so young, the only solution I could find was to stop being Hmong, and I did—for a while.

I have always had a good relationship with my mom, until my teen years.  I had a sheltered childhood.  My family were poor immigrants, so they only taught my siblings and me what they knew: Hmong.  My friends were the Hmong children in the apartment complex where I grew up.  The movies I watched were Hmong movies or Asian movies dubbed in Hmong.  My parents tried to expose us to the mainstream culture, but it went as far as animated Disney movies.  School was the only place I learned about everything else, but it was limited.  So when I was old enough to peek outside of the little Hmong community where I grew up, my head almost exploded.  There was a world full of wonderful opportunities for a girl like me!

In middle school, I started searching for my identity.  I already felt ostracized by the Hmong community because my father was no longer in my life.  The Hmong children I grew up with was no longer my classmates because I was put into the GATE/Honors program.  I did not know anyone in my cohort and had to make new friends—all of them non-Hmong.  It was from my new friends that I could finally view the world from so many different cultures and perspectives.

And all the while, I was being pressured to conform to Hmong traditions.  The more educated I got, the more questions I asked about my culture.  “It’s because that’s the way it is” was not sufficient enough.  What are the bases for these traditional norms that I’m supposed to follow?  My mom, as traditional as she is, was the first person to plant a seed in my mind.  We had a conversation about marriage and bride price in the 6th grade.  She told me, instead of having a man pay for my hand in marriage, I should work hard, get educated, and then pay for him.  It was not the norm for a Hmong woman to ask for her partner’s hand in marriage, let alone think about the possibility.

In high school, I distanced myself from the Hmong children I grew up with.  Even though I kept most of them as acquaintances, I no longer considered them my friends.  It wasn’t because I thought I was better than them.  I actually felt awkward and uncomfortable being around them.  They were close, as tightly-knit as the Hmong community and here I was, feeling out of place because I didn’t have a father in the home and didn’t want to conform to the Hmong traditional norms.

There was also a stereotype that came with being a Hmong girl: you get married in your teens.  Getting married at such an early age and having children would be detrimental to my dreams.  I didn’t want that for myself.  I thought that if I distanced myself from my culture, I would finish high school and go on to college.

And so, I stopped listening to Hmong music.  I stopped watching Hmong movies.  I hardly attended Hmong New Year festivals, Hmong religious parties (hu plig, ua neeb), and Hmong community gatherings.  I refused to dress in traditional Hmong clothes.  I stopped learning about Hmong history and culture.  I wanted to be “American” because of the western ideals of gender equality, independence, and freedom.  I did not like the way Hmong traditions oppress a woman’s reach for her dreams.

Quite ironically, I had a Hmong partner and also one Hmong friend in high school.  Who knew that someone who tried to distance herself from her culture would fall in love with a Hmong person and be friends with another Hmong girl?  They were the ones who kept me linked to the Hmong community.

My mom, grams, and the Hmong adults blamed the changes I was making on my partner (who is now my dear spouse).  I guess, you can say, he wasn’t the “ideal” Hmong boy that my mom would allow me to date.  His choice of clothing, music, and hobbies weren’t really what my mom liked.  I grew up in the 90′s, the decade of flared or bell-bottom jeans, baggy pants, over-sized flannel shirts, platform sneakers, and lip-lined dark lips—heavily influenced by hip hop.  My mom hated 90′s fashion.  She labeled anyone exhibiting these trends as gangsters, delinquents, or bad people.  So, of course, she did not want to me to dress that way or associate with anyone of that sort.  Additionally, even though my partner is Hmong, he is of a different dialect, so there was prejudice on my mom’s part as well.

The older I got, the stricter my mom became.  The freedom I had in middle school, I no longer had in high school.  She feared that if she allowed me freedom, I may end up out of control or pregnant.  However, the stricter my mom became, the more I rebelled against her.  And so, in high school, I was labeled a “bad” daughter.  Never did my mom or other Hmong adults who criticized the choices I was making take a look at the all the positives I had going for me (staying in school and getting good grades, not doing drugs or drinking, staying home most of the time because I wasn’t allowed to go any where, staying out of trouble).

I argued with my mom—a lot.  We argued about why I couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities.  (The only extracurricular activity I participated in was the HS dance production team—only because I lied to my mom that it was a PE requirement for graduation and it didn’t involve me staying after school every day.  And besides, dance was something familiar to my mom, versus basketball or cross country).  We argued about why I couldn’t go to the mall or the movies with my friends. We argued about why she treated my brothers differently from my sisters and me. We argued about why I didn’t thrive with the domestic housework like other Hmong daughters.  We argued about my grades (when I would get the occasional B).  And lastly, we argued about my partner.  I felt she didn’t trust me in my judgment.  All of these arguments pushed me further and further away from my family.  And because culture was a big factor as to why my mom was so restrictive, I eventually turned my back on my culture.

So, for a time, I had no idea who the popular Hmong bands were, what Hmong movies were out there, or how the Hmong were doing in general.  I avoided Hmong forums and websites.  I went from watching movies of Xab and Zeb and listening to KLS, Ntsa Iab, Luj Yaj, and Tsab Mim Xyooj to nothing.  I didn’t care to have anything to do with Hmong.

During my sophomore year in college, I was introduced to a Hmong girl by a friend.  The friend introduced her as her “Chinese” friend.  I knew she was Hmong and she knew I knew she was Hmong, but we both didn’t say anything.  It was then that I realized this could be me.  Although I’ve never claimed to be another ethnicity, I had turned away from my culture.  I finally realized that no matter what I do, I cannot escape the fact that I am Hmong.  And I didn’t want to continue on this path where one day, I would be the one claiming to be someone I wasn’t.

So, I went on a journey to rediscover myself as a Hmong woman and came back with a totally new meaning.  I realized that I can still embrace the richness of my culture without having to conform to the patriarchal Hmong traditions.  I can pick and choose what I want to keep and discard.  I can create my own cultural identity.  But most importantly, in order to start conversations for changes in the Hmong community, I had to embrace who I am and be informed about my history, culture, and traditions, so I can confidently voice my opinions and make a difference.

Survivor

31 Oct

Why am I passionate about empowering individuals and families affected by domestic violence?  Why am I dedicated to work towards societal change, even if I probably will not see it in my lifetime?  Am I a survivor?  Since it’s Halloween—my favorite holiday of the year—I will tell you my personal horror story.

I am a child survivor of domestic violence.  In order to tell you my story, I have to tell you my mother’s.

My parents met in Thailand when my mom was around 13, maybe 14 years old.  They got married and I was born a year later.  We immigrated to California, US, in 1987. There has always been problems in my parents’ marriage from the start.  My father was not faithful and he cheated—a lot.  Rumors has it that my father named me after one of his girlfriends.  (And for a fact, he named my youngest sister after his girlfriend whom he left us for).

Not only was my father unfaithful, he was very abusive.  As much as I try to dig up good memories of him, they’re nothing compared to all the horror I witnessed and experienced as a child.

It was “normal” for my parents to argue almost every night.  Each time they argued, they turned their bedroom upside down: papers and clothes everywhere, bed tossed over, holes in the walls.  My father broke numerous phones to prevent my mom from calling for help.  He beat her.  My mother hit him back in self-defense.

The police department was familiar with my parents.  Each time they showed up, they warned my parents to not disturb the neighbors and went on their way.  Although my mom said my father was abusing her, law enforcement saw scratches on my father and concluded it was both their faults.

Memories of my childhood are filled with gaps.  I believe this is one of my coping mechanisms developed as a child to keep myself safe.  To this day, I do not remember the red Corolla my mom used to own.  My siblings tell me it existed.  My spouse tells me it existed.  I try to tell myself it really did exist.  My brain gives me a blank: I cannot think of how it looks like, what shade of red, and when we had it.

Despite having a lot of holes in my childhood memories, there is one incident that stands out more than the rest.  Due to my hazy and sometimes inaccurate memory, I don’t remember if I was at school when it happened or if I was at home and witnessed it.  I do know that my father was physically abusing my mom.  My father tore the phone from the wall and he did not let my mom leave.  My mom ran to the door to escape, but my father caught up to her.  As she was trying to open the door, he grabbed her by her hair and smashed her head onto the door panel.  Somehow, my mom pushed my father off of her and, with blood dripping down her face, she ran to the neighbors across from us.  They helped her call 911.

I remember the blood on the door.  It was dried and brown.  No one had the time to clean it up; Everything and everyone was in chaos.  My father was arrested, and my mom was taken to the emergency room.  My father was in jail for a few days, and my mom got stitches on her forehead.  And while my father was in jail, he called every single day—apologizing and telling my mom that he loved and missed her and the children.

It was hard enough knowing that my father had beaten my mom so badly, she went to the hospital.  And then people started talking.  I was young, maybe 8 or 9 years old, but I was aware.  Hmong adults discussed how frightened my father was when he was handcuffed and put in the backseat of the patrol car.  “Did you see how he was shaking with fear?  She shouldn’t have called the cops.  They could’ve dealt with their problems differently instead of involving law enforcement.”  It bothered me, but I didn’t know why at the time.  As I grew older and became educated on the dynamics of domestic violence, I came to know why it had bothered me so much.  Even though my mom was clearly the victim, the Hmong neighbors made it sound like my mom was the “bad” person because she called the police.

My father’s uncles ask my mom to bail my father out and to recant her statement to police.  They promised her they’ll talk to their son and make sure it will never happen again.  So, my mom bailed my father out and the cycle of violence continued in our home until my father left when I was 12.

My father left a lot of emotional and physical scars, not only to my mom, but to my siblings and me as well.  I still have a bald spot on the back of my head for when my father hit me with a cup.  It was during lunch time.  We were eating; my parents on the big table, my siblings and I were on the smaller table.  I was arguing with my brother, over what, I do not recall.  Instead of telling us to stop arguing, my father hit me on the head with a big plastic cup.  (If you’re wondering why he didn’t hit my brother, I speculate it was because I was older and I should’ve known better not to fight with him).

I remember crying and covering my head with my hands to protect myself from a second blow.  He didn’t strike a second time.  When my father walked away, I lowered my hands and felt something wet.  I looked at my hands and saw blood.  My mom was yelling at my father for hitting me.  In between cries, I managed to say, “Niam, kuv taub hau los ntshav lawm os (Mom, my head is bleeding).”  My mom took me to the bathroom.  She cried silently as she washed off the blood and cut my hair around the wound so she could dress it.

I vowed to break the cycle of violence for myself and my children.  It takes a lot of commitment and re-educating oneself when you have modeled your parents’ behaviors from a very young age: the only way to deal with anger and frustration is to hit another person.

I am fortunate enough to have met a wonderful person who doesn’t abuse me.  He loves, respects, and supports me.  (We have been together for 12 years and he has never been controlling, jealous, possessive, emotionally/verbally/physically abusive). I have two wonderful children who only know punishment in the form of time-outs and negative reinforcement.  (Of course, there’s a lot of positive reinforcements as well). Because of how I live my life today, one would never think that I went through abuse myself as a child.

Working with individuals and families affected by domestic violence is really important to me.  I want to make a difference.  I want to help others.  I want to educate and empower those struggling to get out of the cycle of violence.  I know it’s hard.  But, I also know it’s possible.

I hope you have learned something about the Hmong culture and domestic violence during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  So, in conclusion:

Don’t ignore the signs of abuse.  You may think it’ll never happen to you, but abuse does not discriminate.  And if you know someone who is being abused, don’t get frustrated because s/he stays or keeps going back.  Leaving an abuser is a process which may take years or even decades.  Let that person know it’s not okay to be treated that way, that there is help out there, and that you’ll be his/her emotional support, even if it is to just listen and validate.  And please take care.

The Hmong: Slow to change

26 Oct

The Hmong community is slowly turning around—and I do stress the word “slowly.”  It has taken the patriarchal Hmong society 30 years in the US to finally realize that we have a problem with domestic violence (DV).

via Flickr (wordcat57)

In July of this year, a conference called “Breaking the Silence Collaboratively: Creating Healthy Families for the Present & Future” took place in Wausau,WI.  This conference was to train Hmong clan leaders in mediation and give them protocols as to how to deal with victims of DV.  This conference was the result of Vang Pao’s efforts in putting a stop to DV in the Hmong community in 2009.  From what I’ve heard and read, the 18 clans in Wisconsin did not initially cooperate with DV advocates.

Mai Tong Cha, executive director of Hmong American Women’s Association in Milwaukee, stated in an interview that she did not agree with the protocols the 18 clans have developed.  She believed that the clans will not help victims because the clans don’t address the abuser and make him accountable for his actions.  In the same interview, Pa Vang, from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, didn’t think the guidelines are fair to Hmong women.  Pa stated that the new protocols don’t differ from the traditional clan system.  The protocols only tell a woman who she can turn to when she needs help—and law enforcement or DV agencies are not an option.  Additionally, Hmong DV advocates in Wisconsin banded together to sign a letter stating that they did not agree with the new guidelines the 18 clans have developed during “Breaking the Silence.”  They were concerned and felt these new guidelines will only jeopardize the safety of Hmong women in abusive relationships.

As a result of this division between the clan system and DV advocates, on October 15th 2011, there was a public meeting called “Hmong Mediation Protocols: A Public Dialogue and Input Session” in Wausau, WI.  The purpose of this is (1) To inform the public of how the 18 Clan Council works in Wisconsin and how it affects the Hmong community; and (2) Set up new policies for the 18 clans to follow when dealing with victims of DV.

Right after this, the 18 Clan Council in Wisconsin came up with guidelines, such as a DV victim can now call 911 or other agencies that will help them, in addition to calling their clan leaders and family members.  It’s a shame that in today’s world, a victim being abused still needs to get “permission” from her clan to call for help from “outsiders” or she’ll be negatively labeled.  I don’t think the Hmong clan system should trump the American laws.  What kind of culture neglects to follow the laws of the land they’re living in and create their own legal system?

I am shaking my head in disbelief and wondering why it has taken the Hmong 30 years to finally acknowledge domestic violence as a community, but I am glad the community is slowing changing.  There is still a lot of education that needs to be done: Educating the Hmong around power and control, different types of abuse, effects DV has on the children, effects of traditions, etc.

Although I live in California and the change took place in WI, I am hoping that this change will create a ripple effect and influence the Hmong everywhere else in the United States, and hopefully the world.  It may seem a surprise and not much of a big change for my non-Hmong readers that DV victims can finally call 911 for help.  However, this is a big leap because—if you’ve been following me this month—involving law enforcement is not the answer.  The clan system plays a huge role in family mediation and calling law enforcement or seeking help from DV/SA agencies are greatly discouraged.

Domestic violence advocates are planting tiny seeds in hopes that they will grow into blooming trees.  It’s a struggle, but well worth it.  The older generation—those whose strings are strongly attached to traditions—are retiring.  It is up to us, the younger generations, whether we are immigrants or first generation Hmong in the US, to educate ourselves and work towards making positive changes in our culture and community.  I am not saying to let go of our culture and traditions completely, but let go of those that are holding us back.  We need to work together to stop the cycle of violence from continuing from one generation to the next.

Disclaimer:  Women can and do abuse, but statistics have shown that men abuse more than women.  That is the reason why the language in this post is gender-specific to men as the abusers.  Additionally, domestic violence can happen in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and marriages.  Although homosexuality exists in the Hmong, it is still very taboo.  Hmong marriage dynamics are set up for only heterosexuality with very specific gender roles—the wife serves the husband.  And because traditional Hmong culture revolves around heterosexuality and procreation, I will only be focusing on heterosexual Hmong couples.

Hmong murder-suicides

22 Oct

In November 1998, Young Sayaxang Lee (37) fatally shot his wife, Maichao Vang (28), and also shot and killed himself.  The oldest daughter (11) discovered her mother’s body in the bedroom of their home and called 911.  Police discovered Young’s body in the basement.

In 2006, Joanne Khang (25) was stabbed to death by her husband, Kou Khang (30).  Kou also stabbed himself to death.

In Weston, WI, Chor Xiong (39) shot and killed his estranged wife, Padalina Thao (29) and critically wounded her boyfriend, Pao Chang (41) on September 14, 2006.  Padalina was staying at a women’s shelter in Wausau.  Chor laid in wait in the basement for Padalina and her boyfriend to pick the children up at 7am and shot them when they arrived.

On August 20, 2007, May Yang (31) moved to Fresno, CA to escape her abusive common law husband, Ker Vang (41).  Ker traveled from MN to Fresno, tracked down his wife, and fatally shot her and himself in front of family members.

Around the same time, Chor Thao killed his pregnant wife, Pa Houa.  Chor later stabbed himself to death after being chased by police.

In 2008, Ying Moua (33) fatally shot his wife, Bouavanh Moua (32), their 2-year-old twins, and wounding their 3-year-old daughter, then turned the gun on himself.

In 2009, Dang Xiong (24) shot and killed his wife, Pa Hou Vang (22), outside their home around 11 pm.  He, then, shot and killed himself.

In August of this year, Jenny Moua (22) was shot to death in Merced, CA.  Her ex-fiance fled the scene to Fresno, informed a family member of what he did, and fatally shot himself.

The Hmong community credits murder-suicides to adultery, when wives cheat and leave their husbands for their boyfriends.  In July of 2009, the late and former Major General Vang Pao was invited as the keynote speaker to address domestic violence (DV) in Wausau, WI.  This was the efforts of Hmong social service groups in WI, MN, and CA after a string of murder-suicides were committed in the Hmong community in 2008 and early 2009.

Although I know that Vang Pao’s message meant well, there were a lot of it that shouldn’t have been said.  He stated that the number one reason why the Hmong can’t support each other and live peacefully (in regards to domestic violence; Hmoob txoj kev tsis txhawb nqa thiab txoj kev tsis sib haum xeeb) is because of adultery.

He goes on talking about how Hmong women in the US don’t care for traditions and do whatever they please despite what the clans say.  Vang Pao stated that when the Hmong were still in Laos, they had their own laws, and this—women doing whatever they please, adultery, murder-suicides, DV—didn’t happen.  Now that the Hmong are in the US, the idea of freedom changes us.  According to him, the US legal system is very different from the Hmong traditional ways, and takes the women’s sides most of the time.  Vang Pao stated that a woman can report sexual assault by her husband and he’ll be jailed.  (FYI: In the state of California, it is a felony for anyone to sexually assault their spouse. PC 262).

The part of his speech that offended me the most was when Vang Pao stated that a man is very possessive of his wife.  Even a male fly cannot land on his wife without invoking the jealous wrath inside of him.  Women have to know that their husbands are controlling and possessive in this way, so they shouldn’t do anything to provoke him.  If a man worries about his wife wandering off, he should not allow her to work and just stay at home.

When someone as respected and honored as Vang Pao stands in front of the Hmong community and tells them that victims of DV should know that their husbands are possessive and jealous and for them to not provoke their husbands in any way, he is telling them that it’s their fault if they’re abused.  I may have misconstrued what Vang Pao said, but that was the message implied.  I respect Vang Pao for his efforts to put an end to DV in the Hmong community.  Why, in early 2010, Vang Pao helped with the funeral arrangements of DV victim Mai See Chang when her husband’s family would not give her a funeral.  On November 28, 2009, Mai See died mysteriously right before her husband was set to go to trial for DV charges.  Mai See was a DV client at Valley Crisis Center in Merced, CA.

Domestic violence is the underlying cause of murders and murder-suicides in intimate partnership.  It is the last and most extreme form of abuse and power and control: If I can’t have you, no one will.  A woman’s danger level increases drastically when she leaves her abuser.  Men are more likely to kill than any other time in their abusive relationships when they know their partners are leaving or have left.  This is because when a woman leaves, he no longer has control over her.  In order to maintain control, the abuser resorts to extreme measures: taking away the children, escalated physical abuse, or—as a last resort—murders or murder-suicides.

Many people, including the Hmong, don’t see it this way.  Yes, some women cheat on their husbands.  Yes, some women leave their husbands for their lovers.  I don’t condone these actions.  However, the actions of the wives do not give the Hmong men any right or excuse to harm or kill their partners.  (Back in Laos, it was very acceptable to “punish” your wife in this way).  And most of the time, the reason why the men would resort to such resolution is when there is already domestic violence in the home.

All of the murder-suicides mentioned are examples of extreme cases of domestic violence.  It is clear that each couple had a history of DV, even if it wasn’t openly stated by reporters.  “Domestic discord” that plagued the family.  They loved each other, but “turmoil plagued the marriage.”  Suspect making “terrorist threats” to the victim.  Sugar-coating or glossing over domestic violence does not do justice to the victims, their families, or survivors of DV.

It’s unfortunate that DV would catch the Hmong community and its leaders’ attention only after so many women were killed by their husbands or partners.  Yet, this is the reality.  To many cultures—especially the Hmong—it is not considered DV until there are bruises or someone dies.

Disclaimer:  Women can and do abuse, but statistics have shown that men abuse more than women.  That is the reason why the language in this post is gender-specific to men as the abusers.  Additionally, domestic violence can happen in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and marriages.  Although homosexuality exists in the Hmong, it is still very taboo.  Hmong marriage dynamics are set up for only heterosexuality with very specific gender roles—the wife serves the husband.  And because traditional Hmong culture revolves around heterosexuality and procreation, I will only be focusing on heterosexual Hmong couples.

The biggest challenges for Hmong domestic violence victims

18 Oct

Those who do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence (DV) believe that a victim can just leave her abuser whenever she wants to.  “If it’s that bad, why don’t you just leave?  It must not be that bad, because you keep going back to him.  You have been married to him for 20 years; why’d you stay for that long?”

There are numerous reasons as to why a woman stays with her abuser.  Fear, no money, no support system, the children, immigration issues, addiction, disability, having no self-esteem/self-confidence, and the list goes on and on.  Hmong victims of DV experience these challenges in addition to others specific to the Hmong society.

The biggest challenge any Hmong woman face associated with DV in America is their tie to their culture and community.

Just imagine growing up in a culture where the males have the authority and you’re taught from the day you were born to respect your family over your own needs.  Before a Hmong woman can reach outside her community for help, she would have to jump over this hurdle.  And doing this takes a lot of strength and courage.

I don’t conform to Hmong traditions that oppress women.  And because of this, sometimes, when the subject arises, people question my loyalty to my culture.  “Why do you hate your people so much?  Why do hate your own culture?  Why are you not a good daughter/daughter-in-law?”  It’s not because I hate my culture or my people; I love my culture—our history, the food, our traditional clothing, our language, music, etc—I just don’t appreciate traditions that oppress my rights as a human being simply because I am a woman.

Sometimes not conforming to culture may lead the community to look down on you, say that you have abandoned your culture, and ostracize you.  Keep in mind that the Hmong value reputation and so being excluded from the community is not something a woman may want.  Many Hmong women only seek help within their Hmong community because of this.  One form of help—which, in my opinion is not very helpful to victims of DV—is the clan system.  Your clan (or family) takes care of your problems.

As stated in an earlier blog, there are 18 official Hmong last names.  These make up 18 official clans.  (I am from the Yang clan; My spouse is from the Xiong clan, which makes me a part of the Xiong clan as well).  The elders (fathers, uncles, brothers, grandfathers, great-uncles) in the clan are the leaders.  When you have problems, you seek out your clan leaders for help.

When a couple is having marital problems, they discuss their problems with their clan leaders.  DV has always been a taboo topic.  You simply just sweep it under the carpet, and this is what the clans have been doing for a very long time.  If a woman requests a mediation with the clan leaders because her husband is abusing her, they will—almost always—tell her to go back home, be patient, and deal with it  (Note: Telling a DV victim to go back to her abuser with no safety plan is very careless and dangerous).

Divorce is highly discouraged, so to many Hmong women, divorce is not the answer.  And if she does have a divorce, she ends up having a bad reputation.  It doesn’t matter what the reasons are for her divorce.  A Hmong woman could’ve divorced her husband because he was cheating or he was abusive, but to others, she has failed as a wife.  And if she were the one to want the divorce and get divorced, many people will change the story to her husband divorced her because of her inability to provide for him.  (Hmoob yuav thuam thiab hais tias nws yog ib tug poj niam tsis zoo es nws thiaj li nrauj nws tus txiv).

Sometimes, because the clan leaders do not grant a divorce, the wife may leave her husband (ua nkauj fa).  Leaving your husband without a divorce is the worst thing a Hmong woman can do to ruin her reputation and that of her family’s.  She is leaving her husband without the consent of her clan, so she is abandoning her duties as a wife and as a daughter.  Leaving your husband is a bigger stigma than divorce and has a history of adulterous wives who leave their husbands for their lovers.  Because of this connotation, even if a Hmong woman’s intentions are genuine, others may not believe so.

Feeling obligated to follow traditions, believing that divorce is not the answer, and not having the support system that a victim may need to gather enough courage to seek help (because family continuously tell her to go back to her abuser) are the biggest barriers a Hmong woman may have.  Other barriers may be not speaking English, being misinformed or not informed of resources available, and—like all DV victims—the feeling of helplessness.

Disclaimer:  Women can and do abuse, but statistics have shown that men abuse more than women.  That is the reason why the language in this post is gender-specific to men as the abusers.  Additionally, domestic violence can happen in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and marriages.  Although homosexuality exists in the Hmong, it is still very taboo.  Hmong marriage dynamics are set up for only heterosexuality with very specific gender roles—the wife serves the husband.  And because traditional Hmong culture revolves around heterosexuality and procreation, I will only be focusing on heterosexual Hmong couples.

Hmong views on domestic violence

13 Oct

Enough is enough! (via Wild Heart Association)

The Hmong are very resistant to change.  It’s because of our refusal to change our culture that we were in war with the Chinese for such a long time.  In Asia, the Hmong mainly live in remote regions, so they practice their culture with no interference.  They are slower to assimilate.  In America, we live in the midst of everything.  Those who came to the US as babies or little children assimilate quickly to the American culture.  Most of those who came here as adults are very stubborn to change.

Domestic violence (DV) is tolerated and accepted as a norm in the general Hmong communities.  It is not encouraged, however, the abuser does not get punished if he does abuse.  There is no such thing as DV and what many DV agencies around the nation consider DV is considered normal marital disputes.  (Keep in mind that not every Hmong person accepts DV or abuses their partner).

If you ask any older Hmong person about DV, they will claim that there has never been DV in the Hmong culture until life in America.  Many Hmong claim that the American lifestyle has turned Hmong men toward violence because of the changes that they cannot control, such as their female partners straying from the traditional norms that hold a marriage and household together and demanding independence.

This is an excerpt from a news article online about addressing DV in the Hmong community from Suab Hmoob Broadcasting, a very popular Hmong news source.

In America, many of the Hmong couples’ issues arise when Hmong wives ignore Hmong clan system and cross over to the American law.  When this happens, the two clan involved are powerless to help resolve the issues for the couples because American laws do not recognize the Hmong clan system.  Now, the couple must cope their issues with the American law by paying court fees, counseling fees, deal with restraining orders, and etc….  In some cases, Hmong wives try to drop the cases because they see the unnecessary consequences that they were going through, sometimes by mistake, but the court denies them.  These are parts of the pressures that lead to the many killings in Hmong couples.

The author of this article states that the reason why there are Hmong murders or murder-suicides in America is because a woman seeks help away from the Hmong community.  And a man kills his wife because of being pressured to do so.

Another example from WSAW-TV from 2007.

The Hmong community says violence isn’t part of their culture, but that some Hmong families are struggling with a big change in culture.  Everyone I spoke to said things like DV, murder, or suicide has never been accepted in Hmong traditions.  In fact, Dr. Mia Na Lee at the University of MN told me DV rarely happened in their home country of Laos, and it didn’t become a real issue until they began moving to the US.  Dr. Lee said that’s because many Hmong families are still dealing with some culture shock, trying to adapt their traditionally male-dominated society, to one where women are independent.

I disagree that DV is not a part of the Hmong culture.  If you look at the Hmong culture through the lens that DV consists only of physical abuse and murder-suicides, then yes, DV is not part of the Hmong culture—or any culture for that matter.  However, as you have learned from my first post this month, DV is much more profound than being beaten or killed.  The intention of domestic violence is to gain and maintain power and control (Please refer back to the Power and Control Wheel).  And do the Hmong men desire to have the authority and control in a relationship or marriage? Yes!

Examples:

  • Not allowing partner to have or go out with her friends.
  • Not allowing partner to pursue higher education or discouraging her from doing so.
  • Needing to know where partner is at all times.
  • Not allowing partner to go anywhere unless he goes along.
  • Strict gender roles where the women serve the men.
To blame an abuser’s actions on changes in lifestyle is not making him accountable.  The dynamics of power and control within the Hmong culture existed before the Hmong immigrated to the US.  In Asia, Hmong men exerted power and control over the women.  It was just that the women never questioned the patriarchal lifestyle.  Yes, the American lifestyle may have empowered Hmong women to seek individuality, education, and independence, but it did not turn Hmong men toward violence.  The Hmong culture sets the stage for violence with every traditional norm that gives the men power and control over the women.

Disclaimer:  Women can and do abuse, but statistics have shown that men abuse more than women.  That is the reason why the language in this post is gender-specific to men as the abusers.  Additionally, domestic violence can happen in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and marriages.  Although homosexuality exists in the Hmong, it is still very taboo.  Hmong marriage dynamics are set up for only heterosexuality with very specific gender roles—the wife serves the husband.  And because traditional Hmong culture revolves around heterosexuality and procreation, I will only be focusing on heterosexual Hmong couples.

Discussion question:
Do you agree or disagree that Hmong cultural norms such as gender roles, weddings, and marriage dynamics set the stage for DV to happen?  Why or why not?

Traditional Hmong weddings and marriages

8 Oct

The Hmong consists of 18 last (sur) names, making up 18 official clans.  It is taboo to marry someone from the same clan.  For instance, someone with the Yang last name cannot marry another Yang.  In some families, it is also taboo to marry someone with the same clan name as your mother’s maiden name.

There are 3 different ways a couple can initiate a wedding.

The first one is a formal proposal.  This is when a man and representatives from his family do a formal house call.  They bring gifts and money and ask the girl’s parents for her hand in marriage.

The second one is the most common way couples get married.  When a man is interested in marrying someone, he gives her a gift.  If she accepts it, it means she agrees to marry him.  The gift isn’t necessarily an engagement ring; it could come in the form of jewelry, clothes, or simple trinkets.  American Hmong nowadays rarely practice this tradition of gift-giving before marriage.

The groom will then “take” his bride, or she will “run away” with him, on a later date.  This symbolic elopement is to “prove” to the guy that she loves him enough to leave her family.  After the couple gets to the groom’s house, his family will send an envoy to the bride’s family to announce that their daughter is with them.

The third is bride-napping (zij poj niam).  This is a very abusive tradition.  This happens when a man has no respect for the female’s feelings and decides that even if she doesn’t want to marry him, he will force her to.  Sometimes the man will give her a gift (refer to above) and not let his intentions be known.  Here, in the US, he may tell the girl he wants to take her out and instead take her to his house.  In Asia, he may come to her house when her parents are not home and literally carry or drag her home with the help of male friends or relatives.

Now, if the bride had accepted a gift from the groom, there’s basically nothing she or her family can do to stop the wedding from taking place.  (This is why growing up, my grams and mom advised me over and over again to never accept gifts from any boys even when there wasn’t a motive behind it).  If the groom did not give her a gift, or if she didn’t accept anything, she can go back to her family.

Because many Hmong are so tied to their traditions, that even if the tradition is a bad one (like bride-napping), they accept it as a norm.  In the US, the girl’s parents don’t call law enforcement.  And if they call up their clan leaders to object to the wedding, the leaders may say that what’s done is done and there is nothing they can do about it.  The girls—even if they were born in the US and are accustomed to American culture and laws—will abide by whatever their parents say because that is their culture and those are their parents.

Many times, the groom’s family will tell a kidnapped bride that if she calls the police, she will disgrace her family.  Additionally, the groom may rape his kidnapped bride so that she will be too shameful to go back home because now, she is damaged goods.  (Virginity is valued in traditional Hmong culture.  You don’t have premarital sex.  The only time you should have sex is after marriage with your spouse).  Remember that the Hmong culture values family and reputation.  And everything you do, you have to think about saving your family’s face or their reputation.  So, you don’t go to the police and you marry the man who kidnapped and raped you.  And if you had accepted a gift from him, society put the blame on you.

Other times, forced marriages are results of sexual assaults and/or pregnancies.  You have to marry the person who sexually assaulted you and/or got you pregnant.  Why?  Because you have to save face.

© All rights reserved.

Before a wedding can take place, both clans have to agree on a bride price.  The bride price ranges from $3,000 – $10,000, depending on the worth of the bride (e.g., if she has no sisters, she is worth more; education level—sometimes this may lower or increase the bride price depending on the values of the family; her repuation).

The bride price is given to the bride’s family by the groom’s family.  The bride price is to compensate the bride’s family for the “loss” of a hand to help around the house.  Additionally, the bride price was an assurance for the bride’s family that the groom will treat her with respect.  The higher the bride price, the higher the value of a bride, the more her family expects her new husband to treat her well.  However, this tradition has lost its meaning with time.  The bride price now suggests to the groom that he is “buying” his wife, which means, he owns her.  (The word for “to get married” in Hmong means “to buy”).

Because the bride price carries such a bad connotation, some Hmong families today do not practice this tradition.  And if they do, they give the bride price money to the newlywed couple to start their lives.

It is normal to see age gaps between Hmong married couples.  A middle-aged man may have a wife as young as 16 years old (sometimes even younger).  If a man can’t find a willing young bride in the US, he will travel overseas, mainly to Thailand and Laos, to marry one.  I have heard numerous middle-aged men talk that the Hmong females in America are independent and “hard to control.”  It is much easier to marry someone from overseas who will serve them well as an ideal housewife.

Although it is becoming rare in 1st generation children in the United States, the Hmong still practice polygamy.  (First generation children refers to those born in the US of immigrant parents).  Polygamy gives the Hmong men a message that women (or wives, for that matter) are easily replaced and dispensable.  If you are not happy with your wife, marry another one.  If you cannot have children, it’s the wife’s fault, so marry another one.  If your wife does not bare you sons, marry another one (ignorance towards reproduction).

Disclaimer:  Women can and do abuse, but statistics have shown that men abuse more than women.  That is the reason why the language in this post is gender-specific to men as the abusers.  Additionally, domestic violence can happen in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and marriages.  Although homosexuality exists in the Hmong, it is still very taboo.  Hmong marriage dynamics are set up for only heterosexuality with very specific gender roles—the wife serves the husband.  And because traditional Hmong culture revolves around heterosexuality and procreation, I will only be focusing on heterosexual Hmong couples.

Discussion question:
What do you think of the Hmong traditions in regards to weddings and marriages?

The Hmong patriarchy and values

3 Oct

The Hmong culture is very patriarchal.  The men make the rules and the women follow them.  The men are the clan leaders.  The men are the head of the families.  The men make all the “big” decisions.  Sons are valuable assets to a family because they are the ones who will carry on the clan name and are expected to take care of the parents in old age.

Women are viewed as second class.  Our role is to simply take care of the men and bare their children.  Daughters are not desirable because once we’re married, we belong to our husband and take on his clan name.  Women are considered properties of their husbands.  Thus, there is a general lack of respect for women and our opinions.  (Too many times have I heard the commonly used phrase, “You’re just a woman; you don’t know anything”).

The Hmong society has very rigid gender roles.  A man should be strong and never show emotions.  A man should have a job to support his family.  He is the “man of the house.”  He should put his wife “in check.”  A man is in control, he is never at fault, and he is always right.  A man’s needs are above that of a woman.

A Hmong woman should be submissive, listen to her husband, and know her place.  She is not encouraged to have an education or a job, although this is changing in America.  And because of this change, it has caused a lot of conflicts in marriages where the husband still holds on to traditional norms or is slow to assimilate.  And in order to control his wife from being educated and/or independent, a Hmong man may resort to domestic violence.

The Hmong put great emphasis on their families, clans, and the good of the group as a whole.  Every major decision made by an individual should be based on how it will benefit the family, not how it would benefit the individual.

Reputation and “saving face” are valued above all.  You should not do anything that will taint your name or the name of your family.  Until you are married and make a name for yourself, you hold your father’s reputation.  If he is a bad person, people will attach his image to yours.  If he is a good person, you will be viewed as a good person and/or people will have high expectations of you to uphold your father’s honor.

Disclaimer:  Women can and do abuse, but statistics have shown that men abuse more than women.  That is the reason why the language in this post is gender-specific to men as the abusers.  Additionally, domestic violence can happen in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and marriages.  Although homosexuality exists in the Hmong, it is still very taboo.  Hmong marriage dynamics are set up for only heterosexuality with very specific gender roles—the wife serves the husband.  And because traditional Hmong culture revolves around heterosexuality and procreation, I will only be focusing on heterosexual Hmong couples.

Discussion question:
How do you think a patriarchal society and high values of family and reputation affect victims of domestic violence?