Refugees of War

TWC

Before bed one night, I read The Whispering Cloth, by Pegi Deitz Shea, to my children. It is a story about a little Hmong girl, named Mai, who lives with her grandmother in a refugee camp in Thailand. This story takes place after the Vietnam War. Mai learns to embroider her own story cloth while watching her grandmother and widows sewed their stories into paj ntaub (flower cloth).

When we discussed this book, my children spoke as if Mai’s story is something of a distant past, something that you only hear about in storybooks. Because that is not true, I let them know that many refugees of the Vietnam War are closer to them than they may realize. My kids looked at me with inquisitive eyes.

Little Mermaid said, “Mommy, what do you mean?”

“Well,” I began. “What I mean is your Niam Tais (Grandmother), although she did not make a story cloth, her story is very similar to Mai’s.”

My children’s ears perk up. Mini Mermaid, laying in bed, about ready to fall asleep, sat up. Both children looked at me to continue.

Niam Tais was born during the Vietnam War in Laos. After the United States pulled out of the war, Niam Tais Laus (Great-Grandmother) took her family, your Niam Tais included, and fled the soldiers the same way Mai’s grandmother did.” I turned to Mini Mermaid, my 5-year-old, “Niam Tais was about your age. Dab Laug Suav (Uncle Soua) was only a tiny baby. They were captured and lived in Vietnam for several years. When they escaped, they trekked across Laos and swam across the Mekong river to get to the refugee camp in Thailand.”

“Was that where you were made?” Little Mermaid asked.

“Yes. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and I lived there until I was almost 3,” I replied.

PhanatNikhom
MB & Brother

Although I’ve told my children my birthplace many times before, I had not told them the circumstances about why I was born in Thailand and why my family came to the United States. It always seemed weird to them that I was foreign-born since their father and they were born in the US.

My kids looked at me for a couple of seconds in silence. The wheels in their heads turning. Finally, Little Mermaid said, “What happened to Niam Tais‘ daddy?”

“He died in the war. He was a soldier and fought on the American side.”

“He died like Mai’s parents?”

“Almost like that,” I replied.

I tucked my kids in bed, gave them kisses, and said good night. As I turned to walked away, Little Mermaid said, “Mommy, is that why you guys came to America? Because there was war and people died?”

“Yes. We came to America because we had no other place to go. This was the only place in which we saw freedom. Now go to sleep. We can talk in the morning,” I said as I turned off the light.

It is hard for me to answer my children’s questions about death, war, or any negativity in the world. If I could, I would close them up in a bubble and never let them know about all the bad things out there. But that is not to be. My children hear and learn things. They ask questions. I have already had to explain what war is to them earlier this year. I realized during that conversation that I cannot tell them my immigration story without talking about death and war. If I exclude both from my story, my mother’s, grandmother’s, or father-in-law’s story,  it would mean that our stories do not exist. Sometimes I wonder if my children know that the long pauses between explanations is me holding and gathering my emotions before proceeding so my voice doesn’t shake too much or so that I do not start crying.

Sex Talk

sex on fire

How young is too young when it comes to talking about sexuality, puberty, and where babies come from? In my opinion, it is never too early to start. Kids need to be aware and know the facts before their friends start teaching them and before they start puberty (which can be as young as 10 these days).

My kids are 5 and 7 and they know where babies come from.

I started talking to my children about sexuality when they were 2 years old. To me, “The Talk” is a process that takes place over a series of years, not a one-time conversation at 13. Our conversations at 2 were to teach them private body parts, using the correct terms like “penis” and “vagina.”  I also taught them how to wash and care for their privates. Simple.

We transitioned to what appropriate touch is. Who can and cannot touch them and when. An example of someone touching them in an acceptable way is during their annual check-up with the pediatrician. And Dr. L is such a great doctor that she confirms what I tell them all the time. Every check-up, she says, “I asked you to undress for me because I am a doctor and I am looking to see if you’re healthy. I would not do this if your parents are not here.”

Our conversation progressed to included physical boundaries. When they don’t want someone to hug or kiss them, they get to say no. I have found that it is so hard for adults to understand that it’s okay if my kids don’t want to hug or kiss them. But I reinforce it by supporting my kids when they feel uncomfortable. I introduced them to a book at this time titled I Said No! A kid-to-kid guide on keeping your private parts private, by Zack and Kimberly King. We read the 38-page book in one sitting. They love it and still read it today.

I Said No! by Kimberly King.
I Said No! by Zack and Kimberly King.

My niece turned 1 at the end of April of this year. When my sister was pregnant with her, my children were very interested in how a baby gets from inside Mommy’s tummy to the outside. Mini Mermaid, who was 4 at the time, thought your belly button opens up and the baby comes through that way. Little Mermaid said you go to the hospital and the doctor gives you your baby. She was correct, only she did not know how. And with their many questions, I explained to them that babies grew in the uterus and come through the vagina or by way of c-section. Their 20-something questions exploded into a million! “Where is the uterus?” “Is the uterus the same as the stomach?” “How does a baby come through our vagina?” “Did I come out the same way?”

About two months ago while walking home from school, Little Mermaid asked me how she was made. She knows where a baby develops and how a baby gets from inside a woman’s body to the outside world. Trying to avoid telling her about intercourse (because I was caught off guard and wasn’t ready), I told her she was created when Mommy’s egg and Daddy’s sperm joined together. My child giggled at the thought of her coming from an egg, but that answer satisfied her.

A couple of days later, Little Mermaid told me that her friend (who is a couple years older than her) told her that babies are made when Mommy and Daddy get naked and  sleep together. And that opened up the conversation to how the egg and sperm meet.

This was a really big talk, and I needed the help of a book to illustrate my points. So, I headed to Barnes and Noble soon after and looked at the choices of books they have to teach children how babies are made. They didn’t have a good selection, most likely because they’re out of stock since I remember a bigger variety the last time I was there. I was really looking to buy What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg because I heard that it includes different family dynamics, as well as other means of having a baby (IVF, surrogate, adoption). Unfortunately they didn’t have it. So, I opted for Changing You: A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality by Gail Saltz.

Changing You, by Gail Saltz.
Changing You, by Gail Saltz.

I really like the detailed diagrams and drawings. Saltz’ book included everything from how your body changes, to intercourse, to briefly discussing about pregnancy, and lastly, boundaries. I do have to nit-pick one detail, and that is that Saltz only describes one way to make a baby. It states that “When a man and a woman love each other and decide that they want to have a child, they will do something called ‘sexual intercourse’ or ‘having sex.'” Although I do agree with Saltz that what we, as parents, say will have an impact on our children and that this is a crucial time to set up guidelines for our children, I disagree that we give them the notion that only those who are in love can make a baby. But I did use this part of the book to elaborate that you can make a baby without being in love (although I would like it if they waited until they’re ready) and that different family dynamics, like gays and lesbians, can still have babies through other means.

It took us a while to finish reading Saltz’ book. The book was only a tool to help me discuss reproduction to my child, so we made a lot of stops along the way to explain in details the diagrams, answer questions, and expand on certain subjects.

My kids have a better understanding of human reproduction after this and Changing You has become one of their favorite books. Why, they asked my spouse and I to read it 5 days in a row because they enjoyed it so much.

I feel that the more we make sex a taboo topic, the more our children will seek elsewhere for answers. Sex is much more than just intercourse. It is about sexuality, reproduction, healthy boundaries, and more. I would rather have my children ask me and I provide facts than my children hear inaccurate information from their peers. And besides, sex and sexuality isn’t bad. There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Mi Tes Mi Taw (Hands and Feet)

I felt a lot of emotions watching “Mi Tes Mi Taw” directed by Porsha Phoua Chang. She did a wonderful job telling a story that many of us can identify either with the son, daughter, mother, or daughter-in-law.

One of the themes of this short film is gender roles within a traditional Hmong family. I’ve blogged about gender roles many times and you all probably know where I stand. What you see in the film is what we experience or what our culture tells us we have to do. The daughter of a family is viewed as an outsider once she gets married and leaves her family’s home. The son is expected to show filial piety and care for his aging parents until they pass on.

Sometimes, because of traditions and customs, it’s hard for the married daughter to take care of her birth parents when her brothers cannot or will not. Much of what she can do is stand by the sideline and hope that her brother(s) will love her parents. Additionally, for the same reason, the brother feels obligated to do everything for his parents, putting them above all else. You can imagine what a burden it can be for him. The parents feel hopeless and rely on their sons and daughters-in-law. And because she is not her birth mother, a daughter-in-law may not be able to show love to her husband’s mother as how society wants her to even if she is doing her best.

In this day and age, traditions and customs should not hold a daughter from loving her parents. I have heard many sisters tell their brothers and sisters-in-law that there’s nothing they can do about their aging parents because of Hmong traditions. Sometimes, I wonder if that’s truly the case or if it’s just an excuse.

It can be overwhelming for a man when he is given the responsibility of being the the head of the household. He feels obligated to care for his parents, siblings, wife, and children. And in a family where there’s many differences, he may feel torn. He loves his wife, but he also loves his parents. It’s unfair to him when both sides are pulling at him, making him choose between the people he loves. And with no one to help him, he will tire, leading him to make “bad” and “selfish”choices.

Mi Tes Mi Taw Screenshot
Screenshot of “Mi Tes Mi Taw” by Porsha Chang.

The idea of putting one’s aging parents in a nursing or retirement home is unheard of. The main reason is that your parents shed flesh and blood to bring you to this world. Many families still follow the Confucian value of filial piety. You respect and love your parents. You do not—I repeat—you do not put your parents in retirement homes.

We can love our parents, but we have to be practical. First of all, I will not allow traditions to define what I can and cannot do. If my mother doesn’t have a home and she comes knocking on my door, I’m not going to say, “Sorry, Momma. Due to Hmong traditions, there’s nothing I can do for you.” If I truly don’t want her in my home, I should be honest with her and tell her that I do not want her there, not because of some traditions that were put in place thousands of years ago. Sometimes I feel many people use tradition as an excuse for their behavior. They use traditions at their discretion and convenience. Blah for them…

And of course, there is the issue of kev cai dab qhuas, wherein a married daughter worships different ancestors from her parents. This can be a problem if two people with different dab qhuas (ancestors) live under one roof. But it’s not a big deal unless you make it one, am I right?

Secondly, if things come to a point where I feel taking care of my sick mother is affecting me emotionally and/or physically, I’m going to get the best care for her. Professionals are more apt to care for aging parents than I would ever be. Just because I put my mom in a nursing home, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love her. I know my limits and care enough to know that my mom will receive better care with professionals. I would feel more at ease knowing that there’s someone there for her throughout the day, than to be constantly worried when I’m at work 8 hours a day.

As a parent, I do not expect my children to care for me when I’m old and wrinkly. When the time comes that I need assistance, I will find professional help, not burden my adult children. The only expectation I have of them is if they do decide to become parents, to show their children unconditional love and be the best parents they can be without expecting anything in return.

Sometimes parents expect too much out of their children that they do not see how their expectations affect them. Do we love our children enough to give them their own lives and space? Did we give them life so they can care for us or so they can have life?

Screenshot from "Mi Tes Mi Taw" by Porsha Chang.
Screenshot from “Mi Tes Mi Taw” by Porsha Chang.

We live in a world where we no longer have to follow traditions, where we can make our own traditions. Traditions were set during a time when it was needed. Gender roles made a household functional and efficient. However, we now live in a world where there is help if we need it, where we don’t have 10 children, where we don’t work long days in the fields, where aging parents have a place to go.

What are your thoughts? Do you still believe in traditional roles of siblings as stated in “Mi Tes Mi Taw?” What do you think about putting the elderly in nursing homes? Would you expect your children to care for you during your golden years?