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?

A Hmong Wife’s Role

I came upon this scan of a Hmong text in a forum.  The original poster had stated that this reading material was used in a Hmong class at Washington Tech High School in Saint Paul, MN. It created great dislike within this group of Hmong women.

Ib tug niam tsev Hmoob lub luag hauj lwm.

Ib tug niam tsev Hmoob lub luag hauj lwm.

Translation:

A Hmong wife’s responsibility is to oversee everything in the home. She needs to make sure there are groceries (water, rice, veggies) and that the home is kept clean and there are plenty of pots and dishes.

A Hmong wife’s responsibility is to take care of the children. It is only for the duration of a month after she gives birth that her husband provides chicken (boiled chicken with herbs soup for postpartum care) for her. After the month is over, she would need to cook for herself and care for others in the home.

A Hmong wife needs to pack lunch for her husband to take to work. It has always been that the husband never packs lunch for the wife nor does he do her laundry because he “lost” money to marry his wife, and the husband has more honor than his wife. The wife needs to do everything for her husband that he desires and asks of her.

This is the first time I’ve read something that provides a guideline on how a Hmong wife should behave. Growing up, I’ve always heard others tell me how I needed to act to become the “ideal” Hmong wife and be the “perfect” Hmong daughter-in-law. When I tell other Hmong individuals my experience, some tell me that it’s not Hmong culture; it’s just my family or the people I am around with. Seeing this on paper, or on screen, validates that it is real. That it’s not just my family who believes a Hmong wife should behave this way.

While I read this, I thought, “Okay. This is doesn’t really work for all families today, but if it works for you, then go for it.” There are many stay-at-home moms who do embrace the role of being the nurturing wife and mother, who do not have an issue with following the traditional gender roles of a Hmong family structure. And I, myself, do care for the home, make sure my family is fed, and my children are well taken care of. Nothing wrong with that.

And then I got to the last paragraph.

I wonder who wrote this text to include that a man loses (yes, the term  this person used was “xiam” which translates “to lose” so don’t give me crap about how I’ve misconstrued the meaning of the text) his money when he marries his wife and because of that she needs to do everything he wants her to.

The discussion of the bride price has always been a controversial topic within the Hmong community (online and offline). Many understand how it perpetuates violence against Hmong women because it creates a setting where money is exchanged for a woman.

Others argue that it does not—that feminists are just making a big deal out of a harmless tradition that actually puts value on marriage and a woman. Despite the arguments, reality is many Hmong people (not all) do believe that because a man gave money to the bride’s family for her hand in marriage that she belongs to him, as stated in this reading material.

My question is, what was the purpose of this reading assignment? Was it to compare and contrast an old-world view and modern view of a Hmong wife? Or was it just to practice reading in Hmong? If it is the latter, then other reading materials would’ve sufficed.

So, what’s the big deal? It’s just a piece of reading paper!

It is reading material for high school students. Teachers need to be aware of what they’re teaching their students. I would not like it if my kids came home and told me that their teacher had them read about how to be a Hmong wife. And being a responsible parent, I would discuss with my children about the ideals of what was written in this reading assignment and how it may not relate to modern all Hmong women.

Even if parents teach and talk to their children about these things, is it still appropriate for a teacher to assign such reading materials? Does it make a difference if the teacher’s purpose was not just to read the text, but to discuss its contents and how students believe it does or does not relate to Hmong women today? It seems to me as if this is really outdated reading material. Just imagine how long this text has been circulating since publication and how many people it has influenced to believe that since a husband exchanged money for his wife, insinuating she is his property, she needs to do as he desires.

Hmong Beauty

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

One question  I get asked a lot growing up is, “What is Hmong?”  It was annoying, but I have grown to live with it and answer it accordingly to how I feel at the moment and by whom.

Another question I get asked as much is, “Are you really Hmong?”

The former is asked by those who do not know about the Hmong.  The latter is a question posed by those who know just enough to have formed a negative opinion on Hmong beauty, or lack thereof.  Let me explain.

I don’t remember how this conversation started, but in college, a male classmate ranted to me about how ugly Hmong girls are.  “They’re short, fat, and dark.  They have pig noses and chinky eyes.”

Hmmm, I thought to myself.  Am I going to let this go?  I looked over to my friend.  She smiled because she knew what I was about to do.

Being the witty person that I occasionally am, I asked, “Are they all really that ugly?  All of them?”

“Yes, all of them.  I have never seen a pretty Hmong girl!”

“So, do you think I’m pretty?”

“Oh, you’re more than pretty.  You’re beautiful.”

I giggled.  This is going to be good.

“Are you being completely honest right now or just trying to flatter me?”

“Why are you changing the topic?  I am not lying to you; You’re beautiful.  If you weren’t married, I would’ve made my move on you already.”

“Just so you know, I am Hmong,” I said as I sat back to wait for his reaction.

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

He was completely blown away.  He didn’t believe me.  He kept insisting that I was lying to him and kept on asking what ethnicity I really am.  He thought I was Chinese.  Chinese women are beautiful, he said.  I have to be Chinese.  He asked my friend if I was Hmong.  Yep, she’s 100% Hmong, my friend replied.  And then my classmate remarked, “You’re too beautiful to be Hmong.”

I don’t know about you , but this comment gets to me.  The person stating this is complimenting you on your beauty.  Take it as it is or—if you’re like me (and some others)—take it offensively.  Why?  Because this comment implies that Hmong people (or Hmong women, for that matter) are too plain or ugly to be considered beautiful, and you are the exception.  But why should you be offended?  They’re telling you that you’re beautiful.  I know, but they’re also implying that my ethnic group, as a whole, is ugly.  I don’t know where they’re looking, but I know and see many many beautiful, gorgeous Hmong women (and men).  We are not ugly.

One of my dear friend’s father was shocked when he found out (after 7 years of us being friends) that I am Hmong.  He said, “You’re not like the Hmong people I see.  They’re short and hunched back because they have to carry the bamboo baskets on their backs.  You’re tall.”  Not really; I am only 5’3″.

With all the comments I’ve received over the almost 3 decades of my life, I’ve compiled a description of how a Hmong woman should look like: short, fat, dark-skinned, hunched-back with a porky nose and chinky eyes.  This is the epitome of Asian ugly, isn’t it?  If you ask any Asian what it is to be physically ugly, most likely they would say one or all the characteristics mentioned above.  So does that mean that the Hmong is the ugly of the Asian race?

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

While searching the WWW to see if I can find an article on this topic, I came across Elmo Lee’s Hmong Beauty Project.  Elmo is a beauty and fashion photographer, known as Huenha Photography.  Her artwork is stunning.  I remember I started following her and her sister, Milly, way back when I was still on Myspace and their photography was called NaturalBlush.

The Hmong Beauty Project is to show people that Hmong women are beautiful.  Elmo states on its website that:

It’s not uncommon to hear Hmong women being told they’re too beautiful to be Hmong or that their beauty resembles another ethnic group.  My response to that is that Hmong women are as beautiful as any other ethnic group and none of it is a coincidence or an accident.  This in essence is the motivation and purpose of my photoshoot which showcases the beauty of Hmong women as individuals whose beauty is unique to herself.

I agree.  Hmong women are as beautiful as any other Asian ethnicity.  It does not do us any justice when others say that we, as a whole, are ugly.  We’re all individuals, and although we may have similarities, we’re beautiful in our own ways.

With Elmo’s permission, I have posted some of the Hmong women she has photographed on here.  This is a new project, which started at the beginning of this year, so it only has 8 women so far.  I cannot wait to see how it develops.

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

When I asked Elmo what sparked her Hmong Beauty project, she replied:

Whenever I stumble onto a pretty girl’s picture, it’s never a surprise to see at least one comment like this: “You are so beautiful. You look like a Thai/Korean/etc girl;” “You are pretty for a Hmong girl.”  It’s a compliment, but at the same time, it’s an insult; as if looking Hmong or being Hmong is a bad thing…. Just a few weeks ago, one of my cousins met my friend from out of state.  My cousin thought my friend wasn’t Hmong simply because she thought my friend was beautiful and that she doesn’t look Hmong.  This is exactly why I did the project.

I want to point out that I hear this “You’re too beautiful to be Hmong” remark within our Hmong community as well.  Growing up, I have heard too many comments on how Chinese women’s beauty trump Hmong women.  My father used to always say that Chinese women are the most beautiful in the world.  And it wasn’t uncommon to hear from other Hmongs—especially the older generation—that a Hmong woman is as beautiful as a Chinese maiden.  Elmo stated the same thing, “Zoo nkauj li nas ej Suav.”  I feel that this comparison has a lot to do with our not-so-good history with the Han Chinese.  My father used to spill Hmong propaganda that the Chinese kidnapped all the beautiful Hmong women to be their wives and that was why the Chinese are more beautiful than the Hmong (Really, Dad?).  And then, there is the media.

Elmo stated that she has made similar statements and feels guilty about it.  “Why do we think like this?” she asked.  Her conclusion (it’s not silly, Elmo) is:

We don’t have Hmong celebrities or “beautiful” popular Hmong idols to reference to.  Look at it this way, we don’t have our own country.  Before coming to the USA, we were simply farmers.  The Hmong entertainment industry isn’t like the mainstream here or anything near kpop/jpop.  We’ve only been in the United States for 35-40 years.  Our skills/expertise in whatever area are still poor. Yes, we’re improving, but we have a long way to catch up…. We have talents and skills.  We’re just not there yet because before all this, all we knew was farming, how to be a wife, have kids, dedicate our life to our in laws, etc.

It hasn’t been until in the past decade or two that the Hmong entertainment industry has immensely progressed.  With the help of technology and education, Hmong film-makers have created dynamic movies that have gained a lot of attention within the community.  And with this comes Hmong actors and actresses.  We now see beautiful Hmong women on-screen—something we have never seen before.  Additionally, many talented Hmong bands and artists have also emerged.  Hmong non-profit groups, such as CHAT are empowering individuals to express their artistic  and creative sides.  Hmong community events (that I can think off the top of my head), such as the Hmong Music FestivalFresh Traditions, and Revived, have showcased talented and beautiful Hmong people.  Prior to this, besides American celebrities, we had Asian stars to idolize.  We’re getting there, but are we there yet?

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

According to my observations, personal experiences, and what I hear from other Hmong women, I agree with Elmo that we still have some ways to go.  Society still believes that Hmong women are ugly and to be beautiful must mean that we are not Hmong.  How long will it take to have society realize our beauty?  How much will it take for the Hmong to embrace and claim the beauty of our women?  We are Hmong beauty.