The Hmong: Slow to change

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

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

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.