Social Issues

Survivor

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.

22 thoughts on “Survivor

  1. Reading your story, reminds me of mine right now and back when I was a kid. I’m 17 now and is still going through what you’re going through back then, especially when I was a kid. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Wow, your personal family story illustrates well why you are so vocal.

    However as you know children from families of domestic violence, could so easily themselves become abusers later in life.

    It takes enormous self-analysis not to repeat the cycle.

    My parents never hit each other. Like any normal couple they did have a few huge arguments that went on for hours….but this happened maybe less than 4-5 times annually. When it happened, as a kid I felt my world was suddenly wobbly and uncertain. It was always an enormous relief when “they made up”. I am accustomed to a marriage where the couple talks alot calmly to explore options before making a key decision: that probably reflects the best of my parents’ marriage. There’s other stuff less perfect. But anyway..

    My partner, did witness some violence (not as severe as your father) when stepfather was drunk, etc. to his mother. He tried to intervene, as a teen.

    I think that type of exposure, luckily has made him a gentle guy in style (combined with influence of his mother, a kind, soft-hearted person). Instead of violent.

    1. You’re right. Children exposed to a violent home may either become abusers or victims as they grow older because they model their behaviors after their parents. However, childhood history gives no one any excuses to abuse another person.

  3. MaiBao, I recently attended the 10th Annual Celebration of Hmong Courage Banquet in Wisconsin, which was an event specifically for Hmong women and children who have witnessed/survived and/or may still be in an abusive situation. I was moved to tears to hear their stories. Yet, more importantly, I felt an energy of empowerment and progression from the attendees. Many were mothers who are in their late 40s – 60s. To read yours for the first time, I felt that same feeling I had at the banquet. I am so proud of you for working towards societal change, but I encourage you to think that you will see it in this lifetime. Attending this banquet made me believe that change will occur. And I know thoughts have more power than we know. I am with you, MaiBao. Best wishes to you and your family!

    1. Thank you for your words of encouragement. Sometimes the cynic in me comes out, so I have to remind myself of all the hard work advocates have accomplished and the progress we’ve made. Thank you for reminding me.

  4. MaiBao, I am so sorry to read about what your mother had went through but I applaud you for coming forward about it as both a survivor and an advocate against domestic violence. You are not alone in this and remember that you are truly blessed with someone who loves and respects you unconditionally (although I don’t know you that well). Allow me to share with you that I recently unearthed a shocking family secret some weeks ago when I was doing some detective work on my family, my late maternal grandfather was an abuser towards my late great-grandmother but their children (my grandmother and her siblings) chose to break the cycle for themselves and their children when they became parents. Lastly, do not forget that there are a few famous people who did break the cycle and an example I can give you is Fran Healy, singer-songwriter of Scottish pop-rock band Travis (look him up and you’ll know what I mean)

  5. Thanks for sharing that part of your life with us. That kind of spousal abuse and child abuse happens all too often, not just in our Hmong culture but in all cultures. I saw abuse or heard of it many times growing up, and now as an adult, I still hear of it from time to time. It’s a hard cycle to break. I commend you on your work in helping to put a stop to it.

  6. MB, it took a lot of courage to tell us your story. I can’t help crying a little. Unfortunately, your story is still a very familiar situation within the Hmong community even to this day. And when third party somehow get involve (police, social services) they always blames the woman. For what reason, I still don’t and can’t understand. There are so many stories about domestic abuse in Hmong community and yet nothing serious is ever done with it. One thing I really hate (beside blaming the woman) somehow, these “elder” meeting always think money will solve everything. My sister in law was raped – this happen 20 – 25 yrs ago – and the guy’s family just give money to make it all even. She’s still scars from it and yet, nothing was done in her justice! Are they crazy??? Why is woman really so undervalued in Hmong? I don’t understand and probably will never will. I just hope and pray the new generations will somehow fixed that. With better understanding and education, we will slowly turn this around. The damage was already done for older generations let just hope for our daughters sake and other children sake that history won’t repeat itself to them.

    1. Thank you, Sendie. I was actually triggered when writing this blog post. I don’t cry when I think about it, but writing it out and seeing it on here made me cry.

      And I do have high hopes for our future generations. You’re right. With understanding and education, we can progress for the better.

    1. I guess the males are shy. You’re male, why not put in your two cents. It would be nice to hear from men.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this. You don’t have to post this comment. I just wanted to let you know that I will be back when I have more time. I want to read all the pieces you have written here and give you the comments your posts deserve. Your entries have a special meaning to me because even though I am an American, I have lived most of my life in the Philippines and I’ve learned that domestic violence and abuse seem to be more prominent in Asian countries or societies due to their ‘traditional’ views and expectations on women and their roles. Though I do not have statistics to back me up on that, I do believe it to be true.

    I’m sorry that this comment is rushed, but I do promise to be back soon.

  8. MB, from one survivor to another: I’m proud of you. You didn’t let your exposure to domestic violence turn you down a negative path in life. You are a fighter. And now you’re fighting for a just cause in our community, as well as for others. There are not many women who have gone through what you have, and have opted for social activism. And that, I commend you for. It’s sad to say but you and I seem to have similar experiences. Your father hit you with a cup where as my father used one of those heavy metal fire-stick pokers. I’m sure you and I can swamp stories all day but I hope that you have found peace with your father, as I have not. The cycle of domestic violence is hard to break out from, but reading that you know it’s possible brings a bit of comfort.

    1. Thank you for your response. I have yet to find peace with my father. He left one day and I haven’t seen him since then. Sometimes I wish I could see him so I could talk to him and have closure. However, I have moved on with my life and making the best out of what I went through.

  9. Reading this is very inspiring to me. My father was physically abusive and destructive while my mom was verbally and emotionally abusive. Not only that, I had 2 older siblings who sexually abused me in my childhood and sexual abuse encounters with relatives and strangers. When I told my mom about these encounters, she told me to keep my mouth shut so I won’t cause problems to our relatives. She told me no man would ever want me if I don’t conform to the hmong society’s definition of a woman. I became very confused about my sexuality because I didn’t want to subject myself to a man and I had a few lesbian relationships during my teen years. This gave me and my family a really bad rep. I ran away a lot as a teen. I have been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts most of my life and have been on medication, counseling and a mental institution at some point of time in my life. Through all this, I have never stopped believing that some day I will be free from it all and life will be happy as I have always imagined in my mind. Dreaming about happiness was the only place where I would escape to null the pain in my life. I have social anxiety from fear of what others will say of me or how they will look at me. I was gifted with natural beauty but because of how I grew up, I never believed I was beautiful. This lead to me becoming obese and easily discouraged. I still deal with the verbal/emotional abuse to this day from my mom because we are living in her upstairs duplex. I try to stay away from her as much as possible. I’m a stay at home mom and she hounds me and guilts me every time she sees me for not working or for me having student loan debts. My dad is not physically abusive anymore but he is an angry man. When he is angry, he becomes really passive agressive. I’m a 28 year old Hmong woman who is struggling to break this vicious cycle. I’ve been married for over 3 years and I have a son. I found myself abusing my husband and my son because of the patterns that were instilled in me. My husband threatened to leave me last summer if I didn’t stop and change. This was my breaking point. Something had to change! I’ve been struggling to understand who I am and what made me this way. I’ve managed to break the cycle almost completely but I still struggle every.single.day to rid myself of anger. It is my hardest journey in life. I hope one day I can proudly say that I am a survivor of abuse and a recovered abuser. Reading your blog has given me insight and have put into words what I couldn’t. Please know that you are making a difference in the world. So if there are any others out there in similar situations, the one thing that is helping me the most in my recovery is…to love yourself or learn to love yourself uncondtionally so you can learn to love others. My parents couldn’t show me that sort of love and this reflected in my life. I’m choosing to break this pattern so my current family will never feel abuse again and my future children will never know what abuse feels like.

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