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.