There was a time when I refused to have anything to do with the Hmong culture.
I hated that no one knew what Hmong is. That I had to explain where my ancestors came from. That I was mistaken for Chinese (or another Asian ethnicity) all the time. Sometimes, I even wished I was Chinese so I wouldn’t have to explain my history. Most importantly, I hated patriarchal Hmong traditions. Male favoritism. The strict gender roles. How a female’s needs were last priority. How gossip traveled like wildfire within the community, but important issues (e.g., domestic violence, child abuse, sexuality) were either taboo or swept under the carpet. All in all, I hated being Hmong. Being so young, the only solution I could find was to stop being Hmong, and I did—for a while.
I have always had a good relationship with my mom, until my teen years. I had a sheltered childhood. My family were poor immigrants, so they only taught my siblings and me what they knew: Hmong. My friends were the Hmong children in the apartment complex where I grew up. The movies I watched were Hmong movies or Asian movies dubbed in Hmong. My parents tried to expose us to the mainstream culture, but it went as far as animated Disney movies. School was the only place I learned about everything else, but it was limited. So when I was old enough to peek outside of the little Hmong community where I grew up, my head almost exploded. There was a world full of wonderful opportunities for a girl like me!
In middle school, I started searching for my identity. I already felt ostracized by the Hmong community because my father was no longer in my life. The Hmong children I grew up with was no longer my classmates because I was put into the GATE/Honors program. I did not know anyone in my cohort and had to make new friends—all of them non-Hmong. It was from my new friends that I could finally view the world from so many different cultures and perspectives.
And all the while, I was being pressured to conform to Hmong traditions. The more educated I got, the more questions I asked about my culture. “It’s because that’s the way it is” was not sufficient enough. What are the bases for these traditional norms that I’m supposed to follow? My mom, as traditional as she is, was the first person to plant a seed in my mind. We had a conversation about marriage and bride price in the 6th grade. She told me, instead of having a man pay for my hand in marriage, I should work hard, get educated, and then pay for him. It was not the norm for a Hmong woman to ask for her partner’s hand in marriage, let alone think about the possibility.
In high school, I distanced myself from the Hmong children I grew up with. Even though I kept most of them as acquaintances, I no longer considered them my friends. It wasn’t because I thought I was better than them. I actually felt awkward and uncomfortable being around them. They were close, as tightly-knit as the Hmong community and here I was, feeling out of place because I didn’t have a father in the home and didn’t want to conform to the Hmong traditional norms.
There was also a stereotype that came with being a Hmong girl: you get married in your teens. Getting married at such an early age and having children would be detrimental to my dreams. I didn’t want that for myself. I thought that if I distanced myself from my culture, I would finish high school and go on to college.
And so, I stopped listening to Hmong music. I stopped watching Hmong movies. I hardly attended Hmong New Year festivals, Hmong religious parties (hu plig, ua neeb), and Hmong community gatherings. I refused to dress in traditional Hmong clothes. I stopped learning about Hmong history and culture. I wanted to be “American” because of the western ideals of gender equality, independence, and freedom. I did not like the way Hmong traditions oppress a woman’s reach for her dreams.
Quite ironically, I had a Hmong partner and also one Hmong friend in high school. Who knew that someone who tried to distance herself from her culture would fall in love with a Hmong person and be friends with another Hmong girl? They were the ones who kept me linked to the Hmong community.
My mom, grams, and the Hmong adults blamed the changes I was making on my partner (who is now my dear spouse). I guess, you can say, he wasn’t the “ideal” Hmong boy that my mom would allow me to date. His choice of clothing, music, and hobbies weren’t really what my mom liked. I grew up in the 90’s, the decade of flared or bell-bottom jeans, baggy pants, over-sized flannel shirts, platform sneakers, and lip-lined dark lips—heavily influenced by hip hop. My mom hated 90’s fashion. She labeled anyone exhibiting these trends as gangsters, delinquents, or bad people. So, of course, she did not want to me to dress that way or associate with anyone of that sort. Additionally, even though my partner is Hmong, he is of a different dialect, so there was prejudice on my mom’s part as well.
The older I got, the stricter my mom became. The freedom I had in middle school, I no longer had in high school. She feared that if she allowed me freedom, I may end up out of control or pregnant. However, the stricter my mom became, the more I rebelled against her. And so, in high school, I was labeled a “bad” daughter. Never did my mom or other Hmong adults who criticized the choices I was making take a look at the all the positives I had going for me (staying in school and getting good grades, not doing drugs or drinking, staying home most of the time because I wasn’t allowed to go any where, staying out of trouble).
I argued with my mom—a lot. We argued about why I couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities. (The only extracurricular activity I participated in was the HS dance production team—only because I lied to my mom that it was a PE requirement for graduation and it didn’t involve me staying after school every day. And besides, dance was something familiar to my mom, versus basketball or cross country). We argued about why I couldn’t go to the mall or the movies with my friends. We argued about why she treated my brothers differently from my sisters and me. We argued about why I didn’t thrive with the domestic housework like other Hmong daughters. We argued about my grades (when I would get the occasional B). And lastly, we argued about my partner. I felt she didn’t trust me in my judgment. All of these arguments pushed me further and further away from my family. And because culture was a big factor as to why my mom was so restrictive, I eventually turned my back on my culture.
So, for a time, I had no idea who the popular Hmong bands were, what Hmong movies were out there, or how the Hmong were doing in general. I avoided Hmong forums and websites. I went from watching movies of Xab and Zeb and listening to KLS, Ntsa Iab, Luj Yaj, and Tsab Mim Xyooj to nothing. I didn’t care to have anything to do with Hmong.
During my sophomore year in college, I was introduced to a Hmong girl by a friend. The friend introduced her as her “Chinese” friend. I knew she was Hmong and she knew I knew she was Hmong, but we both didn’t say anything. It was then that I realized this could be me. Although I’ve never claimed to be another ethnicity, I had turned away from my culture. I finally realized that no matter what I do, I cannot escape the fact that I am Hmong. And I didn’t want to continue on this path where one day, I would be the one claiming to be someone I wasn’t.
So, I went on a journey to rediscover myself as a Hmong woman and came back with a totally new meaning. I realized that I can still embrace the richness of my culture without having to conform to the patriarchal Hmong traditions. I can pick and choose what I want to keep and discard. I can create my own cultural identity. But most importantly, in order to start conversations for changes in the Hmong community, I had to embrace who I am and be informed about my history, culture, and traditions, so I can confidently voice my opinions and make a difference.