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 traditionsMale 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.

13 thoughts on “I Hated Being Hmong

  1. Thanks for admitting this MaiBao. I (still) feel the same way about being American. Especially when traveling outside the US I tend to identify myself as Californian, as if it distances me from the ignorance I associate with “Americans.”
    But a good friend of mine who is Kurdish showed me the flipside. She said, “I am proud to tell people I am a Kurdish woman and show them that their stereotypes are wrong. I prove that not all Kurdish people are… anything!”
    And the older I get the more wisdom I see in her point. I am American too, there’s no denying that I grew up in that culture and have been hugely influenced by its gender construction, its education systems, its class systems, etc. So I might as well be honest with myself and everyone else and admit, maybe not proudly, but at least openly, I am American. I am one example of what an American is and I show that Americans can be just as educated, liberal, multi-lingual and well-traveled as whoever I am speaking to. Oh, and just for good measure, THIS is what a Feminist (American) looks like. 😉

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  2. Mai Bao

    Your story is me in a nutshell.

    When I was younger I hated being Hmong. I hated everything that Hmong embodied especially its patriarchal system. I could not understand why my choices were limited especially living in a country that promoted equalities and why I was treated differently from my brothers. I used to question myself, why was I born a Hmong? I was deeply conflicted.

    I’ve came to the realisation that I could fight my roots or I could learn to accept and understand my culture. I selected the latter via critcial self-reflection.

    Today I stand tall and proud to be a strong independent Hmong female.

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    1. I am totally with you guys!!! I’ve been known as the “bad girl” my whole life, because I chose to color my hair and pierce my tongue/ears. I was accused of being a bad influence and a druggie, when in reality I was just focus on higher education and the latest trend!! I’ve had a few Hmong men who just despise me, and hated when their wives hung out with me because I speak my mind and am “hard to control.”

      Who says Hmong women have to learn to cook Hmong food, and not get an education (at least it can’t be higher than their husband), and learn to obey/submit/hold their tongue when it came to their spouse, and have to learn the Hmong ways of caring for the in-laws!!! And all the other “roles” of Hmong women that suppresses us!

      I say I’d rather be a strong, INDEPENDENT, HMONG woman. So what if I can’t cook Hmong food, with my higher education I can buy whatever foods I desire. So what if I speak my mind, is it because you fear I may surprise/ convert your way of thinking? So what if I don’t know the proper way of being a “nyab” and care for the in-laws correctly, I will be able to PROVIDE the best medical care, and even hire a house-cleaner, etc.

      Don’t get me wrong, as much as I love being a Strong Hmong Woman I do know my place. I respect the Hmong culture as well as my parents enough to “save face.” I just choose my battles and follow my dreams, and if a guy/Hmong family can’t handle that, than they aren’t worth my time. =P

      Thanks for your blogs MB!! They are most inspiring!!

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  3. I’m not surprised that you were often identified as Chinese. The sheer numbers of ethnic Chinese (some who can no longer speak their mother tongue) in major North American cities, probably overwhelms others of East Asian descent. http://www.velo-city2012blog.com/?p=2201

    As you must know by now, depending where a person grew up in North America, as a non-white with an ancestral cultural background that’s not Eurocentric, a teenager does struggle through this self-identity of denial for their parental cultural roots. Of course I disliked any hangovers of traditional Chinese patriarchical attitudes, but the Opposite pull to become educated and get a job to sustain oneself independently. I’m intrigued your mother had a modern interpretation of the bride price: of buying a groom.

    The biggest leap for my parents not surprisingly, is interracial marriage within our own family. So 3 couples have resulted, including myself with my partner for past 20 yrs.

    I didn’t hate being Chinese, but I was ashamed as a teen of my poor immigrant parents. Now it’s the opposite…it is spin their real life stories how they have persevered so hard.
    oppo

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  4. i am not offended if someone thinks i am chinese, japanese, or korean. i dont mind explaining hmong. i never get bored of it. i never hated being hmong but i did feel frustrated and annoyed instead i hated the individual around me.

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  5. I’m from India but I lived in the U.S. for many years. And one of my best friends is Hmong-American!! I visited and live with my friends family and community in the mid-west and in California on many occasions, and I’m very familiar with the patriarchal traditions you are talking about. Partly, it is because I myself am of Asian origin and recognize these terribly misogynistic traditions in my community too!! I have had the same struggles you have — and what I realized is that culture is not a given entity. It is fluid and changing. And if at one point a group of men sat down and decided that this is how we will define our culture, it is important that we women today sit down and decide — well we are going to redefine it, and make it more gender equal! We have the right to redefine our culture. It is the ultimate form of claiming it!

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  6. Wow, I love that post. Last summer, before watching the movie “Gran Torino” with a friend’ I told her that the story was about a hmong family. She was so impressed that I knew what a hmong is, she said that I was really educated.

    I didn’t tell her this but I actually know about the hmong thanks to your blog. The first post I read on this blog was “Beauty really is just skin deep; Asians are dying to be White”. I liked it so much that I shared it with my schoolmate who blogged about a similar topic but under the perspective of an haitian girl. I also remember doing a research on Google to learn more about the hmong people.

    Like you, I don’t have what people expect to find in the typical african girl but I blog to represent my culture of origin vs my culture as an immigrant. You may not be the typical hmong but you give great exposure to your culture and that makes you a good hmong!

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  7. As a Hmong guy in Alaska I totally agree with u!! I hate our Hmong cultures it’s like soo strict bout everthing like our gender, who we marry, or how we choose our religion! I think we Hmong ppl did something bad at the past that our grandparents aren’t telling us! That’s why our Hmong ppl were killed over in Laos 1975!! And even today our grandparents and our parents are still living in the past and not the present today! I myself ask my grandparents and parents”are we in thailand? No? Are we in a different country? Yes, are we still be restricted on our culture? Yes!!” I always hear my parent gossiping how Hmong ppl are mean to each other! I agree to cause for example, if one of ur friends family member or him or she gets hurt goes to the hospital. Will anybody relative to him or she will come to see her or him?…. Answer no! Not even a single relative or cousin would even step a foot a ur door I ask u how r u in the hospital all they do is just sit in their couches and eat and act like they don’t know u!! See this is why I personally hate Hmong ppl and our culture

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  8. I’m sorry of I offended anyone but im not trying to hate!!! I love our Hmong culture but not the people

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