This post is part of the My Mermaid series.
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I couldn’t tell him face to face what happened. So I left him a note in our locker. “My mom hit me last night. It wasn’t because of you.” I lied about the latter.
When I went to the locker at the end of school, he wasn’t waiting for me as he usually did. Instead he left a note addressed to “Innocent Barbie (He called me Barbie back then).” “Nobody touches my girl,” the note was written in furious handwriting. We didn’t see each other that evening. The next morning at school, I found another note from him. This one was a lot calmer. “When did your mother start abusing you? If you don’t want to answer, it’s okay.” I never told him.
Life at home started to become unbearable. In addition to the arguments about my boyfriend and the beatings I went through, because I was becoming of age, my mom was trying to groom me into the ideal Hmong daughter: submissive, cook, and keep the house clean. My high school had the International Baccalaureate Program (IB) and I was enrolled in it part time, taking IB English and science classes. The IB program had a strong and challenging curriculum, so it was a struggle to juggle school with the domestic demands at home. My mom and I were constantly arguing over me being lazy and not behaving like other “good” Hmong daughters.
I wished to participate in extracurricular activities, but my mom wouldn’t allow me. She stated that a girl’s role is in the home, not out running around like the boys. So, I did what I needed to do; I lied to her when I joined the dance production team my sophomore year. Instead of taking conventional PE classes for graduation requirement, I chose dance because it would be easier, I told her. (It was partly true. Dance was a PE option, but that wasn’t the reason why I wanted to join). And that was how I got into Company MHS—my only active extracurricular activity throughout high school.
I knew my mom was being very strict on me because she feared I was walking down the same path as her when she was my age. My mom was also afraid I would shame her. The Hmong community was already expecting me and my siblings to fail. I am the oldest of 7. If I fell down a destructive path, my siblings would follow suit. My mom didn’t want people to talk any more than they were. So, she thought that by restricting our freedom, we would be “good” children and not ruin the tiny shreds of reputation she was clinging on to.
However, I didn’t care about gossip, reputation, or saving face. I only wished that my mom would just trust me and my judgment. So, the more restrictive she became, the more I rebelled against her traditional ways and stood up for myself. Our frequent arguments and fights pushed me further and further away from my mom and my culture.
I wasn’t the only one affected by my mom’s urgency to control her children. My younger brother ended up moving to live with our father for a couple of years because of the disagreements between them. My younger sister attempted suicide and spent 72 hours in a behavioral center years later.
My boyfriend became my pillar of support. He was there for me when I needed someone. I hardly spoke about what went on at home because I was embarrassed and ashamed. He probably knew what was going on behind closed doors, but never mentioned anything to me. We had a nonverbal understanding that it was not something we both felt comfortable talking about. I’m not sure if he ever blamed himself for the things I was going through with my mom, but I never blamed him one bit. I was actually grateful to have him in my life. Spending time with him kept my mind off of the turmoil I was feeling inside. He made me laugh and smile every single moment we were together; he brought sunshine into the darkness I was in. He made me feel really good about myself. By the end of my sophomore year, I was madly, head-over-heels, in love with him. Nothing my mom said or did was going to tear us apart.
The Hmong adults started saying that he—the delinquent—badly influenced me. I used to be such a “good” girl, but after I met him, I started being “bad.” I didn’t understand why they were saying these things because I wasn’t a “bad” girl. I stayed in school. I got good grades and almost-perfect attendance. I wasn’t doing drugs or drinking (I actually didn’t have my first alcoholic beverage until I was 19). I didn’t stay out late. I wasn’t involved in gangs. I didn’t get into fights. I didn’t sneak out at night. I was a homebody. The only reasons that I could conceive as to why they believe it was so was because I stopped conforming to the traditional norms, was being more verbal about my opinions, and seeing a boy who didn’t have the best reputation in the world.
You would think that if I had just ended my relationship with my boyfriend, my mom would stop beating me. To me, it was more than just this boy. I had finally discovered that I can be myself, have my own beliefs, and build my life on my principles—and I wasn’t going to back down. My mom was pushing her beliefs on to me. She wanted to mold me into the “perfect” Hmong woman: domesticated, silent, submissive, and obedient. If I had given into my mom, that meant that I had given up on myself because I didn’t believe in what she believed in. So, no matter how much my mom verbally, emotionally, or physically abused me, I stayed stubborn and fought.
Not only was I fighting for my beliefs, but I was also fighting for something that my parents never showed me was possible. Despite his looks and reputation, my boyfriend treated me with so much love and utmost respect—so differently from how I saw my father treat my mom. My boyfriend never hit me. He never put me down. He supported me. Even though my mom was a total bitch to him, he never said anything bad about her. He respected my decision to wait on sex until I was ready. Of course, I gave my virginity to him later on, but he never pressured me. We made out so many times, but whenever I stopped him from going further, he would without questioning me. No pressuring, begging, whining, or guilt trips. And I stuck with him despite all the abuse I endured with my mom because of his show of love and respect.
I never thought I was pretty enough because throughout my childhood, my family called me various nicknames to imply that I was ugly. My skin tone was darker than what the Hmong would consider beautiful, thus I was called “Pog Qhab Meem (Miss Cambodian)” or “Poj Nplog (Miss Laotian).” My family used to make fun of my full lips and very big round eyes—asking why I have sausage lips like Black people from Africa and saying that my eyes are eerily round like an owl’s. Standing at 5’3”, I was taller than the average Hmong girls in town. My family called me Olive Oil and Daddy Long Legs and commented that I would never find a tall Hmong husband. I hated all these attributes of myself. But to my boyfriend, I was the most beautiful girl in the world. He loved everything about me, despite what negative reputation I carried in the Hmong community.
He was my first—first real boyfriend, first kiss, first sexual experience, first love.
We both moved away to different parts of town during the latter years of high school. My partner and I saw less and less of each other. I thought that by not seeing him that often, my mom would stop her bickering and yelling at me. It didn’t stop. Our arguments became more frequent. And we argued about the same things. If we were not arguing about my boyfriend, then we argued about my role as a Hmong daughter and saving my mother’s face. It was driving me crazy! I felt as if I was on probation and house arrest all the time. I didn’t even have an opportunity to go out and ruin my mom’s reputation if I wanted to.
The things that were important to me were nothing to her. I also didn’t see the importance in her Hmong values. We lived in two very different worlds and there was nothing that could bridge this gap between us.
At the end of my junior year, I felt so lost, confused, and out of place that I no longer knew what to do. We rarely argued about my boyfriend; it was constantly about me now. Always how I was not good enough. The arguments between my mom and me escalated to the point of my mom almost strangling me death. Even though I don’t think much about that day, I still remember it very vividly.