One question I get asked a lot growing up is, “What is Hmong?” It was annoying, but I have grown to live with it and answer it accordingly to how I feel at the moment and by whom.
Another question I get asked as much is, “Are you really Hmong?”
The former is asked by those who do not know about the Hmong. The latter is a question posed by those who know just enough to have formed a negative opinion on Hmong beauty, or lack thereof. Let me explain.
I don’t remember how this conversation started, but in college, a male classmate ranted to me about how ugly Hmong girls are. “They’re short, fat, and dark. They have pig noses and chinky eyes.”
Hmmm, I thought to myself. Am I going to let this go? I looked over to my friend. She smiled because she knew what I was about to do.
Being the witty person that I occasionally am, I asked, “Are they all really that ugly? All of them?”
“Yes, all of them. I have never seen a pretty Hmong girl!”
“So, do you think I’m pretty?”
“Oh, you’re more than pretty. You’re beautiful.”
I giggled. This is going to be good.
“Are you being completely honest right now or just trying to flatter me?”
“Why are you changing the topic? I am not lying to you; You’re beautiful. If you weren’t married, I would’ve made my move on you already.”
“Just so you know, I am Hmong,” I said as I sat back to wait for his reaction.
He was completely blown away. He didn’t believe me. He kept insisting that I was lying to him and kept on asking what ethnicity I really am. He thought I was Chinese. Chinese women are beautiful, he said. I have to be Chinese. He asked my friend if I was Hmong. Yep, she’s 100% Hmong, my friend replied. And then my classmate remarked, “You’re too beautiful to be Hmong.”
I don’t know about you , but this comment gets to me. The person stating this is complimenting you on your beauty. Take it as it is or—if you’re like me (and some others)—take it offensively. Why? Because this comment implies that Hmong people (or Hmong women, for that matter) are too plain or ugly to be considered beautiful, and you are the exception. But why should you be offended? They’re telling you that you’re beautiful. I know, but they’re also implying that my ethnic group, as a whole, is ugly. I don’t know where they’re looking, but I know and see many many beautiful, gorgeous Hmong women (and men). We are not ugly.
One of my dear friend’s father was shocked when he found out (after 7 years of us being friends) that I am Hmong. He said, “You’re not like the Hmong people I see. They’re short and hunched back because they have to carry the bamboo baskets on their backs. You’re tall.” Not really; I am only 5’3″.
With all the comments I’ve received over the almost 3 decades of my life, I’ve compiled a description of how a Hmong woman should look like: short, fat, dark-skinned, hunched-back with a porky nose and chinky eyes. This is the epitome of Asian ugly, isn’t it? If you ask any Asian what it is to be physically ugly, most likely they would say one or all the characteristics mentioned above. So does that mean that the Hmong is the ugly of the Asian race?
While searching the WWW to see if I can find an article on this topic, I came across Elmo Lee’s Hmong Beauty Project. Elmo is a beauty and fashion photographer, known as Huenha Photography. Her artwork is stunning. I remember I started following her and her sister, Milly, way back when I was still on Myspace and their photography was called NaturalBlush.
The Hmong Beauty Project is to show people that Hmong women are beautiful. Elmo states on its website that:
It’s not uncommon to hear Hmong women being told they’re too beautiful to be Hmong or that their beauty resembles another ethnic group. My response to that is that Hmong women are as beautiful as any other ethnic group and none of it is a coincidence or an accident. This in essence is the motivation and purpose of my photoshoot which showcases the beauty of Hmong women as individuals whose beauty is unique to herself.
I agree. Hmong women are as beautiful as any other Asian ethnicity. It does not do us any justice when others say that we, as a whole, are ugly. We’re all individuals, and although we may have similarities, we’re beautiful in our own ways.
With Elmo’s permission, I have posted some of the Hmong women she has photographed on here. This is a new project, which started at the beginning of this year, so it only has 8 women so far. I cannot wait to see how it develops.
When I asked Elmo what sparked her Hmong Beauty project, she replied:
Whenever I stumble onto a pretty girl’s picture, it’s never a surprise to see at least one comment like this: “You are so beautiful. You look like a Thai/Korean/etc girl;” “You are pretty for a Hmong girl.” It’s a compliment, but at the same time, it’s an insult; as if looking Hmong or being Hmong is a bad thing…. Just a few weeks ago, one of my cousins met my friend from out of state. My cousin thought my friend wasn’t Hmong simply because she thought my friend was beautiful and that she doesn’t look Hmong. This is exactly why I did the project.
I want to point out that I hear this “You’re too beautiful to be Hmong” remark within our Hmong community as well. Growing up, I have heard too many comments on how Chinese women’s beauty trump Hmong women. My father used to always say that Chinese women are the most beautiful in the world. And it wasn’t uncommon to hear from other Hmongs—especially the older generation—that a Hmong woman is as beautiful as a Chinese maiden. Elmo stated the same thing, “Zoo nkauj li nas ej Suav.” I feel that this comparison has a lot to do with our not-so-good history with the Han Chinese. My father used to spill Hmong propaganda that the Chinese kidnapped all the beautiful Hmong women to be their wives and that was why the Chinese are more beautiful than the Hmong (Really, Dad?). And then, there is the media.
Elmo stated that she has made similar statements and feels guilty about it. “Why do we think like this?” she asked. Her conclusion (it’s not silly, Elmo) is:
We don’t have Hmong celebrities or “beautiful” popular Hmong idols to reference to. Look at it this way, we don’t have our own country. Before coming to the USA, we were simply farmers. The Hmong entertainment industry isn’t like the mainstream here or anything near kpop/jpop. We’ve only been in the United States for 35-40 years. Our skills/expertise in whatever area are still poor. Yes, we’re improving, but we have a long way to catch up…. We have talents and skills. We’re just not there yet because before all this, all we knew was farming, how to be a wife, have kids, dedicate our life to our in laws, etc.
It hasn’t been until in the past decade or two that the Hmong entertainment industry has immensely progressed. With the help of technology and education, Hmong film-makers have created dynamic movies that have gained a lot of attention within the community. And with this comes Hmong actors and actresses. We now see beautiful Hmong women on-screen—something we have never seen before. Additionally, many talented Hmong bands and artists have also emerged. Hmong non-profit groups, such as CHAT are empowering individuals to express their artistic and creative sides. Hmong community events (that I can think off the top of my head), such as the Hmong Music Festival, Fresh Traditions, and Revived, have showcased talented and beautiful Hmong people. Prior to this, besides American celebrities, we had Asian stars to idolize. We’re getting there, but are we there yet?
According to my observations, personal experiences, and what I hear from other Hmong women, I agree with Elmo that we still have some ways to go. Society still believes that Hmong women are ugly and to be beautiful must mean that we are not Hmong. How long will it take to have society realize our beauty? How much will it take for the Hmong to embrace and claim the beauty of our women? We are Hmong beauty.