Thirty Life Lessons

Happy BirthdayI turned 30.

When I was younger, I used to think that 30 was old. Being a teenager or fresh out of high school, I could not fathom being 30. Thirty is old! So old! I’m so old! My life has ended…. (<—sarcasm).

I am no sage, but I have learned many things while trekking through life. Many of them I learned from my own experience and others I learned from watching people live their lives. Some of them are very cliche (yeah, I know; life is a bunch of cliches). I’ll share 30 of them with you today.

  1. Not everyone will like you.
    Don’t expect people to like you. Stop going out of your way to please those who only look at you with disdain. Put that energy in fostering relationships with those who care for your time and love.
  2. Give freely without expectation of reciprocation.
    There’s the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This makes us believe that if we do good for someone, that person owes us or that person should exhibit a similar behavior towards us. We cannot predict another person’s actions, and we cannot hold another person accountable for something we did for them (unless, of course, we had an ulterior motive). My golden rule: Give freely without any expectation of reciprocation. You will end up being much happier and less full of resentment.
  3. Focus on the things that you can control.
    There are many things in this world that we cannot control. The weather, our work environment, certain situations, and other people—just to name a few. Instead of putting our energy on things that we cannot change (as we tend to do), try focusing on the things that we can change. It leaves room for less stress.
  4. Create healthy boundaries.
    Recognize that we have a right to our personal boundaries. We get to say no.  It’s about us making sure we are allowing ourselves to have relationships with others, while at the same time, making sure others are not crossing the line.
  5. Forgive.
    Forgiveness is as much for oneself as it is for the other person. Forgiveness is not forgetting what happened to you, but letting go of the resentment that came along with the experience.
  6. Do self-care.
    If you don’t take care and love yourself, no one else will. Take time outs from your hectic schedule and have some “me” time. Read a book, paint, get a massage, spend time with family/friends, make your annual doctor appointments. Self-care also means setting healthy boundaries (Number 4).
  7. Stop comparing.
    There are two types of self-comparing-talk. One is “She is such a successful person; I want to be just like that!” The other is “She is such a successful person; why can’t I be like that” or “I will never be like that.” The latter prevents us from growing to our greatest potential. We are our own individuals. There is no point in comparing ourselves to others if we are going to bring us down.
  8. Communicate.
    No one is a mind-reader. If you want something, speak up or you will never get it.
  9. Stop waiting on good things to happen to you.
    It bothers me when I hear people say, “I’ve done enough good for the world. It’s now my time to sit and wait for the good to befall me.” The good—whatever that is to you—will come to you if you work for it. Good things don’t come to people who do nothing. Good things come to those who are always striving for good (Refer back to number 2).
  10. Acknowledge your mistakes.
    Let go of your ego or your pride. Acknowledge your mistakes, apologize, and learn from them..
  11. Don’t hold grudges.
    When I was younger, I used to think that the longer I hold a grudge, the more it’s going to hurt the other individual. I was wrong. The only person I hurt was  me. I was filled with such resentment that I became toxic to myself and the people around me. This goes along with number 5.
  12. Be alone.
    Being alone doesn’t mean being lonely.
    This video does a great job articulating what it means to be alone:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7X7sZzSXYs
  13. Family doesn’t necessarily mean blood.
    I am blessed to have many people come into my life who I’m proud to call family. They may not be from the same mother and father, but they’ve been with me through so much that we’re practically family.
  14. Everyone has a story.
    Before being quick to judge someone, whether it is from their appearance or from gossip, remember that that person may have a story that you do not know about.
  15. Be flexible.
    As the famous Confucius stated, “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.” Give up control when time doesn’t call for it.
  16. Don’t assume things.
    Don’t assume or read between the lines. Your assumption could lead to misunderstanding.
  17. Gratitude.
    Be thankful. Don’t take things for granted.
  18. “Stop and smell the roses.”
    Sometimes we get so caught up in life that we are always going and going and going. Time passes quickly. Be mindful and stay present because we can never get that time back.
  19. Spend quality time with family.
    This ties in the the previous one. It’s safe to say that the reason why many of us work, why we strive to better ourselves is for family. Sometimes we get so caught up with these things that we forget the main purpose of why we work so hard. Quality time does not mean being in the same room doing separate things. Give your undivided time and attention to those you love.
  20. Lose the toxic people in your lives.
    It doesn’t matter if you’ve been friends for 10 years or if they’re family. Toxic people will bring you down, hurt you, lie to you, and more. It is especially hard to deal with these people when they are unaware that they’re polluting the people around them. Sometimes, we just have to put up very strict boundaries with toxic people—one of them being writing them out of your life.
  21. Celebrate.
    Celebrate life, love, anniversaries, birthdays. Celebrate anything you feel happy about. Just celebrate.
  22. Laugh.
    Laugh a lot. It can cure many things.
  23. Cry. A lot.
    There is no shame in having emotions, even negative ones. Embrace it. Feel it. What really matters is how you deal with the negativity in your life.
  24. Create a strong support system.
    You’re more likely to overcome hard times when you have a strong support system, people who can go to when you’re down. They are those who will tell you like it is, but not judge you or make you feel this little.
  25. Simplicity.
    Adults make life too complicated then complain about life being so. Declutter. Get rid of things that are taking up space. This applies to all aspects of our lives: physical space, emotional space, and material possessions. Create more free time and let go of busy-ness.
  26. Be a kid.
    Learn from kids. They have life down well. They make it so simple. Sleep when you’re tired. Eat when you’re hungry. Play when you’re bored. Express yourself without holding back. Make up when you’re over it. Give hugs and kisses freely. Love unconditionally.
  27. Breathe.
    Don’t forget to breathe. Sometimes, just taking some deep breaths will be the medicine you need to de-stress.
  28. Give Respect.
    Everyone deserves respect. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the person, if you admire the person, if the person is a family member or a stranger. However, don’t expect others to respect you just because you respect them. There will be people who do not respect you and that should not matter (refer to 1, 2,  3, 21 and more).
  29. It’s okay to be perceived as a bitch.
    When you’re assertive and people don’t like it, you’re a bitch. When you know what you want and work for it, you’re a bitch. When you’re opinionated, you’re a bitch. When you set boundaries and people don’t like hearing no, you’re a bitch. When you stand up for yourself, you’re a bitch. Yes, there are circumstances where it’s okay for people to think you’re a bitch.
  30. Take ownership of your life.
    This is the most important. All of the above relate to this one one way or another. Reiterate: MOST IMPORTANT (Yes, I’m yelling because it’s important!).Your parents may think they know what’s best for you. Your friends may believe they know you. But only you can be the captain of your life. You get to make decisions for yourself. No one else knows you as much as you know yourself. Sometimes the process of getting to know yourself takes a long time, but essentially, you get to decide what you need and want.Taking ownership of your life also comes with taking ownership of your issues and mistakes. Because when you do, you can finally do something about them instead of constantly blaming others for your misfortune.

What’s in a Name?

MBMy name is MaiBao. The Hmong RPA spelling of MaiBao is Maiv Npauj. Maiv means “girl,” “miss,” or “little girl.” (Maiv can be used by itself to call someone significantly younger than you. For example, an elderly woman can call a young Hmong woman, “Maiv” without having to use her name). Npauj means “moth.” MaiBao or Maiv Npauj is pronounced phonetically as My Bow or My Bough (both rhyme with “cow”). The phonetic pronunciation has slight tonal variations from how one would pronounce my name in Hmong.

Throughout my life, I have had countless people mispronounce my name. People have called me MayBoo, MayBow, MayBo, even Maribelle. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. However, I have gotten so used to it that it doesn’t come as a surprise when people say my name incorrectly.

A few weeks ago, I heard my 5-year-old correct her teacher’s pronunciation of my name as I sat in the back of the class, putting together the students’ caterpillar package.

“My mommy’s name is Maiv Npauj (she used the correct Hmong pronunciation).”

“MaiBao, that’s what I said,” the teacher said.

“No. It’s not MaiBao. It’s Maiv Npauj.”

“I know. That’s what I said. MaiBao.”

“No, Npauj. Npauj.”

Mrs. P. turned to me and asked, “How do you pronounce your name?”

Maiv Npauj,” I replied.

“MaiBao. Bao. Booooowwww,” she dragged out the second syllable.

Mrs. P. turned to Mini Mermaid, “See, your mom said her name is MaiBao.”

“No. She said her name is Maiv Npauj.”

Overhearing that conversation sparked some thoughts. How would things be like if we live in an alternate world where Hmong is the mainstream? Hmong pronunciation of English names and words would be commonplace. Michael would be Maiv Kaum (my-gao). Laura would be Lauv Lam (Lao-lah). Even simple names like Ben would instead be Npees (Bang). Would English-speaking individuals get annoyed that their names are always “mispronounced.”

But, wait. There are nations where English isn’t the main language, where English names and words do get a twist in pronunciation. For example, Michael in Japanese is Maikeru; it is Maikeul in Korean. Laura is Rora in Japanese and Lola in Korean.

For a long time, my children couldn’t pronounce one of their friends’ name. Instead of saying, “Sidney,” they called her “Cindy.” English is not their first language, so they sometimes have a hard time pronouncing certain English words. Sidney insisted that it should be pronounced, “Sidney.”

There is a teenage Armenian boy in our neighborhood whose name is Shaunt, but English-speakers call him “Shawn.” He has corrected them many times, telling them that it’s just like Shawn but with a T, but they still call him Shawn.

There is a little girl in one of my children’s class who is always correcting the everyone’s pronunciation of her name, Angelita, “It’s An-Gal-EET-a, not An-Jah-LEEt-a.”

I didn’t care about my name for a long time. I was so used to people butchering my name that it became normal for me to have people say my name wrong. I didn’t want to correct them because I didn’t know how nor did I want to sound petty. I understand that not everyone speak Hmong, so they won’t be able to pronounce it correctly. They probably can’t even hear the slight change in tonal sounds.

Even some Hmong people mispronounce my name. Instead of saying Maiv Npauj, they would say Maiv Npaub. Why make such a fuss about a slight change in tones? Npauj and Npaub mean the same thing! Well, it’s like calling Ana (On-ah) Anna (An-ah) or saying “An-Jah-LEEt-a” instead of “An-Gal-EET-a.” There is a difference!

Even Hmong people mispronounce my name. Instead of saying Maiv Npauj, they would say Maiv Npaub.

Someone once told me that a person’s name is their brand. It should be the most important word in a person’s personal vocabulary. It should be carried with pride and be corrected if mispronounced by others. That person was my Intro to Speech professor in college. On the first day of class, she asked me how I say my name in Hmong. “I know that people who have foreign names are accommodating. They tend to change how they pronounce their names so English-speakers could say it. I don’t wan’t to know how I would say it; I want to know how you say it.” It wasn’t until years later when I stumbled upon a video recording of my informative speech that I was reminded of the importance of my name.

I find myself using Maiv Npauj more and more these days. Sometimes I feel self-conscious using the correct pronunciation, even to Hmong individuals! I feel as if I’m saying it incorrectly when it is the right way to say it. Or I feel as if I’m, all of a sudden, changing my name on people (Your name isn’t Maiv Npauj; it’s MaiBao, I hear myself say every time I use the Hmong pronunciation). I guess it’s going to take some time getting used to my name when I have told people, “It’s no big deal,” or “It’s okay,” for so many years when they mispronounce my name.

BOF Day of Action: Sacramento, CA

Hello, everyone!

I’ve already posted this on my Facebook Page, but I’ll post it here for those who do not have a Facebook account.

The Building Our Future Sacramento Team has been working very hard at organizing our upcoming BOF event. If you are in the Sacramento area, I would like to invite you to join us this Saturday, October 25, 2014. This public forum will be a space to address and take steps to solve domestic violence and abusive international marriages in our Hmong community.
BOF flyer FINAL

Building Our Future: Champions Against Abusive International Marriages

The first time I heard about abusive international marriages (AIM) was at the Hmong National Development Conference in Fresno, CA in April 2013. Presented by Kabzuag Vaj (Freedom Inc), Nancy Xiong (George Mason University), and Pa Vang (University of Wisconsin), “Abusive International Marriage – Transnational Domestic Violence” was a workshop to present a report about AIM  and discuss how it has affected Hmong families in Wisconsin. The report, titled “Abusive International Marriages: Hmong Advocates Organizing in Wisconsin,” was the result of advocates working collaboratively with community leaders, victims/survivors, and allies to collect stories of AIM, identify its root causes, and strategize resolutions.

Building Our Future 2013 flyer
Building Our Future 2013 flyer

What is “abusive international marriages?” First, let’s start by defining what an international marriage is. It is when someone from one country marries an individual from another country. For example, a person from the United States marrying someone from Thailand. An international marriage becomes abusive when it falls under these characteristics:

  • Old men marrying underage girls with age differences of 20-70 years
  • Older men using their sons to marry underage girls
  • Forced marriages
  • Forced divorces—in these instances divorces are only legally but not culturally
  • Misrepresenting marital status to brides
  • “Marry-and-dump”/transnational abandonment
  • Marriages as business transactions
  • Marriage brokers promoting underage brides
  • Arrangements driven by poverty

Abusive international marriage is a form of domestic violence that involves deceit, fraud, manipulation, and sexual exploitation. It is a trend that is rising in the recent years. It impacts almost everyone in the Hmong community.

BOF AIM
Build Our Future 2013 flyer

Building Our Future (BOF) is a national and transnational community campaign, founded by Kabzuag Vaj, KaYing Yang, and Bo Thao-Urabe, that launched in October 2013. BOF focuses on building a violence-free society for the Hmong. It addresses gender-based violence, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and abusive international marriages. This grassroots movement strives to “build strong Hmong families who are free from abuse that thrive from generation to generation,” as stated on their Facebook page.

The first Building Our Future Call to Action Day was on October 25, 2013. Organizers and advocates from the U.S. and Laos united together to bring awareness to domestic violence and abusive international marriages in the form of vigils, forums, teach-ins, and radio talk shows. California held the BOF Call to Action Day in Sacramento.

This year, I am working with a group of BOF advocates and organizers in Northern California. Our slogan is “Champions Against Abusive International Marriages.” We will be holding two events on October 25th, 2014; one in Sacramento and one in Fresno. Our goals for this year is to promote the Building Our Future movement, address how AIM has impacted our community, and to empower community members to support victims and survivors of domestic violence and AIM.

I want to point out that advocates and organizers are not against international marriages. The Hmong are displaced all over the world due to imperialism and war. Family reunification through international marriages is a must to some families. We support international marriages and relationships. It’s when individuals engage in practices through international marriages that exploit individuals that we must speak up against abusive international marriages.

More information will be provided about the location and time of the Call to Action Day events, nationally and internationally. Please visit the Building Our Future Facebook page for more information as they update in the coming weeks.

“Girls Will Be Happy If They Get Married Crying.”

Warning: Very emotionally tense videos ahead.

This is a video of a group of Black Hmong in Sapa, Vietnam. The young girl is being dragged by men who are practicing what we call zij poj niam—in other words, bride-napping.

I first saw this video circulating the social network sites at the end of last year. And now it has been uploaded and shared again, this time probably by a different YouTuber since the original video has been privated. When I first saw it, I was enraged and appalled at such abusive and traumatizing cultural practice. Then my heart ached and I cried for the helpless young girl.

Bride kidnapping was a very common practice when I was growing up in the 90’s. People are surprised when I tell them that this happened in the United States. Momma and Grams would warn me never to go with any man for fear that they would bride-nap me. That was one of the reasons why I never dated older men when my friends were dating men 10 years their senior. I was too scared that in a swift moment, I would be carted off and never see my family again.

I used to hear about it a lot. It happened to many Hmong girls who lived in the same town as I did. It is disturbing when you see it in Hmong movies. And it is horrifying when you see it happening to a person, even if you don’t know her—even if you’re only viewing it online, in the comfort of your home.

When a Hmong man zij a bride, it is customary that the groom’s family give the bride 3 days to make her decision. She has the choice to go back to her family if she wants to. Just because a man zij a bride, it doesn’t mean that he automatically gets to marry her. The wedding will not take place until the wedding negotiations are discussed nor is the wedding date set until the bride and her family agrees to the marriage.

However, how often do you think that a kidnapped bride returns home? From all of the people that I knew who were bride-napped, zero came home. Many simply do not know that they have the right to return home. They believe that they have no other choice, but to marry the man who kidnapped them. Many are manipulated (usually by other women) into staying. If a kidnapped bride returns home, she will bring shame upon her family. She should be happy to marry a man who wants her so bad that he resorts to kidnapping. In most extreme cases, some kidnapped brides are raped so they have no other choice but to stay because they are no longer “pure” or “innocent.”

Comments for the video varied. Most people criticized the Hmong community for practicing such a custom and allowing it to live through the generations. Many others criticized those who criticized this practice. Many commented on the bystanders, some asking why no one helped the young girl, some responding that no one intervened because zij poj niam is the norm. Some stated for the Western Hmong to stop criticizing when we don’t live in their world and do not understand their lifestyle.

The young bride-napped Hmong girl grew up in such a culture where zij poj niam is the norm. Maybe the actions of the bystanders shouldn’t matter to me because I can understand that they grew up in a place where this is normal. However, as much as I would like to say, “It’s the cultural norm and custom for the Hmong. Why should I impose my western ideals and perspective on these people,” I see the crying and screaming young girl who refused to go with these men. In the act of pulling her, they literally took off her clothes and it seems like she just gave up at the end. They are violating her human rights to say no to a marriage she does not want. And that is why I see this practice in such negativity. It’s not that I’m too “Americanized” to embrace my culture because even this “non-Americanized” girl does not appreciate or want any of this.

The Hmong are not the only group that practice bride-napping. A country known for bride-napping is Kyrgyzstan. It seems that the customs for bride-napping and wedding negotiations are similar to those of the Hmong.

Bride-napping reminds me of the cave men cartoons I used to watch during my childhood. The cavemen would drag the women by the hair to their caves. Sometimes I wonder why men would go through such extremes just to get a bride. Why do they have to violate another human being? It doesn’t take much to court/date a girl, make her fall in love with you, and then marry her. The top two reason I’ve heard from people as to why some Hmong men would resort to bride-napping are that they cannot pay the full bride-price or the girl refused to marry them. First of all, if you cannot afford to pay a bride-price for a bride, maybe it’s not time for you to get married. Secondly, if a girl doesn’t like you and doesn’t want to marry you, don’t you think it’s a good idea to leave her alone?

The English statement that one of the kidnappers made to the tourists at the end of the Hmong bride-napping video seem to depict zij poj niam as something to be proud and boastful about. He happily greeted them with “Hello!” then proceeded to say, “This is the tradition of kidnapping a wife.”

My maternal grandfather zij Grams on her way to the farm. Her girlfriends did not intervene for fear that my grandfather’s friends would zij them too. When I asked how my grams felt about it, she simply stated that even though she was scared, she couldn’t do anything about it. She didn’t kick and scream like the young girl. They grabbed her by her arms and pulled her. She protested and resisted the whole way to my grandfather’s house. She married my grandfather because she felt she didn’t have a choice and also felt that it was her destiny.

Does that mean that I should be glad that my grandfather zij Grams? Because if he hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today to comment on the barbaric nature of bride-napping. Sometimes I wonder about my grandmother and mother’s generations and how bride-napping was so common then. During my Grams’ generation, divorce was unheard of and even if you were bride-napped, you just learn to love and make it work. According to my Grams, my grandfather was a patient man and loved her dearly. He never raised his voice at her. But then again, maybe my Grams’ marriage is an exception.

So, do we, the Hmong in the United States, still zij poj niam? I don’t know. I can say that the stories of young girls being bride-napped that I hear has dwindled down to only one every couple of years. Maybe I’m just not in-tuned with my Hmong community. Maybe the Hmong has come to fear the laws of this land. Or maybe our younger generation realize the barbaric nature of bride-napping and have come to desire love before marriage.