Hmong Culture, Identities & Feminism
Once upon a summer, as I traveled back home to be with my family, a sister from another mother wrote me a note, expressing her interests in my thoughts about Hmong culture, identities, and feminism. It took me a few days to respond because no other Hmong female except for my sisters has really asked me my views as a Hmong feminist on Hmong culture and feminism in general. However, I felt it was my calling to share my thoughts not only to her but you as well in hopes it will help you move forward with your journey.
A SISTER FROM ANOTHER MOTHER:
I need some thoughts on Hmong culture and feminism. I'm struggling with being a newly married Hmong woman...and feeling like I'm losing my identity when I am called "nyab ____" and "ntxawm _____"..etc. (I knew it was coming, but feeling like my identity is erased is bothering me more than I thought it would. And it's hard to express to anyone because I don't want people to think I don't love my husband or his family.)
I will admit being internalized towards Hmong culture, being educated more on white feminism than intersectional feminism, and having a stubborn millennial streak. AND it's because of these three reasons that I can't decide for myself what is "right" and "wrong" and how to BE myself.
I want to be respectful towards my husband's family, but still feel like I have the freedom to my own identity.
Maybe you can shed light on Hmong culture (I don't know much here, just the parts I don't like), being a Hmong feminist (and what that looks and sounds like?), and maybe how to navigate around people who believe differently?
Sorry to pour this all onto you, but any thoughts would be appreciated. I don't always need a "solution", sometimes just more information and points of views is enough for me to chew over.
Thank you for your time. 🙂
Hi, my dear sister from another mother,
I didn't forget about you. You were in my mind throughout my stay. Interestingly, after your message, I had a few friends and cousins who shared their experience as a Hmong nyab (daughter-in-law). What I learned from them is that it is a journey in itself. At the end of the day, it is between you and your husband who will make things happen that makes the most sense to you both. I am not a nyab so I cannot share my perspectives from that end. However, I want to emphasize that being a feminist means very different things to different people and it is always changing just like our identities. As a newlywed, you have gained new identities. These identities you gave yourself and others gave them to you. Remember these identities are socially constructed and they can be unconstructed. Also, some identities they show up more depending on where you are or who you are with. The challenge is balancing these identities and be true to them and yourself. Another challenge are the identities other people put on you or expect you to be.
Knowing that we as individuals encompass multiple identities, different identities are more salient, more apparent depending on where we are and who we are with. For example, being home with my parents, my identity as a Hmong daughter and Hmong female were very salient. My uncles and aunts still views me as their daughter who is an unmarried female and not a capable person who is independent, pays her own bills and has her own career. As a feminist, I know that it is our Hmong patriarchal culture and social norms playing into this view. I used to get very mad that they were only interested in my marriage status (when will you get married?) but I came to realize that it's not just them, it's the whole society (Hmong and non-Hmong) which has been socially constructed to think that a female needs to be this and that. And if you are not what they think, then there's something wrong with you. I had to unlearn and relearn how our Hmong community creates and recreates these set of norms which can and has caused turmoil and self-sabotage. It was hard to accept but once I got to that level, I was able to move forward and enjoy time with my family.
Another thing to share with you about being a Hmong daughter involves gardening. For the first time, I let my guards down and helped my parents ua teb, work in the garden using dab hlau, a long gardening tool to kill weeds. I don't remember the last time I did it. It has been so long. I don't enjoy being at the garden, to be honest. I think it is so "unAmerican" - not the best describing word. But the only time I get to be with my parents is at the garden so it was important to meet them where they're at. I understand that it is not my reality and it’s okay. So I met them where they're at, at the garden and it was so refreshing. I had so much fun. My mom was extremely happy, she had my sister take pictures of us helping her ua teb. That was what I wanted, to see her happy. As a Hmong feminist, I feel it's important to figure out what works for you and what makes sense to you and the people you love on a daily basis. There's no written manual as to what a Hmong feminist should be like or look like. During my time ua teb with my mom, I asked her about her friends and our aunts who she is close with. She shares her views on what's happening in the community, this is where I get the latest news on family drama and what's happening at her job. My mom is from a different generation and has very different views from me about gender roles so we don't see eye to eye at times but during our conversation, I insert my own thoughts from time to time and ask questions to make her think not so much for her to agree with me but to make her think differently. It's okay to disagree and be respectful at the same time.
You mentioned you wanted to hear more about how to navigate around people who believe differently. Working in a Women and Gender Studies department, I work with people who believe differently or perceives me differently because of where I work at and how I look like. A lot of the times, it's fear of the unknown. Tabling at an orientation, an incoming Freshman student stopped by and asked if my department is only for women. I was honest and told this student that our department and major/minor is open to all students. Another student came by and asked, why is there no men's studies? That was a pain in the neck question. I paused and smiled at this student trying to see how I should respond. I brought the question back to this student to see if the student is asking the question with a genuine interest or just want to throw a curve ball at me. Most times, you can tell from their body language and facial expressions. The student got stuck so I shared more about what my department is offering and what we do. That was the end of the conversation.
If the student was really interested and wanted to learn more, I would ask who is currently running our country? Who has been in this position historically? Who makes the rules in their local community? Who do they see mostly as professors at colleges? And then depending on how interested the student is, I go into misrepresentations, how rules are made by the dominant community. I think respecting the person who has different beliefs and asking ignorant questions is very important. I encourage you to assess the intention and use it as a teachable moment. I also encourage you to do what makes most sense that will bring you peace. Minds and hearts will not change overnight but seeds will be planted little by little. And if they really don’t care, then it's okay. I will let it be and still hold my truth and have respect for the other person.
My father and I bud heads all the time. I've learned to hear him out and acknowledge his thoughts even if I disagree. Most times that's all he needed and then he's more willing to listen to what I have to say. From all this, I have encourage folks to learn their opponents' views and behaviors. You will be just as strong as your opponent if you know what they are thinking so when they challenge you, you know where to connect with them and then you insert your thoughts.
I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any other questions or thoughts.
Thank you for reading. What are your thoughts? What else would you like to add and share with this Hmong sister? Please share below.