Memories from the Body
Memories from the Body: Claiming our Pain, Suffering, and Healing
The wind was cold that night, and she had the light from a small fire to keep her company. The pre-pregnancy contractions pain was unbearable, but the pain did not even measure to the anger in her heart. Her child is coming, and she is alone behind her parent’s hut. For shelter, her father put up up a thin wall of bamboo, probably for courtesy and privacy and not so much for shelter. Her heart was in a rage because she could not believe that her parents would choose to have her give birth like this - outside and alone. They say this way her birth will not upset the house spirits. It is bad luck for a divorced Hmong woman to give birth in a house not belonging to her husband. She never forgave her parents.
My mother told me that story with pain, anger, and disbelief. Even after at least 40 years, she could not shake the experience. My mother was a teenager when she gave birth to her second son, and she did it by herself outside in a makeshift corner of her parent’s home. It is a custom that when a woman without a husband gets pregnant, she must deliver her child elsewhere. Being recently divorced, my mom sucked in her pride and under her breath she cursed her parents for not loving her enough to allow her to have the child in their home. Her two older kids were also recently taken from her. In the situation of a divorce, the Hmong woman is often not allowed to take anything but her clothes and belongings. Like a piece of property, she is returned to her parents at a discounted price. She is now like a used car. Her parents does not expect a full return, nor would they expect a high price for future sales. Similarly, my sister who also found herself divorced in her early twenties told me that she is like a ripped piece of fabric and will never be whole again.
These stories hurt me so because I know my mother and sister are not alone in their experiences. Furthermore, hearing strong and prominent Hmong women figures in my life making sense of their worth based on a scale that is archaic and oppressive was jarring. My mom and I are from two different generations so I can somewhat understand the differences in our thinking, but my sister and I were only four years apart. She got married when she was just a child - 13 years old. Although that may seem remarkably early, this was the expected age for most marriages in the Hmong culture. The marriage fell apart for reasons I still do not know, all I know is, she spent the next ten years making up for how she tainted her reputation.
In this section, I want to give space for the pain, suffering, and healing of Hmong woman. If you were to meet my mother and sister, you would have never known they went through those life experiences. Hmong women are taught to be shameful of the wrongs committed towards them. However, Hmong women have carried each other stories as lessons, warnings, and encouragement for generations. In a beautiful way, we become each other’s scribe and proof of memory even if no one knows. Hence, I want to pay particular attention to how the stories we tell each other and to the community of Hmong women solidifies the existence of pain, suffering, and healing. So often, Hmong men take up the space of stories about suffering and assimilation, and because women flourish more often than men, we are not seen as experiencing assimilation, displacement, and colonialism. In this section, I ask the questions - how do we preserve each other’s story? How do Hmong women help each other heal and prepare for the next generation? How does remembering pain and suffering and the process of healing help us reimagine Hmong womanhood?
In the first selection, I picked Mayli Van’s poem We Women of the Hmong Culture to illustrate how Vang took on the role of speaking on behalf of all Hmong women and their oppression at the eating table. Second, I include Nakita Vang’s inspiration poem on tending to the pain of other Hmong women. Third, Chilli Lor’s poem on asking for love to find reconciliation and healing takes a slightly different direction. Next is Bao Nhia Moua’s story on her mother’s a recollection of her forced marriage to Moua's father. The following source details the organization Redgreen Rivers started by three Hmong women with a shared vision to create a community of Hmong women artisans. Lastly, I included a poem written by my younger sister Nakita Xiong on making sense of distance between her and her mother. These stories capture the innocence of young, middle age, and older Hmong women and their accounts with pain and suffering and their fight for healing. To reimagine Hmong womanhood, we must first make our pain, healing, and existence known.
We Women of the Hmong Culture
The word “uv” or “ua siab ntev“ in its simple form means to “endure”. To what end, this is not defined. For how long, this is not known. In fact, I would not be surprised if Hmong women have used the word “to endure” for generations and generations. I learned it from my mother, and she learned it from her mother. Hmong women are taught not to complain, it is one of our virtues. But we tell each other our suffering. Mayli Vang explains to endure in her poem We Women of the Hmong Culture by furthering the conversation on the gender politics at the eating table. Vang names the poem “We Women of the Hmong Culture” to bring attention that this situation is a shared experience among Hmong women. She explains the ritual of men eating first and women eating or picking up their scraps. Vang (2002) even throws in the perspective of educated women being seen as she-witched, “possessed by newfound knowledge of excessive freedom” (p. 154). She calls this eating ritual patriarchal and is disgusted by the practice. In one line she sarcastically questions if this ritual is how one loves a Hmong woman.
At last, Vang (2002) writes “Biting our lips and our tongues, we sit. With each bite into the feast at hand, we remember we are women.“ (p. 155). I have been taught the same ritual from a young age, and yes, every time I sit at the dinner table I am reminded that I come second in this culture. However, I would argue that Hmong women are not quietly compliant in this practice. I argue that the very action of remembering is a form of resistance. In this case, Vang remembers through writing and writing on behalf of all Hmong women. Remembering the distaste of being a second-rate human-being is perhaps the beginning to reimagining Hmong women as no longer second-rate in the culture. Evidence by what she writes, this is not an individual story. Hence I question, in what ways do we tell our generations and the generations of Hmong women to come, to push for a spot at the table and to ask our elders to love us first and equally as our brothers, fathers, and uncles. How do we reimagine love, respect, and space in our communities? I believe Vang is also asking the same questions by documenting this shared experience.
To the men who broke the woman who just loved loving you.
Nakita Vang writes a note on behalf of Hmong women who are silenced and “binned by society’s dead end” where she calls out the inconsiderate and cowardly act of men who have received nothing but love from these women. Her poem is one of healing, asking Hmong women to rest a piece of their broken heart on her heart and take a moment of rest. When addressing Hmong men, she offers them perspectives on how to read the love the women in their lives have laid out for them and challenges them to reciprocate the love. Vang writes in a series of questions, asking both men and the structure of our culture - the culture that teaches Hmong women to love wholeheartedly but does not teach the Hmong community on how to love Hmong women. In an excerpt Vang writes:
“I know what many will say. But I ask for just a moment for the silenced to have their
moment. “She did it to herself. She chose to stay. She can just leave then. She can go find a non-Hmong man”—Am I supposed to condemn her for only knowing to love and giving her life to do so? Am I supposed to blame her for only dreaming of your happiness because that is all she ever knew, born into this society that is structured to benefit you? Am I supposed to shame her for trying to keep the father of her children in a society that will eat her alive for not having one? Am I supposed to punish her for the pureness and dedication in her that the bride price of our standards actually pay for? (Vang, 2017)”
In this short poem, Vang wraps in details about patriarchy, oppression, marriage customs, and stigmas of a divorce Hmong women, to name a few. She stands up and tends to the wounds of Hmong women by addressing the people who have harmed them. Although Vang refers to them as men, Vang is not only asking husbands but she is also asking fathers, brothers, and uncles. Vang brings into light the practice that most Hmong women were taught since birth. We are taught to tend to the needs of the men in our lives and community. We are taught to endure everything that comes our way if it means to support the happiness or our sons, husbands, fathers, and uncles. Who then takes care of us when we are harm? Often, Hmong women are shamed to not disclose pain so no one tends for their pain but themselves. Here Vang is practicing the acknowledgment of Hmong women's’ pain as she does so in other poems and writings on her website. Vang brings up an important practice. To reimagine Hmong womanhood, how must we help each other heal from a life of oppression and possibly generational oppression passed down from our mothers.
Ciaj Ciam Hmoob Mekas
Chilli Lor is an emerging artist most well known to the Hmong community for penning her poem Ciaj Ciam Hmoob Meskas which roughly translates to Culture Borderline. The poem exists in both Hmong and English. The poem and visual depiction of the poem is a reflection on Lor’s reconciliation with her parents and a critique on her assimilation in the United States. This poem bridges two different generations of Hmong experiences and includes history, apology, displacement, longing for connection, and healing. The way the poem is written, it is unclear whether the English version or the Hmong version came first or if they were written at the same time. Her rhythm and vocabulary reflects her western education background but also gives homage to kwv txhiaj, traditional Hmong poetry and spoken word.
Lor’s poem is an important example of how the younger generation of Hmong American is making sense of their history, displacement, and longing for connection. She talks about her personal history and assimilation into America’s melting pot while interchanging between using “I” and “we” or navigating between individualism and conformism. She explains her need to remember connections that span cultural boundaries but also her talks about choices in giving up and failing to be Hmong. Lor's poem is also a close depiction of how Hmong American youths and young adults are dealing with the pain and suffering of not knowing their identity. Furthermore, Lor specifically ask her parents to not forget her as a daughter and to love her as they once did. Lor asking and explaining how her parents can love her is the first poem of its kind from her age group. Her young age is perhaps the reason why she is unafraid to ask for unconditional love but I believe the indication of her asking for love is a form of healing. The concept of recalling and asking to be love also resembles the longing for loving verses in kwv txhiaj. To reimagine Hmong womanhood, we need to name how we wish our parents to love us or make sense of their love. She ends the poem with a hope to reconcile with her parents.
Bao Nhia Moua recounts the story of her mother and grandmother’s relationship through her own voice and the voice of her mother. The story is about her mother at the age of 14 or 15 when she caught the eye of her father. Moua’s mother, not wanting to leave her mother, refuses the marriage proposal from Moua’s father. After a couple of attempts, Moua’s father and his uncle kidnapped Moua’s mother from outside her porch. Moua writes that her mom did not even stand a chance against the two men and “she remembers her dirt-covered feet never touched the ground” (Moua, n.d.). She also explains that her father left his family at 15 years old and was alone and wanted to start a family. Moua assures that she was raised well and that her parents love each other but she questions whether her mother wed him out of the duty and responsibility to insure the happiness of a man. After the kidnap, Moua’s mother was told that her mom requested she does not return home because there was no place for her at home. Though she did not hear those words straight from her mother, the words haunted her all her life. Even til this day, Moua’s mother does not know if those words were true because her mother passed away before she could confirm the events.
The story of Moua’s mother although unique, is also the story of many young Hmong women who were often forced into marriages through the practice of bride kidnapping. My mother’s first marriage happened similarly and bride kidnapping is a practice still in existence to this day. Marriage rituals in the Hmong culture is highly political and gendered but often, we forget about those that are actually hurt by the practice - women. Moua’s mother, still haunted by these events made the best of her life from what it seems, and throughout telling this story, she laughed but Moua could feel her pain. For generations now, bride kidnapping has been a socially accepted tradition so no one talks about the pain women go through and Moua documenting her mother’s lost makes the suffering real. So much innocence is lost in this practice. Women in my mother and grandmother’s generation were treated like property as a result from living an algerian culture society. These practices spills over to this generation and with the added prize of educated Hmong women, bride prices are even more controversial. Not so long ago, the 18 clans got together to talk about bridge prices without even batting an eye at the suffering of women. To reimagine Hmong womanhood, we must unearth pain that has always been there so we can problematize oppressive practices that are still in use.
Bao Nhia Moua
Split Families, Lost Time: Two Mother-Daughter Relationship Divided by War and marriage.
Redgreen Rivers was started by three Hmong women with their shared history to create a community of artisans that helps mostly women and girls make a living through practicing and selling traditional Hmong craft. When they saw textiles and crafts of their culture being mass-produced without acknowledgment of where the labor comes from, they decided they wanted to change that story. They also noted international tourism influencing many Hmong women to go into the sex industry for money and felt that creating an opportunity for Hmong women to make money should also be a goal of Redgreen Rivers. Bo Thao-Urabe, Kabzuag Vaj, and KaYing Yang are business women but they believe in lifting up women with them. Their vision for Redgreen Rivers is to help Hmong women live sustainable lifestyle by selling their craft and patenting rights to their designs. Redgreen Rivers have artisans also working with nonprofits in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to employ Hmong women in areas where jobs are especially scarce for women.
These women talked about their oppression growing up not only as Hmong women but also as refugees in the United States. From this pain, they promise they will give back and Redgreen Rivers is how they are giving back to the community. Displacement and colonialism has made many Hmong artist in southeast Asia unable to practice their traditional ways of textiles. For those who are still practicing, they are selling their designs to merchants who can mass produce pieces that are unique to their culture. All of their products are handmade and use organic materials. Some products are made directly from remnants of war such as shell casing. I believe part of reimagining Hmong womanhood is finding fellowship and community in our shared culture and history. I would even argue that this is how Thao-Urbe, Vaj, and Yang are going about healing. Although the prospective of this organization is fairly new, the founders are excited about helping Hmong women support their community in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
This poem is about a young girl conceptualizing her mother’s experiences of war and lost. She details her mother having a flowerpot at her bedroom window where she goes to hide. While watching the flowers, her mother is transported back to her life as a carefree girl in the mountains of Laos. The flowers also take her back to memories of war and chaos. Xiong makes reference to hunger, migration, and war casualty. Xiong tells about her mother’s longing for home and the world she used to know. In her last line, she writes “Till the day she dies, by this flowerpot, is another world she goes to hide.“.
It is unclear whether Xiong is writing on behalf of her mother or if her writing is imaginary and based on her knowledge of the war. What is clear is her understanding of the pain and the longing for home her mother has for the world she left behind. Xiong’s reference to her younger mother is a reflection of her and her mother’s age connection and the distance between their life experiences. Xiong also documents the unresolvedness of suffering and how her mother copes with displacement. Tending to the future also means to tend to the past - regardless of how much work it takes. What would transpire if healing never happens, how then do we reimagine ourselves anew? Can healing be a generational process and not an ending point?