Re-Imagining Hmong Womanhood
The universe was once turned upside down a long time ago, and the world was flooded with water. A boy and his sister took refuge in a large wooden drum that floated in an ocean so humongous, it touched all the corners of the earth. One day the flood rose high enough to reach the sky and the drum bumped against the land of the sky realm. To get rid of the thumping drum, the sky people punctured holes in the earth to let the water drain. When the big drum came back to the surface of the earth, and all the water had drained, the brother and sister discovered they were completely alone. With their backs to each other, they made a promise to go until the ends of the world to see if they can find anyone living. If by the time they run across each other again and have not found a living being, they will settle down and start a family. The siblings each walked to the ends of the world to only find each other again in the middle. Hence, they decided that no one else is left alive so they might as well start a family.
Soon after this, the sister became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a round looking creature. The brother is saddened by this, so he asked guidance from a higher power. He begged not to be alone anymore. The answer came to him in a dream. He was instructed to cut the baby into pieces and scatter the child in different parts around their house. The brother does as the dream told him and overnight where parts of the baby fell created the 18 Hmong clans. When the siblings woke up the next morning, they were overjoyed that their world was bustling with a community of Hmong people. I start with this story to illustrate that I have a kinship with all Hmong women and our kinship is as evidenced by the creation of the 18 Hmong clans. I use this story also to illustrate that I am probably related to most if not all of you. I personally know some of the writers, authors, artists, and activists included in this anthology. For those I do not have a personal history with, I have followed your work for many years. And for the few that I found completely out of the blue, I am humbled by your experiences and want to us to build community together.
We are here because I have been alone and you have somewhat been alone too. Growing up in Wisconsin, I took for granted having immediate access to a Hmong community. However, in Michigan, I have been without a Hmong community for three years. For the last three years, I only spoke Hmong when I am on the phone with my mother or when I go home for longer breaks. Maybe this comes with age or distance, but I have started to notice small differences in my experiences from other Hmong women. On the other hand, I am even further intrigued and aware when I recognize similarities in our lived experiences. Hence, one thing that has been on mind recently is how does the identity Hmong women look like and in what ways do we, and I, help shape this identity. Going one step further, I want to start the process of imagining how a womanhood of Hmong woman would look like. Hmong women have often been taught to see their identity in relation to their communities and the men in their lives but how can we further complicate that image? Ultimately, how do we create community that spans geographic boundaries and tend to documenting of our shared experiences and identity? Hence, by centering Hmong women experience, I hope to explore what it means to imagine a Hmong womanhood identity.
On Hmong Women
I use the term Hmong women throughout this paper as a way to bridge our collective experiences. I do not use the term Hmong American women because the sources I am using also includes my mother and grandmother’s generation, and they do not fully consider themselves Hmong American Women. I use Hmong Women because I believe it is also a term that can possibly include the national and global experiences of Hmong women, although the focus of this anthology will only observe the experiences of Hmong women who either live in the United States or is somehow connected to communities of Hmong women in the United States. The term Hmong women also include individuals who identitfy with the LGBTQIA or queer community.
On Hmong Womanhood
Hmong womanhood is a term I will utilize to explain the intentional process of creating a complex and cohesive understanding of Hmong women experiences. I use the term as borrowed from the concept of sisterhood - defined as “an association, society, or community of women linked by a common interest, religion, or trade” by Google’s dictionary. I use the term also to pay homage to and stand in solidarity with the feminist definition of sisterhood among women of color.
I was the last to be born in Ban Vinai, a refugee camp in Thailand before my family and I migrated to the United States. I am the third daughter in my family, although my oldest sister is old enough to be my mother. My mother is currently a widow, but she was my father’s second wife. My father’s first wife died shortly after the birth of their second son and my father married my mother to help him raise his children. My father is also my mother’s second marriage. My mother's first husband had a psychological disorder and was often hostile and abusive towards her. My mother married my father to escape the societal pressures on being a young, recently divorced women. Including all my half siblings, in chronological order of age, I am child number 7 out of 12.
I was brought up with the animist belief and culture (some people prefer calling this shamanist). My father was an orphan in his family, but for much of my life, he was also the leader of our clan. I disclose this to show you that I was brought up very sheltered and privileged, and my father was very traditional and strict. In the house, my father’s rules and decisions were always final. Yes, it is uncommon for orphans to hold higher status in clans structures but my father was certainly an exception. Even though he was an orphan, he received a formal education, had well-sought out skills in tailoring suits, and had the love of his grandparents to guide him. My father did not share much, but he would joke that he turned to his studies because he was lazy and did not want to spend time in the field. My father had two or three affairs when he was married to my mother. Or at least she admitted to only that many. She said one of them was very serious but never amounted to anything. My mother is very proud because she thinks that she is the reason why my father never took on additional wives. Not proud in a way that refers to her skills in bed or childbearing but my mother was a badass in another ways. She said she never paid him any mind, even though it hurted her. She also found comfort in other things, and there were more important things to follow-up on than her husband’s affairs. My mother said she also knew my father, so she did not let the affairs get to her. If you do not have this background, yes, polygamy is a normal tradition in our culture.
For most of my life, I have probably only seen my parents fought two or three times. This is not to say that my mother was an obedient wife. My mother was rebellious but she rebelled in ways that often left my father scratching his head. She jokes that we got our intelligence from her and I agree. If anything, I believe my father loved my mother’s wit. My parent’s relationship could be classified as healthy. However, my brothers' relationship with their wives are another story. I will not get into their drama but let’s just say, this is where I learned the true meaning of patriarchy. I tell you this because I want there to be transparency that I came from a good home. However, my life took many turns, and this included my father’s death, losing status in our clan, having my mother be accused of being a gold digger by our clan, being forced by my older brothers to practice Mormonism, and having to overcome societal barriers in my higher education pursuits. This part of my life I do not wish to disclose. Let’s say that the beginning of my life gave me a solid foundation and many privileges.
Yes, I do understand, have experienced, and can relate to the oppressive experiences many Hmong women go through. Additionally, I carry with me the oppression of my mother and her mother’s generation. I am the person that observes my married brother leave to Thailand every year to seek out young love and adventure. I even delivered one of his children while he was in Thailand. I know how it feels not to be a Hmong boy or man, and know what it is like to always come second or last. I am not Christian, nor can I claim the experiences Hmong Christians women have but I like to believe that our lives harbor similarities. I am not the oldest daughter, nor would I know the pressure that comes with being the oldest daughter. I am educated, but I would argue that educated and uneducated Hmong women are often treated with the same regards in the eyes of patriarchy. If anything, my education puts me under the microscope, and I often feel like the world is waiting for me to fail. I am unmarried and I do not intend to only marry a Hmong man. Hence, I do not have the experiences of a daughter-in-law, but I do have four sister-in-laws. Yes, my mother can and has treated these women unfairly, but I also have seen my mother love them. I come from a gender-binary upbringing and feel that our community still has a long way to reconcile and include the experiences of Hmong individuals from the queer community. Lastly, I am fluent in both Hmong and English.
As you can see, I am a Hmong woman (even though I spent, still spend, and will spend a good portion of my life defending this).
A Brief Personal War History
My identity and the Hmong women identity are tied to the Vietnam War and the Secret War in Laos like how John Lennon is linked to Yoko Ono. My father’s family was situated in Vietnam before the war. When the war broke out in Vietnam, my father’s family migrated to Laos. My mother family is situated in the high mountains of Laos. During the Vietnam War, Laos was supposedly neutral grounds as per the Geneva Accords agreement, but that was not the case. The United States’s CIA waged their secret war in Laos known today by as the Secret War in Laos. One of the CIA’s plan was to stop the Pathet Laos from aiding the Viet Cong communist forces in northern Vietnam. Support from the Pathet Laos to the Viet Cong was sent through the mountainous pathways in Laos. The CIA recruited and hired the Hmong community to be train as a guerrilla army and to help provide navigation for their military forces. Hmong people knew the terrain well and they were not particularly fond of their current situation with the Pathet Lao. A verbal agreement between the CIA and General Vang Pao promised that if America lost the war, they will help Hmong people out of the political situation they would be in. This promise, of course, was never fully kept. This is why I was born in a refugee camp and live in America today.
Methodology and Process
The process of finding all the materials for this paper was probably by far the most rewarding thing I have done all year. I am so overwhelmed by the knowledge and information made available by Hmong women.
I honestly believe that Hmong women are culture producers and their experiences are knowledge . In this anthology, I will use their experiences as such, by folding their knowledge into either existing knowledge or give space to form new knowledge entirely. Hence, I decided it is critical to explore narratives and voices that are often not heard in the Hmong community. This is not to say that I believe the views existing are unimportant. I wish to weave in more variety.
As a Hmong women myself, my process consisted of insider research on digital Hmong communities, writer circles, and artist collectives, to name a few. I also utilized friends who existed within these communities. I used decolonial methodologies to further search processes and spaces that are embedded with Hmong women identities and experiences. I use storytelling as a way weave in the intersecting pieces of Hmong women experiences. Furthermore, through forms of claiming, remembering, and returning, I bring into existence the experiences and knowledge of many Hmong women from a rich array of background and professions. And through imagining, I ask for us to conjure up and search for what Hmong womanhood could possibly look like (Smith, 1999).
A Special Thank You
I would like to thank, Koua Yang, a good friend of mine who has been doing work on the Hmong American and Hmong women identity for a decade now - she graciously shared many of her resources with me. I could have not done this without her. Yang is visual artist and she is currently pursing her MFA at the University of Minnesota. You can follow her work at https://www.kouamyang.com/.
Overview of Sections
I have included three sections in this paper. In the first section, I want to point out the importance of giving space for the pain, suffering, and healing of Hmong woman. Hmong women from generations have carried each other stories as lessons, warnings, and encouragement. In a beautiful way, we become each other’s scribe and proof of memory even if no one knows. So 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. 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?
The second section, I argue that the Hmong women image is complicated and consists of moving nuances that cannot be explained in a list of best attributes. Reimagining the Hmong women identity will take peeling back layers of generational oppression before the reimagination of Hmong womanhood can begin. In problematizing the Hmong women image, I ask for us to consider not just the physical body but also the experiences of Hmong women and ways experiences define the Hmong women identity. Furthermore, I push for us to consider who has claims to our image, how is this image conceptualized, and in what ways does this include and not include the actual lived experiences of Hmong women.
In the last section, I urge, in order to reimagine Hmong womanhood we need to imagine how we can retell our collective legacy. In retelling our shared history, it is important that we unearth stories that fit the missing pieces of our identities and experiences. Retelling our legacy also means to interject ourselves into history and fill or rewrite current history if necessary. In this section I question - how do we use different ways of knowing and understanding to retell our legacy and reimagine Hmong womanhood?
I ask for us to reimagine how we can renew a more complex, truer, more cohesive, and inclusive understanding for the identity of Hmong women and Hmong womanhood. Though this is only the beginning, I have put together examples of how Hmong women have complex histories as told through stories our bodies remember and oppression that runs so deep, it is sewn into the clothes we wear. In my second section, I offer examples of how we can further complicate the concept of a “good” Hmong girl or the image of Hmong women. Who we are is not a laundry list of desirable attributes that have been used to silenced the generations before us. Lastly, I urge us to reimagine an identity that has room for all our experiences and an identity that practices love, reflection, and cultivation.
Re-imagining Hmong womanhood is an act of resistance. We can say we are tired of how you give us leftover food at the dinner table, how you kidnap and stole the youths of our mothers, and how you limit our ability to participate in society equally and fully. You - as in the Hmong culture, as in patriarchy, as in the father that I love, as in the brother who has always loved me, and as my aunt who wants to make sure I find a husband. I know that you also do not know how to help us heal or walk away from thousands of years of social customs unscathed, but I ask you not stop us from figuring this part out for ourselves. I ask for your support in believing that we are part of your future. We ask for you to love us in this way. Whether you comply or not, it is already happening.
As mentioned in my introduction, for future considerations, I want to spend more time bringing other narratives out, and I would like to sit down and talk to all these amazing women. Hmong is an oral culture, and I feel that so much is lost in writing process or in translation to the English language. I would also like to find a permanent home for some of these pieces of culture. Perhaps the next step is to consider an archive of Hmong women knowledge. I am also intrigued by the many writings of mothers, grandmothers, and generational stories. They are rich and fascinating because they capture stories that span over three lifetimes and multiple settings. I am also interested in looking into Hmong girlhood because the current generation now (the generation slightly younger than me) is truly the generation we call Hmong Americans. Furthermore, I wonder how my generation has practice mothering and how parenting has influenced the way young Hmong girls fit into the Hmong womanhood infinity. Lastly, I did not have to time to intersect Hmong women identity with systems of power and oppression existing in the United States. Hence, for future research, this is an area I would like to further explore.
I leave you with one last story. When I was young, my mom would tell me the story about two sisters and their journey to grandmother’s house. In this voyage, the older sister (perceived to be less intelligence) takes the younger sister on the wrong path to the wrong grandmother’s house. The evil woman who lived there knew they were coming so she change herself to look like their grandmother. On the first night of their visit, the older sister was eaten in her sleep. The younger sister tricks the evil grandmother to let her grow a tree that reached the sky realm to where now her mother lives. Every night the younger sister evades being eaten until she is able to sew a pouch that allowed her mother to pull her up into the sky realm. The evil grandmother, of course, dies at the end. This story has always made me feel sad because the concept of leaving behind the other sister never sat well with me. The concept of the evil woman was also off putting and the mother abandoning her daughters offered no explaination. I want to reimagine a Hmong womanhood that does not leave anyone behind.
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