The Hmong Women Image
Problematizing the Hmong Women Image: What is a Good Hmong Girl?
What is a Good Hmong Girl? If you ask any Hmong girl or woman, they will be able to tell you like THAT (SNAP)! In fact, it's slightly different, depending on if the person is considered an unmarried girl or women, a wife, a daughter-in-law, or a mother, being "good" is define slightly different. For me, this is what it means to be a "good" girl. Someone who wakes up at the peak of dawn. They cook and clean before they go off to school. This person comes straight home and does not participate in extracurricular activities, and if they do, it is usually to better their chances of getting into a higher education institution. A good Hmong girl never talks back, and if they do ask questions, it should always be for the benefit of the person who is giving them the scolding. Traditionally, this girl is supposed to have long black hair, but parents today would also settle for short black hair (as long as it’s not dyed a weird color it’s okay). This person must also dress respectfully and be mindful of how they may hurt people’s eyes with their body - sarcasm, but it’s real. They are expected to do well in school, if possible, they are expected to do exceptionally well. After school, they are expected to cook and clean, help their siblings with work, and tend to other religious activities (depending on your spirituality).
Although this is never talked about, they are supposed to look presentable - meaning, not overweight, appeared to not have a visual disability, strong, and healthy. Depending on the generation, a good Hmong girl must also know how to chase, kill, clean, and cook a live chicken, preferably by themselves. It is a bonus if they are smart, has a degree, not too old, from a good family, not an orphan, is polite and kind, and has no criminal history. I can go on forever because I am sure I will always come up with another lesson my mother taught me once upon a time. The ironic thing is, my mother is not the only one who taught me these things. Some of these unspoken rules are shown to me by friends, my sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other Hmong men and women. Believe me when I say - being defined as a good Hmong girl is a community definition.
So where do I stand in the binary spectrum of a good and bad Hmong girl? It’s tricky because it depends on who you ask. If you ask me, I would say I am a good Hmong girl as described by criteria above. If you ask my mother, sister-in-laws, aunts, and sisters you might get a different answer. Truthfully, I am considered an old maid and a loose woman who thinks I am too good to settle down with a man. I am receiving my Master's degree and shooting for a Ph.D., to some men in the Hmong community that means run the other direction. I am a feminist, a scholar-activist, and I am a cisgendered woman. I do not subscribe to religion nor do I subscribe to monogamy or polygamy. I just practice different forms of love - whatever that means. I also have no father so good luck with that one, I have daddy issues.
Now that you have a better picture of me, there is a reason why I disclosed all that information. I argue that the Hmong women image is complicated and consists of moving nuances that cannot be explained in a list of best attributes. The Hmong women identity will take peeling back layers of generational oppression before the reimagination of Hmong womanhood can begin. Hence, I have collected a list of works that will help us problematize the image of Hmong women or the “good” Hmong girl. Furthermore, I push for us to consider who has claims to our image, how is the image conceptualized, and in what ways does this include and not include the actual lived experiences of Hmong women. I start with Ka Vang’s short essay on pushing the understanding of what it means to be a good Hmong girl. Second, I included Koua Yang’s blog on questioning who has the claims on Hmong women labor and knowledge. Third, I problematized the Hmong women identity by dissecting a speech on being a successful Hmong woman given by MayKao Hang at 2013 Hmong Women’s Conference. Next, I turned to Oskar Ly’s fashion line and questioned how Hmong clothes represent the Hmong women identity. I also added Kimora Cha’s coming out story to ask whether if the Hmong women identity exist on a binary. I conclude with May Lee-Yang’s poem on breaking the stereotype of good Hmong women through her confessions on why she would be a bad porn star. 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 they define the Hmong women identity.
The good hmong girl eats raw laab
Ka Vang examines what it means to be “a good Hmong girl” by asking four questions in her essay. “What does it mean to be a good Hmong girl or a bad Hmong girl? Who defines the good Hmong girl? Who practices it and enforces the rules? Moreover, what are the rewards and consequences for the Hmong girl and her family if she is not a good Hmong girl? Finally, would Hmong culture be diminished if there were no more good Hmong girls left?” (p. 101). Vang offers an example of Gao Nou to set the scene for her argument of power dynamics in the Hmong culture. Gao Nou loves to eat raw laab a dish made from raw beef, but she gets none because women are expected to eat after the men have eaten. Gao Nou, as the obedient daughter also gets down on her knees to clean up the vomit of her drunken uncle at the request of her father. Vang acknowledges that traditions have somewhat changed since the migration to America. Some families now set up two tables for men and women. However, eating at the same time cannot account for power disparities in the practice because women are still expected to serve the men, and they assume smaller or less desired portions of the food.
Vang goes on to give personal examples of how she is both a good a bad daughter. She also provides another example of a fellow writer Moua who she believes to be a good Hmong girl but Moua disagrees and cites being lazy. Vang problematizing who gets to define a good Hmong girl and gives references to how the concept might have originated. Vang questions as to why other women uphold and enforce these ridiculous practices of being a good daughter when they have first-hand experiences of how limiting and oppressive the practice is. Vang imagines what would happen if the good Hmong girl disappears and challenges the Hmong community to see Hmong girls' value in their culture as not just a tool for trade. She calls for the removal of the “good Hmong girl” image and enforcement, and suggests the community instead let Hmong women flourish as knowledge producers and critical assets. I agree with Vang. I also urge for us to imagine what would happen to our communities if Hmong women were given the same opportunity to flourish as men. Can we imagine a world where Hmong women are not police by a hierarchy of men and other women whose views of women only exist on the binary? Vang’s examples are important because she wants us to imagine how women can be both successful and unsuccessful in our culture. She asks, if we change the nuances of what is consider “normal” or “good”, would we finally be able to see the assets women shunned away from our culture bring to their community.
A reflection: Hmong clothes #1, khaub ncaw hmong#1
Koua Yang is a visual artist investigating the Hmong American identity. Explicitly, her artwork examines Hmong female knowledge and the reproduction of Hmong culture in America by questioning materials, the historical and contemporary progression of Hmong textiles, and through autobiographical reflections on how patriarchy plays a role in understanding the Hmong American identity. Yang also explores her identity through a reflective blogging space where she discloses the inner working of her experiences with the Hmong American identity and her art making process. The last post was written on September 25, 2016 was in response to her artwork being taken out of context, used as an opportunity for people to shame women, and served as creative material for misogynistic humor. On the blog, Yang questions whether the Hmong community considers the work that goes into Hmong clothing and the body politics of in Hmong clothing and textiles. She also asks whether engaging in Hmong identity in a collectivist culture gives people access to her labor in ways where the community own rights to her knowledge and work because of similar histories and lived experiences. Yang also asks for the community to reflect on the lack of respect and integrity given to Hmong artist as producers of knowledge and culture.
Yang brings up a critical conversation about knowledge when working in textiles as an extension of the woman’s body. Hmong clothing and textiles have historically been used as a form of resistance from governments overseeing the land in which Hmong people live on and live off. Supposedly, even after the Hmong language was destroyed, Hmong women kept parts of the language alive by stitching written language into clothing. In the more recent history, paj ntaub was introduced as a way for Hmong families to make money from tourist consumerism. Now, Hmong clothing are still being produced and worn. However, Hmong women have always been in the forefront of the transitions in textiles and clothing production and market. Seldomly is their knowledge and work acknowledge. Yang’s work challenges the community to see Hmong women as producers of knowledge and culture. Yang's claiming of her identity is both radical love and also critical love for history and her experiences as a Hmong woman. Reimagining Hmong womanhood includes claiming knowledge produced by Hmong women bodies and problematizing what we know as Hmong women experience and knowledge.
How hmong women can be successful role models for all.
In MayKao Hang’s speech at the 2013 Hmong Women’s Conference in St. Paul, she touched on topics that many people did not want her to bring into the light. She talked about silent pain growing up as a Hmong daughter. She disclosed how her father was a community figure but at home he was abusive and often neglected their family. She recounted a moment where she heard the gun went off during a shouting match between her mother and father. She also told the story of her mother being barred from getting an education because funding for education was reserved for her brothers. She cried and explained that she got her strength from her mother's hard work. Other topics she brought up is gender politics and unfairness, polygamy practices, poverty, hunger, and over and over she stresses how hard it was to relearn the Hmong language. Hang’s message is about resilience, commitment to oneself, giving back to the community, and being and becoming a part of history.
Hang is the first generation of educated Hmong women professionals. It takes courage to talk about her oppression and her relationship with her father. I was drawn to Hang’s video because of the comments and number of views. The comments were mostly shaming her for airing dirty laundry. The Hmong women identity consists of women who are rather reserved but also consist of women who practice radical love and are not afraid to speak their mind. To be honest, I thought Hang was rather respectful and mindful of her audience (compared to me). To reimagine Hmong womanhood, we need to be able to offer a safe and critical space for Hmong women to practice their voice without being ostracized by existing social structures that protects the oppressors from being made visible. How can we be critical of each other without dismissing each other's lived experiences?
Oskar Ly (2016) labels herself as a “queer Hmong French American multi-disciplinary artist, organizer, and creative cultural producer”. In her 2016 Fresh Traditions X Fashion Show OS. Couture Collection, Ly uses fashion to explore gender fluidity, masculinity, femininity, and androgyny. Ly uses both male and female bodies to fashion her clothing and further questions what is Hmong clothes. She cites the laying of basket weaves, pompoms, and fringe as her way of complicating the Hmong identity visually. Ly pays special attention to the design pattern of male and female clothing. For example, the Green Hmong pants design is seen exclusively worn by women. On the other hand, the traditional “dab tsho” often used to symbolize women clothing is placed on a male body.
Ly’s push on challenging traditional clothing and its roles on male and female bodies can be interpreted in many ways. To me, Ly paying particular attention to the way the clothing are constructed and the specificity that comes with what is expected on particular bodies break the traditional image we have of Hmong clothing. My favorite detail is the attention she places on the “dab tsho”, a highly oppressive and cruel symbol of Hmong women inferiority over men. Fashioning the “dab tsho” comes from an old folklore telling the account of Hmong women’s betrayal and greediness and the result of their ultimate sentence of wearing a sign that labels them as unable to rule or inferior to men forever. Ly’s clothing asks for us to consider why we place this symbol on Hmong women and why Hmong women must wear a sign that binds them to an image of betrayal for as long as they live. Do Hmong women have rights to choose how they wish to wear their clothing, without the “dab tsho”? This little detail may seem petty but the Hmong women’s image is tied to a “dab tsho”, and unless we problematize or take back the meaning of this feature, it will remain linked to oppression and patriarchy.
2016 Fresh Traditions X Fashion Show OS. Couture Collection
Kimora Cha writes a coming out story about their identity as transgender Hmong woman. Cha recounts their fear of disappointment in liking boys and remembers knowing that close family and friends always thought they were different. Cha remembers being jealous of their sister because their sister was the only daughter and would often get girly items. Cha remembers hating themselves for wanting to have girly things but knowing that they cannot ask for it. Cha recalls being uncomfortable with the label “gay” because deep down they knew they wanted to be a woman. It was at the age of 20 that Cha learned about the term “transgender” and remembers being so overwhelmed and unable to wait to become a woman and has been a woman since.
Cha explaining their experiences brings up politics on the social construction of gender as it intersects with many areas of the Hmong culture from marriage, responsibilities, and on mothering, to name a few. It took me a long time to find Cha’s voice and I am so appreciative of the narrative. Even to this day, there is very little documentation on the queer Hmong community, and historical records are non-existence. To say that all Hmong women accept the transwomen identity would be a lie. However, I firmly believe that for us to reimagine Hmong womanhood, we need to look beyond heterosexual normatives and social construction of the women identity. Transwomen Hmong women complete our collective voices.
AAPI LGBTQ Pride: To Be Me
May Lee-Yang’s blog post on Ten Reasons Why I’d be a Bad Porn Star was written before her production with the same name. In the poem and also the production, she is untruthfully hilarious when educating the audience on sex, the porn industry, Asian beauty, and the White gaze, among other topics. May is breaking the stereotypes of Hmong women and does it in a way where she can talk about issues without people feeling uncomfortable. In her lecture production, she talks about how she became educated on the topic of sex as a Hmong girl. Lee-Yang also talks about the gossip she learns from other Hmong aunts about sex. Some of these jokes are purely Hmong jokes and it even took a while for me to completely catch on to what she is making a joke on. Lee-Yang’s production openly talks about a subject that is often hushed in the Hmong culture, and she talks about being an activist about what happens to Asian bodies on the movie screen.
What would start to occur if Hmong women take ownership of their bodies? Hmong women are already doing this, but we often do not do this in the public eye. Lee-Yang laughs about being called the sex lady, but I believe she is dead serious about that title. Through comedy, Lee-Yang is able to be real about her sexuality and sex. What happens to a sexual woman in the Hmong culture? We all know that one aunt that is too sexual, so everyone talks about her behind her back. What is wrong with being sexual? Lee-Yang also gets into the desire of Asian men and women, which is something I will not get into. Lee-Yang is also known for her production, Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman where she goes further into problematizing the Hmong women identity by introducing some unforgetable Hmong women characters.