AAPI Heritage Month: Equity for Hmong Women and Girls is Still Out There

Kabo Yang3In 2014, I was asked to be the keynote speaker to open for a conference led by and for Hmong youth.  The theme was “Beyond the Horizon.” As I thought about what I would say to them to inspire them that day and going forward, I had to bring myself back to their age, when I was a teenager twenty years ago. I was a Hmong daughter. My dad was a shaman, bounded to tradition.  My mom was the good Hmong wife, nurturing and devoted. I had two older brothers and a younger, American-born brother.  I lived in Frogtown among friends and enemies; friends encouraged me to explore who I wanted to be and enemies told me who I would become.  I was a Hmong girl trapped in an American woman’s body.

 

My parents inevitably struggled with parenting a Hmong girl in America.  While they expected me to learn the cooking and cleaning skills and timid behavior of what a good Hmong nyab would be, they also encouraged me to excel in school; even if it meant staying after school and attending social events I helped organize. However, there were certain things I was still not allowed to do such as going to the mall with friends or being alone with a boy. Yet, my dreams kept growing and I wanted more and more for myself. The biggest conflict that happened between us was their disapproval of my leaving home for college. They truly believed living on my own would ruin my reputation and increase my risk of getting married.  I compromised and got married less than two months before graduation.

I started college on my own, but also as a wife and daughter-in-law.  It was then that I really learned the delicate yet brutal distinction between being a “good Hmong woman” and an “independent young American woman.”  I went back and forth between two lives, one as a dutiful daughter-in-law spending weekends cooking and cleaning at family events (even when my husband did not attend) and the other during the week as a college student and part-time secretary in corporate America.  This type of cultural divide dominated my life for the next decade. I ended up setting goals that were more practical because I felt defeated and had lost the belief that I could chase dreams.

As time went on, I reached a goal and then I would set a new goal. I kept expanding my horizon, each time a little further.  My ambition re-emerged as I started to reconnect to who I was and the dreams my parents allowed me to explore but not pursue. I also became more comfortable being a Hmong American and aligned my two lives into one. Only then did I truly feel I was on my own, living by my expectations and beliefs. My message to these young folks was that horizons guide us; when we think we’ve gotten there, there’s a new horizon ahead. I encouraged them to view horizons as drawing us closer to our next goal and to who we really are and to always keep striving “beyond the horizon.”

Kabo YangShortly after this speech, my marriage of 18 years came to an end. He left and I wouldn’t let him back when he had no where else to go. At the family mediation meeting, where I was the only woman allowed to speak, eight men surrounded me, in addition to my soon-to-be ex-husband. For three hours, they told us how we could fix the “minor” problems in our marriage and stay together. They minimized my experiences and perspectives and defended his behavior.  Finally, with my brothers by my side, figuratively and literally, I spoke up loud and clear. I reiterated my decision and did not permit them to attack it because they don’t walk in my shoes and they don’t carry my burdens.  I have gotten to where I am by on my own merits and drive and I don’t owe anyone anything.  So if they expect me to do as they say, they can expect to never see me again as I have no room in my life to be treated with disrespect and disregard. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. They did not respond directly and ended the mediation.

Upon reflection a few days later, I realized they were fulfilling their role in the game of Hmong cultural politics.  But when I didn’t play my part of accepting my failure as an obedient and submissive wife and daughter, there was no alternative than to end the game.  Since then, I continue to be delightfully surprised by the support and encouragement from family and friends; maybe because I expected blame and shame or maybe because change is actually happening.

I may never know and will always just suspect why my divorce didn’t outcast me as I thought it would.  Did people know my marriage was doomed and were just waiting for something to happen?  Did people treat me this way because of my academic status or professional standing? Do people not care about me because I am an orphan? Do outsiders keep quiet because my family has accepted my decision? Or has the attitude started to change and a woman’s voice and choice are valued and appreciated?  Whatever the answer or answers may be, I embrace my situation. I won’t take it for granted but as motivation to continue to amplify women’s voice and choices.

I have no parents; I have no husband. I am disconnected from lineage but am connected to my heritage. I continue to look out onto the horizon.  I do not know what’s beyond this next horizon but I know that equity for Hmong women and girls is still out there.


 

Kabo Yang2Kabo Yang is an independent consultant and doctoral candidate.  She is the principal consultant of Legend Consulting Services, a firm she founded to provide management and leadership consulting to nonprofit organizations.  Kabo is an active community member and currently serves on four nonprofit Boards and three committees. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Metropolitan State University, her Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership from St. Catherine University and is a doctoral candidate in the PhD in Human and Organizational Systems program at Fielding Graduate University. Her community and research interests are women, migration and integration.  Kabo’s dissertation topic will be on the social capital of refugee women.  You can connect and follow Kabo on Twitter and Facebook.

Celebrate May Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by contributing your narrative to be part of AAPI Midwest Narrative Series. If you identify as AAPI in the Midwest and want to contribute your narrative or have questions, please email Linda for more information – linda@mwsmovement.com


 

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AAPI Heritage Month: I Don’t Have to Be Out to Create Change

Studying abroad experience in Minnesota, the U.S., starting from 2011, has given me countless opportunities to find myself. It was a random place for me at the beginning. I did not have proper research on the school nor the area. I was too excited to start my ‘American Dream’ in the U.S. and the place did not matter. I loved the nature, the weather, people, and their warm hospitality. Literally, I was enjoying ‘Minnesotan Nice’ welcoming as an international student from Korea.

Since English was my second language, I had to put triple efforts to follow the class while double majoring in International Relations and Gender & Women’s Studies. Each time, I challenged myself to get out of the comfort zone, which means I took classes to learn and grow myself. I was sometimes overwhelmed at the class when everyone could understand the American jokes, but not me. Even the humor based on the American culture was what I had to learn. Luckily, I met one Hmong gay friend at the Gender & Women’s Studies. He has provided me unconditional love, caring, and offering as if I have known him for a long time. He treated me as a person, regardless of my backgrounds, including my Korean nationality.

Source: www.kqcf.org - Korea Queer Festival

Source: http://www.kqcf.org – Korea Queer Festival

One day I shared my uneasiness of having Korean community on campus with him. I told him that being Korean is an obstacle to figure out my sexuality. I came to the U.S. to be free from the stereotype of being Korean. However, I could not even walk by the LGBT center on campus, concerned of being judged by other Koreans. After my minor complaint, my gay friend replied, “For me, I wish I had my own nationality like you. Even though I was born and raised in the U.S., I got questioned a lot on where I am from. The U.S. is my home country but I guess I am not fully accepted to the community here.” I have never thought about what I have considered as an obstacle could be a desire for someone. After the conversation with him on nationality and navigating my sexual identity, I realized that I have used my nationality as an excuse to stay with the majority.

Recently, starting from January 2015, I moved back to Korea. Honestly, if I had a chance to stay legally, I would have stayed longer in the U.S. However, having an F-1, a degree seeking visa; therefore, it did not give me many options other than studying to get a degree and getting an internship experience related with my major up to 1 year. As the memories with my friends in the U.S. are fading out, I felt uncomfortable to stay in my HOME country. As one Chinese American who I got to know in Korea recently said, I was too Americanized to live in Korea. Christianity is what I cannot erase in my life, even though I want to. I grew up with Sunday schools, Jesus summer and winter camps, and religious family background. I feel frustrated with this, the ultimate answer is always in God’s hand, no matter if it is about friendship, financial problems, etc. When I was young, around 16 years old, I was told from the preaching that being homosexual is not what Christians do. I wanted to have community where I was accepted. Since I knew I cannot avoid my family and people from the church, I decided to bury the questions about sexuality which only left me confused. I pretended to be the type of good daughter and kind girl they won’t outcast.

 

Source: http://news.yahoo.com/lesbian-kiss-korean-drama-sparks-debate-025213890.html - An episode of Seonam Girls High School Investigators

Source: http://news.yahoo.com/lesbian-kiss-korean-drama-sparks-debate-025213890.html – An episode of Seonam Girls High School Investigators

Korea is one of the countries where fashion trends change quickly. It is totally acceptable for girls having short hair and wear gender neutral clothing. However, traditional gender roles and the expectations from the society are harsh to girls, at the same time. My short hair has never given me the embarrassment or confusion on my sexual or gender identity in my life. Regardless of the length of my hair or the way I dress up, I accept and love myself as I am, being a lesbian. One day, I was on the Seoul metro heading to a dinner appointment with a lesbian couple (who I met at the English Conversation group), I was wearing olive colored pair of jeans, a light brown round neck sweatshirts, a black coat, and a navy beanie, with a little makeup on my face. After a while, I noticed a heterosexual couple whispering some words while glancing at me. Eventually it turned out that I looked like a gay guy who was too girly for them. As a woman, I don’t want to conform to the ideas of how I should look to prove to society that I am a woman, their ideas of a woman, which is to fit into a traditional dress code of wearing skirts, high heels, and putting a heavy makeup. Instead of spending their time hating and enforcing ignorance, they should focus on loving one another and accepting people’s differences. However, I cannot deny that I was hurt and felt insecure just like when I was young and attending church.

It is true that homosexuality does not match with a traditional marriage and a lifestyle in Korea. Especially when you live in a country in the condition of armistice, maintaining the military force matters and the birth rates. Naturally, homosexuality has become a target to conservative groups, who justify their actions of threatening and discrimination against sexual minorities.

There are still many steps and revolutions needed in Korea to work together to conquer hate with love and acceptance. As the first step of showing the visibility of sexual minorities in Korea to others, I started to volunteer at the Korea Queer Culture Festival (KQCF) as a translator and an interpreter. Even though I am not able to be Out to the community where I presently live, I will not let that stop me from forming a community where people build up solidarity in working towards love and acceptance.

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I was born in Germany and spent most of my life in Korea. Even though I grew up in Korea surrounded by people with the same ethnicity, being born in a different country rather than Korea has helped me to have interests in communication, nationality, and the meaning of life as the second generation. I moved to Minnesota in 2011 seeking my undergraduate degree in Management. After I realized my desire to study in the fields of social and behavioral sciences, while navigating my own sexual identity, I chose to double major in International Relations and Gender & Women’s Studies. Observing the immigration law between the U.S. and Korea, I did not have a choice but to terminate my visa as being an international student and move back to my country.

Celebrate May Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by contributing your narrative to be part of AAPI Midwest Narrative Series. If you identify as AAPI in the Midwest and want to contribute your narrative or have questions, please email Linda for more information – linda@mwsmovement.com