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: Dare to Be Different. Explore. Live a Little.

Source - http://www.flickriver.com/photos/vineethtm/8742638807/

Rainbow Interstate, Minneapolis – Vineeth Mekkat Source – http://www.flickriver.com/photos/vineethtm/8742638807/

I am the eldest daughter and grew up in a large family. I always felt overwhelmed with all the duties that were given to me. The housework, the child care tasks, the cooking responsibilities and so forth. All the nitty gritty dirty work was my responsibility. I was always expected to accomplish these tasks whether I liked it or not and I am still expected to tend to these responsibilities today. My parents are extremely traditional. I come from a patriarchal society. I’m not going to sit here and support the idea that men are at the top of the spectrum, but the disparity is definitely present. It’s disappointing that this inequality exist and nobody’s doing anything about it, or at least nobody’s talking about it. I know we see it. I know we feel it. I know we have all experienced it. Perhaps, we feel it’s taboo. Perhaps, we are scared of the consequences. Or maybe we just feel like nobody’s going to listen. The moment I speak out about how unfair these standards are, I am considered disobedient and disrespectful. It has always been a cycle of oppression. In my culture, men are born with privileges and power. Women have to work their entire lives in order to gain even the slightest amount of power and respect.

I consider myself blessed and privileged to be able to attend college, an opportunity that many people do not have. I am a first generation college student, so neither one of my parents nor grandparents have had a proper education. Being a first generation college student is very difficult. I am the first daughter in my family to go to college. My parents emigrated to the United States to escape the refugee camps of Thailand. They escaped a war torn country in hopes of acquiring the necessary tools to survive in a land that was unfamiliar to them, America. When I talk to my parents, I see that they value education very much; I see the desire in their struggles to push my siblings and I to do well in school. Like most other Hmong families, my family values education, however, there are stigmas, especially for Hmong women and girls in higher education. The academic achievements of the women and girls are often overlooked in my family. My brothers are encouraged and highly praised for going to college, but my efforts go without notice. Some of my family members even doubt I will ever finish college. But, here I am today with a college degree and a job that pays me well.

You have to work hard in order to get where you want to be. Life does not come with instructions. You start from scratch and unearth your own recipe. You throw in your own spices and create it to your liking. If something does not fit in, get rid of it. If something appeals to you, add it in. You just have to keep adding and adjusting until you get the ideal recipe.

One thing that I have always struggled with was my sexual orientation. Shifting gender disparities aside, my sexual orientation is probably the biggest struggle I’ve dealt with.  A few years ago, I posted a public blog post revealing my sexual orientation and shortly after, I received a very nasty message from an anonymous person. The nature of the message was essentially telling me that those who are attracted to the same sex are disgusting and should be shunned by society.

Growing up, I never felt that I was different. I knew I was always attracted to boys, but I also found girls to be attractive. I never saw this as being different from others. It was just a natural feeling to me; so, I thought everyone felt the same way, but the older I got, the more difficult things had become. High school was an overwhelming experience and made me realize that if you didn’t find a clique to hang out with then you were the odd sheep out. I was indeed the odd sheep out. I was rebellious. I was a tomboy and only wore jeans, band t-shirts, and skater shoes. There, I had cut my hair for the first time. My hair went from short, to mullet, to spikes. I was defiant, but I was still a good student. I was in the top 20 of my graduating class and was only one of the few Hmong students who took AP classes. I mostly kept to myself, but I knew some people because we had classes together. I had my first relationship my senior year of high school and it was a first for a lot of things.

I dated my first girlfriend a few months before my high school graduation. We were young and so in love. In the beginning, we kept our relationship a secret. She was opened about her sexual orientation, but I tried to hide mine as much as I could. Not because I was ashamed, but because I was afraid of the backlash from my Hmong community. The more secretive I became, the more my friends started questioning me. I eventually gave in and came out to my closest friends first. I knew I couldn’t keep my relationship a secret forever. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but I had to overcome it. Some of them said they saw it coming; others were taken aback by my confession, but still accepted me. The next step was to come out to my family. I didn’t want to do it all in one big step, so I came out to my siblings. Surprisingly, they were very supportive of me. They did not judge me and they did not question me at all. They supported my relationship with my girlfriend the whole time we were together.

Now, all who were left to tell was my parents. There were many instances in which I thought I was ready to come out to my parents. However, every time I approached them, my whole body would go numb. I would be at a loss of words and I would tell myself that I didn’t have to force myself to tell them if I wasn’t ready yet. I never did gather up enough courage to tell my parents. To this day, my parents still do not know. I don’t know if I will ever tell them.  

I used to be bothered about my sexual orientation. There was a point in my life when I was upset at myself because I couldn’t turn away my own feelings. Somehow, I felt like I had disappointed my parents being the oldest daughter with their high expectations for me. So when I started discovering my sexual preferences, I knew I was treading on dangerous waters. I always thought hiding my sexual orientation would eventually make all the feelings disappear, but I’ve learned to accept it as a part of who I am. I’m not ashamed to tell people that I am attracted to people of all sexual identities. Society brainwashes our perceptions and views on everything. The moment we sense unfamiliar presence in the air, we become judgmental. Our minds have been trained so well that we automatically single out anybody who dares to be a little different, but I say, “Dare to be different. Explore. Live a little.”


 

Pax is a writing fanatic who draws her inspiration from the people in her every day life. She hails from the Twin Cities. On her spare time, she likes to people watch, dance to Pitbull music and sing along to sappy Hmong songs. She is obsessed with dream catchers, green tea lattes, and absolutely believe her spirit animal is a wolf. She wears mix matched socks, but hates sleeping with her socks on. She hoards stationery cards and has boxes of them under her bed collecting dust. She is a woman of few words, but her thoughts can silence an entire city. You can follow Pax on tumblr.

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