Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the blog posts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ua Siab Ntev

My name is Linda Vang Kim and I am on the Board for Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together.  I would like to tell two stories that illustrate why the work of Hnub Tshiab is so important. Both stories involve my mother, someone who is a major influence in my life.

My mother is a strong woman, one who has persistently overcome obstacles in her life. She lost her own mother as a young girl and had to raise her younger siblings. She protested an arranged marriage but in the end obeyed her father because he told her, “You are just a woman, a daughter, and should not speak so openly. I am your father and I know what is best for you.” Despite their mutual dislike for each other, my parents had nine children and stayed married until they came to the United States in the late 1970’s. As the youngest, I was spared from witnessing the violence between my parents.  My older siblings, however, remember shielding my mother from my father’s threats to kill her, often with a kitchen knife in his hand.

My mother eventually decided to get a divorce – something that is discouraged in the Hmong community. Even worse, she filed for a legal divorce and was granted sole custody of the children. As a result, I lived without connections to my father’s clan and spent holidays and celebrations with my mother’s side of the family. During one particular Thanksgiving, my grandfather gave my aunts and uncles an opportunity to speak and give thanks. Each male spoke on behalf of his wife but unlike others, there was no man to speak up for my mother. So instead she gave thanks herself and I was impressed because she was the best speaker that day.

Now, the second story demonstrates how she reinforced culture in a way that tells me we still have a long way to go. You would think after everything she had been through, my mother would be progressive in all matters. But as a Hmong woman, she still operates within certain boundaries.  She must “ua siab ntev” which means to “have patience”.  This phrase irks me because I have heard it used to comfort women whose husbands are neglectful, unfaithful, and abusive. While it is meant to encourage, it actually makes the woman feel hopeless. It means the woman must submit to her husband and wait for him to change. Ua siab ntev does not empower nor does it allow positive change to occur. A wife must ua siab ntev and if she is not patient, she is blamed for the disintegration of the relationship. The husband may be reprimanded but he usually does not suffer any real consequences.

Imagine my disappointment when my mother used these very words to fix a situation between my brother and his wife. He admitted to his infidelity but showed little regret. To my sister in law, my mother said, “ua siab ntev” and insisted that he would change. He never did and was never held accountable so my sister in law filed for a divorce and moved back to be with her family. For several months after she left, my mom would comment that my sister in law had been the one who failed the marriage. She would say this to me any chance she got and to other people when they asked about the divorce. She was blind to his mistakes. I was annoyed that my mother, who did not ua siab ntev herself, prescribed the very thing to my sister in law. I suppose when one is within a culture, it is hard to see it in its entirety. A Hmong woman must endure, and ua siab ntev is often reinforced with great detriment to families.

With Hnub Tshiab, we do not tell women to just “ua siab ntev” or be patient. We equip them with the tools to take action to create positive social and cultural change. The mission of Hnub Tshiab is to be a catalyst for lasting cultural, institutional and social change to improve the lives of Hmong women. Personally, I want to squash the phrase ua siab ntev as a be-all end-all solution to marital and relationship problems. I also want to contribute to a society in which Hmong girls and women can stand up for themselves and others. This is why I support Hnub Tshiab’s work.


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  4. After reading http://hnubtshiab.blogspot.com/2011/06/ua-siab-ntev_06.html : Thank You Linda Vang Kim! I can't count all the tears that I've wept when I read this. My Grandpa died leaving my Grandma (Tais) behind who raised my mom and her siblings yet she never remarried because she told me during my middle school class project about the pain she endured. She was a kidnapped bride married to my grandpa who was very interested in her hard-work in the garden and at home. After his death in the US, my Grandma was supported by her 2 married sons (including her daughter-in-laws) and she also tried her best supporting her unmarried son, youngest daughter (my mom) and her youngest son. My uncles and mom graduated in college and are working in my Milwaukee community. However, my mother became a single mother like my Grandma but it was for the sake of my siblings and me. When I was younger, I thought my mom, a Master's degree teacher must have been well put together. Yet, she was still conservative.

    She married my father who threw chairs/pots/pans at her daily, pulling her hair and choked her during the night time but she was given seven children who love her yet we make her cry. But she still stayed with him for 13 years and remained with my siblings and me. As the eldest, I thought I protected my mother and siblings by vocalizing feminist ideas and pointing out my father's flaws only to be hit by my father BUT ironically, this actually harmed my siblings and mom more as they blocked me.

    I couldn't understand why my father was so fascinated with Hmong Laos teenagers who are as old as or even younger than ME! I couldn't understand why he tied my sister up in the garage. I couldn't understand why he put his needles in my sisters as punishment. I couldn't understand why my mom loved him so much after he had violated her. I couldn't understand why he always demanded having a son from my mom who already gave him 6 girls. And until my mom had my two brothers, my dad left us for other women using my mom's money (he barely had a committed job because he was uneducated but I believe this is not a good excuse). I will never understand those sleepless nights he gave us. I will never understand why my siblings and I have become abusive/angry people like him.

    But I have moved on after my mom has been helped by all my uncles to divorce my father from his clingy "council" and useless meetings who sent many Hmong women back or paid victims' families. For example, a man cheated on his wife; thus the council decides the man pays his wife's relatives.

    My mom told me she is willing to be called a Divorced Hmong Woman and talked badly about by Hmong people who barely knows her but she will never be like some Hmong women that were my father's concubines whose children starve from their motherly love and nutrition. She pays so much attention on our seven needs by giving us everything we want regardless of our annoying behavior, and aggressiveness.

    Now, I will attend UW-Madison and become a social worker continuing the legacy of all the strong women and men in my life. I want to be like my mom, uncles and aunts who let my Grandma live freely while supporting her. I want to make my mom very proud of me. My mom needs to live well. b Preventing another bitter Jackie in my Milwaukee community is my dream. I'm working on it and I need my friends, family, and existing organizations like RKHS's Amnesty International/ACLU, HAWA and Hnub Tshiab to teach, support, advise, criticize and love me.

  5. I think you have heard that term in the wrong way. Because both my mom and dad tells my siblings and I to "ua siab ntev" when we are mad or fighting, when we are impatient, when we are waiting for soon sort of response; I have always been told to ua siab ntev to bring me back to reality so I don't do anything rash. When that term is used I think of thinking clearly and openly.
    It is sad that many Hmong women don't have equality in a marriage or in Hmong culture. I believe that the next generations of Hmong girls will be stronger women.

  6. To anonymous, I don't think it's appropriate to dismiss the experience of other's regarding the context with which they experience the term "ua siab ntev", simply because that experience differs from your own. While you have been fortunate to have experienced the term in a literal context, the truth is that many Hmong women are indeed oppressed by those very same words. That in fact, for many Hmong women to "ua siab ntev" means that they are to concede to their situation in life, and to the accompanying abuse and/or inequality with little recourse to affect change.

    As a Hmong man, I recognize that I could not begin to understand the meaning of the term "ua siab ntev" from the perspective of an abused Hmong woman. That said, as a human being I understand that perpetuating the term in an oppressive context is wrong and needs to change.

    Being a father of two young daughters myself, I can honestly say that I would never allow them to continue on in abusive future relationships nor would I tolerate the abusive individuals or abusive cultural conditions.

    I agree that the next generation of Homng girls can grow up to be stronger Hmong women, however I also believe that this can only happen if we as a community recognize the deeply rooted gender specific oppressive conditions that exist witin our culture and actively work to end them.

  7. Interesting, I like it that you pin-pointed on a phrase so regularly used to undermine women in the Hmong culture.

    You gave the example of your mother using the phrase, may I ask you how and what did you do to let your mother know that you were against what she had said, or did you address the situation at all to your mother?

    The reason I ask is, often I find myself disagreeing with my parents about how women are treated in the Hmong culture. I find it hard to tell them and explain to them why I'm against it. If I have spoken out, it would turn into a unsuccessful argument. Does Hnub Tshiab address situations like these? Do they offer help to better the communication between traditionalist and modern Hmong women?

  8. I'm not talking about the abuse but the term "ua saib ntev". Abuse is a completely different subject than the phrase "ua saib ntev" I have grown accustomed to. It is not the term but the action. So to erase the phrase is absolutely pointless because those who are abusing will find another way to justify the abuse. The term means nothing, it is the action. Because I have amazing parents who showed us what love really is and what it can do!

  9. There is enough space in the world for multiple uses of these words. Words cannot ever capture the harm that actions can take but being heard and understood, regardless of one's perspective can open the door to a better reality and world. Being blessed with amazing parents such as yours should be something that we all strive for. Yes, it is possible.

  10. "Ua siab ntev" like the person above me has many interpretations. Put yourself in others people's shoes because you'll understand these issues and it's variations well.

    And for those who have wonderful parents, cherish it! Yet also understand the others and help them.

    My mom is an awesome person! And I share her love with friends who do not have a loving mother like mine. I want to show them what a good mom is so that they can become good parents and shed off these problems in our Hmong community.

  11. To Anonymous, Again, you have the luxury of speaking from your personal experience where the term “ua siab ntev” and toleration of abusive behavior towards women are mutually exclusive. I am not addressing this, nor am I addressing my experience for that matter. Rather, I am speaking to the experience of those Hmong women, of whom there are many, that know the term “ua siab ntev” to be an expectation that they bear any level of abuse or mistreatment, and that in not doing so is somehow a failure of their character. That is the point, is it not? Should we not try to understand those perspectives different from our own? Prior to reading this article, it did not occur to me that the term “ua siab ntev” could be seen as a form of oppression. However, this doesn’t mean that that condition is not the case simply because I did not initially see it to be. The article opened my eyes to this different perspective.

    To your point about term vs. actions, I agree that the phrase “ua siab ntev” is not inherently abusive in its literal sense. But can we honestly say that the phrase is free of abuse/oppression if it is repeatedly utilized in a context that condones and tolerates abusive/oppressive behavior? As I mentioned earlier, it’s not the words per se but more importantly the context with which they are used.

    I am not suggesting that we strip the phrase entirely from the Hmong language. As you stated, that would be “absolutely pointless” given that the phrase has practical application. There are many times when we all need to chill, and being told to “ua siab ntev” is entirely appropriate. That said, what I am suggesting is that we not continue telling Hmong women to “ua siab ntev” if they are in abusive or oppressive relationships.

    Lastly, regarding your comment about abusive male behavior being justified via other means, it wouldn’t hurt if we as a community have higher expectations of the role Hmong men play in relationships. At the very least, abusive Hmong men should be held accountable for their actions. Of course, a diet high in knuckle-sandwiches shouldn’t be out of the question for these guys either.

    At the end of the day, how can we enact change within our culture if we chose to ignore the very real consequences to others just because they happen to be transmitted via seemingly benign words?

  12. “Ua siab ntev” is a beautiful word within itself, molded by good intentions. However, I don’t believe we are talking about the word within itself but the implications of the phrase, “ua siab ntev” in the context of Hmong women (and their lack of voice). Because we use such beautiful words in even unforgiving situations, we may rationalize the situation. Do not let the word deter you from the reality of people’s struggles and challenges. Language can impact and influence the way we view actions as well. The Hmong culture does not have too many “negative” words for challenging situation. We have beautiful metaphors, analogies, idioms, etc. that will translate it all. So, the point here is that… we should not judge the word for itself… because the word has many meanings…that’s exactly what drives the oppressive behaviors in our community. But in order to move forward as the father of two has mentioned… we do need to acknowledge the real consequences that people face as a result of “words”.

  13. I know this site is dedicated to the support and empowerment of Hmong girls and women, but I wonder if there are any support systems out there for the Hmong boys and men? I haven't done any research myself. I agree with the comment about the next generation of girls being stronger women (in that they will not be as "ua siab ntev" to unhealthy situations). But I sometimes wonder about the boys? They need responsibilities in the home, such as the basic skills of domestic life, doing chores. They need to be held accountable and have consequences when they do something wrong, so they can learn and grow. Instead of just getting away with it and not learning anything at all.

    I am a Hmong woman, and I've lived through how my parents raised me and I've observed how they raised my brothers. My eldest brother is the most spoiled and gets away with everything. I used to envy him for that, but looking back, I don't. As the saying goes, spoil a person and they'll rot. I see how capable and independent I am. I bought my own car with my own money, live in my own apartment, and know how to take care of my basic needs... And when I look at my brother, he's sooooo dependent on my parents, who enable him to be basically a 30 year old toddler. My parents buy a house for him, my mom and grandmother goes and cleans and cook for him. It's crazy! And he can't even keep a job!

    Anyway, I just feel like the elders don't realize they are stunting their sons' growth. If I ever had a son, I would never want him to turn out so incapable and spoiled! As the saying goes, an easy life teaches you nothing!!!!!!