Monday, June 27, 2011
Wrong for Being Right
Have you ever been in a situation where you were right but you were wrong for being right?
My husband and I had family over so we took them to a well known Hmong buffet. The restaurant was scarcely populated which translated to scarce tins of food in the buffet trays. After our first pass at the buffet I did as any American consumer would at any retail establishment, I approached the hostess and firmly expressed my disappointment at the quality of the food and the empty trays. I let her know that should there be no new food brought out once our table finished their plates I would be expecting a discount.
The hostess must have relayed my message to management. The wife of the owner waited for me to get up from the table and approached me as I escorted my children to their second round of food. She did not apologize but said to me, “Mej txis txog saag les caag…” followed by all the reasons why there was no food. I explained to her that I did “saag les caag” because I paid $107 for food and there was no food to be had. Additionally, there didn’t seem to be any effort made to bring out more food. She pressed her points with me and when I did not agree she became agitated and the conversation took a turn for the worse. After what seemed like an eternity of banter I ended the conversation the best I could and walked away.
I did not feel bad about what had happened nor did my husband’s family think I had stepped out of line. They were actually very amused by the situation and we all had a really good laugh. That is until the owner tried to make nice and started talking to my husband’s Uncle. At the BBQ grill I heard them making a Hmong family connection and it turns out that the owner went to school with my father-in-law back in Laos. I saw the way my husband’s uncle graciously agreed with all the reasons the owner gave him as to why there was no food. My husband’s uncle did not offer his opinions.
Even though my husband’s Uncle continued to laugh about the situation and assured me that he agreed with me, I could not help but secretly feel inside that I had done something wrong. I was confused about what had happened and I thought about it all night.
In America, if a product or service is not up to par, it is expected that customers provide feedback. It is customary for retailers to give discounts when a wrong has occurred. The customer is always right. So what happened? What happened was that I was at a Hmong establishment. It didn’t matter that I was a paying patron. I was to act as if I was having dinner at a Hmong family’s house and behave as I would as a guest in someone’s home.
I pride myself on my ability to wear different hats. I know when to be a Hmong woman and when to be an American woman. In my Hmong world, I do dishes, cook, house guests, serve drinks, eat last, not directly address men, not criticize my husband or talk back to him (at least in front of his family). In my American world, I lead multi-billion global organizations, I speak up in meetings, take risks, challenge ideas, travel to see clients, meet with CEOs and CFOs, etc…I have been navigating in both cultures my entire life. I know which hat to wear and when. Or so I thought.
This experience showed me that the line between being a Hmong woman and an American woman is much blurry than it appears at first glance. I am struggling with how to be true to myself in all situations and am finding that it seems doing so is becoming more and more difficult. In this situation I acted accordingly to American values and feel that I did so rightfully. Why should I hold American merchants to one standard and Hmong merchants to another? My complaint brought about better service and fresh food. Objective achieved.
That said I am quite certain that the first time I hear Hmong people whisper negatives things about how I behaved at this restaurant, I will feel ashamed and sad at the dishonor I have brought my husband’s family. The judgment of my character will surely hurt my feelings. Why? Because as a Hmong woman we are expected to be agreeable, accept any injustice and do so with a smile. If and when you do speak up, you are wrong even when you are right.