|Dr. Pa Der Vang|
Monday, March 26, 2012
Choosing Hmong Women
For those who could not join us for the 2nd Annual Hnub Tshiab Luncheon, today's post is Dr. Pa Der's speech. She was our last speaker of the event. Thank you Pa Der for your service and commitment to Hnub Tshiab.
Today I will talk about choosing, and using that to inform our giving.
I have seen so many high achieving and influential Hmong women spring forth from this organization; the Hmong women who are all here today, women who change the community, Hmong women leaders, and Hmong women who are not here today.
What came first, the chicken or the egg?
Is there something about Hmong Women Achieving Together that attract Hmong women who are movers and shakers to this organization, or does Hmong Women Achieving Together have a hand in the development of these strong women?
People who demonstrate resilience and tenacity can consistently name a mentor or a role model who helped them along the way.
Hmong women achieving together: their mission, to be a catalyst for lasting cultural, institutional, and social change to improve the lives of Hmong women, speaks to this. They serve as a support for Hmong women to do great things with their lives. They lift up Hmong women, they hold them there, and they let them shine.
They choose Hmong women.
And I am here today, because I choose to work on behalf of Hmong women. Simply because few chose me as a Hmong daughter, a Hmong bride and divorcee, and a Hmong student. What do I mean by this?
I met my future ex-husband at the age of 14 at a Hmong Graduation Party in Missoula Montana. His courtship, thereafter, took place via two years of correspondence, a story so familiar to women of our generation- with me in California, he in Washington State.
I had just turned 17 one summer when he drove across three states to visit me. He asked me to go home with him. I was uninformed and made naïve by cultural norms that told me, if you ask too many questions then you are stupid “phiaj noog dab tsi, cas yuav ruam ua luaj li.” And the notion of going home with an older man was normed by years of observing my aunts and cousins become teenage brides and mothers themselves.
On this occasion, my parents did not choose to protect me from this early marriage.
At the age of 17 I was considered old enough to choose on my own- almost an old maid by Hmong standards. And so I became a bride that summer and an 18 year old mother a year later.
However, at the age of 17 I was too young developmentally to understand what I was doing. I was still growing and would not be fully aware of the impact of my choices until later.
Six years into this marriage, I made the difficult decision to leave.
The marriage was built on a foundation of culturally reinforced patriarchy, notions that men hold power over women, women are voiceless and docile, women are only good for childrearing, cooking, cleaning house.
These strict gender roles were fully infused into this family and there was nothing I could do to change it.
I was not docile to say the least, I am a pretty bad cook, and I am a horrible housekeeper. And I knew that if I stayed in the marriage, I would struggle to complete my education due to the lack of support from my husband and his family, and my own birth family.
In the marriage I would eventually become someone I did not want to be. I wanted something different.
At the age of 23, I chose myself. I chose me, as a Hmong women, I chose my education, I chose the life that I wanted, not something the culture or the family believed I was destined for.
As a young mother I continued to attend the university after my divorce. As a young mother and divorcee, this was not an easy task. There were times when I had to leave my young son with people I hardly knew so that I could work or take a course exam. This was his life, being left with strangers so his mother could be away. But he is resilient. He is doing great. He is in college himself.
I’ve been a member of Hnub Tshiab since August 2000. Hnub Tshiab has been a pillar of support for me as I began my life in the Twin Cities 12 years ago.
After graduating from UW-Madison I moved to St. Paul because after my divorce, I lost all support from my family and my relatives. I was ostracized. I was the first in my family to divorce, I was the black sheep. My brothers referred to me as “That’s my sister, she’s divorced” whenever they introduced me to anyone new.
You see, this is the thing about Hmong divorcees, no one chooses them.
The community believes Hmong divorcees are lost souls with no home, no one to claim their bodies when they die, no one to send their souls into the afterworld, forever wandering and lost.
The community is ashamed of them. The community chooses not to be around them.
However, I believe this is the only way Hmong women actually become free- they are relieved of their obligations to the community- they become truly autonomous beings.
Hnub Tshiab chose to have me around, this divorcee, this Hmong woman.
I have spent a total of 12 years at the University. I funded my education through loans, scholarships, fellowships, assistantships, student employment, and a full time job.
I was not as lucky as my brothers whose educations were fully funded by my parents- loans my parents took out in their own names.
So you see, my parents did not choose me.
I am not resentful. I understand. I love my parents and my family. I will always protect them.
It is normal for Hmong parents to choose to support their sons for many reasons; one being they believe sons will carry on the family name. A daughter, they believe, will only use her resources for her husband’s family.
In the face of these cultural traditions I believe I can make a difference for Hmong women and girls and so can you.
I am so glad to see all of you here today, to see that all of YOU have chosen Hmong women.
Of all the great philanthropic causes you could be supporting today, you have chosen to support Hnub Tshiab and Hmong women.