Sia Moua | Contributing Writer
In a country as diverse as the United States with so many cultures, we come into contact with individuals and have conflicts, even within our own communities.
As a community, we have the tendency to have a lot of disagreements on how we should view the new world that has been brought upon us, which traditions to disregard or keep has been among one of the most difficult debates in the Hmong Community between men and women.
Should men be allowed to have all the power while women are powerless and voiceless? Should we adapt to the new culture with a voice and some control of our life? As the women start the process of “transculturation,” it has led them to ponder and question their standards in the gender roles, which leads to conflicts within their marriage by seeking answers and support through other Hmong American Women.
In Arts of the Contact Zone, Mary Louis Pratt, a renowned professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature, discusses the effect she calls “contact zone” in which conflicts occur with diverse cultures colliding. She also purposes to this problem through what she calls the “safe house.”
Pratt explains that when there is a cultural difference. We must create a “safe house” where everyone would feel safe, have an equal understanding of each other, and have trust for one another. Drawing on Pratt’s idea of the contact zone, I will analyze how gender-related conflicts are dealt with through mutual support and learning among sisters and between moms and daughters.
Gender expectation in Hmong community and gender related contact zones
I grew up amongst the Hmong community, and there are many expectations from married women. In my whole life, I am taught to become what the community would consider as marriage material. Traditionally, women are expected to know how to cook, clean, and bear children. Most importantly, they need to respect the male figures; grandfathers, fathers, brothers, and husbands. They must never argue back even if they know the males are wrong.
In our culture, the male is dominant and the woman is subordinate. Women are to support the male figures in all aspect of their life. As a woman, your father and father-in-law are to be the most respected. They hold all the power above your brothers, husbands, mothers, and you. Whatever they say, you must comply whether you agree or not.
Women are seen as weak, meaningless, and powerless with no authority to control their life.
The only power to their name was that they could bear offspring to the man and create a family name for generations to come. Women are always expected to be quiet and not speak until spoken to. If you had a problem with your husband, you would first have to bring the problem to your father-in-law and he will be the one to send the message along to your parents if necessary.
My sisters and I were raised in this strict standard. After getting married, our standards changed because of the different backgrounds of our husbands’ upbringing. We adopted different approaches to lifestyle, culture, and roles. My older sister and her husband were both born and raised in Laos. He retained all the traditional cultural beliefs without adapting to the American culture. My youngest sister, a born citizen, married an American born Hmong. While I married a French born, now, American Hmong man.
Contact zone in a Hmong American Woman’s life
Our most recent interaction with the contact zone was when we had a conversation about a woman who was being mistreated by her husband. If they were to divorce whose side, we should stand by?
As women, we do not have the privilege to divorce our husband as easily as they can divorce us. When you see another woman being mistreated by a family member, do you side with the husband who is related to you, or the woman who is not related by blood?
Pratt defines the term “contact zone” as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (p. 34). In other words, Pratt says that when groups of people with different beliefs and backgrounds collide, there will be conflicts and disagreements because of unequal power.
My older brother-in-law started the conversation by telling my sisters and I that we had to stand with our family in situations like this because we had not heard both side of the stories. Family always stick together. He said, “If women don’t listen to their husband, they are showing disrespect. They need to learn how to show respect for their husbands. This is not a good reason for a divorce.”
I felt he already judged the wife by this point in addition to taking the husband’s side by making this remark. My older sister said, “Only when you have tried your best would you know there isn’t any more you can do to make it work. Then you can suggest divorce.” I replied, “If he is being unreasonable, then she should be able to leave and I’ll side with her.” My youngest sister said, “I’ll side with her because we women need to stick together. It’s understandable that we are family, but if he is continuously emotionally and verbally abusing her, it doesn’t make sense to continue a marriage that is bound for failure.”
This caused clashes among us sisters and my older sister’s husband because of our cultural values. My younger sister, being very outspoken, sided with me against my sister’s husband about taking the woman’s side.
My older brother-in-law shot back, “Why would you take side with someone other than your family, when you haven’t even heard both side of the story.” I was getting irritated and replied, “If I see it with my own eyes that she is getting mistreated by my family member, I don’t need to hear both side of the story!”
Seeing that nobody was siding with him, he turned and asked my husband, “Am I right? Don’t you agree with me? When women talk to each other, they always talk about negative things, they don’t have anything positive to say about their husbands.” My husband replied, “If they don’t understand each other and don’t get along, I think they should divorce.”
I could see that my older brother-in-law was getting irritated with my younger sister and me because we were stepping out of line by arguing back. The argument got heated to the point where my older sister told my younger sister and me to be quiet and let it go before it escalated into something more than a simple disagreement.
My older sister did not say much after her statement because of the presence of her husband, and she was an obedient traditional Hmong woman. I respect my elders, so I only speak up when I am sure something is wrong. My younger sister, on the other hand, speaks her mind, regardless of the situation. Women, who speak up the way my younger sister does, are considered not behaving properly due to their lack of respect for elders.
Because my older brother-in-law is a man and is considered an elder, he believes he has the power to tell the entire family to side with him. He was raised as a leader to control what he possesses. Whether we agree or not, we still should respect him because he is an elder in the family.
My older sister lives her life much like my parents because she lives by her husband’s rules. She does all that is considered a wife’s duty, such as household chores, raising the children, accommodating to her husband’s need, not having a social life outside her husband, and never arguing with her husband especially in front of families. His only role is to provide for the family.
In our contact zone, due to my older sister’s demanding traditional husband, she did not have much to add to our conversation. He took my sister’s voice away with the dominance that he had over her, and with his presence she was afraid to give her opinions on the subject of matter. She kept her head down and let her husband pressure my younger sister and me that we were wrong for not taking our family’s side. She did what a perfect traditional Hmong woman would do in this case. This of course led me to be angry with her because she knows that my younger sister and I were right about the situation.
For my interactions with my brother-in-law in the contact zone, I had disrespected him as an elder, because I spoke up for what I believe to be right. I know well that my older brother-in-law is someone my husband and I should respect, but when I feel someone is being mistreated, I have to say something. He thought this way because I have kept some of my traditional culture values while adjusting to ideas in a gender equality culture.
According to Pratt, “transculturation” is defined as a “process whereby members of the subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant” (p. 36). In short, people with less power gather information they believe is useful to them from people of privilege and recreate it to their own usage.
My older brother-in-law expected me to side with him as his wife did due to his social status. In his mind, I should have been just stayed powerless and voiceless, but I argued back because my husband and I have a more equal relationship in our marriage.
My husband and I live a life where we compromise and we both have a voice to say what we feel. His was raised in France, so he doesn’t care much about the Hmong culture. He thinks the Hmong culture has too many rules, makes no sense to him, and he hates the facts that every married couple’s problems become the elders’ problems. This is why when he was asked during our conflict in the contact zone he simply did not care much about whose side to take. Even though my husband does not follow traditional Hmong practices, my brother-in-law still has much respect for him because he’s not being fully subjugated by me.
In our culture, elders do not have much respect for men that are dominated by their wives, which is why my younger brother-in-law is not taken seriously. Since my younger sister’s husband is not as outspoken as her, my older sister’s husband does not engage in a discussion with him. They have adapted to a more equal relationship in their marriage. My younger sister is able to control her own life because her husband grew up in the American culture.
For this reason, my younger sister was very opinionated during our discussion of the divorce. Being the youngest in the family and outspoken, my younger sister surprised my older brother-in-law with her blunt comments. The fact that my younger sister took the side of the woman instead of the family member angered him. As an elder who has so much culturally endowed power due to his gender, age, and status, my older brother-in-law felt powerless to have a young adult going against him.
Safe house between sisters
Although my sisters and I have so many differences, we are each other’s moral support, guidance, and shoulder to lean. We are all going through the same things but just with different husbands of different backgrounds. We learn from each other in the safe house on how to fight for some portion of control over our life without verbally confronting our husbands.
According to Pratt, the term safe house refers to “where there are legacies of subordinate, groups need places for healing” (40). Basically, Pratt says that when people are being treated badly, they need a place for peace and recovery.
At our safe house, my older sister had told us that at times she wishes her husband had adopted some modern practices and ideas in marriage as my younger brother-in-law and my husband have done. We have told my older sister that she needs to stand up to her husband.
She will have excuses to why she can not stand up to him because it is our culture where women are not supposed to stand up to their husband. We would explain to her why we as women need to learn how to assert ourselves without upsetting our husbands. We learn from each other on how to adapt to the feminist idea of an equalitarian relationship while not losing our tradition.
Safe house with mom
When we are at my mom’s house, we can openly discuss our feelings, issues, and our differences without judging each other. We can tell our mom anything, knowing that she would not critique us, but to teach us to become a better sister, wife, and mother.
My older sister’s husband and mine followed the traditional practice by asking our parents for a blessing before marriage. My mom would always say to us when we have problems with our husbands that she would not let us divorce them because it would be a disgrace to the family. The only way she will welcome us back is when our husbands decide they want to divorce us and send us back to them.
In our culture if our husband wants to divorce us, they will have to send us back to our parents with $1,200 dollars. However, because my younger sister’s husband did not ask for a blessing, my mom always yells at her to come back home whenever they have a disagreement.
My older sister and I always have something to say about this, but that is a story for another day.
It is difficult to live a traditional lifestyle like my older sister. If you have a place to go where you feel safe and secure, a place to relieve your stress and frustration, it will make it easier to tolerate the traditional life. To survive this lifestyle without losing too much of our culture, we need to understand the rights and wrongs of the culture.
We cannot continue the tradition of male domination and not expect its consequences. For this country was built on equality. Women can and should divorce their husbands if they can not control any portion of their life. We as Hmong American Women have traditions to keep, but we should only keep those that will benefit us. Discard those that suffocate us.
Pratt, Mary Louise. (1991). Arts of Contact Zone. Profession 2006, 33-40. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25595469.