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COMMUNITY VOICES | Hmong culture: A questioning of values
We are entering into a cultural reformation in our community, where our values today don’t quite align with our culture. For quite some time now, our values and our culture have clashed, which has created social upheaval and alienation in the Hmong community. “What does it mean to be Hmong?” seems to be the the question that every Hmong American goes through; it’s a rite of passage for those growing up in two seemingly opposing cultures.
With the majority of the Hmong population now made up of youth, this questioning of the Hmong culture is inevitable. Why are things the way they are? Why has it always been done this way? What is morality and what is cultural? How do both coincide? And which is more important? Or are they both equal in that aspect? If our culture clashes with our values, what does that mean?
What should we do?
I recently wrote an article on the Hmong 18 Council’s conference focusing on their Hmong Bridal Price Session. This created a firestorm on Facebook in the Hmong community with comments from Minnesota, California, and even as far as Alaska. Many of my friends' parents read the article and had discussions on the bridal price as well. Whether they read and commented because they were angry with my view, frustrated with H18C, curious about the questionable $600 bridal price, which has been clarified, or because they too saw sexism in the Hmong culture, it’s clear that something has awaken in us that we thought was long dead.
The Hmong culture has been labelled a “dying culture,” and our language, as listed by the United Nations, is a “dying language.”
And on top of that, many young Hmong men and women are turning away because of the lack of connection made between our elders and the younger generation. Just like how Catholics have questioned or turned away from their faith because of old traditions and values that clash with today, the Hmong community is in the same boat.
As we have seen with other cultures and ideologies, when it ceases to be relevant, it ceases to exist.
I challenged the H18C on their bridal price, but I didn’t intend to just challenge the number or price. My intent was to challenge a way of thinking that has long been in our community. Honestly and genuinely ask yourself, have you ever questioned why we have a bride price in our culture? What was the purpose then, and what meaning does it have now? Will your family or husband love you more because they paid a larger bride price? Or will they love you less because they didn't pay one? I want us to question these practices because, frankly, I don't think we've ever asked "Why?" I don't think we even feel that we can opt out of paying this bride price; it's just something we do when we get married. But I would say that the bride price, whether it symbolizes the worth of a wife or promise that a husband makes to his wife, justifies and perpetuates sexism.
You see, sexism manifests itself in different forms in the Hmong culture. From the bridal price, funerals, divorce mediation, leadership, gender roles, marriages, and even spirituality and religious practices, we cannot deny that our culture is pure from any of these ‘isms’: Classism, sexism, and ageism. It is hard to see when you've grown up within a culture, but to have wide scale of bride prices for women who have never married before, women who are divorcees, widows, or have had children, that signifies that a 'certain kind of woman' is worth more.
Because I have brought up this notion of worth, as well as how we treat women in our community, in the context of H18C's conference, many readers have responded and said something along the lines of: “All these Hmong Americans have Western lens on!”
So does a Hmong lens not see the importance in equality and social justice? Or women's rights?
This discussion that we are having is larger than our culture. It’s about our values. Much of the time when we debate or discuss about our culture, it’s not about how to practice our culture correctly or where this or that originated from, but it’s about what makes us angry.
I’ve heard on numerous occassions: “You are not Hmong. How dare you say this about your culture?”
If questioning makes me less Hmong, then your definition of what it means to be Hmong is not how I interpret mine. Can I not have questions and love my culture at the same time? If you challenge a culture that’s been passed on for generations, you will be called a sell out. If you see a problem, where others may not, they will call you a trouble maker. If you try to challenge a leader, and say “why are you a leader?” they will silence you.
But if you don’t question, are you willing to go along when you see injustice?
Because many of you have also questioned our culture with me, some have replied and said “What are you guys doing? Stop whining.”
Some us, or maybe even all of us, may not be career activists, Hmong cultural leaders, or politicians, but we have a right to have say. We may just be concerned community members, but at the end of the day we all get to vote once; no one’s vote matters more or less. If you are a leader yourself, these are not complainers, but rather your constituency.
I will pose a challenge to H18C that I hope they take up, and that is to have a community forum, one that is truly inclusive that will allow our community members, regardless of status, to come and voice their opinions and concerns. The purpose of this forum is not to vote on any policy, not for us to agree with you, but for you to know what the real concerns in the Hmong community are. I can’t promise that everyone will support H18C, but I can say that you will better understand the issues that our community cares the most about.
To conclude, some of my readers have said “You are too ambitious! Too outspoken! We need work with them. Change takes time. We have to be patient.” But Martin Luther King Jr. once said “For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" and “This ‘wait’ has almost always meant "never." We may not topple systems of privilege in one day, but we can challenge our values and mentalities. Reflect to yourself and question your culture. This is the only way we will ever receive understanding and meaning from “why do we do the things we do?” And most importantly, is it the right thing?
© 2013 Tiffany Vang