Hmong daughter and mother struggle to understand each other’s different cultures


My freshman year in high school I started to feel like I’d rather stay at school after classes than go home, because at home all I do are chores like cooking.

ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.

I felt like I needed a change, so I joined in several clubs at my school: Chess Club, Asian Culture Club, and Art Club. I especially loved Art Club. It gave me the chance to do things I never do at home like draw, paint, and do creative things with my hands. Once, I colored and designed a cake made out of a cardboard box.

Once I joined those clubs, I started coming home at 5 or 6 p.m. But my mom soon questioned me about my after-school activities.

“Why do you keep coming home late? It’s not like you’re working or anything,” she said angrily.

“Mom, I’m just staying after school for activities. It’s not like I’m doing drugs or smoking,” I said, trying to calm her down.

“Well, you go to school and come home. You don’t go to school and hang out at school,” my mom shouted across the living room.

“Mom, do you think girls now and days do that? No and again, I’m staying afterschool for activities. Plus it’s not like I do anything at home but house chores. I’ve been doing that since middle school,” I said, angry now too.

“Still, you’re a Hmong girl and Hmong girls stay home! They don’t come home late,” said my mom.

“But mom! We are living in America. I don’t have to stay home and always do house chores because I’m a Hmong girl. I’m American. I have others important things I need to do beside staying home,” I said and walked upstairs to my room.

I threw my backpack and papers on the ground and jumped onto my bed. During the whole conversation my head wanted to explode like a volcano. I was just so tired of dealing with my mom because when I tried to explain to her why I do the things I do, she never understands and just disapproves right away.

I think it’s because of the way my mom grew up in Laos. She and her sister never went to school.

My mom stayed home and learned that, as a Hmong daughter, you are to keep the house clean and practice cooking to become a wife. So my mom has no clue what a club is, what you do there, and why I like to stay after school.

Only her brother went to school, but he never stayed after.

To her, it’s not normal for a Hmong daughter to join clubs and come home late. So, it’s hard for me to make my mom comprehend why I wanted to stay at school during afternoons.

When you’re the child of immigrant parents, misunderstandings like this can happened a lot. It’s like I live in one culture at home and another culture at school.

And sometimes those cultural differences can feel like two overlapping tectonic plates grinding against each other, the pressure building until it creates an earthquake.

“I believe American teens have trouble communicating with and understanding their immigrant parents because they both come from two different areas and are raised in different households,” said Lee Pao Xiong, the director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul.

Gaotar Thao, 17, worries
about communicating her
college financial needs to
her parents because
they are conservative with
money, but also because
she doesn’t know the right
words in Hmong.

Photo by Pa Houa Thao

My friend Gaotar Thao, 17, is facing a similar situation. She wants to go to college, but she’s worried about asking her parents if they can help pay for it.

“I’m not in fluent speaking Hmong because I grew up in a house with two languages. So it’s hard to pick the right word in Hmong to make them understand what I need,” Gaotar told me.

Gaotar’s parents were born in a small village in Laos. They knew only a little English when they arrived here.

“(Translating) English words to Hmong is not that easy, because there are no words in Hmong for English words such as financial aid, tuition, and etcetera,” she said.

Gaotar faces two challenges: she doesn’t know how to explain financial aid to her parents and when she’ll needed the money next year, but she’s also not sure if her parents would give her money to go to college because her parents are very careful about spending money.

There was a moment Gaotar tried to communicate with her parents but she couldn’t do it. “I remember they day I decided to make a move to talk to my parents. My heart was pounding fast – every step I made to the living (room) and sitting next to them, my heart wouldn’t slow down.

“They were watching Hmong movies and I was trying to think a topic the three of us can talk about. At the end, I couldn’t think of anything because I was too nervous and scared, (wondering) if they wouldn’t talk to me. Since my parents are short on their words it (often) comes to one-on-one talk,” she said.

Gaotar is a senior this year, so if she needs her parents’ help with affording college, this conversation has to happen soon. She’s asked her older sister, who is more fluent in Hmong than she is, to help her communicate with her parents.

Even though my mom didn’t want me to stay at school, it didn’t stop me. My school provides bus tokens. So almost everyday I stay after school and enjoy many things.

The truth is I stay after school because it’s where I’m at peace. It’s where I don’t have to argue with anyone.

It’s not that I don’t like my home, I love my home-it’s where warmth and love are that I get from my mom and my siblings. My mom teaches me new things every day and my siblings are my comfort when I need help.

I just don’t like hearing my mom yelling at me for staying after school, which is not only completely normal in American culture, but looked at as something good students do. These are activities that will look good on my college applications, and help me to become a better student.

Though we go over it and again and again, the words never make sense to her mind. And I really get frustrated when she accuses me of fooling with boys or that’s I’m just hanging out with my friends doing drugs.

Lee Pao Xiong, the director of the Center for Hmong Studies, said immigrant parents and their American children should practice their communication.

“Plan to eat together three times a week and get used to talking with each other. Since not every family from other cultures have the same communication like other families,” he said. “They should try this to see if it improves their communication skills because I have used this method before and it works. It just take times and courage to do it.”

After hearing Lee Pao Xiong advice, I realize my family doesn’t eat together that often because my mom works during the day and comes home in the evening. Maybe I should start using that method so I can spend more time with my mom. Then maybe my mom would approve of me staying after school.

When I compare myself to my mom, I can’t see myself becoming like her because everything teens do here is normal to me.

I am worried this cultural difference will get worse because so many Hmong families are having their first new generation here, and I see many Hmong teens who barely listen to their parents.

Most of the stories I hear are about conflicts in living with parents, even if someone is 18 years old. Especially Hmong girls can’t go out the way they want. I’ve heard of some marrying just because they think they’ll be free from living under their parents’ control.

But I believe my family and I will learn to listen to each other’s perspectives. My dream is to go to college and become a professional photographer. My mom’s dream for me is to go to college and live a better life. She doesn’t want me to work for a company and get paid low wages. There’s hope in that.