I’ve heard a lot of talk of what it means to carry on traditions and how that relates to our culture, but I think a lot of people are confusing the two. Traditions mean acts, words, ceremonies, and more that have occurred regularly throughout our history. Culture is an ever evolving way of how we view ourselves and doesn’t necessarily need to be rooted in our past. I am a second generation Hmong refugee, who was born in America, and really dealt with two separate cultures: my ethnic, Asian heritage and the current mid-western landscape that I live in. Being a fish out of water is already an experience in and of itself, and some find themselves gravitating to one side or the other, which results in confusion and a murky reflection of who we see ourselves as in the future.
But I digress. What concerns me is how we hold on to old traditions because we think if we don’t, we are losing our culture and what it means to be who we are. If we no longer practice Shamanism, steal brides, buy our brides, or shun our women, does this mean we aren’t Hmong anymore? The bride price is an especially sticky issue because some argue that it is not a price on the girl’s head, but a debt of gratitude paid to her parents to honor them for raising her. And that may well be the case in many situations, but that does not end up happening when tensions arise. Husbands and their families use the bride price to manipulate and accost their brides, for they know it would cause her irreprehensible harm if she were labeled a bad wife and returned. Yes, there are some Hmong people who don’t do this, but the fact of the matter is that the bride price is a patriarchal tool that can be used to control women.
So then we ask what do we do with this tradition? Do we let it die like the words our children no longer know to speak? Who are we if we are not our traditions? Traditions are rooted in the past, but culture does not have to be. We can choose to change who we are and what our children experience. Our culture is what we expect of our young boys when they date our young girls. It shouldn’t be turning a blind eye when your older uncle goes to Thailand to marry a barely legal girl. It shouldn’t be telling our women to stay in troubled marriages simply because they will be ostracized. It shouldn’t be letting others think it’s okay to beat their wives because they were paid for. That’s what happened recently, when a Hmong wife went live to the act of her husband beating her. The most reprehensible thing that happened afterwards was that one of the husband’s female relatives said they should be allowed to hit her up to 10 times because they bought her.
This is currently what our culture is, but it doesn’t have to be what it can be. I was part of a Hmong women’s group where countless women poured their hearts out about how they were mistreated by their husbands and their families and it broke my heart that we are still tied to the very traditions that our mothers and our mother’s mothers were. They had no agency in their lives and relied on the social support of their husbands. They were shunned if they were divorced or their husbands died. Their children could be taken away from them if the other side wanted. I always thought that these were things of a bygone era, but the group forced me to realize that we are no different than our past. My mother’s mother was a second wife, tricked into marrying my grandfather by his first wife. When he died, he left his family in shambles because they no longer had a man protecting them. Because of this, my mother longed for legitimacy and a family, willing to undergo all sorts of trauma at any cost to be a wife.
My mother was always an angry woman. Someone who was short with us and didn’t show us affection. I always knew she didn’t love us, but I now understand why. She had to reduce who she was to please her husband and the society she lived in. In doing so, she killed her own happiness and who she was. To change our culture, we must recognize that our society was set up to benefit only the men. They are the only ones with any real sense of agency and ability to change their lives without impunity. We must understand that this cannot continue. We can accept that these were our traditions, but we don’t have to accept that they will continue to be a part of our future. And so I ask, what does it mean to be Hmong? Who are we if we are not our traditions? We can be kind. We can be understanding. We can be inclusive. We will always remain Hmong, but we can be better.