A Hmong Man’s Contribution to the Domestic Violence Discussion

hmoodvoilenceIn light of a Sacramento Bee article that came out on the community movement against domestic violence in our community, I realize there needs to be a deeper discussion about what is really going on in our community, to break down all the misunderstanding that has been happening around domestic violence. As a Hmong man who has worked in the community for many years now and has wrestled with this issue in my own life and on a community level, I feel it is important for me to participate in this discussion and give some input into this issue that so that men actually meaningfully engage in this conversation.

First off, it’s fundamental that everyone understand that domestic violence is only a symptom of a deeper problem in our community. If the only outcome to this conversation of domestic violence is “Don’t break the law and respect women,” there really will be no meaningful change in our community. I myself have felt the urge to hurt a woman I loved, and was able to shut myself down before I acted inappropriately. But that didn’t solve anything, it just kept our problems from getting worse. What is more important for me to ask is “How did our relationship get so unhealthy that we even got to that point I wanted to hurt her?”

At the root of this problem is exactly that deeper issue: that it is difficult for Hmong men and women to have healthy relationships, especially with all the changes we experience in this country and all the expectations we’re forced to uphold. In this article, I’ll be exploring what I’ve experienced and understood of what it takes to make healthier gender relationships both on a personal and cultural level.

1. We need to let go of gender roles and stereotypes so we can actually communicate

The basis of any good relationship is communication. Communication is what allows people to explore a problem and get on the same page so they can solve it together. But unfortunately gender roles create all sorts of issues when we’re trying to fix problems in families. In the Hmong community, men are supposed to work, provide, be the head of household, etc. Women are supposed to raise children, take care of the home, etc. But life is different for every couple, and we have to be flexible enough in our community to be open about what works best for each couple instead of relying on these stereotypes.

For example, if a married couple is having problems because the wife works and the husband stays at home, many parents wouldn’t know how to support that couple in dealing with their problems. In fact, it’s possible the advice they give would hurt the couple more, especially if they simply scold the husband for not having a job, and scold the wife for not staying at home. The couple needs their parents and families to help them work out their situation through open communication. If the family only imposes gender expectations and roles it will only increase the stress and difficulty of their situation.

On top of this, if we were to create a new gender role, say that good men don’t abuse women, it would only be just as superficial and ineffective. Men and women still wouldn’t be able to communicate and be flexible in how they work together. Instead there would just be new roles and expectations for men to uphold that will mask the deeper issues and problems that men experience in relationships.

In my life, I openly communicate with my sisters. The reason why is that I have refused the gender role to “keep them in line.” If I lived up to that expectation, they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to me about their lives and sharing with me what they’re going through. They would hide all the problems in their life from me in fear that I will scold, punish, or control them in some way to make them “ideal.” Because I have rejected this gender role and treat them as a sibling I deeply care about, they are able to share with me where they are at in life and I can actually help them with the problems they experiencing, and vice versa.

But this applies on all ends of the spectrum. Men and women need to reject their gender roles and instead rely on their honesty and openness to be able to reinvent their relationship as needed to adapt to the changes in their lives. Families need to let go of their expectations of couples and be open to listening about what the dynamics in the relationship are first to actually give good advice. The deeper value shouldn’t be how to be an ideal Hmong family, it should be how to be an honest one where everyone can participate and communicate freely to work together.

2. We need more women representation in the structures of our community

An ongoing problem I see with all community efforts I’ve been a part of is that all the positions of power and influence are held by men. This is an enormous problem particularly in regards to how we deal with situations like domestic violence. If a couple has domestic violence issues, they normally turn to their families for support. But who sits on the clan leadership of these families? Men. So women experiencing domestic violence are forced to rely solely on other men to help them address the problems in their relationship. Unfortunately these men will more likely identify with and side with the husband. Beyond this, even older women will often side with men as well, further ignoring the needs of domestic violence victims.

Leadership from strong, independent female perspectives are essential to creating a less male-centric approach in our community and give balance to the variety of experiences struggling couples face. Without more strong women in clan leadership, in boards of organizations, and other positions of power and influence, we’re stuck with a culture and community that will continuously neglect and ignore women and their needs. Because of these problems, we see that women are less likely to want to marry in the community, to rely on the community, and to participate overall. To have a more meaningful culture that can grow and change with the needs of the whole Hmong community in America, we need to value women’s voices and perspectives at the same level as men and respect their independent perspectives.

3. Men need to be in relationship with women, meaning that they really listen and they really talk, especially now

Although this is a national conversation on domestic violence, it is still largely outside the traditional structures of our families and communities, and it is solely led by women. This poses a number of questions: Where are the men who want to openly participate in solving domestic violence? How do men feel about domestic violence? How do men want to contribute to making things get better? All these questions revolve around the fact that men must be willing to be in relationship to women, even when exploring difficult issues like domestic violence where we might feel insecure, vulnerable, or at fault. It’s important that we don’t take this effort as an attack on our masculinity or blame a few bad apples, but rather take it as an opportunity to finally listen to women as they communicate to us about what they know to be the problems in our community. On top of that, we shouldn’t just stick to the sensationalization of domestic violence but really dig down and see where we as individuals fit into this picture and how we contribute to the root of this problem.

We have a rare opportunity as a community at the moment, where women are really leading the charge in trying to address the problems in our families. I hope Hmong men everywhere take this opportunity to not simply side with women against this “issue,” but take the time to reflect on the words and sentiments that women are communicating to us. I myself am reflecting on my own anger and frustrations in relationships, and trying to figure out how I can help be more than just an “ally” but actually be a partner in this effort to redefine what is needed to make our families and community work.

If you’d like to read the Sacramento Bee article, you can find it here: http://www.sacbee.com/

8 comments

  1. Love the point about communication and men must really listen and talk to women, right on!

  2. Not to be that guy but...

    Can’t say I agree. The idea that gender roles is the root of domestic abuse in Hmong communities detracts from the real problem. Gender roles is a necessity in relationships and the ones you touch upon are even more so needed within Hmong relationships. It’s not Hmong society but the society as a whole that dictates what we need to identify with. To say that domestic violence is the result of difficulty adjusting to “the changes we experience in this country and all the expectations we’re forced to uphold” and yet fail to discuss how mainstream culture influence also affects our thoughts was a grave mistake. Mainstream culture teaches us, now more so than ever, that men should be men and women should be women. Sure, it doesn’t say that men should work and women should stay at home but where in Hmong culture does that even appear? Sure parents teach their sons to uphold dignity, honor, and culture and their daughters to be respectful, caring, and the duties of a woman but do we not see this in any other culture? As people of color we tend to be colorblind to the notion that other people are in incense the same as us. And in those culture is domestic violence an issue too? Now the root to domestic violence in the Hmong communities is simple…it’s one that every Marxist knows is the basis of all problems…the root to domestic violence in Hmong communities is an economic one. Money talks and money once again strains relationships not gender roles. In every relationship, including non-Hmong ones, relationships are strained because of financial issues and this holds particularly true with Hmongs. Take for example your own example where a woman works and a man stays at home. Do you truly believe that problems are the result of gender roles? Probably but those problems are the results of the deeper problem which is that there isn’t enough money. In this day and age most families require both man and woman to work in order to make enough for a family. Given the average level of education that is typical of our community wouldn’t it be better to say that we’re more likely to not be able to be in a household where only one person needs to work? If one comes to understand this then one will realize that domestic violence which results from the strain of not making enough to provide for a family is the root to domestic violence.

    Read the article…had some good points…but the people who should be reading this can hardly read at the fourth grade level. Wasted effort.

    • Economics is only one of the angles to the cause of domestic violence. Personally, my parents were fine financially as my father made enough for my mother to stay at home and raise all 7 of my siblings and I, but they definitely still had some DV issues. And even if it were about money, they lacked the communications skills to ease out the strain on their relationship.

      Any relationship can be strained for many different types of reasons and financial issues are just one of them. I noticed that the bulk of stories on the media about our community that resulted in domestic violence are those involving extramarital affairs or the belief of infidelity. And unfortunately, the case that started this whole national movement of our Hmong community to discuss about domestic violence did involve the husband believing she was having an affair which resulted his family for not giving her a proper burial.

      But thank you for sharing your perspective, as there is truth to economics as one of the root cause of DV. But to make any relationship work with another human being isn’t economics, it’s communication.

      • I agree, Paj Zoo! It doesn’t matter what the problem is.. It’s the way the man acts during the dispute.

  3. Nenick,

    Great insight and reflection. I wish that most Hmong men can articulate or if not articulate, listen to the points you have pointed out about who we are and how we have assigned roles to men and women in the community. These roles have perpetuated many of these incidences of domestic violence in our communty, especially when a women no longer fit into these roles because she has excelled either in education or profession and thus earning. I find it ironic that we have such an eloquent language (at weddings and funerals) and yet when it is about living life and being content that we do not exemplify our language.

    Our role çhange or enhancements are like many groups before us but they have a little bit more time whereas I feel we had to leap in warp speed but yet, have not even begun. We can go on and on but let’s begin somewhere with both gender and the entire family unit.

    May Ying

  4. Nenick Vu, I applaud you for the thorough and well written article. Everything you said is true! Being a domestic violence survivor myself, I see all the underlying problems you identified as the core issues. Thank you.

  5. The reason dv occurs is the inability to control yourself in intense situations or the need to have power and control over others. Either way both stem from values we learn from society, family, culture, etc and the coping strategies we also developed. Communication is wonderful but ultimately people with dv issues need to get some new coping skills which would require adjusting their values. The most important ofcourse is to accept that people are creatures of free will and you cannot force them physically to do anything such as love you, not have an affair, work outside of the home. Rich or poor we all have marital problems. People who have dv issues have a problem not being able to deal with it without abusing others. They need to adjust their attitudes or the law will do it for them by sending them to jail. Since most abusers will not change on thier own, and their spouse will be too afraid to do anything, the way we can help is to call the police, report the crime and hope that the system will correct the abusers attitude. Values instill good attitudes but sometimes consequences can change bad ones. So teach our people to respect the physical bounderies of others, be an example of someone who can cope properly or be willing to send whom ever you see abusing someone to jail even if its your brother, dad or uncle.
    is to

  6. I love this article. Thanks for writing it. I do think that some men feel like their being pu**ies helping out the female community with this issue. Which only proves your point even more. We need to somehow get some men over this hill of ignorance.

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