It’s only fair to start this article to recognize that as all of us grew up, we had it hard. Being a child in a refugee family, we experienced obstacle after obstacle on top of all the cultural issues that we had to figure out along the way. I was confused, lost, and unable to sort out how to navigate my family and the culture. I had older relatives who wouldn’t listen to me, was obligated to do and be things I didn’t want to, and dealt with a lot of pressure of living up to the expectations put on me. Through all that, I became resentful and frustrated with my family. Although I don’t really know if there’s a right way growing up with family, I have been able to learn from my mentees some of the ways young people can reconnect and heal the misunderstandings and hurts we have in our families as adults. But it’s all centered around…
1. Dropping family roles and expectations
This is something that is hard to do as Hmong person, because we’re taught to always be children to our parents and always defer to our older relatives. It’s even hard for non-Hmong families to let go of family roles, but the cultural habits Hmong folks have create additional barriers. Also, many parents and older relatives will always demand the respect of being older and therefore, feel righteous or justified in judging younger relatives and imposing their ideas on them. But the reality is that as each of us becomes adults, it becomes clear that nobody knows what is right or best for anybody else. All the rules and ideas that kept the family running and structured when there were young children need to go out the window in order for everyone to talk openly and honestly for the family to be healthy.
In our culture this generally happens when everyone marries off and starts a family. Because each married person has their own family to mind, we begin to respect each other’s space and time. But nowadays young adults can go decades without getting married or having kids. It shouldn’t be necessary to young adults to have to go through these rites of passage to be respected as having their own autonomy and deserving of their own space and time to prioritize their needs. We all can agree that each person has their own work, friends, ambitions, and goals that are separate from the family and deserve to be prioritized. My mother did this when she and my father was having marital and financial issues when I was away in college. I suggested that I could move back and work to keep our second house, but she told me that I should focus on my life and finish my education. We lost that house, but I was able to finish college. In the long term, my mother and I learned to work together to help our family because we learned to…
2. Say exactly what we mean and learn to ask for help…ahead of time
Unfortunately the problem with a lot of families they don’t communicate clearly, too often using family roles and emotion to obligate each other into helping them. For example, as children when we’d go out to play late at night, instead of telling us to not stay out late, our parents would scare us by telling us that there are ghosts that come out after dark. Some parents complain loudly that they are hungry instead of asking directly for their children to cook. In this way, we tend to use negative emotions and family obligations to get things done instead of engaging in a direct, clear ask.
For adult relationships to work, being straightforward and simply asking for help is essential. Although asking for help makes us vulnerable and open to be rejection, it allows the person helping us to listen to our needs instead of becoming irritated that he or she is being obligated. Also, being direct and clear gives the other person a chance to negotiate include their situation so that they can give help in a way that works for them too. All it takes is the person who needs help to plan ahead a little. When both individuals are able to work together, they build a stronger relationship through supporting one another instead of building resentment and distance. It took a while with my younger sisters, but just last week they told me they needed to buy a birthday present for a friend before the weekend. I was able to schedule out some time on a weeknight to take them when I was free. Instead of being afraid and waiting last minute, they were assertive and direct, and that allowed us to enjoy our time shopping instead of feeling obligated and guilty. When we respect our family members’ time and situation, we can all work harmoniously in meeting each other’s needs and demands.
If your parents or siblings aren’t like this, just give them a reminder that your time and priorities are important but you do want to help them. Let them know that if they need anything, that they should give you some flexibility in choosing when it would be best for you to help them so that you aren’t sacrificing your plans to help them last minute. Avoiding the misunderstandings that result from poor planning go a long way to getting along with one another. But that’s not all….
3. Cook, clean, work, eat, and play with your family members to connect with them
Hmong folks, especially elders, don’t have a normal cultural activity to get to know each other on a personal level. They won’t take walks just to talk and relax with a family member or friend. Usually the only culturally acceptable ways to spend time together is to engage in an activity is that has a clear and direct purpose, such as cooking, cleaning, working, playing, and eating. These activities are universal and transcend any kind of cultural, age, or language barrier you might experience with your family. It means a lot to elders to work or eat alongside them. It means a lot to younger relatives to play with them. Although you don’t have much in common with them, these kinds of activities establish that you value their presence and time. If you don’t know what to talk about, ask them about things they know, such as their work, their garden, the game they’re playing, whatever you see them doing. And even if you can’t talk, just enjoying food or a game together is always great.
At the end of the day, we too often let our time with our family slip away. The bi-cultural and language issues we have as refugee families also contribute to how difficult it can be to get along with everyone. Although sometimes it feels too complicated or problematic to try, there are really basic steps that young adults can do to make families work better. Learning how to negotiate the hard stuff like work and obligations while learning how to appreciate the simple things are a good place to start.