Finding My Voice ~ Discovering myself amid cultural expectations
Growing up as the only girl of a Hmong family was tough. My parents lived with fear and anxiety from their post traumatic war experiences, all while trying to make a living in a new land where they faced a language barrier. When I was younger, my parents wouldn’t allow me to do things or go places my brothers could go, and I never fully understood why. Over and over, when I asked to attend a birthday party or sleepover, I was told “No!” If I persisted by asking “why?”, my dad would say, “Ua li cas koj cav ncauj ua luaj?!”, which means, “Why do you argue so much?” I learned that only a disobedient daughter questions their parent’s rules and with this, the anger and frustration built up inside me. I was taught that if I was to be respected, I must act a certain way. While I gained discipline along the way, my commitment to restraint also made me become familiar with suppressing my own wants and needs.
To avoid dishonor, I would avoid displaying frustration towards my parents and became extremely cautious of my words and actions. The ever-present, discerning question I asked myself when making any decision was, “What would my parents say?”
In church, I noticed two types of women. The first was the bitter and outspoken women who was disliked, and the second was the quiet, selfless, holy woman, committed to a life of prayer and admired. I came to the realization that I was neither; somewhere in between, and this made me feel lost. This confusion over my own identity validated the idea that women should just be quiet.
I eventually left my parent’s home in Wisconsin to attend college in Georgia, and found myself feeling lost. I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted or how to ask for it. I was gravely unaware of my own needs apart from the expectations of my parents. After I got married, I moved to New York to complete additional schooling, and my eyes were opened to women who could express their emotions, speak the word of God, and were still respected. For the first time, I could see there was another way- a place for me. I wasn’t the quiet, reverent woman in church, but that didn’t mean I was left to be the bitter loud one.
Now after 11 years of raising a family outside of the Midwest, I find myself back in a home with my parents. It’s been quite a transition. My dad had grown wiser, kinder, and even gentle throughout the years, but a recent head injury has reverted him back to being unyielding and strict – much like he was when I was a child. He has a difficult time managing his anger and this results in sudden outbursts. The other day, he exclaimed, “Ua li cas koj cav ncauj ua luaj?!”, and I found myself smiling. For the first time, I wasn’t triggered by that phrase. It’s taken me years of commitment to develop the self-awareness and courage to discover and use my voice. I’ve learned to respectfully convey my thoughts and emotions without seeing it as a mark of dishonor. I feel free to express myself knowing it doesn’t determine my worth as a daughter.
“You will never rise above your level of self-awareness”