For most traditional Hmong families, “doing family” means coming together to share a feast that we’ve all cooked. “Doing family” is seeing younger nephews and nieces playing and grabbing sodas as they run in and out of the house, grandparents and men gathered in the backyard reminiscing. On the side of the house, aunts and sisters-in-law are washing mustard greens, cilantro and green onions for the next dish, while mothers congregate around big pots set on gas propane tanks. They talk and laugh about the latest gossip as they stir boiling pots of chopped pork. At the same time their daughters are endlessly washing big bowls and double-stacker rice steamers with the water hose. They stand on top of temporary wood pallets with the legs of their pants rolled up to keep from getting wet. This is a common way of gathering in the Hmong community. But was this how you envisioned “doing family”? With my busy schedule, I am beginning to prefer potluck style gatherings with my immediate family only.
What it means to “do family” the traditional way
Recently, I have been thinking about family a lot and what it means to me. As a working professional, a wife, a mom and a Hmong nyab (daughter-in-law), how I “do family” has changed a bit compared to my mom’s generation. I say, “do family” because for the Hmong people, family revolves around action going beyond just spending time with your immediately family. The stress of food preparation and making sure you have enough for those who may or may not come, in addition to the clean up, has become very labor intensive. To me “doing family” the traditional way has become a job rather than a time to relax and enjoy everyone’s company.
Our in-laws live with us, too, so it’s rare that I have alone time, and I feel like I have to fight to find time just to lounge around and have a day to be lazy. Does this sound a little selfish? As a nyab—you can never be caught being inconsiderate, impatient or lazy (you have to be up at dawn to start the day). In many ways “doing family” the traditional way has made me feel inadequate. I feel like I cannot uphold so many values and duties.
My mom + “doing family”
When I think of family, I often think of my mom and her role in creating more than just a home for us. Our home was more than just her cooking, cleaning and disciplining—it was her whole heart that opened to care for not only us but everyone around her. She was a well-rounded Hmong woman who was reputable in the village for her way with words. She could sing kwv txhiaj (Hmong folk song), for which I assume attracted my dad. As a mother she sewed pajntaub (embroidery) and made Hmong outfits so we never had to buy them. She carried me on her back while she farmed and maintained all her household duties as a nyab. Perhaps it is because she was able to “do family” so well that I feel I must also.
I am the older of the two girls in our family and have six brothers. We came to U.S. by sponsorship as refugees of the Vietnam War. ’Til this day I wonder how my mom got through it all. Being an orphan, she married young, devoted her life to family, took care of us but lost two children to the war. Then she migrated to a new world with us, jumping between 200 years of civilization change merely overnight. She never went to school nor worked outside the home. She raised all of us and took care of the grandkids so my brothers and sisters-in-law could go to school and work full-time. Now that I have my own family I know that being a nyab, mother and wife is not easy, but my mom has never let me see her struggles in these roles. She says, “Having a big heart and giving when others don’t is how you can live together as one family.”
“Doing family” + sacrifice
My dad passed away in 1997, and my mom is much older now—but in my eyes she is the same strong and loving mother I have always known. Her strong will still holds the family together. I know she feels she has nothing more to give since she cannot see or hear as well as she used to. She has little energy to cook for everyone or even to watch any more grandkids. The few younger grandkids rarely run to her because they can smell the menthol medicine she puts on her shoulder for her muscle pain. No one bothers to ask her to go anywhere because it’s too much of a hassle. She is often left out of the decision-making but she thinks nothing of it.
Everyone is busy with their jobs and grown kids—I can only imagine my mom’s many days through the years sitting home alone looking out the window waiting for everyone to come home to fill the home with warmth. As a married Hmong daughter my responsibility to her is much less—but that doesn’t keep me from feeling guilty because she has taught me that a nice home is nothing if no one visits, and family is only valued if everyone can come together under one roof.
“Doing family” the traditional way isn’t all bad
Over the years, I have slowly allowed myself to sleep in on Saturdays. Some mornings, I have my girls cook pancakes and omelets for breakfast instead of rice and a Hmong dish. When I was working on my master’s thesis, I allowed myself to just get up and go to the local coffee shop to write for the whole day, not worrying about the kids or the in-laws. It can be hard to balance it all. As a Hmong woman, I walk a very fine line between giving all my time to my family and thinking of myself and what I want.
But, the truth is, I still get excited when I meet someone who is Hmong at any non-Hmong event. When I see a house with lemongrass or Hmong chicken herbs planted in front of the house, I assume it’s a Hmong home and it gives me a sense of family. “Doing family” the traditional way is hard as a professional woman, a nyab, mom and wife, but it’s also how we share each another’s pain, happiness and love.
Perhaps, I have started to worry because my mom and my in-laws are getting older, and if they are no longer around, will “doing family” be the same? Will my children lose the communal sharing we all gain from “doing family”? Should all this change, I wonder if I will yearn for this life like my parents and my in-laws have yearned for their life back in Laos. Just as they have experienced loss, will the traditional way we “do family” become our loss?
At your next family gathering, think about how your parents might want to “do family” and consider taking the time to do so. For me, as I continue to practice and learn, I thank my mom for all that she has done, for giving me valuable lessons about what it means to have a Hmong family.
Maihoua Lo is a professional, a mother, a wife and a nyab. She is married to Michael Lo and has three daughters and one son. She has been at CSU, Chico for over eleven years where she re-established the Hmong American course in 2014. She and her husband own a financial services business where they provide financial security for their clients. Maihoua is an advocate for Hmong women in higher education and for building personal growth through understanding your own identity.
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