A Hmong Daughter’s Homecoming
June 24, 2016
I remember seeing Karen* for the first time, her bruised skin a physical marker for the trauma they had just endured; but she was more concerned about how her leaving her husband would affect her family and especially her father. Never mind that she had just been screamed at, bruised, and pushed down, both literally and figuratively. Yet, what took center stage in her trauma was the denial of home from her own family, this had happened once before and they sent her back and told her to be a good “nyab.” She was a Hmong wife after all, she had to be a good daughter-in-law and not invite shame to her father’s home.
She told me her story in Hmong as it unfolded in sections, like the brightly colored skirts of the Hmong hill tribes of her ancestors, her unplanned pregnancy, her unplanned marriage, the communal gossip about her, the shame her parent’s felt. My American teachings screamed at me to tell her that they were wrong and for her to leave that all behind and that she was safe. The best I could offer was a bed, food and comfort in whatever capacity I could.
Karen’s family saw the circle of people she had surrounded herself with, an agency that took her in, a job that cared about her well being, professor’s who worked around the clock to ensure she did not fail. Karen left our doors and went to live on her own with family members embracing her. Karen never blamed her family for pushing her back into her ex-husband’s home, she had been a troubled teen and her very Hmong parents could not understand their Hmong-American teenager. Her parents believed her to be a selfish adult, as she had been a selfish teen. Karen’s transformation from troubled teen to “poj nrauj” (divorcee), only exasperated her family more.
Instead she walked through our doors, went to school and went to work. She found education as a place of solace and her employers were more than relieved for her leaving. I watched as this person became the person she had always wanted to be, she only needed a forgiving space and time to let that happen. I wish I could tell her family that she did so much better without her husband, I wish I could describe to her family the compassionate and hardworking person she was; that she was worth more as an individual than her abusive marriage. But I will never need to, she showed them who she was, she proved to them that beyond her bruises and scars she had an inner fire that her ex-husband had never been able to stamp out. Her father blessed her soul back into the household, the traditional Hmong way. Her sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, community members witnessed and celebrated the blessing of her soul. The ceremony was a call to cleanse and forgive, to begin anew.
*The name of this individual has been changed to protect their privacy.