Guest contribution from Choua P. Xiong
“If belonging to a culture means belonging to a man, then you will always be looking for a home.”
– Kabzuag Vaj, co-director of Freedom Inc, Wisconsin, 2021
HMoob, as a stateless people, have always been looking for “home.” Home might have different meanings across individuals in the HMoob diaspora, but as Kabzuag’s quote alluded to, the question of what “home” means for HMoob women when they are confined to a culture that breeds patriarchy remains unanswered. As a young mother who is highly educated, my worth is an evaluation of my father, my husband, and his father. My accomplishments – marrying a reputable family, birthing two healthy children, completing my bachelor’s, obtaining double master’s degrees, and becoming a “doctor” – act as a shiny trophy on patriarchy’s ledge, readily equipped by men as evidence of their success. Although the closest and dearest men in my life may not openly brag about my accomplishments as theirs, we cannot deny their awareness that I officially belong to them.
Sure, we can focus on the narratives that highlight the resiliency practiced by my mother, mother-in-law, and grandmothers, but the centuries of exploitation these women survived must not go unaddressed. From this standpoint, I channel the maternal strength to hold accountable the ongoing patriarchal horror in our lives. This post aims to unpack how patriarchy hurts all of us, specifically HMoob women, in the times of COVID-19. This piece is not for the white gazes nor HMoob men. This piece is to call HMoob women’s plig back into our fugitive bodies, where we must call home.
Before continuing any further, I want to caution that this post is not about a “culture” in the racialized eyes of mainstream America, colonizers, imperialists, and the West. Rather than talking about a racialized and essentialized culture that is primitive and backward, I seek to highlight the violence and injustices of patriarchy upheld by HMoob people. Patriarchy is prevalent across all cultural, ethnic, and national groups, but HMoob women in the United States experience patriarchy in very distinct and specific ways. HMoob people fear that talking about patriarchy in our community subjects us to the racial violence reinforced by U.S. policies and practices. And yes, we may become easy targets as an ethnic group if we discuss patriarchy, because which imperialist would stop at a chance to ridicule their subjects, but if we are truly fighting for equity, sovereignty, and self-determination, we must no longer be afraid to question how we perpetuate injustices in our own political movement. Thus, talking about home in the context of COVID-19 and racial violence is timely and relevant to the commemoration of Women’s History Month.
When the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 was declared a global pandemic and “Safer at Home” orders were issued in March 2020, HMoob women and LGBTQ organizers probed the community to consider whether some people were really “safer at home.” Their question was not about the pandemic. They were concerned about the lives of marginalized individuals confined to a “home,” isolated from resources and their support system.
Individuals suffered the isolation of COVID-19 differently from one another. Here, I can only unveil my experiences and the isolation I encountered as a young mother completing her PhD, healing from heighten racial injustice against BIPOC communities, and surviving patriarchy. I acknowledge that many folks whom I organize with do not get to sit behind a computer screen to process and strategize their survival. No matter how insidious patriarchy, racism, and a pandemic was throughout 2020, I was physically safe, for the most part, on those nights that I desperately begged my maternal ancestors to bestow me with courage and patience for tomorrow’s dawn.
After 12 months of intensive fieldwork in Thailand, I planned to complete data analysis, write a dissertation, and start a summer research project. I was pregnant with my second child, but I had childcare service lined up. Unfortunately, the world changed with COVID-19: I gave birth to a pandemic child. I lost my summer income. I had limited access to affordable childcare services. I could not safely bring my kids to my parents or my in-laws because they were required “essential” workers. My partner had to work remotely which meant I became the primary caretaker for our children 24/7. I became a work-from-home-mother. I put my education, community work, and mental wellness on the back burner to keep the house running.
I was at a constant battle with being a student, wife, and mother: finishing my degree so I could get a stable income, being a present mother, keeping up with household chores, and monitoring the medical, utilities, and housing bills. When family members finally started to notice I was drowning, all the women in my life – my mother, my mother-in-law, my sisters, and sisters-in-law, rushed to ensure my survival.
“Where are the men,” we might ask. Oh, they were there, but they were busy “bringing in the money.” Us women somehow are expected to know how to survive because childrearing and household chores are our sole duties, right? Evidently, it was also women’s responsibilities to make-up for the men when they fail to care for children, complete domestic chores, or contribute money.
As a long-time community-engaged researcher and organizer, my heart had always been on the ground: ready to battle for systematic change. In the middle of the pandemic, my family members and the larger HMoob community felt entitled enough to shame me from participating in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. They justified that I should be home watching my kids, keeping them “safe” – from COVID-19 and prisons. Our family’s intentions are rooted in awareness that the protest grounds were not physically safe, and this was their way of “protecting” us. But they did not want to address the emotional labor and mental terror I endured when the HMoob community sprouts antiblack and sexist remarks.
When Tou Thao stood and watched Derick Chauvin choked George Floyd to death, many HMoob men justified Tou’s action with – “he was only doing his job” – as if his job were to watch a person in power kill an innocent, unarmed Black man. When HMoob youth, women, and queer organizers took to the streets, holding signs that read: “Hmong 4 Black Lives,” our HMoob community dared to ask us why we would give our lives for Black people when we would not die for a HMoob country. How did they know we would not, and when did they show up for a HMoob country? When Asians are harmed across the nation, the HMoob community quickly pointed out Black perpetrators as “criminals” and excused white supremacists because “we live in their country, we follow their rules.”
How does patriarchy sit at the center of this? COVID-19 was not a threat if I must bring my kids across multiple traveling households in the span of 14 days just so I can “work.” COVID-19 was no longer dangerous when we wanted to invite over 50 guests to accommodate cultural practices. But, joining a demonstration to heal from racial injustice is deemed unsafe since we are not “those people” anyway. As a mother, I am obligated to my children. As a wife and daughter-in-law, I must appeal to my husband’s clan. As a daughter, I must be committed to the HMoob nation. So, when can I be dedicated to justice?
In HMoob people’s search for home, we became submerged in a pile of dirt filled with multitudes of inequity: racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism – the list goes on… We did not know what to do with the trauma of being a displaced and stateless people. So, we became fascinated with a colonized idea of a national homeland that displaces the most marginalized in our community. Today, we are going to move forward so that belonging to HMoob does not mean searching for a home. HMoob women will build a culture where we do not submit to White male’s Asian fetishes just to escape HMoob patriarchy. We will cultivate a culture that uplifts us, so we can celebrate beyond the fact that we survived.
And with this, I call our plig home.
come, come, come
‘cause we are
building a new home
los tsev au…
Bio: Choua is a scholar-activist-mother and a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at UW-Madison. Her research approach is informed by her activism as an educator in the diasporic Southeast Asian community-based educational spaces, schools, and higher education.
 Hmong/Mong is the common spelling for this ethnic group, but I use HMoob to accurately depict the correct pronunciation of the name and include both Hmoob White and Moob Green/Blue dialects.