15. Scarred, yet Undefeated: Hmong and Cambodian Women and Girls in the United States
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15 Scarred, yet Undefeated Hmong and Cambodian Women and Girls in the United States Sucheng Chan Many of the Hmong and Cambodian women and girls now living in the United States suffered severe traumas before they ever set foot on American soil. Some have never recovered from the unspeakable horrors they experienced; others not only have survived but have valiantly rebuilt their lives. They are actively reconstituting families or starting new ones and are working hard to make the communities they now live in into viable social entities. This chapter discusses where they came from and why they are here. The Hmong originated in China, where more than 5 million of them still live. In the early nineteenth century some Hmong migrated to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam to escape Chinese persecution. The descendants of these migrants now live in the hills of mainland Southeast Asia and practice slash-and-burn agriculture. The Hmong in the United States all came from Laos, where they are but one of sixty ethnic groups and, being a minority, are dominated by the lowland Lao. The Hmong social structure is based on clans, which number about twenty. The kinship system, like that of the Chinese, is patrilineal, patrilocal, and patriarchal. Although Hmong women have inferior status vis-à-vis men, in their homeland they do some of the most strenuous work in their communities. They cultivate and harvest crops (usually without the aid of draft animals), husk grain, carry heavy containers of water from mountain streams, gather firewood and lug it home along steep and slippery paths, spin yarn, weave cloth, sew by hand all their families’ clothing, and take care of their families , domestic animals, and vegetable gardens. Hmong men are responsible for hunting, clearing jungle plots for cultivation, making decisions, and controlling their families and clans. In contrast to the Hmong kinship system, that of the Khmer—the major ethnic group in Cambodia—is neither patrilineal nor patrilocal. Rather, it is cognate or bilateral , counting descent through both the male and female lines. After a young couple marries, they can live with or near the husband’s family or the wife’s family or somewhere else by themselves. Although Khmer women are still subject to male control, Khmer gender roles are complementary rather than hierarchical: women clean house, cook,raise children,and obey and serve the men folk in their families,but they also participate in decision making by advising their husbands and managing family finances. 253 Khmer culture places great emphasis on female comportment: women must look beautiful , dress and carry themselves modestly, and speak softly and soothingly. Whatever status they enjoy is based on their virtuousness, especially as others perceive it. The reputation of Khmer men, meanwhile, depends mainly on their ability to grow enough food or to earn sufficient wages to support their families. Neither Hmong nor Khmer women would have come to the United States in sizable numbers had Americans not fought a war in Vietnam and had that war not also involved neighboring Laos and Cambodia.1 To understand what they went through before they arrived in the United States, it is important to know something about what happened to them during the conflicts that engulfed their countries, because those wartime experiences continue to haunt many of them. Surviving War and Revolution The 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the First Indochina War (1946–1954) set aside two provinces in northeastern Laos for the Pathet Lao (Laotian Communists) to regroup their troops. American policy makers feared that the Pathet Lao might take over neighboring provinces,so they looked for ways to prevent such a possibility.The United States had to act clandestinely because both the 1954 and 1962 Geneva agreements stipulated that Laos remain neutral during the Cold War. Thus, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which can operate secretly, became a key player in Laos. CIA agents had heard that the Hmong were fierce fighters, so they began, in 1959, to recruit Hmong young men into a mercenary army, which U.S. Special Forces, commonly called the Green Berets, trained and equipped. The secret war in Laos devastated the lives of Hmong men, women, and children. During the peak of the fighting,out of a Hmong population in Laos of about three hundred thousand, some forty thousand men at a time were at war, suffering the highest casualty rate among all the groups involved in the wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Hmong families were moved from their...


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Subject Headings

  • Pacific Islander American women -- History.
  • Asian American women -- History.
  • United States -- Ethnic relations.
  • Pacific Islander American women -- Social conditions.
  • Asian American women -- Social conditions.
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