When I was thirteen, my family lived next door to my cousin’s family. Our houses sat in a row with six other houses colored in pale shades of the rainbow, perfectly lined up in pastel blues, pinks, yellows, and lavender. We lived in the blue house and they lived in the mint green one.
I remember she was sixteen and the oldest in her family. We’ll call her Alice*. Like all eldest daughters, Alice’s teenage life — like mine — revolved around caring for her younger siblings, cooking, cleaning, and making dinner for the family. I also remember she had this boyfriend (we’ll call him Paul*) who said he was twenty-five. He was short and slim and awkward, with thinning hair and bad teeth. He looked old to me, but at thirteen, what did I know about what twenty five year olds were supposed to look like. He’d wear white wife-beater tees and jeans too baggy for his frame, and I remember his car. It was a white sedan that he’d had the top sawed off to make it into a convertible, but he’d never gotten around to finishing it, so he’d just drive around in a topless car.
After school, he would stop by to visit; sometimes by himself, and sometimes with one or two of his boys. When his boys came along, Alice always asked that I come and sit in the house too. She didn’t want to be alone with them.
On one hot afternoon, I remember sitting on their loveseat, staring uncomfortably at these men as they sat opposite me on the couch. The window was behind them, the sun washing into the room like blinding white heat and casting their faces into shadow. Paul sat in the middle, with the friend on the left what we would consider “fobby”, but the friend on the right was a pretty boy. For a Hmong guy at that time (almost thirty years ago), he would have been considered cute.
This particular afternoon stuck out because of the conversation they were having. Alice was busy in the kitchen preparing drinks and her little sister had come in to sit next to me. I remember Pretty Boy looking at me when he said, “I could make her pregnant.”
I was too young at the time to fully understand his meaning, but I understood enough for it to make me uncomfortable. Fobby guy sucked his teeth and said, “Man, Aaron*, you always trying to rape girls.”
This statement was met with laughter from the other two guys, as though this was a normal and constant conversation they had. It wasn’t until later that I learned that Aaron was actually well known for raping Hmong girls. There were more than rumors about how he’d raped a girl, and her parents had tried to force him to marry her, but that he’d refused.
The girl was left in shame, but at the very least, not pregnant. I am sure that girl was not the last victim either; just as sure as I know that there were no real consequences to Aaron’s actions. There would be no police involvement. There wouldn’t even be an angry male relative to threaten Aaron. Nothing would be done and he’d go on with his life, while his victims would always be locked in time with the trauma of what he’d done.
Later that summer, Alice’s little sister, who was a year younger than me, confided in me that Paul had also tried to rape Alice. He’d cornered her and her baby sister (who was three at the time) in a bedroom and tried to force himself on her, but the baby started crying and screaming, so he stopped.
Unfortunately, Alice’s story isn’t unique. So many of the Hmong girls in my generation — the first generation here in the US — have similar stories. Alice eventually ended up marrying Paul. It was a sad, desperate attempt to escape the abuse from her parents, only to find herself in a worse situation. She’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire, but by then, it was too late to undo.
It wasn’t until she married him that she learned that Paul was not in his twenties. He was actually in his thirties; and that saying no to him was not an option. Ever.
Our community was small, especially in the Central Valley, so we all heard. We all knew. Even as a teen, the talk reached me.
Rape in Hmong culture is too common. Older Hmong men in their twenties and thirties marrying twelve, thirteen, fourteen year old girls — there is no consent here. These girls are forced to have sex whether they are ready or not. Forced to have children while still children themselves. Then there are men like Paul and Aaron that feel permission isn’t needed. Husbands rape their wives because wives cannot refuse. Boyfriends rape their girlfriends because she’s seen as a possession more than a person. And pretty boys like Aaron rape girls they’ve just met because they know our community will hold no consequences for them.
I remember at the Hmong New Year, being forced by my parents and relatives to be polite to older men. Being a teen girl being hit on by men in their thirties and forties is such a common experience for all Hmong women. Having strange older men call your house to talk to you when you’re fourteen is also an experience many Hmong women are all too familiar with.
And none of this is okay. No relative ever intervened or came to our rescue. Those who were supposed to protect us instead only dressed us up to present us to the wolves.
Unfortunately, the experience with my cousin would not be the last time I would hear about Hmong girls being raped or for me to come uncomfortably close to Hmong men who I know now have raped Hmong women. These men walk amongst us, sit beside us at the long tables, eat our food, and drink with us. It’s nothing to them.
I had a boy cousin who was a few years older than me who used to corner me and other girls in our family and grab us. More than once, he’d force a girl down on a bed or lock himself in a room with girls against her will — to which the parental figures did nothing to correct. Luckily, we moved away before anything more happened, but it would not be hard to imagine that more did happen to some other poor girl. And to this day, my mother and brother think this cousin is great, and he is welcomed into their house as though nothing ever happened.
In the US, it was reported that one in every sixteen women were either forced or coerced into having sex for the first time. One in every six women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. But I believe that these numbers are underreported, and I believe that in the Hmong community, the numbers are closer to one in three. We just don’t report it. We hide it, we excuse it, we brush it aside, or we accept it as okay and move on. Until this attitude changes, Hmong women will continue to be victims.
Physical abuse often goes hand in hand with sexual assault. Looking at the underbelly of our culture is uncomfortable, and many of you wish I, in particular, would focus on writing about happy things and beautiful things in the Hmong culture, however, hiding our flaws does us no favors. Shining a light under the bed means that we, as a collective, can then see what needs to be cleaned up. It isn’t pretty and it’s not meant to be pretty, but it’s necessary.
Unfortunately, one common characteristic of patriarchy and toxic masculinity is also rape culture. These things all swim in the same cesspool. To confront one means we need to confront all. There is rape culture in the Hmong community, and although the younger generation is growing up more aware of the social issues we face, it doesn’t mean that it no longer exists.
I sometimes wonder where Alice is now, if she’s still married to Paul, if she’s happy. I remember my senior year in high school, I saw her coming to her parents’ house. She’d looked as though she’d aged a dozen years in the year she’d been gone. And I wished I’d been able to help her more back then. I wish I’d had the fortitude to stand up for her, but it would have been one kid standing in the path of a tidal wave. With the rise of Hmong women’s voices coming together, bringing the issue to light can perhaps help others. And perhaps if Alice has a daughter out there somewhere, perhaps I can help her now.
*All names have been changed to protect privacy.
© 2019 Yia Vue