I know a child molester. In fact, I know several of them. They still come over for social gatherings and I still see them there with their wives and their children. I see them sitting at the table, eating food I helped prepare, drinking beer my family bought.
Oh, and you know them too. They are cousins, brothers, uncles, fathers — and yes, sometimes, they’re women too. They sit next to you, chat with you, shake your hand. They even hug your kids.
I feel rage burn in my chest as I watch them laugh, and I know that there is next to nothing that I can do to out them. Have I tried? Have others tried? Yes, of course, but we’re told “it’s in the past, let it go.” We’re told “why do you want to make trouble?” We’re told “get over it.”
These words, from our mothers, fathers, and brothers. Being four and having your uncle touch you inappropriately is something to just “get over”. Being thirteen and having your cousin constantly grab your breasts is “no big deal”. Feeling scared and ashamed because some cousin locked the door, pushed you onto a bed and tried to get his hand up your skirt is just something “in the past.”
I want to grab that plate of food he’s stuffing his face with and throw it against a wall. I want to scream what he did to me and to the other girls in our family, but I don’t. I can’t. Because in our culture, I would be to blame. I would be accused of being hysterical. I would be shamed into embarrassment and silence.
It isn’t even that no one would believe me. Oh, most would, because they know it to be true, but nothing would happen because he’s a man and I was just a lowly girl. He has a reputation and ruining him would mean ruining the face of our clan. He’s important. He helped at my grandmother’s funeral. He put in a hundred dollars when he only needed to give fifty. He has standing in the community. I would be the disgrace if I made a scene. Had I given into my rage, my parents would be embarrassed. My father would be apologetic. To him. And to the family. Silence was the only option.
Why not go to the cops, you ask. Well, it’s his word against mine, and thirty years have passed. What good would it do now? No proof, no conviction. The only justice left is social justice, in removing the shame for victims, in shedding light on old shadows. The only justice now is to take strides to stop it from happening again.
Hmong culture protects predators and shames victims. From wives being told that they need to change so their husbands will stop hitting them, to children being told to “let it go” when they are victimized, to blaming women for being murdered by their husbands for supposed trespasses to fragile egos, we blame victims. We shame victims into silence to save face and to keep the peace. As a collective, we care far too much about what the community thinks and not enough about protecting our own families.
Too many times, victims have come forward to tell me how they’ve been violated, and how if they dared to speak up, nothing was done. But in many cases, victims suffered in silence, carried their burdens in the darkness of shame, felt it burn and rot in their souls, unable to put to words what had been done to them because they knew, sure as the sky is blue and blood runs red, they knew that voicing their pains would accomplish little. The cost of a victim’s voice is only more pain. Their attackers would suffer nothing and the victims would be the ones questioned; they would be the ones to feel the shame. No tears, no screams, no fight would cease the anguish because no justice would come.
I searched a long time for the word “child molester” in Hmong, but there wasn’t one. These trespasses have been buried for so long that we even failed to name it. It isn’t that child molesters didn’t exist before now; it’s simply that we married our daughters to their molesters. We told our sons to keep quiet. We pretended that it didn’t happen.
For as much beauty and light, for as much resiliency and pride that Hmong culture brings to the world, beneath us is a lot of rot. Beneath the beautiful pinks and greens of our embroidery, beneath the sweet notes of our songs and the gentleness of our smiles lies dark shames that for generations we pushed away. We have the strength to survive jungles, we have the constitution to start again in foreign lands, we have the power to raise our people up to modern society in just a few generations, but we fail ourselves. We fail our daughters. Our sons. Our children.
One of our strengths is how tight our community is woven together, but is that strength false? Is it so fragile that it cannot withstand criticism? When will saving face be less important than saving family? When will we care more about our children than we do about our clan? Will it be now? Or will we keep our secret pains, pretend that we don’t see, cover our ears like we can’t hear?
To my sisters and brothers out there who found themselves victims to wolves, I’m sorry. I’m sorry our parents failed you. I’m sorry our community failed you. I’m sorry that it took so long to dig past my own pain to speak for us. No one protected you, but I will now. If you cannot speak, I will speak for you. If you find yourself lost, I will find you. We carry a million scars, tragedies that choke our words and burn in our silence. We die a little bit every day that we hold onto the pain, but setting it free will give us back breath. I am here, seeking allies, seeking stories, seeking voices, and together, we can make the change happen. Together, we’ll stop the protection of predators. Together, we’ll find our way back to the light.
I’m here with you.
© 2019 Yia Vue