Contemporary Women's Roles through Hmong, Vietnamese, and American Eyes
Long, Lisa A., Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies
For many Americans, Southeast Asia and its inhabitants--particularly the Vietnamese and transnational ethnic groups such as the Hmong--become visible only through the lens of the Vietnam War. At the same time, contemporary Vietnamese tend to see that war as only one of the many imperialist conflicts in which they have been engaged for the past millennium. (1) And the Hmong, with traditional roots in agriculture and no national ties to speak of, hold an even longer view, seeing this war and subsequent migrations as part of an even loner view, seeing this war and subsequent migrations as part of an ancient four-thousand-year-old history of conflict and flight through the highlands of modern China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand--and now to the United States. Not surprisingly, gender roles in Southeast Asia and the United States have been profoundly shaped in both cultures by these traditions of invasion, resistance, and, often, flight.
A complex, diasporic confluence of political history, militarism, immigration, and feminism emerged in the wake of the Vietnam War. To tease out these delicate global intersections, which continue to shape contemporary women's lives, in this paper I explore representations of Viet and Hmong women in Vietnamese publications and public spaces and compare them to representations of women in the writings of Vietnamese American and Hmong American women. To this end, I pair images of Viet women culled from two Vietnamese publications, Images of the Vietnamese Woman in the New Millennium (2002) and Female Labour Migration: Rural-Urban (2001), and from the Vietnamese Women's Museum housed in Hanoi with Lan Cao's negotiations of Vietnamese American womanhood in her novel, Monkey Bridge (1997). As well, I examine representations of Hmong women at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, specifically a book of photographic essays by Hmong girls titled Through H'Mong Eyes (2003), and compare them to selections by Hmong American women writers and story-tellers from the anthologies Bamboo among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans (2002) and Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America (1994). This essay questions the ethical and practical ends of Western, Vietnamese, and Hmong considerations of Southeast Asian women's gender roles, especially when viewed through the sometimes totalizing grip of the Vietnam War--or the American War of Aggression, as it is called in the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.
To pursue such a comparative analysis, it is necessary to place American publications alongside Vietnamese texts that are often multiauthored--sometimes with no clear sense of individual attribution. While the communal nature of these latter texts might reflect cultural traditions, the powerful state's role in shaping them also presents a challenge in reading Vietnamese publications as sources of contemporary reality. In contrast, American texts of the sort I analyze here, produced in the relatively freer West, can be read as authentic, individual cris de coeur. Yet it is important to keep in mind that both types of publications are crafted in response to audience expectations and the unique demands of their respective publishing enterprises. The American texts are shaped by cultural traditions, gendered expectations, and economics. And even though the Vietnamese texts are products of the state, I read for moments that not only submit to but also strain against state orthodoxy.
It might also seem impolitic to pair the Vietnamese and the Hmong in this essay, for they came to the United States under very different circumstances: the former, almost immediately after US troop withdrawal from Vietnam as officially acknowledged compatriots at war; the latter, somewhat later as unacknowledged fighters in covert Laotian operations. Many southern Vietnamese immigrants come from educated, urban backgrounds, while many Hmong emerge from a rural and oral culture. And yet the Vietnamese and the Hmong sometimes struggle to convey their distinct cultures and histories to Americans who do not distinguish between them and may see members of both groups as painful reminders of failed American military might--as Lan Cao puts it, "invisible and at the same time awfully conspicuous. …