A narrative on Hmong daughters redefining identity.

Star Lee
Star Lee
Apr 18 · 6 min read

keywords: agency, dreams, freedom, access

Before Hmong New Year. Star Lee. 2000.

A certain hand tugs me when I decide to speak about my identity. The silver tongue that surveils the way I navigate all aspects of what it means to be a Hmong woman. I’ve spoken about pain and wisdom. I’ve spoken about pride. I have yet to speak about the identity of Hmong daughters. Daughters like me. Which in turn, is every Hmong woman. Every Hmong woman who’s challenged her own capacity to reconstruct what a world without gender violence would be. Daughters who question their every move ten times over, despite having developed bulletproof skin in order to survive the verbal artillery from Hmong elders dressed as wisdom.

When I spoke to my Niam Pog¹ several years ago, I was only 15, we talked about what school had in store for me, she told me that finding a husband who loved me dearly was enough to have in my life. I knew that the translation of her words intended for my happiness in the only ways she knew how to share. Regardless of her traditional execution, I rejoiced the message with her, her and I both understand that the message was framed from her understanding of prosperity, and what that looked like for me in her eyes. This context has given me patience in recognizing that somewhere in the message, the translation is still the same. Despite that, the narrative of Hmong daughters deserves more than languages lost in translation, they deserve their own space to build just what that ideal prosperous future looks like.

In the present day, when I spend time with my Niam Pog¹, things have changed, she tells me about the importance of school and my ability to thrive on my own with an educated background. We can agree that education is seen as a pathway to financial and social upward mobility. She tells me, “Nothing matters more right now than getting a degree for yourself.” It is clear that times have changed in her definitions of prosperity, and I know this is also because, through the iconic social network of the grandma’s ear and words-of-mouth, she has been given access to understanding how for Hmong women in this day and age, education is redefining a feminine identity.

How rooted is it, that we live long enough alongside our grandmothers to witness that the progressive mind exists in both young and old. It is clear that access to knowledge also evolves even the most mature minds. The vision of what it means to be the Hmong daughter continues to grow in different capacities that shape the world for our Hmong daughters tomorrow. Niam Pog’s¹ frame of what prosperity looks like for me continues to evolve, and still I rejoice.

Progressive values are grown through gateways to concepts that frame our perspective on the social contracts that have been given to us. When Niam Pog¹ began her life, the cards given to her were more stringent than the cards I have been dealt with today. Her duties were enforced to fulfill her roles as a daughter to her parents, a wife to her husband, and a mother to her child — but within that, we have to also see that history is prone to robbing our mothers of their identities, their minds, and their dreams.

Despite the dynamic persons that they are, little is known about the ancestral data of our grandmothers. Oral stories do not highlight the way my grandmothers swayed in the sun, and the jokes they may have told their community of sisters long ago. Oral stories do not highlight my grandmother’s dreams as a little girl, or maybe even, that we shared the same: concepts of freedom.

It took me a long time to redefine what it was to be a woman and not the archetype as a sealant of the family structure. I send my condolences to my fathers for their aspiring identity of me, and give love with forgiveness to my mothers for fitting me into the molds they believed best for the feminine survival of my soul. I do not owe my allegiance to pillars that do not devote their power to my identity as a human being. This means, I can love my Hmong identity, I can love my Hmong culture, and through it all I am still allowed to rid myself of violent traditions that do not serve me. This means, Hmong daughters don’t have to adhere to the pressure to marry in their early twenties, nor are they past due in their later life. This means, Hmong daughters are allowed romantic relationships, where their interactions and friendships with the opposite sex are not surveillanced by the men in their life. And this means, Hmong daughters don’t need to tolerate r*pe culture to be a part of the Hmong community they serve.

Throughout history violence (physical, sexual, mental, emotional, verbal, spiritual) against women has been a tool to indoctrinate passages that allowed family structures to thrive in historical settings. I honor the work of my mothers before me. I believe they operated in their best form — despite the inaccessibility of agency they have received. Accessibility in which that I have navigated with the opportunities in this life to contextualize identity and personal freedom.

To which I, too, believe they would have solely succeeded in finding if given the opportunity to live in the accessible era exposed to the philosophies of agency and solitude.

Hmong daughters shine in the ways they power through crafting identity. For us, such a concept is not yet so familiar, I wonder if it ever will be…this relationship with identity, as intergenerational trauma has trickled its attachment on our backs. Through our allegiance to honor our family by attainment — a duty which may seem to never be far from our affinity — we continue to find ourselves despite the chaos of navigating the pain of being pinned an image of the poster daughter set upon us.

There is vulnerability as there is power, in telling my mothers that in order to honor them I choose to live my life on my terms. It is a rising narrative that sprouts from educational attainment and community coalition building in femme communities. Such conceptualizations have only arisen through the wisdom of other women in my life, who have shared the knowledge in the concepts of identity and the humanization of the feminine. The femme intellect continues to grow through a network of women who have given access to this knowledge. Knowledge is power, and access to such knowledge is key. Through my life, it was only through women and femmes that I could cultivate an identity rooted in the power of the self. And through my life, is where I owe it to Hmong daughters arriving after me that I shall share the same wisdom, redefining the Hmong woman’s identity.

I don’t know if I can recollect any of my grandmother’s dreams, maybe because a truth reveals itself as we realize that the limitation of freedom did not allow Hmong women to dream in the wildest ways we are able to now. But the acknowledgment of the past connects us to the present, in it is where we walk alongside the path our mothers are able to see through our hearts. Through time, even the reincarnation of their souls give way to such unity in that freedom. They too, will see, as we have discovered. Each generation fires the light post for women who walk in the next. Through the dialogue of love and wisdom from daughters like me, I owe it to all my mothers in living my wildest dreams.


¹Niam Pog: Direct grandmother from the father’s side of the family.

Editors notes: While I received some questions on the terminology of “niam pog”, as it may also be commonly interpreted as a grandmother-in-law. “Niam pog” was the terminology used by my family to address my grandmother from my dad’s side of the family. “Niam pog” is intimate vocabulary for me, so I have decided to use it to share my intimate writing with readers as well.

Star Lee

Written by

Star Lee

Hmong American woman carving space through the rhetoric of spirituality, history, & critique. Paying dues to juxtaposition, swimming in literature.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade