When I first got out of college, I started mentoring high school and middle school students in a program called Hmong Men/Women’s Circle. Every week, we’d meet and talk about “life,” whatever that meant to them. And we chatted about relationships, gender, being Hmong, school, and a whole bunch of issues that affected them at the time. Crazy enough, that was six years ago when I was doing that, and now many of them have grown up and gone to great colleges and are graduating. I’ve had the luck of staying in touch with many of them but have noticed something: no matter where we are or how far we’ve come, we all need help our whole lives.
All of life is challenging, from graduating high school, to relationships, to marriage, to raising kids, or growing old. There isn’t a point in life when everyone finally “gets” it and is perfect in everything they do. But there are important steps to getting help that are really important.
1. Being able to admit we’re not doing well
The first step in fixing any problem in life is admitting there is a problem. Then there’s the willingness to look at the problem for a long time without giving up in order to figure out a way to fix it. But the way our culture works, it makes it hard for us to be able to do this. Our culture has a history of being unable to admit that we are in an unhealthy relationship or have personal needs because it makes us look bad. And if we talk about it, we will draw attention to ourselves, which will make our whole family look bad.
But the truth is regardless of whether you look bad or not, you’re not doing well. The real problem is how to start making things better and it takes the willingness to be able to admit that you’re not happy. In my family, my siblings and I would complain about our family to our friends or other extended family. Most of them thought we were mean, but the truth was that we got a lot of perspectives and understanding in sharing our frustrations with others. It also helped us vent and ease our stress to allow us to think more clearly about our family problems and how we could solve them.
Silence bottles up emotions, fears, and creates a calm that is dishonest. All that makes it harder for us to be open and objective in fixing the problems we need to. Getting over the Hmong fixation on “looking good” or having a “good reputation” is an ongoing barrier in getting the help we need. But beyond just openly admitting what’s wrong, there’s another piece of the solution that Hmong folks need to be able to accept, and that is to reach out, because
2. Reaching out for help often means reaching out
So, say you have a lover your parents don’t like. I don’t care if you’re 14 or 34, it’s still a big problem. The worst part of it is that no matter who you talk to in your circle, they’re going to be influenced by your parents and by you. Unfortunately, Hmong folks often only go to friends or family for advice, and it is extremely difficult for the people who are emotionally connected to you to be objective about your problems. When you’re asking them for advice, often the advice reflects them more than it reflects you.
Mentors, coaches, social workers, and counselors are people you can bring into your life who have a level of distance and objectivity in how they listen and support you. Sometimes they’ve gone through the same thing before and have distance and objectivity in the problems you’re facing as well. Because they aren’t affected by your decisions, it’s easier for them to look after what’s best for you.
In my life, my parents still try give me advice about my career, telling me to stop consulting and to get a regular job so that I can be “stable.” That might be “good for me,” but it is also “ideal for them.” Their worries about their financial security is connected to my career options, and unfortunately that makes them want me to compromise what I love to do (and would eventually make more money in) with what might make money in a predictable way right now. Although their advice is good and sound, it doesn’t allow for me to grow the way I need to. What I really need advice on is how to be more effective, efficient, and profitable than I am now. I need someone who can listen to me talk about what I do, and help me come up with ways that improve me, not limit me. But it’s up for me to find these people.
Getting our community the help that we need is really the soul of the organizing, consulting, social justice work I do. It is a long process of becoming open, thoughtful, and proactive in resolving problems instead of letting them get worse. Often times it’s not about fighting for what’s right, it’s about admitting what’s wrong and figuring out how to begin solving it. The two step process here is just the start, but I think it’s the two most important steps for our community right now.