White Lies and Silence
By Gary Yia Lee
Published in Paj Ntaub Voice Magazine, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, 2005
Note: this story is fiction and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. My aim is only to depict what it can be like for a Hmong man or woman living as refugees in America with many contradictory traditions to follow.
I was sitting in the tiny kitchen of our small apartment, thinking about my wife, Lhi. Last night, she told me that she was going away by herself to stay with some American friends she had met at work. She said that they had invited her for the weekend and it would be rude to refuse. I asked where these friends of hers lived but she only said “in Irvine”, a suburb of Orange County a few miles to the East from Santa Ana, Los Angeles, where we were living. Although I did not make a big issue of it as I also felt proud that she had made friends with real White Americans while I still had not managed to do so, I was still plagued by doubts. What would other Hmong people think if I did not put my foot down as a man and just let my wife go out whenever she liked? Or would I be seen as a modern husband if I allowed her all the freedom she wanted?
We were Hmong refugees from Laos and had been in America for about two years, arriving in July 1980 in Los Angeles, California’s biggest city with its then 2.5 million people. For the first six months, we stayed in a house that was temporarily lent to us from a Church group which sponsored us from the refugee camp in Thailand. For a short while, the older refugees attended English classes run by a local refugee agency. My wife quickly learned to speak English better than me. The children were enrolled in the nearby primary and high schools, depending on their ages. Our oldest daughter, Pa Nyia, was twelve at the time and had to go to high school, even though she had not studied in the English language before and was not certain if she could cope, but she picked up the language quickly. Our two younger children, Maihnu and Tublong, went to primary school. Maihnu was seven and very bright, able to adapt well to her new environment. Tublong, our nine-year old son, took a while to get used to things and was not as babbly as his younger sister. I originally came from Sayaboury in the north-west of Laos, and so was my wife. She was of medium height and slim build, with angular facial features. She had fair skin and long black hair. We met and married after I completed teacher college in Vientiane in 1968.
After a few months living in the house that belonged to the church group, we moved to a small rented apartment in Santa Ana. We paid $320 a month for it. It was only a two-bed room unit on the first floor in a block of six, with the floor covered in linoleum tiles and the walls in grey plaster on the outside and gyprock painted light blue on the inside. We were renting in Santa Ana to be near other Hmong refugees in the area. We had all left relatives and friends in Laos or in the refugee camps in Thailand. It was hard to feel at home in the new country at first because we could not speak English well and looked different. Most local people were kind to us, but we felt rather isolated when only charity workers and church representatives took interest in us. Our neighbours were mostly African or Mexican Americans, and they rarely ever spoke to us.
Lhi and I found work after moving to our apartment. In those days, most new arrivals looked for work through job placement agencies. I got my first job as a labourer with a bus-cleaning depot while my wife was employed in a curtain-making factory in Cypress. We got up at five to go to work by bus, and did not get back home until late in the afternoon. Six months ago, I lost my job as there had not been enough work to do. Since then, we had lived on my wife’s earnings of $600 a month. It was enough for us then as we only spent about $200 on our monthly groceries. We did not even have a telephone. We only had television set that was given to us by our sponsor.
After sitting in the kitchen for a few minutes, I decided to go and see what my wife was doing in the bedroom. When I got inside, she was sitting on the bed. She had put on a pair of black slacks, a light pink blouse and even a pair of grey high-heel shoes. I did not know whether to laugh or to cry, after seeing her dressed like that to go away by herself for the first time in our married life.
“When are you coming back?”, I asked.
“It will only be for a few days. I left you some money for groceries in the usual place in the bedroom cupboard.”
“I hope you also take some money for yourself.”, I said.
She nodded and got up to go out of the room, putting her black handbag over her right shoulder. She did not look at me, but asked me to help with her black bag. I took it downstairs and out to the front of the building. The luggage was only medium size but rather heavy. She obviously took a lot with her just for few days with friends, but maybe that was what women were like. She must have learned from American women who wanted lots of clothes and other women stuff.
Lhi was saying good-bye to the children and lingered behind. I took her bag ahead to the bus stop on the main road, which was about 50 yards from our apartment. After she caught up with me, I waited with her until the bus came and she got on it. I then went back home and spent the rest of the weekend with my children. We all waited but did not hear anything from their mother, but then she might not have a phone to ring us, unlike today when everybody has a cell phone.
The following Wednesday, my oldest daughter Pa Nyia came home from school, walked right into her bed room and closed the door. I was in the kitchen and could hear her soft whimpering. I went in to ask her what had happened. She was lying on her side on the bed. She would not talk, but kept her face away from me while blowing her nose into a tissue. I went to sit on the bed. After she had calmed down somewhat, I asked her again what the problem was.
“It’s Mother”, she managed to say, sitting up and finally looking at me. “My friend, Pova, told me something horrible about her.”
Pova was about Pa Nyia’s age and the daughter of a Hmong couple we had met after arriving in Los Angeles. Both girls went to the same high school in Garden Grove, the neighbouring suburb. Her mother and my wife were working in the same factory.
“What did she say?”, I asked.
After a thoughtful pause, Pa Nyia continued:
“Pova said her mother told her father that Mother had left us.”
“Is that what she said?”, I asked in a calm voice to try to hide the emotional upheaval that was building up inside me.
“I was so ashamed I couldn’t wait for school to finish. I don’t understand. You and Mother seemed to be happy together.”
“Yes, we are. Anyway, just take care of Tublong and Maihnu. It will be dinner time soon. Cook dinner and eat without me. I am going to find Mother. I may be back late. Alright? ”
I left the children and went out into the street, but I did not know where to go to look for my wife in this very big city. My mind was in turmoil as I started walking towards the bus stop. Being a refugee in a new country, I had no relatives or close friends I could call on for advice or help. As I came to a row of shops, I found a public phone. I decided to telephone Pova’s mother, Daw. She would have returned home from work by now as it was past four o’clock in the afternoon. Unlike us, Daw and her husband, Thay, had a telephone in their apartment. After I got her on the line, she said that she was sorry for what happened, but it would be better if I went to see her so we could talk more easily. They were living in Fountain Valley, not far from us.
After I arrived by bus and sat down on the grey vinyl lounge in Daw’s living room, she offered me a drink of cold water. Thay said they had sent their children to the local park so we could talk in peace. She started to tell me about how Lhi met and fell for a fitter who worked at their factory, an American man called Mark. It began six months ago. During the last three months, my wife had been given a lift home every day by this man, leaving Daw to catch the bus home on her own. Daw said she told Lhi to think about her family and the hurt she would bring but she did not appear to be very concerned. Two weeks ago, Mark stopped coming to work and Lhi became very upset. She phoned him after work The next day, she told Daw that Mark had left his job and she started to cry, saying that she had to do something or she would go crazy.
“I didn’t know that meant leaving you and the children She phoned me last Sunday to say that she had left.”, Daw said, getting up to go to the kitchen to get me some more drink.
“She was very good at hiding all this from us. I only became suspicious when she told me she wanted to go away for a few days but took a heavy suitcase with her.”, I explained.
“Well, the first thing for you to do is to get some welfare assistance. You have depended on Lhi for money but now she is not with you anymore.”, Thai advised.
“Does she still come to work with you?”, he asked his wife.
“Yes, she has not missed one day at work, but she did not look very happy. I think she now realises her big mistake.”
“She hasn’t contacted us at all.”, I said.
“She’s probably too ashamed. Do you want me to say anything to her?”, Daw asked me
“No, I don’t know what I want to say to her.”
I did not want to ask Daw to tell my wife that we missed her. I did not know if I wanted to take her back, so I did not say anything, although I was in agony. I felt as if I had been stabbed in the heart and was about to die. Lhi started her affair about the time I lost my job. It was good that she did not complain about supporting me and the children all these past months. I was not only humiliated by her cheating but was also deeply hurt, and my oldest daughter was, too. I would have to give up my plan for evening studies and get a job. I was determined that we would cope somehow with or without my wife. My children and their future were very important to me.
When I returned to the apartment, it was after seven in the evening and the children had finished their dinner. I had some food, and we all went to sit in the living room to watch television. Pa Nyia had a worried look on her face but did not ask me any questions. She probably did not want her young brother and sister to know about their mother.
About an hour later, there was a knock on the door. We were not expecting anyone. Tublong went to check, followed quickly by Maihnu who was running to the door and exclaiming:
“Mother, you are back!”
“Yes, Maihnu. I only went away for a few days with my friends”, her mother was saying as if she was only returning from an outing to the beach.
Pa Nyia and I looked each other as if we were both shocked and relieved at the same time by her mother’s sudden appearance and the extent to which she was prepared to hide the truth from us. Lhi carried her black bag into the living room, her eyes downcast. She went to sit on one of the ageing armchairs with Maihnu leaning on her right arm. She did not seem to show anything unusual on her face, only some sign of tiredness like someone who had just got off the plane after a long trip. In the fourteen years we had been married, I had never seen her acting in such a cold-hearted way as if she was sure she could fool us and get away with it.
Being a responsible father, I tried to behave as normally as possible in front of the children, but I could not help shooting a question at Lhi:
“Did you have a good time?”
“It was good. We went to spend Sunday at Malibou Beach, but the rest of the time we were at my friends’ house.”, she said.
“How many friends did you go with?”, I asked again with some sarcasm.
“Two. They are a couple from work.”
I did not know that cheating could push people to the point of inventing stories to suit themselves. At that moment, I lost all respect and feelings for my wife. I was planning to wait until tonight when the children were asleep to ask her about her affair, but I did not care to know anymore after hearing her white lies. If she returned and stayed for the sake of the children, it would be fine by me. If she thought she could go on deceiving me, she had a big surprise coming.
At this point, it may be better if I let my wife tell her side of the story. After all, we now live in America where men and women are supposed to be equal. She may see things differently.
* * * * *
That night we went to bed about ten after I had showered, Cha kept himself to the far side of the bed and refused to come near me. I asked him to move closer but he said he was fine, so we just drifted off to sleep. The next day, I left early by bus to go to work as I usually did. When I got to the factory, Daw asked if I was still with Mark. I told her that it was all finished and I had come back home, that I was just a stupid fool thinking he cared about me when he did not. Before I made the big blunder of joining him, we had been to his apartment in Irvine North a few times. One thing led to another and we ended up doing the usual thing between a man and a woman. At first, I felt very guilty but thought I would be able to give up the relationship after a few months. Later, I grew very attached to him, especially after he left his job, so I decided to leave my husband and children. It was as if I was under his control, under a spell I could not get rid of.
When I got to his apartment with my heavy bag, Mark was not there. I waited for two hours until noon before he came home and found me sitting on the stairs outside his unit. Immediately after we got inside, he asked what I was doing there. I told him in my broken English that I had left my family to be with him. He looked shocked and his voice sounded angry.
“Lee, you know it will never work out.”, he muttered, sitting down on the blue sofa while I was left standing in the hallway feeling unwelcome.
He had changed my name to Lee from Lhi because he said my Hmong name was hard to pronounce and not American, he said.
“I can’t go back now. I have decided to be with you.”, I persisted.
“But did you ever ask me? You know how different we are.”
“Well, I thought we got on very well. Anyway, I didn’t know how to contact you after you left your job.”
“I don’t want to sound cruel, but you were why I left.”, he said
“What? But they told me you left because you had found a better job. Did you leave because you wanted to get away from me?”, I asked him, feeling suddenly weak in my knees and tears beginning to well up in my eyes.
After I sat down opposite Mark, I looked at him but he was a different man from the one I used to know, the one I used to love so much I thought I could not live without. He was three years older than me, but still single. He was tall and fair with light blonde hair and a rather hairy chest. He had started to show a small pouch around his belly – from “too much beer drinking after work”, he explained.
He now looked irritated by my presence. I felt as if he had thrown my love for him into the Pacific Ocean and I had never felt so humiliated before in my life. It was a good thing I only told my husband and children that I was going away with friends for a few days. I could still go back.
“Well, just stay here until we figure out what to do. I’m going to have a shower,” he said.
I was feeling hungry. I did not have breakfast that morning, so I went to the kitchen to look for something to eat. When I opened the fridge, there was hardly anything there, except a few cans of beer and a bottle of lemonade.
It was late on a Saturday afternoon. I walked down the street to the corner shop and bought two small bags of rice, some choy vegetables and a loaf of sliced bread. Carrying them back to the apartment, I realised that Mark could be right. He ate bread with butter while I could not do without rice and Chinese vegetables. We were now different only in small ways, but maybe these little things would all add up one day to something big that could drive a wedge between us. I cooked myself a small meal and ate on my own while Mark watched football on the tube with a can of beer and his big feet on the coffee table in front of him. That night, we slept in his bed. The next day was Sunday and we got up late, but as soon as Mark had a few slices of toast and coffee, he installed himself in front of the television again to watch football with another can of beer. He showed little interest in me as if I was there only to disturb his well-arranged bachelor life.
After breakfast, I decided to go window-shopping in Irvine Avenue to pass the time and to think over what I needed to do. That was where I telephoned Daw to get some advice from her. I told her what happened. She was very understanding but scolded me for my stupidity. She said I should just return to Cha and my children. I said I would think it over, but it took me three days before I got the courage to do it. I decided that I would make as little of this incident as possible so that my husband would not come to know of it and everything would soon be back to normal. I would keep on working hard and help my family make a success of our new life in America.
The day after I returned home and told Daw at work that it was all over between me and Mark, she joked that I only had a crush on the mythical big White Man. She hoped I had learned a big lesson from my huge mistake, and that nothing else would happen to me. I asked her why. She told me that Cha and Pa Nyia knew about my affair and my leaving the family for another man. This really sent my hope for a reconciliation crashing down. I suppose I had to pay for my sins. It was fate. I was selfish. I did not understand what possessed me to commit adultery. I was expecting some sort of angry outburst from Cha but he acted like nothing bad had happened. We continued to sleep in the same bed, although he did not show much interest in me anymore.
One afternoon, Cha announced to the children that he had found a job working in a factory in Stanton making aluminium windows. They were all very happy together, and I felt left out because he did not even look at me when he was telling the good news to the children. That night as we were preparing for bed, I said to Cha that he should not have given up his plan for more studies and found a factory job so soon, since I could go on working to support the family.
He looked out of the window into the blackness of the night and replied:
“Well, it’s time I do something for the children. I am the man of the family and also a father. It’s my job to look after them.”
“But didn’t you say that you wanted to learn more English, then enrol in some vocational course so you could find a well-paying job? Isn’t it both our dream that we could one day stop slaving away in factories?”, I asked him.
“No, I don’t have anymore dreams. I have responsibilities I need to fulfil. My children’s needs are more urgent. I can’t go on dreaming and thinking only about myself.”
I noted with sadness that he did not mention me as part of his responsibilities, and it made me feel very alone.
About three weeks later, Cha informed the children that he was going to take them to roller-coaster rides at Disneyland in Anaheim. They became very excited, and Maihnu expectantly asked me:
“Mother, can you come, too?”
Before I could answer, my husband said:
“Mother is busy going shopping with her friends. She will come another time.”
I had not told him any such thing as I was actually free. Again, Cha seemed to want to exclude me from the family, to humiliate me. Trying to control my shaking voice, I lied and said to the children:
“Yes, I am sorry. I have arranged to go shopping with Aunty Daw. Go with your father. I am sure you will have a great time.”
After they had left the following Saturday morning, I went to the bedroom and cried my heart out.
There were many other incidents like this. I told Daw about these attempts to shun me by my husband, but Daw only advised me to give him more time as he was probably still hurting.
By 1983, more and more Vietnamese and Hmong refugees had settled in our area and opened many Asian grocery shops. We no longer needed to go to Chinatown in Los Angeles, now that we did our shopping mostly in Santa Ana, I went one day to see the Hmong welfare worker at the Lao Family Community, a welfare organisation formed by General Vang Pao, the Hmong refugee leader. I wanted to do something about the problem I was having at home. Although Cha and the children had never said anything to me about my affair with Mark, I started to feel oppressed by their silence and their continued shunning of me. I did not want to bring this to a head with Cha. As a wronged husband, he might explode and tell me to leave. I did not want to leave, as I had nowhere to go and I also wanted to stay with the children. Although Pa Nyia now did a lot of the cooking and household chores, she would be marrying soon and Cha would need help. As a Hmong woman in a foreign land, I was sure the court would not give me custody of the children if I got a divorce, since I had once clearly fallen short in my duties as a responsible mother.
I cannot remember her name now, but the young female worker at the Lao Family was very understanding. She told me that she would contact my husband and ask him for his side of the story before deciding what advice to give me. She later paid a visit to our apartment, but Cha only told her that there were no problems and there must have been some misunderstanding because I was never barred on purpose from anything. To show that he was the head of the family and was in control, he would have to deny that there were problems between us. I did not argue with him, but I wished he would come out with the truth so we could sort things out and resume our life as a loving family. I made a big mistake but I was prepared to do anything to make up for the pain I had caused. I bought Cha new clothes and shoes, but he never used them. He only put on the ones he had bought himself. I gave the children many of the things they needed, but Cha also spoilt them with toys and new clothes. It was like we were both competing for the children’s attention. I thought a lot about getting help from other Hmong friends, but in the end I decided that maybe no one could help me so I just had to accept my situation at home in silence.
In 1988, we bought our first home in Garden Grove. It was a single-storey white cottage with three bedrooms and a shingle roof. It was there that one day when the children were not home, I asked Cha why he did not talk much to me anymore, like he used to do during our first two years in America. He looked at me as if surprised, then said:
“Why do I have to be nice and talk to you when you have not been nice to me?”, his words rang out like a burst of bullets.
“It’s been many years now. You still can’t forget?”, I asked, pleading for his understanding.
“No, if you really want the truth. How can I? Do you know what many Hmong people still call us?”, he said as if wanting to get some long pent-up feelings off his chest.
“No, what do they call us?”
“You, as the first cheating married Hmong woman in Orange County. And I am the spineless husband. I am not spineless. I let you stay for the children. I want them to have a happy normal life.”
“But why have you not said anything about my affair? Why have you just ignored it and made it so hard for me?”, I asked as cautiously as I could.
“What is the use? I have to put up with things quietly. I see that as more dignified for a man, for a husband in this new country. I am Hmong, but I have to be like an American man, too. It is better than to beat up or kill a cheating wife and then commit suicide – like some Hmong men have done in Wisconsin or Minnesota. Why waste my life that way on a selfish wife?”
Instead of saying that with a self-satisfying smirk, his voice was calm and sad. It must have been difficult for him to try to be both Hmong and American at the same time, to put up with gossip and humiliating comments from other people. Slowly, tears of shame and need for forgiveness began to overwhelm me. After trying to keep it to myself for so long, I just could not stop from crying openly in front of Cha. I went to sit at the kitchen table and covered my face with my hands. I let my tears run, my sobs rushing out from my aching heart. Let it come out, it might help make things better, I said to myself.
“You may as well kill me… Better than keep on torturing me…. We have suffered long enough for it …. I don’t deserve to live after what I did…”, I said as if to provoke him to do something.
“If you think I will fall for your crocodile tears, you are wrong.”, I heard Cha say from behind.
He must have been deeply hurt to have become so hard with his feelings. He was usually a gentle person. Still crying, I turned towards him and said between my broken sobs:
“I have made…. a big mistake. I know…. I have hurt you terribly….. I will do anything …. to make up…. Just tell me what to do ….. and I will do it. But don’t leave me out of your life….. Don’t take my children away by shunning me.... I am very sorry….”
“Sorry, sorry… Is that all you can say? Will being sorry bring back the trust and the good feelings I had for you? I did not know you were capable of so many lies when you wanted to cover up your cheap ass,” he blurted out.
“I did not want to lie…. It was like…. I was not myself… I was afraid to tell the truth…. I did not want the children to know… I was scared you and the children would not want me back…. I love you all dearly.… You are my life, you know that… Please forgive me…..”, I babbled on.
“No, all those lies were the real you! You were overcome by lust for White meat and you forgot how much we loved you! It’s all too late now. Everything’s broken, gone long ago!”, he shouted, standing between our scratchy white fridge and the brown kitchen door.
I saw his face contorted with anger and he was staring at me in contempt as if I was just a dirty dog, a piece of rubbish from the street. I became desperate and fell on the floor next to him. I clang to one of his knees, my sobs becoming all the louder. I did not know how long I was in that position. But before I realised it, I was sent hurtling against the kitchen cupboard doors under the sink. My body crumpled in a heap and my head was hurting like it was going to split into small pieces. My husband had given me his biggest kick, trying to bring to an end my grip on his knee, on his life as it were. It might not be intentional, but I was elated that he had finally acknowledged my wifely mistake, bringing out to the open the fact that I had hurt him and the children and this was how he wanted to deal with it. I was in great pain, half leaning against the cupboard and half lying on the floor, but I felt forgiven and redeemed. I felt that I had finally come of age in America as a Hmong wife who had trampled on her husband’s manly dignity, and as an American woman who wanted to live up to her rights but did it wrongly by hurting her own family. I felt happy for what Cha did, for his deliverance. Then, I felt blood running behind my neck down to my back. My head started to spin and everything went black around me.
Cha’s violent push had made a big gash into the skin on the back of my head when I hit one of cupboard door handles. I spent three days in Stanton Hospital to have my wound stitched up and my brain scanned. Fortunately, there were no bruises to other parts of my body. Cha had put some rough bandages around my head to stop the bleeding before calling an ambulance. He told the ambulance officers that I slipped and fell heavily on some water on the vinyl-covered floor of our kitchen. I did not know if he actually spilled water there before the ambulance arrived or not. Maybe he did. Later, he must have told the same story to the children, but I never asked.
After I came back home from the hospital, Cha seemed to give me more attention, even talking nicely to me again and giving me a Hmong “soul-calling” and wrist-stringing ceremony (‘hu plig thiab khi tes”) to bring me luck and good health. It was the first time we had such a big family function, attended by many people. By now, there were about five or six thousand Hmong refugees living in Orange County.
“Were you afraid when I passed out?”, I joked with Cha one night.
“Well, I thought I had killed you, just like you asked me when you were crying. I was scared for the children if I should go to prison. Lucky it was not very serious.”, he replied shamefacedly.
“Not very serious, with my head split open?”
“Sorry. I hope it won’t leave a big scar,” he tried to assure me.
“Sorry, sorry.. Would being sorry bring me back to life if you had killed me?”, I was mimicking what he screamed to me just before the accident.
“Don’t joke. Things are different now,” he said and we both laughed, which we had not done together for a long while.
It was another week before Cha let me go to work. He must have thought that we were now even, and he could at last forgive me. He might also feel some guilt. I had scarred his heart and mind, but he had also scarred me physically. I told him a big lie about going away with friends when I left him for another man, but he now also had his own big lie about me tripping over by accident when it was his heavy shove that smashed my head against the sink cupboard.
After nearly 30 years in America, the children have all grown up and married, except our son. They had their ups and downs during their high school years, but all three seemed to have emerged unscathed. Maihnu is now 36 and living in Huntington Beach here with her Vietnamese husband and three children. She was the lazy one and did not go to university like her older brother and sister. Tublong is working but still lives with his father and me. He is 34 but does not want to settle down yet. He is too quiet and does not seem to be able to find the right girl. Maybe we may have to get him a mail-order bride from Laos, like some Hmong men have done! Pa Nyia moved to San Diego with her Hmong husband after she got married in 1986. She is now 40 and has two teenage children, one boy and one girl who are both doing university studies.
It is hard to believe how time flies. It seems only yesterday that we first came to America as refugees. Today, we have about 200,000 Hmong here scattered in many States. When I think back on all the pain and joy that we went through, I feel grateful for being given a second chance in life here. It may not be easy to get a good job or to overcome the language and cultural barriers, but so long as you work hard to get skills and to find a job, this country will open doors to you. But you have to do your part and should not hide behind lame excuses. You can hide anything but not reality - like my attempt to hide my affair from my husband. Although Cha and I do not talk about this sad part of our past anymore, I hope that his hurt had healed the way my head wound had healed. The big scar on the back of my head was the price I paid for my lies and my infidelity. I suppose I was too flippant and did not consider the consequences. I forgot that although I had rights as a woman, I also had many obligations. I can never be fully American, as I am an integral part of the Hmong people and their culture. I cannot change the colour of my skin. I have a nice family that I should love and not hurt. If you have a good husband and loving children, you have to consider their happiness first. Your own wishes and desires come second. You have to give and to yield, for that is what love and being a wife and mother are all about.