When Lee Xiong was 13 -- in an isolated farming community in Laos -- talking with a boy face-to-face was rare. Whispers through the banana-leaf walls of their huts were the way boys and girls communicated until big celebrations such as the Hmong New Year.
Small wonder, then, that Xiong struggles to relate to her granddaughter, Sandra Yang, 13, who sees boys daily, plays flag football with them after school, and talks and talks on the phone with them at night.
Despite the generational and cultural gap, Xiong, 65, feels a responsibility to guide her granddaughter and teach her how to handle peer pressure and sexuality.
"It's something I would like to have my granddaughter understand better," she said Thursday through an interpreter.
With that in mind, Planned Parenthood Minnesota is hosting its first retreat Saturday for Hmong mothers and daughters (and grandmothers) to openly discuss the thorns of adolescence. The organization has hosted similar retreats before for Hispanics and other minorities, but sees a need in the Hmong community, which has disproportionate rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
Xiong and Yang will take part with eight other pairs.
Just hearing other mothers and daughters and knowing they go through the same challenges can help, said Robbie Wiesel, the Planned Parenthood educator leading the event.
"It's taboo in some cultures" to discuss sex, she said. "Most adults can't say they had a really good conversation with their own parents when they were growing up about emerging sexuality."
The retreat will cover common themes from basic anatomy to the pressure teens face in a media culture that promotes external beauty and sexuality.
In many ways, Yang's differences with her grandmother and parents are no different than any other teen rebellion. Yang complained that her parents are too strict. If she asks to go to a party, they want to know if a parent will be there.
"I'm kind of tired of the same old rules," she said.
As the oldest daughter, she cares for her five siblings after school. Much of the relationship with her grandmother revolves around babysitting and making dinners.
Language, cultural barriers
There are unique barriers to mother-daughter communication in the Hmong community, especially given that adults grew up in simpler environments in Laos and their children are the first or second generations born in the United States, said Laura Vang, who coordinates Planned Parenthood's Hmong outreach.
Makeup is a particular source of disagreement. Older Hmong women don't value it or understand why younger girls want to use it so badly. Vang said the forum will include a makeup activity and a talk about the differing cultural definitions of beauty.
Language is a barrier for Hmong families talking about sex. Yang is bilingual, for example, but her grandmother speaks only Hmong.
English has single words for parts of the anatomy, whereas the Hmong language is based on the storytelling roots of its people, Vang said. Uterus, for example, is appropriately expressed in Hmong as "lub tsev menyuam," Vang said, meaning "home for the baby." Describing sexual organs with single words in Hmong would sound profane, but girls might do it because they don't understand the sensitivity in the language. That can add stress to any talk about sex.
With other groups, Planned Parenthood targeted mothers and daughters who are 10 to 12, but Hmong leaders felt that was too young. The daughters in Saturday's event are 13 to 16.
Critics have suggested Planned Parenthood's outreach is a front to advertise its philosophies of family planning, including contraception as an alternative to abstinence, and abortion as an option to halt unplanned pregnancies. Planned Parenthood is Minnesota's largest abortion provider.
Wiesel said the session isn't about that. While it will cover health care options, its main goal is to foster parent-child communication at an awkward time of life. "It's a one-on-one day with one parent and one child," she said. "What a rare gift."
Yang, an eighth-grader, was told by her father that she would be going. She is, nonetheless, looking forward to connecting with her grandmother and learning how to resolve disputes with her parents.
"It's for everybody to get along," she said, "to get to know each other more."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744