Family Matters

Family Matters

Chew Pow

By Dennis Butler

January/February 2006

There are many ways to say "I don't know."

She was a diminutive woman, perhaps five feet tall. When she took the seat across from me in the consultation room, her feet dangled above the floor. Her gray hair was tied back in a bun. Her worried face told a thousand stories.

The call from the Refugee Mental Health Program I'd received about her a few days earlier was similar to many others I've gotten through the years: "We're referring Mrs T., a 47-year-old Hmong refugee woman who's experiencing low energy, fatigue, and frightening dreams," the voice on the phone had said. "Two sessions for evaluation, eight sessions for treatment. Submit a treatment plan if you need more."

Because neither of us had any facility with the other's language, a translator was always present. Some were young, and like her, Hmong—indigenous people originally from the highlands of Southeast Asia. They were the ones moved to tears by her stories of death and atrocities in Viet Nam and Laos. When she left the room after one session, a young translator in her twenties told me that these were the stories her own parents wouldn't disclose. Other translators were older, multilingual, from other Southeast Asian ethnic and cultural groups that, I later learned, looked down on the Hmong. They weren't moved in the same way, sometimes even tending to take control of the session and give advice.

Despite my…

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