Ann PajYeeb’s Experience of Multiple Choices in Celebrating Love and Reinventing Hmong Traditions
by Kao-Ly Yang
The following story is not my story. All characters and events are fictional. While writing this story, I would like to make this issue more sensitive to readers. I then used fictional approach to question the soundness of Hmong wedding that I have been studying for several years as an anthropologist.
Writing about Hmong wedding is not at all easy because it has an indelible impact on women’s destiny. Indeed, getting married in Hmong community constitutes a rite of passage sanctioned by a bride price where men and women acquire the status of adult, passing from childhood to adulthood. For women, it means a symbolic death where they are reborn in the husband’s lineage.
In this story, Ann, the main character, questions the various wedding practices and reasons to get married while facing choices. She doubts the soundness of traditional wedding as the unique way to legitimize love. She is not the only one to feel the need of reinveting Hmong wedding in the West. Nowadays, marrying forms the core of misunderstanding and of conflict between parents and children.
While reading this story, I hope you, readers, will come to be more aware of new existing ways of getting married and will show more tolerance toward choices of marrying that you could not understand. I also hope this story will help you to find ways back home in becoming more tolerant toward your parents. Even if they refuse to share your choices of getting married, let’s remember that parents are like the sunset. Just love them even if they do not agree on your choices. Life is short. Let us live in peace and with love.
Part I: Growing up in a Hmong Traditional Family.
Ann PajYeeb was born in Laos in 1975, the year where her people lost war and did flee to Thailand before coming to the United States of America. Ann’s parents were from Xieng Khouang, a province near Vietnam. They belonged to the ethnic sub-group of White Hmong. The mother got married when she was just thirteen years old in 1970. The father was at that time seventeen years old. As many other people, her parents did not have any formal education. Farmers in the mountains of Southeast Asia, their expectation of a better life was simple: having enough to eat, having sons for the old days where they need support and care, and marrying their children to the best parties. From 1971 to 1990, the mother gave birth to eleven children, eight daughters and three sons. Five children were born in Laos and in Thailand, and six children in the United States.
Ann’s family decided to come to the United States after a difficult two-years stay in Ban Vinai, one of the refugee camps in Thailand. It was 1981. The family reached San Diego, California. Ann was six years old. Life seemed full of promises for her. As a child, Ann revealed to be very insightful, full of curiosity and of innocence. Her father, a well-known wedding mediator, always encouraged his children to learn and to respect norms, values and traditions. Ann, belonging to the first generation of refugees grown up in America, knew how to cook, to politely speak towards Elderly and relatives, to embroider beautiful pieces of fabric for a promising wedding and to take care of her young siblings. Growing up in such a conservative family and at school, Ann acquired a double culture, Hmong culture and the culture of the Mainstream society where she has been immerged.
Just a few years after they came to America, her two older sisters got married. One was fourteen years old and the other, sixteen. Ann did not follow her sisters’ examples. She was not enough pretty to attract men: she did not have white skin, dark pearl-eyes, oval face, long hair, tall seize or sweet voice. In addition, her encountering with her teacher of eleventh grade changed her idea of success: she became aware that even girls could pursue higher education, which increased her self-esteem. After her sisters got married, Ann was more in charge of the domestic work. She had less time to do her school homework, as other teenagers. She never complained about that. Reaching the age of fourteen, Ann became the center of a daily attention on behalf of her mother. This latter knew that in the community, an early marriage guaranteed a “good husband”. Otherwise marrying later would lead to a “bad husband”; disable, widowed or divorcee men were considered “bad”. At any occasions, Ann’s mother always reminded her to “speak nicely” to men.
When Ann got older, she refused to date men that her mother introduced to her. Facing such a stubbornness and daily disputes, the mother stopped encouraging her daughter to find a “good husband”. Years passed. Ann got into college. Her household became more acculturated: the father accepted more his daughters’choice to study. Ann’s mother also became more aware of higher education as an additional attraction to marry well even if during some long years, mother and daughter had been confronting each other on dating issues. Ann was particularly sad when her parents refused her to attend the university of California, Berkley even if she got a scholarship. Instead, she did pursue at Fresno State. They forbad Ann to study in Berkley because it was four hours driving away from Fresno. They believed, alone and isolated, she might be exposed to gang, to men who could abuse her or to other races that could take her away from her community. Although those struggles, in the year of 2000 where Ann was twenty-five years old, she finally accomplished her master degree in counseling.
Part II: Experiencing Love
Ann felt in love two times in her young life. The first time was with a young man of the same ethnic origin as her’s. She was fifteen years old; her date was sixteen years old. Her eldest sister advised her not to get married. And Ann trusted her because she saw her two brothers in-law daily violence, verbal or physical abuse, toward her sisters: The reason of such a violence was on marrying a second wife. This experience made Ann’s mind up on early marriages. Marrying early was an obstacle for lasting relationships. Her undertanding helped her to move on with her platonic first love. Long time after, she knew that this experience of broken heart was a rich event that assisted her to better appreciate vulnerability in love relationship.
While taking the bus, she met her second love. She was just seventeen years old. Her new friend was a young and open-minded Latino American; he was four years older than her.
During this first decade in America, dating a non-Hmong was something completely unknown and unaccepted by her community of origin. Her family couldn’t tolerate it. Fearing her parent’s anger, criticism and rejection, she hid the relationship. This experience with her Latino boy friend was so different from her experience with a Hmong. He did not try to control Ann or to marry her at all costs. Ann was simply enjoying loving a man. It was a wonderful experience: she learnt to take care of herself as person with individual’s needs and dreams. As her boy friend has passion for art and other cultures, he lead Ann to discover other visions of life in appreciating beauties in small things as well as in important things. His curiosity in helping others guided Ann to see beyond Hmong narrow views of clan competition and solidarity. He initiated Ann to empower her life in becoming aware of her needs, of her intellectual skills, of the existing multiple choices of careers. Later on, Ann will understand this chance. Without him, she wouldn’t become aware of things that will make her old days rich and peaceful.
But in present time, Ann had somehow difficulty to understand his way of approaching issues such as living alone far from home to study, helping strangers or giving without expecting something in return. Life was quiet for Ann and her boy friend during two years. When he finished his four-year college, he got into a medical school in Chicago, so far from Fresno. He wanted to go because his dream was always to become a medical doctor. After tearing discussions, Ann finally accepted his choice. She knew that love toward such a man requested acceptance of this separation even if it might cost their love. At nineteen years old, Ann got into maturity that one could not expect. She understood that love involved separations and reunions, and distance might change feelings. During the first months of their separation, her boy friend did not often call her. Once, when she phoned him, a female voice answered her. She discovered in the following weeks that he had a new girl friend. Instead of depressing, she just ignored it.
This experience of separation suddenly introduced Ann to the universe of her mother — somehow to all Hmong women’ horizons. Being now more informed on grief and sorrows, she started to differently see life. She thought: “The acceptance of life depends more on the place one sits. Maybe, I need to change my place in order to better appreciate my experience”. She understood the meaning of courage in what she called “weakness” in her mother’s inconditional love toward her father, and in her eldest sisters’ attaches toward their husbands. The women preserved their marriage and kept their children together at any emotional and physical costs. She also appreciated the great courage of these people who lived the life they chose even if they were rejected, banished from their own community. Life suddenly appeared to Ann with multiple choices on the ways of loving and living. She thought: “As a Hmong woman, I am lucky to live in America because I have choices”.
After this sad experience, Ann committed her following five years to her professional growth. She was very lonely. Her past relationship had increased her understanding of human nature and needs. She cannot live alone. She needs to build a family. But she was hesitating between two choices: either marrying a Hmong and doing a Hmong wedding or marrying a Non-Hmong and avoiding any traditional weddings. Her experience of a cross-cultural love and her daily exposures to her mother and sisters’ marital problems already convinced her that lasting loves do not exist. Concerning traditional weddings, she often questioned their cultural diversity and adequacy: “Why could Western people live together without any formal or legitimized marriages? Why do some cultures practice polygyny (a man can marry several wives – it is the case of the Hmong culture) or polyandry (a woman can marry several men ? it is the case of Tibetan culture where a woman has to marry all the brothers of one family)? And why do some other cultures practice monogamy (one husband gets married to one wife)? Is marriage a more cultural and economic business than individualistic desires?” So Ann came to doubt about the greatness of traditional marriages.
Part III: Thinking of Getting Married To a Man That She Doesn’t Love.
Ann met a young man of her own ethnic group at the graduation of her master degree. They are both twenty-five years old. He seems kind but looks old fashioned. He is not talkative, and has no formal education. He belongs to a big household, and reveals to be the first son; there will be lots of duties for soon to be wife: she will have much more duties toward parents and lineage. After their first meeting, he kept callingAnn several times, and finally got a date with her.
The twenty-five year man believes that he is young with a good physical appearance, he is capable to attract Paj Yeeb. He expects his future spouse to give birth to many sons –sons that will benefit from her good education to succeed in life and to increase new strong male members with leadership skills in his lineage. He expects his wife to bring a complementary salary because his dream is to buy a house for his parents. He doesn’t ask more questions about intellectual or psychological compatibility. He believes flowers and candies could buy the heart of a girl. He only visits Ann at home, in presence of her parents: he thinks this approach, a sign of respect, will earn the heart of the whole household. In simple term, his intention is to marry her.
As for the twenty-five year Ann, she pays attention to this young man because she feels old. Her mother, by dint of reminding her to find a man, finally succeeds to get Ann to date this fellow. The convincing argument is: “No good man would marry an old woman” and “Love will grow with time”. Nevertherless, Ann is trying to find out more about him if they could be compatible regarding needs, psychological features and common dreams. In getting to know him more, she realizes that he is really a traditional man. He doesn’t attract her intellectually and emotionally. He appears to be a good man. But, Ann has more questions in selecting a companion. “Is goodness enough to make me happy? Is he able to overcome traditional division of gender roles? How am I going to fit his conservative family? In the traditional setting, back in Laos, people got married because they need each other to survive. What is now the purpose of getting married if one can support oneself?”
Traditional women grown up in Laos wouldn’t ask too much questions. But Ann is an acculturated young woman living in America. Her past experience opened her eyes to a world where love, compatibility and respect in marriage are like air to lungs. Ann is far beyond survival logic that still focuses on the reproduction of the group in having sons and in satisfying the basic needs such as food, minimum comfort (house, clothes), and sexuality. As for Ann, she would like to diversify her experiences in education, in professional growth, in leadership, in business, ?, in the enjoyment of life in its every aspect (traveling, reading, making friends, and having fun). She wants two children, and won’t never mind if they’re all girls. With such expectations from life, could Ann marry a man who doesn’t have anything in common with her, and that she doesn’t even love?
Part IV: Dilemmas in Hmong American Weddings.
Ann’s story digs Hmong American wedding issues out with its dilemmas. The first dilemma for a modern Hmong woman like Ann is to find an “appropriate husband”. Life will be difficult for her if she came to marry a man who won’t share her needs and vision of life. As for Ann, being aware of the gaps of socialization between her and the boy friend only shakes her mind The fact that Ann could think a marriage acceptable without love and compatibility is likely linked to her unconscious dependence to Hmong perception of age: with her twenty-five springs, she is considered by her people as an old girl, which makes her worry about finding a husband and a son in-law to please her family.
In addition, most of the socially acceptable husbands are already married. Women desiring to marry a man of common ethnic origin will have difficulty to find a match. The ones who did not marry yet may be ? as her mother repeatedly reminds her– disable or men with problems. With her higher education, marrying an outsider will lead to a total rejection on behalf of her community. Indeed, most of the parents expect their children, especially people who reached college, to marry inside the group. And marrying a widow or a divorcee will lead to to lose prestige.
Ann’s second dilemma concerns the legitimization of her union. In her people’s traditions, when a girl gets married, she has to pass by a rite of passage: the wedding happens to be a long and harassing negotiation where the groom must pay a bride price.
In America, the bride price is an important amount of money that go from $6,000 to $9,000 (in 2000). If one add the other spending (food, renting of space, etc.,), the total may go from $8,000 to more than $15,000. If a young and poor groom could not afford spending such an amount of money, he would have to postpone the wedding or to buy “by credit” his wife in borrowing from banks. The lack of money may lead the couple of fiancés into trouble because girls couldn’t wait longer: they are afraid of losing time and good opportunities to marry a “good husband” when they are still fresh and desirable.
Among the overseas communities, the bride price is still practiced. Ann thought a lot about it. She knew that her parents could not avoid asking for a bride price. She understood that the bride price is a kind of guarantee for her safety: husbands would not physically –and emotionally–abuse wives like beating them or easily sending them back to their lineage after a few months of marriage. It is also a gain of face to parents. A high price means a good bride in term of beauty and education. Even if Ann understands the social and symbolic functions of the bride price, she is not insured of their appropriateness in the community now resettled in America. Ann’s financial autonomy and education support a better way to legitimizing love. She hesitates between different ways of marrying:
1) do a traditional wedding where the groom has to pay a pride price,
2) an unique banquet (It is the case of people getting married to outsiders),
3) a legal wedding according American laws (Such a ceremony is not well considered by parents).
She knows that her parents, as other conservative parents, would like to have a traditional wedding to legitimize her union. Beyond her understanding of traditional wedding as a part of her culture and identity, Ann experiences a deep conflict of integrity: she thinks of her more as an individual apart with the power to choose her life, including the way she would like to celebrate her wedding, than as an individual living in an interdependence with her community, its norms, social standards, and values.
At the individual’s level, in following her choice, she will hurt her parents, especially her mother. She is aware that she may generate conflicts with her parents for years. But how could she reconcile two different worlds with two different visions? She just wants to do a legal wedding, and no traditional celebration with laborious processes, no banquet in some fashioned and expensive places. For Ann, love is in itself a celebration of two people willing to live together. Does her choice of celebrating love fit the aspirations of her traditionalist and immature boy friend, of her conservative family? This dilemma between her own desire to marry according to her heart, and the cultural and community norms and standards, leads Ann to question about cultural determination in human being’s happiness, individual’s interest facing the interests of the group, love and social duties, courage to live the life she wants and courage to fit to her family and community expectations.
Part V: Narrator’s position.
As the narrator of Ann PajYeeb’s story, I cannot give a happy or a sad end to her problem because I think there is no unique answer. It’s Ann –like each of you, reader– who has to find out her own way. She knows that her family and the society where she lives, studies, contributes cannot help her to find a culturally appropriate answer to make her fully happy. What I hope the most in writing this modern tale is to increase your awareness on Hmong American dating and wedding issues. When you face this issue, you will be inspired to find the most appropriate way to find happiness in this country rich of opportunities. I really hope this story will make you awake of the various existing ways to express love. I also hope this story will earn your heart, your compassion, and a bigger tolerance toward people who just want to follow their convictions.
If you want, as a reader, you can suggest to me:
1.) The end that would fit Ann’s profile to make her happy
2.) Or the end that YOU THINK the most appropriate?
Please, feel free to let me know your opinion at HmongContemporaryIssues
Please, FEEL Free to let me know if you WANT TO SHARE YOUR COMMENT WITH OTHERS READERS.
Copyright © 2003 Kao-Ly Yang
All rights reserved.
By Kao-Ly Yang
Dr. Toua was born in Laos, but grew up in the United States. He might appear quite serious with his title and higher educational background. If you knew him intimately, you would guess that his life was not always successful. He had been struggling against his own heart that took him from the bottom to the top. While many of us were sleeping, tranquilly waiting for success to come, Toua was climbing mountains. His story is an inspiring modern tale.
Like other young men, the first challenge Toua had faced was love. He seemed always choosing the most difficult path. But was life a straight road? He left his parents and went to South Carolina to studying, far from Fresno, California. A couple of years later, he went to England to pursue his medical training, and stayed during two lonely years overseas. After days, months and years of separation, the prodigious son finally came back home, and finished his residency near home.
Physically, Dr. Toua was an ordinary fellow neither too big nor too tall. But mentally, his dreams revealed to be bigger and higher. Since childhood, he dreamt to become a medical doctor. Knowing his loneliness and the number of years spent alone far from his family, I wonder how he could keep such a moral strength to pursue his study. Number of you, students and parents, would want to know his deep motives that strengthen his determination to succeed in the field of medicine. The first time I met him, I asked him the same questions. “Where do you find such a courage and determination to go so far and so high, sacrificing so much? Is this persistence to pursue higher education due to the will to materially succeed or to something else? What kind of experiences have you been facing so that you become so determined at school, and apparently, for reasons that go beyond material success?” If I now tell you the motives, I am not sure you will believe me yet. Let me share his history first for all of us to learn.
His story is very similar to other young Hmong’s. When Toua was 20 years old, he met a young woman from China. She was very pretty and attractive. My friend naturally felt in love with her. His first thought was to get married to her. So, one night, he decided to ask her hand. And he drove to her hotel.
For Toua, getting married meant at that time –and he was fully aware — the end of his dream of pursuing medical studies. He knew that he could go on a few more years at school, but would not give his best because having wife and children at charge constituted a real challenge for a husband-student.
Standing alone in front of the hotel room of the young woman, many other realities, unaware till then, suddenly became touchable, and sad thoughts seized my friend’s heart. He eventually started to have doubt about the righteousness of this choice for his future. He was wondering whether or not to knock the door.
Paralyzed by hesitation, he sat down next to the door, waiting to find the courage to enter into her room. At this moment, an old Hmong man appeared in the lobby. Toua said he saw him. He then came to sit next to him and started to chat with him. Realizing the difficult situation, he then told my friend:
“My son, in life, there are three times where one experiences beauty. The first time beauty occurs takes place when you are a baby. As babies are adorable, all want to hold them in their arms, to protect them, and all tenderly love them. The second time happens during the adolescence. At the age of 15 or 16 years, you are attractive with your red cheeks and good looking. All then love you, and some even want to marry you. However, all human beings during their lifetime will once experience the two moments of blossoming beauty. My son, there is a third time when a human being could reach great beauty. You have to know that only a few people could reach it. It is the “third beauty”, an extraordinary moment where your achievement at school gives you a radiant beauty that will transform you into somebody special, unique, and exceptional. At this moment, everyone will appreciate you, love you, even envy you. The third beauty is the most precious beauty of the 3. It is timeless. It is worth silver and gold. If you persist in pursuing your studies, you will know the third beauty, the one that will last forever. With such a beauty, everything is possible”.
For Dr. Toua, the words of the old man delivered him from the temptation of getting married. They were silver and gold in his heart. They helped him to strengthen his courage and determination to study for long and lonely years. They made him fly over valleys, mountains and oceans in the search of knowledge that would save people. Even if certain nights, Toua felt distressed or was sleeplessness, his heart was always attached to the promise of the third beauty that would bring him prestige, power and social recognition.
My friend did not actually know who this old man was. Afterward, Toua never encountered him again. How brief was this encountering, but how empowering was it. It had totally changed his life. Toua remembered that the old man left him with a peaceful heart and a clear mind. He stopped fretting, and totally abandoned the idea of marriage. He went back home and in the mid of the night, packed his bags. Then the next morning, he left Fresno for South Carolina.
Readers, do you believe in the third beauty? How does one keep the inside beauty while getting old? Dr. Toua’s story should inspire you to build up your reasons and strengthen your courage to pursue higher education or simply to accept the loss of physical beauty in sight of a bigger moral and intellectual beauty ? that’s why I decided to write his wonderful and touching story, hoping that it will inspire you.
For you, Hmong students who want to pursue higher education, but at the same time, are afraid of not later on finding a beautiful wife or a handsome husband, I think Dr. Toua’s story should reassure you, and secure your fears. His story offers a unique lesson of optimism: beauty never dies with age; instead, it becomes bigger with knowledge. Beyond professional and social achievement, there is a gift of youth: the incomparable and lasting beauty of mind. If you are beautiful of the beauty of mind, your horizons will be wider; your choice of wife or of husband will be multiple or simply more reasonable. With more emotional and intellectual maturity, your vision of beauty will change; which will help you to find the right person, to make the good choice of spouse. Do not worry about the loss of physical beauty or aging process. Accept criticism on behalf of your parents as a way of learning. Let’s remember that Hmong people do not live anymore in the Mountains of Laos where marrying or well marrying was a survival social pattern. Nowadays, with a good education, you will be better prepared to choose a mate as well as to be chosen. Believe in Dr. Toua’s experience.
The third time of beauty is really made of heart and mind. The third beauty expands your horizon, understanding and harmony with your self. The third beauty is an infinite beauty that lasts forever, beyond death.
Thank you for Dr. T. for sharing such a powerful and empowering story.
I hope this story will inspire you to make a difference in your life as well as in the ones of your children, and to promote, to support higher education although all kinds of difficulties, cultural barriers and gender obstacles.
Young ladies, keep in mind the 3rd beauty as an answer to fear of losing beauty! Don’t be afraid! You will find your prince at any age.
My fellow Hmong, let keep you far from early marriage and early pregnancy. When you marry very young, at the age of 14 years or 15 years, you won’t enjoy life with comfort and financial security. Go get a higher education because a good training will open your mind, strengthening your professional skills, keeping you far from
material poverty, moral misery and lack of love and respect toward yourself.
Copyright © 2002 Kao-Ly Yang
All rights reserved.
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