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Contemporary Issues
May's First Love
Short Story

by Kao-Ly Yang

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May was still a young girl when she was forced to marry her first cousin --phauj tus tub -- in Ban Vinai, one of the refugee camps that was built in Thailand after 1975 for the Southeast Asian refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
In the Hmong culture, the marriage between the son of a sister and the daughter of her brother is perceived as the perfect match. People believe that close relationships guarantee lasting weddings: the daughter-in-law will be just like a real daughter, the son-in-law a real son. Love will arise between households. And arisen love will keep everybody together in a harmonious tie. It is a belief that love has not yet finished to test.
But there was a little problem in this story: May was already in love with Pheng, another young man she has met in the camp.
At that time, a daughter has to follow her parents'choice. The traditional lifestyle does not let her to think more: she would need a loyal and physically strong husband to support her because of the farming life. And the trustful husbands are supposed to be their maternal uncle's sons.   
In the past, young women who do not like parents'choice remained single or committed suicide, a kind of social death as alternatives. Back in Laos, there were sad and unfair suicides of teenagers. For May, it was not her choice. She listened to her parents. Although all regrets and tears, she got married to her first cousin.
One year later after her marriage, May came to America, in California. During the first months of exil, she felt quietly lonely. Her only distraction was to visit an old aunt, living in her neighborhood. That day, while walking into her house, she saw, sitting on the sofa, Pheng, her first love. Inside her heart, things were going fast. Outside, her face remained tranquil. She did not say word to him. Her cheeks were however red. Her heart beat fast. She knew she still loved him. Moments seemed hours, time seemed eternity. Suddenly, she has to go back home.
May, hoping to see Pheng again, went to visit the old aunt very often. As for Pheng, he still loved May. Knowing that his first love lived close to his aunt, he came more and more often to visit her.
After a few days, May decided to tell Pheng her love again because the young man was still single. During each visit, she never stayed very long. She then went back home where she diligently cooked some fresh rice and boiled a chicken drum stick ? part of the chicken body that one gives to another to express love in the Hmong culture. When May knew it was time for Pheng to leave his aunt, she went to wait for him on the road that took him to the bus station. When he arrived along her, no word was exchanged. She just gave him the small bag of food. Sometimes, when she has money, she put $10 or $20 in the bag. After sadly looking at him walking away, she came back home.
The same episode of reunion and of separation between the two lovers repeated day after day until the old aunt came to realize the passion in their eyes. She simply forbad her nephew to visit her.  May was waiting for him for days but he never came back. Then May's family-in-law decided to move to Minnesota. She asked her husband to stay in California. But he did not want to be separated of his parents: "A daughter-in-law must serve his in-law" he said. She refused. He beat her. She followed him to Twin Cities.
Since this year, May never saw Pheng again. Her love for him stayed forever in her heart.  Years passing, after the birth of her four children, she definitively closed her eyes of the past. May doesn't live anymore for her, but her children. She will do everything to let them marry the ones they love.  For the rest of her life, Pheng remains a shining day in her thought. When her husband badly treated her, she kept remembering the innocent love of this young man.  
Should we misjudge May because of her unfaithful love? This story is full of anger and sadness. Don't judge her too fast? On the contrary, let us appreciate her story as a part of human treasures. I have learnt a lot -- and so could you-- from such a story. Migration awakes Hmong people's awareness of cultural gaps and inadequacy of marriage choices: what Hmong believe as indestructible may be fragile and questioning in the West. What is normal in the past may be not at all normal in the present time.

Thank you for the people who shared this wonderful story with me.
This story is fictional. .


Reedited on 7th January 2006   
Copyright © 2003 Kao-Ly Yang
All rights reserved.
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