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Hmong Contemporary Issues
Hmoob cov Xwm Txheej rau Tiam no
Les Problématiques contemporaines des Hmong

Ann PajYeeb's Wedding Dilemma
by Kao-Ly Yang

All characters and events are fictional in this story. In fact, I wanted to raise a sensitive issue, the Hmong marriage in the modern settings. Rather than using biography, I thought fiction was far powerful to seize it. So I used short-story to explore the issues on Hmong weddings that I studied as anthropologist. The marriage constitutes the rite of passage where men and women acquire the status of adult. For women, it means a symbolic death  and a social rebirth in the husband's lineage.
In this story, Ann Paj Yeeb, the main character, questions the various wedding practices and reasons to get married while dating. She needs to find her own way to marry for love.
Still today, one of the possible conflicts between parents and children concerns the marriage.
Part I: Growing up in a Hmong Traditional Family in America
Ann PajYeeb was born in Laos in 1975, the year where her people lost the war, and had to flee to Thailand before coming to the United States. Her parents, Dang and Mayeng, White Hmong of Xieng Khouang, a province near Vietnam, got married in 1970 when the mother was just thirteen years old, and the father, seventeen. Like most of the Hmong in Laos, her parents did not receive any formal education. Farmers in their mountains, their expectations from life was simple, but limited: have enough to eat, give birth to sons who will care for them in their old age, and find some good life partners for their children. From 1971 to 1990, Mayeng gave birth to eleven children, eight daughters and three sons. Five children were born in Laos and in Thailand, and six in the United States.

Ann's family decided to go to the United States after a two-year stay in Ban Vinai, one of the refugees camps in Thailand. It was 1981. The family resettled in San Diego, California. Ann reached her six years old. Life, again filled with hopes and promises, went on comfortably. Insightful, but yet naive, the little girl asked lots of questions about any thing that awoke her insterest. Her father, a well-known wedding mediator, always encouraged his children to learn and respect the Hmong traditions, behaviors, and values. Ann grew up knowing how to cook, politely speak to any Elderly and relatives, embroider beautifully, and take care of her young siblings. Educated in such a conservative family and at school, Ann possessed a double culture, the Hmong culture where girls listen more than speak,  and the American culture where girls have to be as good as boys.

Just a few years after they came to America, her two older sisters traditionally got married even if one was just fourteen years old, and the other, sixteen. Ann did not follow their steps. She was not enough pretty to attract male pursuits, no white skin, dark pearl-eyes, oval face, long hair, tall seize or sweet voice. Her encountering with her eleventh grade teacher made her aware that even girls could pursue higher education. She wanted to study more. But once her two old sisters married, Ann found herself with more chores to do at home, and less time to devote to her homework. A girl never complained about having to work harder than boys. At the age of fourteen, she became the center of her mother's marriage concern. In the Hmong community, an early marriage ensured a "good life partner". In the 1980's, marry at a late age like 18 years old would limit the choice of a "good husband". Ann's mom kept repeating to her daughter that she would only find disable, widowed or divorced men if she did not listen to her advice. At any occasions, the mother always reminded her to "speak nicely" to men.

Years flew in the blink of an eye. Ann became a young adult. Now, sure of her choice to study, she refused to date any men that her mother recommended. The inflexibility and lack of understanding of the mother facing to the determination and passion of the daughter lead them to daily disputes. Worn out by her obstination, the mother, even if she felt ashamed sometimes when the other Hmong asked about her old unmarried daughter, surrendered to her child's choice. Ann finally got into college.

Two decades in the United States had slowly shaped the Hmong mentality. Ann's family became more acculturated and opened to the American way of life. Her father acknowledged his children's willingness to succeed professionally. The mother understood that higher education was an additional asset to marry well her kids. From time to time, mother and daughter still argued with each other on dating issues. Ann was particularly sad when her parents refused her to attend the university of California, Berkley even if she received a scholarship. Instead, she enrolled 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 completed her master degree in counseling.

Part II: Experiencing Cross-cultural Love
Ann PajYeeb felt in love twice in her young life. Koua, a quiet young Hmong entered her life at her fifteen birthday. Her date was one year older. First love, innocent love met at a fair. Their days together fell like white beads filled in a fragile chain. Soon, the whole housefol discovered the boy-friend. But no one dared talking about it. Ann, shy but defiant, loved in silence. Only her eldest sister was able to tell her to wait before getting married. The young sister trusted the older one because she saw her two brothers in-law use verbal or physical abuse toward her sisters. Such an experience reinforced Ann's belief about the inappropriateness of the early marriages. She concluded that marrying early would not help for long and lasting relationships. With such a mindset, she quickly coped with the break that took place a few months later. Koua was holding hand with one of her friends at a movie theater. For now, she did not want to think too much. But, years after, when she thought about Koua, she only retained the rich experience of breaking one's heart, and its lesson to make one's appreciate the vulnerability and beauty in love relationships.

While taking the bus to school, she met her second love, Diego. She was then seventeen, doubting and fearing the gifts from life. Life could not be taken lightly. Her new boy-friend was an open-minded Latino American, calm and secretive. He was four years older than her. The world chanted again in rainbow color.

Ann knew that her family and her community would not accept her dating a non-Hmong. She was living in a decade where the Hmong community was transitioning, but changes were doubled with tragedies. Marry a non-Hmong was something completely inconceivable and unacceptable. Her family wouldn't tolerate it. Afraid of her parents, and of their dreadful criticism and total rejection, she hid the relationship. Life went on, in grey color at home.

This experience with Diego was different from her previous boy-friend. He did not try to control Ann or to marry her at all costs. Ann was simply enjoying loving a young man with the same mindset. Encouraged by the wonderful experience, she learned to take care of herself as an individual with her own needs and dreams. As Diego loved art and was opened to other cultures, he madet Ann discover other ways of living, appreciate beauties in small things, and focus on her studies. Diego often worked at the Red Cross, and during the celebrations took Ann with him. Ann Payeng began to see the world around her beyond the Hmong American community. Diego, alike Ann's eleventh grade teacher, empowered her to pursue her career, to connect with other cultural communities, and to see things beyond their material forms. Later on, Ann would understand this chance to have met him. Without Diego, she wouldn't become aware of things that would make her old days full and peaceful.

But, while being together, Ann had somehow difficulty to understand his way of thinking and dealing with issues like living alone far from home to study, helping strangers or giving without expecting something in return. Ann and her boy friend were happy during their two first years. After his bachelor, Diego received a letter of acceptance from a medical school in Chicago. So far from Fresno. He wanted to go because his dream was always to become a medical doctor. Ann could not go. Too far and expensive. They had tearing discussions. Ann had to accept his choice. "If you love me, you have to let me do what I like", Diego reminded her. "What I plan to do is not bad." She knew that loving such a man meaned acceptance even if it might cost their love. At nineteen years old, Ann grew into maturity in a few months. She understood that love involved separations and reunions, and distance might change feelings. During the first months of their separation, Diego did not often call her. Once, when she phoned him, a female voice answered. She discovered in the following weeks that he had a new girl-friend. Instead of depressing, she just ignored it.

Experiencing separation and deception suddenly brought Ann to the universe of her mother and other women. More aware of the sorrowful side in all relationships, she started to differently see life, and in a more positive way. She thought: "The way we see life depends more on the place we sit, and not on the nature of the issue. Maybe, I need to change my place in order for me to live better my experiences". Before, she called "weakness", her mother's inconditional love for her father, and her eldest sisters' submissions to their husbands. Now, she changed her mind, and saw them with a form of courage. She realized that her mother and sisters tried hard to preserve their marriage, and to raise their children at such an emotional cost. She also appreciated the great courage of the people who chose to live the life thay wanted even if they experienced rejection and exclusion from their own community. Life suddenly appeared to Ann with multiple choices. She could live and love whomever she wanted. She thought: "As a Hmong woman, I am lucky to live in America because I have choices".

After this profoundly sad experience of broken heart, Ann spent the following five years to study. Lonely were her days and heart. Her past relationship had increased her understanding of the human nature. She could not live alone. She needed to build a family where she would be surrounded by love and care. Truely, it wouldn't be easy to just find a good companion in any fairs or buses.

With more intellectual independence and awareness of the need of gender equality for the Hmong women, Ann PajYeeb had been wondering about ways to marry.  She did like the pride price , that sum of money that the groom must pay to the bride's parents. It made her feel like a minor, depending on her parents' decision making. If she married a Hmong, she had to do a Hmong wedding with a pride price. If she married a Non-Hmong, she could avoid the traditional wedding. But would her parents still require a bride price too? Her experience of a cross-cultural love and her daily exposures to her mother and sisters' marital problems already convinced her that lasting love relationships do not exist. Concerning the traditional weddings, she often questioned their adequacy and soundness: "Why can Western people live together without any formal or legalized marriages? Why do people in some cultures practice polygyny (a man marry several wives - this is the case of the Hmong culture) or polyandry (a woman marry several men - practice existing in the Tibetan society where a woman can marry all the brothers of one household)? Why do people in some other cultures practice monogamy (a man marry only a woman)? Do marriages have a more cultural and economic purposes than fulfilling individuals' emotions, needs or desires?"
Ann, in her twenties with an thoughtful mind, doesn't believe anymore in the greatness of the Hmong traditional marriage practices.

Part III: Thinking of Getting Married To a Man that She Doesn't Love.
While attending her graduation, Ann met Chaoxu. Polite and mannered, he was, but oddly looked old fashioned. A few weeks later, Ann found out that Chaoxu did not finish high school. They both have the same age. He had several sibllings, and as the first born, he went to work. But she felt attracted to him even if she knew that he would be a very bad party for her. There would too much duties toward his parents, siblings, and lineage. Chaoxu also found Ann very appealing. On the same day of their meeting, he called her again and again until she accepted to date him.

The twenty-five year man believed in his youth and good looking to catch Ann's eyes. "With her, I will have many sons", he thought.  "She is highly educated so she will benefit my parents, silbings and future kids." Chaoxu was daydreaming. Ann would help him buy a house for his parents. He was just confident. He didn't need to ask more questions about intellectual or psychological compatibility. He believed that flowers and candies could buy the heart of a woman. "If I do everything right, then she will marry me." Chaoxu was planning. He only visited Ann at home, in the presence of her parents. Not date outside. He wanted to show respect, and would earn the heart of the whole household. In simple term, his intention was to marry her as soon as possible.

As for the twenty-five year Ann, she soundly paid attention to this young man. She could not choose the wrong man. As for Dang and Mayeng, they were thrilled when they saw Chaoxu coming to their house. Mayeng again tried to convince her daughter now less talkative. "No good man would marry an old woman". "Love will grow with time". Nevertherless, Ann would like to know more about him. She had expectations. Compatibility in personality, in dreams, in lifestyle, in ideas, etc. In getting to know Chaoxu more, she realized that he was really a traditional man. He didn't attract her intellectually and emotionally. He might appear a good man. But, Ann needed a companion who would be also a friend. "Is a good man enough to make me happy? Is he going to be like my dad, unable to adapt to my time? How am I going to fit his conservative family? In the traditional setting, back in Laos, people got married for reasons that had changed in America. "What is the purpose of getting married if one can support oneself?", Ann also had another reason to not marry Chaoxu.

Traditionally, women grown up in Laos wouldn't ask too much questions. They would accomodate to their husband's personality and lineage's needs, and they would learn to love their husband once married. However, for Ann, an acculturated young woman living in America, her past experience opened her eyes to a new world where one must love in order to marry, and compatibility in personality and ideas are like air to the lungs. Ann did not live anymore in the survival mood. Her search for happiness went beyond the social logic of the reproduction of the group: perpetuating the lineage by having sons, satisfying the basic needs for food, love, ... . Ann would like to experience life differently, to sit in a different place. She believed she had the right to get a better education, to expand her professional and leadership skills while enjoying life in its every aspect such as having fun in traveling. She wanted two children, and wouldn't never mind if they were all girls. With such a view, could Ann find a man in the Hmong community who could be a good companion to her?

                                                        (End of the Story)
Copyright © 2003 Kao-Ly Yang. Re-edited in July 2018.
All rights reserved.

                                                                         Reflection: Dilemmas in Hmong American Weddings.

Ann PajYeeb's story is not exceptional because it reflects the Hmong American wedding dilemmas for most of the Hmong women. The first dilemma for a modern Hmong woman like Ann is to find an "suitable husband". Life will be difficult for her if she comes to marry a man who won't share her expectations and vision of life.  The fact that Ann can accept a marriage without being in love first and checking the couple's compatibility is likely due to her bringing: with her twenty-five springs, she is considered by her people as an old maid, which makes her worry about finding a "good husband" and a son in-law who will please her family.

Being an old maid will reduce her chance to find a "good" Hmong man because men of them are already married. The single ones would be disable or men with problems. And marrying a widow or a divorcee would make people lose social prestige. With her higher education, marrying an outsider would be perceived by her family as a loss. Also, she might be totally rejected by her community. Indeed, most of the parents expect their children, especially the ones with a college degree, to marry inside the group.

Ann's second dilemma concerns the legitimization of her marriage. In the Hmong traditions, when a woman gets married, she experiences a rite of passage where she lives a long and harassing negotiation that leads the groom to pay a bride price. In America, the bride price is required; the sum went from $6,000 to $9,000 in 2000. With all spendings (food, renting of space, etc.,), the total may go from $8,000 to more than $15,000. If a poor groom cannot afford such an amount of money, he will postpone the wedding. Some did pay "by credit" their wife in borrowing from the banks. Some just live together without doing any traditional or legal weddings. Some first marry legally accordingly to the American laws, and wait until the two of them earn enough money to do the traditional wedding. Among the overseas communities, the bride price is still practiced.

Ann thinks a lot about the bride price. She knows that her parents will ask for a bride price. She understands that the bride price would serve as a warranty for her safety so that her future husband would not physically --and emotionally--abuse her or easily send her back to their lineage after a few months of marriage. A great bride pride is perceived as a gain of face to her parents. A high price is synonym of good bride in term of beauty, bringing, and education. Even if Ann understands the social and symbolic functions of the bride price, she isn't insured about its appropriateness and usefulness in the Hmong community now resettled in America. With Ann's financial autonomy and education, she thinks there will be a better way to legitimize her love union. She is thinking of doing

1) a traditional wedding where the groom had to pay a pride price, which is the normal way.
2) a party for all (It is the case when a Hmong marries an outsider),
3) a legal wedding (Such a ceremony is not well considered by parents).

She knows that her parents quite conservative want a traditional wedding to legitimize her union, which puts Ann in contradiction with her sense of integrity and freedom of choice. Because she sees herself as an individual with the freedom of thought and of choice, that includes the way she would like to celebrate her wedding, she cannot submit herself under the social control of her parents and community.

But if she doesn't give up her freedom of choice in refusing the traditional wedding with the bride price, then she will hurt her parents, especially her mother. She is aware that she may generate conflicts with her parents for years. But how can she reconcile the two different worlds?
She just wants to do a legal wedding, but 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 the cultural determination on 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.

                                                                                 Narrator's position

As the narrator of the Ann PajYeeb's story, I cannot give a happy or a sad ending 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 the Hmong American dating and wedding issues. When you experience such a situation, you will be inspired to find the most appropriate approach to define your own 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 sincere wishes in life.