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

Life Story
My Aunt See Was Sold as Third Wife
By Kao-Ly Yang

   This story is based on the life of See, one of my aunts, who lived in the 1950's in Laos. All characteres of this story already passed away long ago. But her unfortunate life often came to haunt me because my family talks about her in regretting her unfair death.
    Becoming older, I have been more aware that my aunt See did really live an injustice because of the Hmong patriarchal system that doesn't treat women fully as automous human beings, free in thought and decision making who have the right to happiness, who can make mistakes and have a second, third .. chance to start again their life. Despite decades have passed since her dealth in the 1950's, there are
still Hmong women in Asia or in the West whose lives strangly resemble hers.
    I hope this story at the same time sad and revolting will awake the consciousness of the Hmong people. I wish they stand up to question the Hmong socio-legal system where the authority is mostly hold by men, the practices of forced marriage in Asia, the levirate (a woman forced to marry a young brother of the deceased husband), and the bride price. Living in a modern world, women must have the freedom of thought, of religion, and of expression. In the Hmong society, women too smart and intellectuals are often perceived as dangerous. If they claimed their sexual freedom, then they would be considered as deviant, some potential thiefts of other spouses' husbands:  They would then be feared and excluded from the social support circle.

See was seventeen when she got married to Long, a handsome young man, soldier in the French army in the province of Samneua in Laos. Because of her age, she was already considered an old maid.  Usually, during this epoch, daughters perfect for marriage should only be between 13 and 15 years old. But See was lucky. She found a man who wholeheartedly loved her. She lived the great love.

Like all married women, See lived happily in the little house of her in-laws surrounded by a cute and tidy garden. In the morning, she went to feed her pigs and chicken before going to the fields. She worked there all day with her in-laws. Often, she dreamt of her man that she had been missing. When he had permissions, he accompanied her to work in the fields. Their honeymoon was not yet ended, but Long was obligated to return to war.  His heart skipped a beat when thinking of seeing him very soon, hoping to sleep in his arms. She shyly smiled when such thoughts inhabited her too much.

At the end of the afternoon, she left the fields, and hurried to go pick some vegetables for the evening meal in the garden where giants bamboos and banana trees loaded with fruits coolly made shade. She could sit a few minutes while dreaming of a possible happiness of a woman with a man. She breathed the medicinal herbs that smelled good while the dahlias, colored, drew her gaze to the distant, beyond the verdant mountains, where Long was fighting.

But See's happiness was short-lived in those years 1950 when the French were at war with Vietnam to protect their colonies.

On the second anniversary of their marriage, Long was reported missing during a battle at the front. The news fell, chocked my aunt desperately. She was in mourning all the following year. When she had a moment alone, she cried, and called her husband. It took a great deal of courage to live again. See was still childless when her husband went missing. She was only twenty years old. Tall and beautiful, but widowed, she began to scare other women because men did not ignore her.  At that time, when there was a divorced or widowed woman, especially beautiful, most men were lining up to court her and try sleep with her.

See's in-laws were very embarrassed by a young widow with no child, and more, being attractive. The quarrels between her and her in-laws became frequent for no purpose. Every time, the question was the fact that she was born a woman, not a man, a mouth to feed, a dead weight. See felt very unhappy about being born a woman because she knew she had no decision-making power to choose her own life. She was very conscious of it, which made her even more miserable and pitiful.

Although she was not lazy as the Hmong of those days would gladly accuse her, she was an annoyance because she aroused irrational fears among her in-laws who did not have young sons who could marry her--the Hmong practice the levirate where a younger brother can marry the widow of his elder brother. My aunt was not easy to manipulate. 

She was voluntary and independent in such a way that things did not work out at all with her in-laws.

See's family life, after Long's disappearance, had become hell. She did not share her difficulties at all with her own parents living a  five-day walk. By dint of insults, humiliation, my aunt knew that she could no longer live with her in-laws. But she didn't want to go back to her parents either because it would be a loss of face, a terrible humiliation for her loved ones. Her own parents were not wealthy and understanding people. An honorable solution had to be found, e.g. she had to marry to escape her widow's prison.

Many men came to flirt with her and tried to sleep with her. But she resisted; she stayed, ate and slept with her husband's young sisters and went to the fields with them. She still had hope because Long had only vanished, not dead. No one had found his body.

One day, when she came home from the field, she crossed Chongteng, a middle-aged man, who raped her, and she got pregnant. Chongteng already had two wives. See was traumatized. Not knowing to whom to turn to, having only enemies among married women who were afraid of her because she attracted their husbands, See withdrew to herself until the day when her in-laws discovered her pregnancy. I think his in-laws did insult her with all the names, or worse, they beat her because they might think it would be her who sought this sexual adventure.

Desperate, humiliated and suicidal, my aunt agreed to marry this man to whom her in-laws had asked for a high bride price as if she were their daughter instead of daughter-in-law. In fact, for divorcees and widows, there is no bride price. This practice is only applicable to women who get married for the first time.

For years, my family called this act, a sale of person that is inhuman and asocial: the in-laws had simply sold See to this man as they were selling a good commodity or animal for the field work. My family could not intervene at all because See was pregnant and she had not fled back  to her natal home.

See became sadly the third wife of this man who treated her very badly. She was pregnant when she took her as a woman, so he looked at her as unworthy of love and respect. He then claimed that the child was not his; he accused See of infidelity. In the end, Chongteng had married her because he wanted to use her as a work beast to feed his numerous offspring. Indeed, See was a great working and energetic woman.

His stay at Chongteng’s house had been brief too, less than a few months. After an argument with him where he treated her very badly, my Aunt See swallowed some opium and died with her eight-month-old fetus, all alone, in the paddy field, in the foggy morning of June 17, 1954, one month after the end of the Indochina War.

Poor woman, without parents near her, she had not received a good funeral. Because of her two marriages, geographical distances, and war, his parents could not intervene to give her justice. She was dead, isolated, helpless and neglected.

Still, my mother who loves her very much, continues to talk about her, her smile, her kindness, which keeps her alive in my heart as a victim of the Hmong society too rigid and intolerant to divorced and widowed women, the marginalized, weakened and excluded.

Sadly, a month after her death, Long came home from war, still alive and desperately in love with his beautiful wife See. When he discovered her second marriage and her tragic death, Long stopped talking for days. He disappeared into the hills, lost and hagard, plagued by pain and black anger. When he came out of his silence, the first thing he said was to go see his wife's grave and make the Liberation rite of See’s soul (Tso Plig). Despite the opposition of his parents, he went there, and fulfilled the rite because for him, she was still his wife. In fact, Chongteng refused to do this ceremony because it cost him money. But Long did not care about him and did so that Sy could go to reincarnate.

I do not know if he cried because my parents never talked about it. But I believe that this man deeply loved my aunt See to have the courage to do this rite when she was no longer his wife before the Hmong law.

Life continued for him, and all of us while See's memories have faded away.

For years I have been haunted by this story of my aunt See who was born a woman and subjected to the harsh law of a patriarchal society. I have often told myself that if she had been born today, in my time, she would have had another life, the one that I lead as an ethnologist, travelling and free of my choices. She would not have been sold, and would not have died in negligence and misery, a month after her husband's return, her love.

Translated from French: Click here for the text in French
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