She draped me in a gorgeous Hmong textile, pointed at me, and laughed. I had no problem with any of this, by the way. I had long ago learned that when you are the giant, alien visitor to a remote and foreign culture it is sort of your job to become an object of ridicule. Soon more women-neighbors and relations-poured into the house. They also showed me their weavings, stuck their hats on my head, crammed my arms full of their babies, pointed at me, and laughed. Everyone slept on the floor together. The kitchen was on one side and the wood stove for winter was on the other side.
Rice and corn were stored in a loft above the kitchen, while pigs, chickens, and water buffalo were kept close by at all times. This, as I learned later in my reading, was where the newest bride and groom in any family were allowed to sleep alone together for the first few months of their marriage in order to get their sexual explorations out of the way in private. After that initial experience of privacy, though, the young couple joins the rest of the family again, sleeping with everyone else on the floor for the rest of their lives. Her father had died of death.
The way people used to die, I suppose, before we knew very much about why or how. It was hard to imagine loneliness here. Just as it was impossible to imagine where in this crowded domestic arrangement you might find the happier twin sister of loneliness: privacy. Mai and her mother lived in constant closeness with so many people. I was struck-not for the first time in my years of travel-by how isolating contemporary American society can seem by comparison. You almost need an electron microscope to study the modern Western family these days. Also, sociologists have long known that incidences of incest and child molestation increase whenever so many relatives of different ages live together in such close proximity.
In a crowd so big, it can become difficult to keep track of or defend individuals-not to mention individuality. Watching the Hmong women interact with each other, I got to wondering whether the evolution of the ever smaller and ever more nuclear Western family has put a particular strain on modern marriages. Yes, you have a spouse. Yes, you have sex with that spouse. Yes, your fortunes are tied together. Yes, there might very well be love.
Marriage and Surprises
Men work and socialize with other men; women work and socialize with other women. Whatever the men were off doing farming, drinking, talking, gambling they were doing it somewhere else, alone together, separated from the universe of the women. Hmong women, instead, get a lot of that emotional nourishment and support from other women-from sisters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers.
A Hmong woman has many voices in her life, many opinions and emotional buttresses surrounding her at all times. At last, all the greetings having been exchanged and all the babies having been dandled and all the laughter having died down into politeness, we all sat. With Mai as our translator, I began by asking the grandmother if she would please tell me about Hmong wedding ceremonies. Once the wedding date arrives, a good many pigs are killed.
A feast is prepared and relatives come from every village to celebrate.
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Both the families chip in to cover expenses. There is a procession to the wedding table, and a relative of the groom will always carry an umbrella. At this point, I interrupted to ask what the umbrella signified, but the question brought some confusion. The umbrella is the umbrella, I was told, and it is carried because umbrellas are always carried at weddings. That is why, and that is that, and so it has always been. This is an ancient custom, she said, though it is much less in practice these days than it was in the past. Still, it does exist. This is all strictly organized and is permitted only on certain nights of the year, at celebrations after certain market days.
There are rules. The kidnapped girl is given three days to live in the home of her captor, with his family, in order to decide whether or not she would like to marry this fellow. Which sounded reasonable enough to me, as far as kidnappings go. Where our conversation did turn peculiar for me-and for all of us in the room-was when I tried to get the grandmother to tell me the story of her own marriage, hoping to elicit from her any personal or emotional anecdotes about her own experience with matrimony.
Her entire wrinkled face arranged itself into a look of puzzlement. Assuming that she-or perhaps Mai-had misunderstood the question, I tried again:. Now some of the women in the room had started giggling nervously, the way you might giggle around a slightly crazy person-which was, apparently, what I had just become in their eyes. Again, the very shape of my curiosity seemed a mystery to the grandmother. Politely, though, she gave it a try. She had never particularly met her husband before she married him, she tried to explain. There are always a lot of people around, you know.
Anyway, she said, it is not an important question as to whether or not she knew him when she was a young girl. After all, as she concluded to the delight of the other women in the room, she certainly knows him now. The instant Mai translated this question, all the women in the room, except the grandmother, who was too polite, laughed aloud-a spontaneous outburst of mirth, which they then all tried to stifle politely behind their hands.
You might think this would have daunted me. Perhaps it should have daunted me. But I persisted, following up their peals of laughter with a question that struck them as even more ridiculous:. Now they all really did lose it.
Even the grandmother was openly howling with laughter. Which was fine, right? But in this case, I must confess, all the hilarity was a bit unsettling on account of the fact that I really did not get the joke. All I could understand was that these Hmong ladies and I were clearly speaking an entirely different language here I mean, above and beyond the fact that we were literally speaking an entirely different language here.
But what was so specifically absurd to them about my questions? In the weeks to come, as I replayed this conversation over in my mind, I was forced to hatch my own theory about what had made me and my hosts so foreign and incomprehensible to each other on the subject of marriage. In the modern industrialized Western world, where I come from, the person whom you choose to marry is perhaps the single most vivid representation of your own personality.
Your spouse becomes the most gleaming possible mirror through which your emotional individualism is reflected back to the world. There is no choice more intensely personal, after all, than whom you choose to marry; that choice tells us, to a large extent, who you are. So if you ask any typical modern Western woman how she met her husband, when she met her husband, and why she fell in love with her husband, you can be plenty sure that you will be told a complete, complex, and deeply personal narrative which that woman has not only spun carefully around the entire experience, but which she has memorized, internalized, and scrutinized for clues as to her own selfhood.
Moreover, she will more than likely share this story with you quite openly-even if you are a perfect stranger. Or at least not these Hmong women. Please understand, I am not an anthropologist and I acknowledge that I am operating far above my pay grade when I make any conjectures whatsoever about Hmong culture.
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I also concede that these women may have found my questions intrusive, if not outright offensive. Why should they have told their most intimate stories to me, a nosy interloper? All that said, though, I am somebody who has spent a large chunk of her professional life interviewing people, and I trust my ability to watch and listen closely.
Moreover, like all of us, whenever I enter the family homes of strangers, I am quick to notice the ways in which they may look at or do things differently than my family looks at or does things. I did not see a group of women sitting around weaving overexamined myths and cautionary tales about their marriages. The reason I found this so notable was that I have watched women all over the world weave overexamined myths and cautionary tales about their marriages, in all sorts of mixed company, and at the slightest provocation. But the Hmong ladies did not seem remotely interested in doing that.
That would be a ridiculous thing to infer, because people everywhere love each other and always have. Romantic love is a universal human experience. Evidence of passion exists in all corners of this world. All human cultures have love songs and love charms and love prayers. And in Papua New Guinea, there exists a tribe whose men write mournful love songs called namai, which tell the tragic stories of marriages which never came to pass but should have.
My friend Kate once went to a concert of Mongolian throat singers who were traveling through New York City on a rare world tour. So of course the Hmong fall in love. Perhaps they do not assume that those two distinct entities love and marriage must necessarily intersect-either at the beginning of the relationship or maybe ever at all.
Perhaps they believe that marriage is about something else altogether. Arranged marriage has never been a prominent feature of American life, of course-much less bridal kidnapping-but certainly pragmatic marriages were routine at certain levels of our society until fairly recently. I personally know of one such pragmatic marriage, as it turns out. The Websters were local dairy farmers who lived by an inviolable set of classic Yankee values.
They were modest, frugal, generous, hardworking, unobtrusively religious, and socially discreet members of the community who raised their three children to be good citizens.
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They were also enormously kind. Webster-if I was very good-would sometimes let me play with her collection of antique medicine bottles.
Just a few years ago, Mrs. Webster passed away. A few months after her death, I went out to dinner with Mr. Webster, and we got to talking about his wife. I wanted to know how they had met, how they had fallen in love-all the romantic beginnings of their life together. I asked him all the same questions, in other words, that I would eventually ask the Hmong ladies in Vietnam, and I got the same sorts of replies-or lack of replies.
Webster about the origins of his marriage.