Courtship and Marriage Courtship

Daily life in Laos presented limited opportunities for romantic contacts between single Hmong males and females. When a young man developed a fondness for a particular girl he tried to work near her in the field and assist her in performing chores such as collecting firewood, fetching water, and gathering pig fodder. Doing these tasks together, usually in the presence of a female relative of the girl, allowed them to gradually learn about each other before making any definite commitment. By helping the girl in an energetic way, the boy demonstrated his industriousness to the girl's parents.

At night, single males circulated through the village trying to engage girls in conversations whispered through the bamboo or loose board walls of the girls' bedrooms. Visits by a boy to a particular girl could become frequent and gradually more intimate. The boy might try to persuade the girl to meet him elsewhere for a tryst, but success was unlikely. If the relationship developed into a strong romantic attachment, the boy asked his father and other close males relatives to visit the girl's family formally to propose marriage. Boys tried to act out their sexual desires, while girls were expected to resist and remain virgins until married. If caught in an apparent tryst, and even if sexual intercourse has not occurred, a couple will often be pressured by their respective families to marry in order to prevent scandal. As an alternative, a compensation payment may be demanded by the girl's side for damages caused to the reputation of the girl and her family.

The arts of courtship in Laos included flute playing, serenading as well as antiphonal singing between all-boy and all-girl groups, using a mouth harp or leaf reed to hum intimacies, competitive riddling, and various forms of stylized teasing. These genres are rarely practiced in the United States, but older Hmong occasionally demonstrate some of them at community celebrations. The get-acquainted game brought from Laos and performed in connection with New Year festivities involves the tossing of a stuffed sack or ball between opposite-sexed partners. Volleyball games between mixed teams at kin group picnics do more in the United States to facilitate intersex bonding.

Hmong boys in the United States still go out at night in groups in order to visit girls, but the encounters must take place in living rooms where there is less privacy. Under these circumstances, the exchanges must be more circumspect, and it is often unclear to the parents which boy is interested in their daughter. Youths, particularly boys, are less inclined to dress in distinctive Hmong clothing and jewelry while participating in the ball-tossing game at New Year celebrations. They see little value in singing Hmong folksongs or playing Hmong musical instruments. When elders speak about the beauty and utility of such accomplishment, young Hmong respond with indifference, and even bewilderment. They prefer listening to popular American music emanating from portable radios, CD players, and computers. Rather than improvising rhyming couplets to fit standard folk melodies, a talent highly valued in Laos, they are more comfortable singing the lyrics and tunes provided by karaoke machines.4

Up until the mid-1990s, Hmong males took the initiative in telephoning, writing, and visiting their usually younger love interests. If a Hmong female agreed to attend a public event with a suitor, she was chaperoned by a family member. It was the male's prerogative to propose marriage, and his fiancée had little to say in the planning of the wedding. Hmong females are now much less hesitant to call boyfriends, and they see nothing wrong in encouraging the attentions of same-aged or younger males. An increasing number are neither abashed nor restricted from going out unescorted with boyfriends. They are more assertive about whom they wish to date and marry, and about how their weddings should be celebrated.

Hmong Americans who have come of age in recent years tend to see marriage not as a joining of families embedded in larger kinship networks, but as a union of two individuals who share a romantic love. Parents and grandparents wonder whether "a house built on two supporting poles can be as strong a one built on four or six supporting poles."

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