Marriage

Hmong do not want their children to "remain in the garden too long" (like ripening fruits and vegetables) before marrying. Single females risk being viewed by the first generation of Hmong immigrants as nkauj laug (old maids) after the age of 18, whereas single males do not start to be considered nraug laus (old bachelors) until they reach 30 or so. It is becoming more acceptable for Hmong females to marry in their early twenties as an increasing number see the advantages of first finishing college and starting a career.

Whether they honor the spirits or practice a form of Christianity, Hmong want the marriages of their daughters to be respectfully arranged in their homes. A suitor asks his father and other close male relatives to present a proposal of marriage to the family of his intended bride. This is done through a mej koob who advocates on behalf of the suitor's family. The family receiving the proposal enlists their own mej koob. If the two sides, including the couple, agree that marriage is a good idea, the mej koob negotiate the nqis tshoob, a marriage payment that the suitor's relatives make to those of the intended bride. It is in the house (tsev) of the bride that marriage is discussed (hais). Thus, the phrase nqis tsev hais describes the manner in which most Hmong enter into marriage.5

Betrothals can be formalized before youths are old enough, or are otherwise prepared, to marry. If opposite-sexed relatives, affines, or close friends want their children to marry in the future, the boy's side makes a down payment on the nqis tshoob. Marriage between first cross cousins is considered by Hmong to be advantageous because it further strengthens relationships between already close kin groups.

Either side may later ask to be released from the agreement (qhaib). If just the girl's side is reluctant to go forward, the amount already given must be returned with interest. The family of a replacement suitor usually pays. If the boy's side wants to abrogate the qhaib, they forfeit their investment and are charged a fine.

When a young woman wants to get married against the wishes of her family, she elopes or "goes quietly" (mus ntsiag to) with her lover to his kwv tij (patrilineal relatives). Two male emissaries are sent by the kwv tij to the woman's parents requesting a future marriage negotiation. They may refuse but, when their disappointment and anger subsides, the woman's birth parents are likely to accept their new status as neej tsa, the family who provided a wife to others, and indicate that they are open to a payment of nqis. It is difficult for a young man to defy his parents when choosing a mate if he expects to reside patrilocally after marriage, and to pay a respectable nqis tshoob to the neej tsa. When faced with parental resistance, he can ask other relatives to help argue his case.

The expression zij poj niam, which literally translates into English as "seizing a woman," had a much more restricted meaning before the 1961-75 war in Laos. It applied to instances where a man intercepted a single woman outside her home and held her by the arm at the location of the encounter until her father and other male relatives could be summoned. The intention of the man was to extract a promise that he would at least be allowed to begin the process of nqis tsev hais, although his proposal might later be rejected. When a man forcibly carried away a woman whom he wanted to marry, the act was called nyiag (zij) poj niam, or "secretly stealing a woman." The old and less violent stratagem of zij poj niam is no longer practiced, but many Hmong continue to use the expression as a synonym for nyiag (zij) poj niam.

What happens after a woman is taken against her will depends upon whether the captor sends word right away to the woman's parents about what has happened and where their daughter is being held. If the parents are so informed, they have the choice of doing nothing, or going directly to their daughter and bringing her back if she does not want to stay with her captor. Another option is to hold the woman incommunicado for 3 days or longer in order to convince her parents that the marriage has been consummated and must be accepted. Some women "stolen" into marriage have learned to accept their fate and develop loving relationships with their husbands. Others have endured miserable lives or committed suicide.

It is difficult to say how often nyiag (zij) poj niam has occurred in recent times. Although relatively rare, anecdotal evidence suggests that it happened with greater frequency during the 1961-75 Laotian War when men had more opportunities to assert power over others and intimidate the parents of women they desired. A number of "bride captures" were reported in the newspapers during the early years of Hmong resettlement in America. Some of these turned out to be elopements where runaway brides regretted their rash acts and sided with vengeful parents when they complained to the police. In other cases, women held by suitors against their will were not physically violated before being allowed to return home. Actual cases of Hmong men taking young single women by force and having sex with them did occur, but media stories gave the impression that Hmong generally accept such behaviors. In fact, the vast majority regard them as deplorable acts most often perpetrated against vulnerable women whose relatives are too few and weak to retaliate.

In the late 1980s, school authorities in the United States became alarmed over what they assumed to be a "traditional" Hmong practice—adolescent marriage. Compared with other ethnic groups, a surprising number of Hmong high-school students, mostly girls and some younger than 16, were living in marriage-like relationships. Hmong attending U.S. high schools have been pressured into marriage after being discovered in a real or apparent romantic relationship by their parents. Youths may also see marriage as a means of leaving troubled childhoods and assuming positions within the family and kin groups that confer respect and a measure of independence.

Older immigrants have tried to persuade their young people to wait until they finished high school or even college before becoming involved in a permanent relationship. Young people, especially girls, actually receive mixed messages. Besides being advised to wait and get a good education, they also hear that (1) it is a mistake to be single too long because it embarrasses parents to have apparently unmarriageable children, and (2) older and more educated women can expect to have difficulty in finding suitable mates. They are also aware that elders sometimes resent unmarried professionals for being viewed as role models by younger Hmong. Fortunately, the so-called "early marriage problem" seems to be fading as youths realize the advantages of waiting longer before attaining full adulthood, and Hmong parents become somewhat more comfortable with the American concept of unsupervised dating.

When the head of a family died in Laos, it was considered proper for one of his younger brothers or younger paternal parallel cousins (called brothers) to marry the widow and raise the deceased's children. Technically known as the junior levirate, the practice kept important affinal linkages intact and insured the continuation of the descent line. The sons and daughters of immigrants are reluctant to continue this custom, but elders still look within the sublineage to find replacement husbands for young widows with children.

Men able to afford multiple marriage payments and support several households have sometimes added a second or third wife to their families. These can be compatible unions, but conflict-ridden marriages involving multiple wives have resulted in long-lasting enmities between kin groups. When tried in the United States, polygyny has seldom resulted in stable marriages or cooperative joint households. Men have come to see such arrangements as causing more problems for the kwv tij than they return in benefits, and women generally regard them as oppressive.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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