“Girls Will Be Happy If They Get Married Crying.”

Warning: Very emotionally tense videos ahead.

This is a video of a group of Black Hmong in Sapa, Vietnam. The young girl is being dragged by men who are practicing what we call zij poj niam—in other words, bride-napping.

I first saw this video circulating the social network sites at the end of last year. And now it has been uploaded and shared again, this time probably by a different YouTuber since the original video has been privated. When I first saw it, I was enraged and appalled at such abusive and traumatizing cultural practice. Then my heart ached and I cried for the helpless young girl.

Bride kidnapping was a very common practice when I was growing up in the 90’s. People are surprised when I tell them that this happened in the United States. Momma and Grams would warn me never to go with any man for fear that they would bride-nap me. That was one of the reasons why I never dated older men when my friends were dating men 10 years their senior. I was too scared that in a swift moment, I would be carted off and never see my family again.

I used to hear about it a lot. It happened to many Hmong girls who lived in the same town as I did. It is disturbing when you see it in Hmong movies. And it is horrifying when you see it happening to a person, even if you don’t know her—even if you’re only viewing it online, in the comfort of your home.

When a Hmong man zij a bride, it is customary that the groom’s family give the bride 3 days to make her decision. She has the choice to go back to her family if she wants to. Just because a man zij a bride, it doesn’t mean that he automatically gets to marry her. The wedding will not take place until the wedding negotiations are discussed nor is the wedding date set until the bride and her family agrees to the marriage.

However, how often do you think that a kidnapped bride returns home? From all of the people that I knew who were bride-napped, zero came home. Many simply do not know that they have the right to return home. They believe that they have no other choice, but to marry the man who kidnapped them. Many are manipulated (usually by other women) into staying. If a kidnapped bride returns home, she will bring shame upon her family. She should be happy to marry a man who wants her so bad that he resorts to kidnapping. In most extreme cases, some kidnapped brides are raped so they have no other choice but to stay because they are no longer “pure” or “innocent.”

Comments for the video varied. Most people criticized the Hmong community for practicing such a custom and allowing it to live through the generations. Many others criticized those who criticized this practice. Many commented on the bystanders, some asking why no one helped the young girl, some responding that no one intervened because zij poj niam is the norm. Some stated for the Western Hmong to stop criticizing when we don’t live in their world and do not understand their lifestyle.

The young bride-napped Hmong girl grew up in such a culture where zij poj niam is the norm. Maybe the actions of the bystanders shouldn’t matter to me because I can understand that they grew up in a place where this is normal. However, as much as I would like to say, “It’s the cultural norm and custom for the Hmong. Why should I impose my western ideals and perspective on these people,” I see the crying and screaming young girl who refused to go with these men. In the act of pulling her, they literally took off her clothes and it seems like she just gave up at the end. They are violating her human rights to say no to a marriage she does not want. And that is why I see this practice in such negativity. It’s not that I’m too “Americanized” to embrace my culture because even this “non-Americanized” girl does not appreciate or want any of this.

The Hmong are not the only group that practice bride-napping. A country known for bride-napping is Kyrgyzstan. It seems that the customs for bride-napping and wedding negotiations are similar to those of the Hmong.

Bride-napping reminds me of the cave men cartoons I used to watch during my childhood. The cavemen would drag the women by the hair to their caves. Sometimes I wonder why men would go through such extremes just to get a bride. Why do they have to violate another human being? It doesn’t take much to court/date a girl, make her fall in love with you, and then marry her. The top two reason I’ve heard from people as to why some Hmong men would resort to bride-napping are that they cannot pay the full bride-price or the girl refused to marry them. First of all, if you cannot afford to pay a bride-price for a bride, maybe it’s not time for you to get married. Secondly, if a girl doesn’t like you and doesn’t want to marry you, don’t you think it’s a good idea to leave her alone?

The English statement that one of the kidnappers made to the tourists at the end of the Hmong bride-napping video seem to depict zij poj niam as something to be proud and boastful about. He happily greeted them with “Hello!” then proceeded to say, “This is the tradition of kidnapping a wife.”

My maternal grandfather zij Grams on her way to the farm. Her girlfriends did not intervene for fear that my grandfather’s friends would zij them too. When I asked how my grams felt about it, she simply stated that even though she was scared, she couldn’t do anything about it. She didn’t kick and scream like the young girl. They grabbed her by her arms and pulled her. She protested and resisted the whole way to my grandfather’s house. She married my grandfather because she felt she didn’t have a choice and also felt that it was her destiny.

Does that mean that I should be glad that my grandfather zij Grams? Because if he hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today to comment on the barbaric nature of bride-napping. Sometimes I wonder about my grandmother and mother’s generations and how bride-napping was so common then. During my Grams’ generation, divorce was unheard of and even if you were bride-napped, you just learn to love and make it work. According to my Grams, my grandfather was a patient man and loved her dearly. He never raised his voice at her. But then again, maybe my Grams’ marriage is an exception.

So, do we, the Hmong in the United States, still zij poj niam? I don’t know. I can say that the stories of young girls being bride-napped that I hear has dwindled down to only one every couple of years. Maybe I’m just not in-tuned with my Hmong community. Maybe the Hmong has come to fear the laws of this land. Or maybe our younger generation realize the barbaric nature of bride-napping and have come to desire love before marriage.

Refugees of War

TWC

Before bed one night, I read The Whispering Cloth, by Pegi Deitz Shea, to my children. It is a story about a little Hmong girl, named Mai, who lives with her grandmother in a refugee camp in Thailand. This story takes place after the Vietnam War. Mai learns to embroider her own story cloth while watching her grandmother and widows sewed their stories into paj ntaub (flower cloth).

When we discussed this book, my children spoke as if Mai’s story is something of a distant past, something that you only hear about in storybooks. Because that is not true, I let them know that many refugees of the Vietnam War are closer to them than they may realize. My kids looked at me with inquisitive eyes.

Little Mermaid said, “Mommy, what do you mean?”

“Well,” I began. “What I mean is your Niam Tais (Grandmother), although she did not make a story cloth, her story is very similar to Mai’s.”

My children’s ears perk up. Mini Mermaid, laying in bed, about ready to fall asleep, sat up. Both children looked at me to continue.

Niam Tais was born during the Vietnam War in Laos. After the United States pulled out of the war, Niam Tais Laus (Great-Grandmother) took her family, your Niam Tais included, and fled the soldiers the same way Mai’s grandmother did.” I turned to Mini Mermaid, my 5-year-old, “Niam Tais was about your age. Dab Laug Suav (Uncle Soua) was only a tiny baby. They were captured and lived in Vietnam for several years. When they escaped, they trekked across Laos and swam across the Mekong river to get to the refugee camp in Thailand.”

“Was that where you were made?” Little Mermaid asked.

“Yes. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and I lived there until I was almost 3,” I replied.

PhanatNikhom

MB & Brother

Although I’ve told my children my birthplace many times before, I had not told them the circumstances about why I was born in Thailand and why my family came to the United States. It always seemed weird to them that I was foreign-born since their father and they were born in the US.

My kids looked at me for a couple of seconds in silence. The wheels in their heads turning. Finally, Little Mermaid said, “What happened to Niam Tais‘ daddy?”

“He died in the war. He was a soldier and fought on the American side.”

“He died like Mai’s parents?”

“Almost like that,” I replied.

I tucked my kids in bed, gave them kisses, and said good night. As I turned to walked away, Little Mermaid said, “Mommy, is that why you guys came to America? Because there was war and people died?”

“Yes. We came to America because we had no other place to go. This was the only place in which we saw freedom. Now go to sleep. We can talk in the morning,” I said as I turned off the light.

It is hard for me to answer my children’s questions about death, war, or any negativity in the world. If I could, I would close them up in a bubble and never let them know about all the bad things out there. But that is not to be. My children hear and learn things. They ask questions. I have already had to explain what war is to them earlier this year. I realized during that conversation that I cannot tell them my immigration story without talking about death and war. If I exclude both from my story, my mother’s, grandmother’s, or father-in-law’s story,  it would mean that our stories do not exist. Sometimes I wonder if my children know that the long pauses between explanations is me holding and gathering my emotions before proceeding so my voice doesn’t shake too much or so that I do not start crying.

Sex Talk

sex on fire

How young is too young when it comes to talking about sexuality, puberty, and where babies come from? In my opinion, it is never too early to start. Kids need to be aware and know the facts before their friends start teaching them and before they start puberty (which can be as young as 10 these days).

My kids are 5 and 7 and they know where babies come from.

I started talking to my children about sexuality when they were 2 years old. To me, “The Talk” is a process that takes place over a series of years, not a one-time conversation at 13. Our conversations at 2 were to teach them private body parts, using the correct terms like “penis” and “vagina.”  I also taught them how to wash and care for their privates. Simple.

We transitioned to what appropriate touch is. Who can and cannot touch them and when. An example of someone touching them in an acceptable way is during their annual check-up with the pediatrician. And Dr. L is such a great doctor that she confirms what I tell them all the time. Every check-up, she says, “I asked you to undress for me because I am a doctor and I am looking to see if you’re healthy. I would not do this if your parents are not here.”

Our conversation progressed to included physical boundaries. When they don’t want someone to hug or kiss them, they get to say no. I have found that it is so hard for adults to understand that it’s okay if my kids don’t want to hug or kiss them. But I reinforce it by supporting my kids when they feel uncomfortable. I introduced them to a book at this time titled I Said No! A kid-to-kid guide on keeping your private parts private, by Zack and Kimberly King. We read the 38-page book in one sitting. They love it and still read it today.

I Said No! by Kimberly King.

I Said No! by Zack and Kimberly King.

My niece turned 1 at the end of April of this year. When my sister was pregnant with her, my children were very interested in how a baby gets from inside Mommy’s tummy to the outside. Mini Mermaid, who was 4 at the time, thought your belly button opens up and the baby comes through that way. Little Mermaid said you go to the hospital and the doctor gives you your baby. She was correct, only she did not know how. And with their many questions, I explained to them that babies grew in the uterus and come through the vagina or by way of c-section. Their 20-something questions exploded into a million! “Where is the uterus?” “Is the uterus the same as the stomach?” “How does a baby come through our vagina?” “Did I come out the same way?”

About two months ago while walking home from school, Little Mermaid asked me how she was made. She knows where a baby develops and how a baby gets from inside a woman’s body to the outside world. Trying to avoid telling her about intercourse (because I was caught off guard and wasn’t ready), I told her she was created when Mommy’s egg and Daddy’s sperm joined together. My child giggled at the thought of her coming from an egg, but that answer satisfied her.

A couple of days later, Little Mermaid told me that her friend (who is a couple years older than her) told her that babies are made when Mommy and Daddy get naked and  sleep together. And that opened up the conversation to how the egg and sperm meet.

This was a really big talk, and I needed the help of a book to illustrate my points. So, I headed to Barnes and Noble soon after and looked at the choices of books they have to teach children how babies are made. They didn’t have a good selection, most likely because they’re out of stock since I remember a bigger variety the last time I was there. I was really looking to buy What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg because I heard that it includes different family dynamics, as well as other means of having a baby (IVF, surrogate, adoption). Unfortunately they didn’t have it. So, I opted for Changing You: A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality by Gail Saltz.

Changing You, by Gail Saltz.

Changing You, by Gail Saltz.

I really like the detailed diagrams and drawings. Saltz’ book included everything from how your body changes, to intercourse, to briefly discussing about pregnancy, and lastly, boundaries. I do have to nit-pick one detail, and that is that Saltz only describes one way to make a baby. It states that “When a man and a woman love each other and decide that they want to have a child, they will do something called ‘sexual intercourse’ or ‘having sex.'” Although I do agree with Saltz that what we, as parents, say will have an impact on our children and that this is a crucial time to set up guidelines for our children, I disagree that we give them the notion that only those who are in love can make a baby. But I did use this part of the book to elaborate that you can make a baby without being in love (although I would like it if they waited until they’re ready) and that different family dynamics, like gays and lesbians, can still have babies through other means.

It took us a while to finish reading Saltz’ book. The book was only a tool to help me discuss reproduction to my child, so we made a lot of stops along the way to explain in details the diagrams, answer questions, and expand on certain subjects.

My kids have a better understanding of human reproduction after this and Changing You has become one of their favorite books. Why, they asked my spouse and I to read it 5 days in a row because they enjoyed it so much.

I feel that the more we make sex a taboo topic, the more our children will seek elsewhere for answers. Sex is much more than just intercourse. It is about sexuality, reproduction, healthy boundaries, and more. I would rather have my children ask me and I provide facts than my children hear inaccurate information from their peers. And besides, sex and sexuality isn’t bad. There is nothing to be ashamed of.