The Hmong consists of 18 last (sur) names, making up 18 official clans. It is taboo to marry someone from the same clan. For instance, someone with the Yang last name cannot marry another Yang. In some families, it is also taboo to marry someone with the same clan name as your mother’s maiden name.
There are 3 different ways a couple can initiate a wedding.
The first one is a formal proposal. This is when a man and representatives from his family do a formal house call. They bring gifts and money and ask the girl’s parents for her hand in marriage.
The second one is the most common way couples get married. When a man is interested in marrying someone, he gives her a gift. If she accepts it, it means she agrees to marry him. The gift isn’t necessarily an engagement ring; it could come in the form of jewelry, clothes, or simple trinkets. American Hmong nowadays rarely practice this tradition of gift-giving before marriage.
The groom will then “take” his bride, or she will “run away” with him, on a later date. This symbolic elopement is to “prove” to the guy that she loves him enough to leave her family. After the couple gets to the groom’s house, his family will send an envoy to the bride’s family to announce that their daughter is with them.
The third is bride-napping (zij poj niam). This is a very abusive tradition. This happens when a man has no respect for the female’s feelings and decides that even if she doesn’t want to marry him, he will force her to. Sometimes the man will give her a gift (refer to above) and not let his intentions be known. Here, in the US, he may tell the girl he wants to take her out and instead take her to his house. In Asia, he may come to her house when her parents are not home and literally carry or drag her home with the help of male friends or relatives.
Now, if the bride had accepted a gift from the groom, there’s basically nothing she or her family can do to stop the wedding from taking place. (This is why growing up, my grams and mom advised me over and over again to never accept gifts from any boys even when there wasn’t a motive behind it). If the groom did not give her a gift, or if she didn’t accept anything, she can go back to her family.
Because many Hmong are so tied to their traditions, that even if the tradition is a bad one (like bride-napping), they accept it as a norm. In the US, the girl’s parents don’t call law enforcement. And if they call up their clan leaders to object to the wedding, the leaders may say that what’s done is done and there is nothing they can do about it. The girls—even if they were born in the US and are accustomed to American culture and laws—will abide by whatever their parents say because that is their culture and those are their parents.
Many times, the groom’s family will tell a kidnapped bride that if she calls the police, she will disgrace her family. Additionally, the groom may rape his kidnapped bride so that she will be too shameful to go back home because now, she is damaged goods. (Virginity is valued in traditional Hmong culture. You don’t have premarital sex. The only time you should have sex is after marriage with your spouse). Remember that the Hmong culture values family and reputation. And everything you do, you have to think about saving your family’s face or their reputation. So, you don’t go to the police and you marry the man who kidnapped and raped you. And if you had accepted a gift from him, society put the blame on you.
Other times, forced marriages are results of sexual assaults and/or pregnancies. You have to marry the person who sexually assaulted you and/or got you pregnant. Why? Because you have to save face.
Before a wedding can take place, both clans have to agree on a bride price. The bride price ranges from $3,000 – $10,000, depending on the worth of the bride (e.g., if she has no sisters, she is worth more; education level—sometimes this may lower or increase the bride price depending on the values of the family; her repuation).
The bride price is given to the bride’s family by the groom’s family. The bride price is to compensate the bride’s family for the “loss” of a hand to help around the house. Additionally, the bride price was an assurance for the bride’s family that the groom will treat her with respect. The higher the bride price, the higher the value of a bride, the more her family expects her new husband to treat her well. However, this tradition has lost its meaning with time. The bride price now suggests to the groom that he is “buying” his wife, which means, he owns her. (The word for “to get married” in Hmong means “to buy”).
Because the bride price carries such a bad connotation, some Hmong families today do not practice this tradition. And if they do, they give the bride price money to the newlywed couple to start their lives.
It is normal to see age gaps between Hmong married couples. A middle-aged man may have a wife as young as 16 years old (sometimes even younger). If a man can’t find a willing young bride in the US, he will travel overseas, mainly to Thailand and Laos, to marry one. I have heard numerous middle-aged men talk that the Hmong females in America are independent and “hard to control.” It is much easier to marry someone from overseas who will serve them well as an ideal housewife.
Although it is becoming rare in 1st generation children in the United States, the Hmong still practice polygamy. (First generation children refers to those born in the US of immigrant parents). Polygamy gives the Hmong men a message that women (or wives, for that matter) are easily replaced and dispensable. If you are not happy with your wife, marry another one. If you cannot have children, it’s the wife’s fault, so marry another one. If your wife does not bare you sons, marry another one (ignorance towards reproduction).
Disclaimer: Women can and do abuse, but statistics have shown that men abuse more than women. That is the reason why the language in this post is gender-specific to men as the abusers. Additionally, domestic violence can happen in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and marriages. Although homosexuality exists in the Hmong, it is still very taboo. Hmong marriage dynamics are set up for only heterosexuality with very specific gender roles—the wife serves the husband. And because traditional Hmong culture revolves around heterosexuality and procreation, I will only be focusing on heterosexual Hmong couples.
What do you think of the Hmong traditions in regards to weddings and marriages?