Building Our Future: Champions Against Abusive International Marriages

The first time I heard about abusive international marriages (AIM) was at the Hmong National Development Conference in Fresno, CA in April 2013. Presented by Kabzuag Vaj (Freedom Inc), Nancy Xiong (George Mason University), and Pa Vang (University of Wisconsin), “Abusive International Marriage – Transnational Domestic Violence” was a workshop to present a report about AIM  and discuss how it has affected Hmong families in Wisconsin. The report, titled “Abusive International Marriages: Hmong Advocates Organizing in Wisconsin,” was the result of advocates working collaboratively with community leaders, victims/survivors, and allies to collect stories of AIM, identify its root causes, and strategize resolutions.

Building Our Future 2013 flyer

Building Our Future 2013 flyer

What is “abusive international marriages?” First, let’s start by defining what an international marriage is. It is when someone from one country marries an individual from another country. For example, a person from the United States marrying someone from Thailand. An international marriage becomes abusive when it falls under these characteristics:

  • Old men marrying underage girls with age differences of 20-70 years
  • Older men using their sons to marry underage girls
  • Forced marriages
  • Forced divorces—in these instances divorces are only legally but not culturally
  • Misrepresenting marital status to brides
  • “Marry-and-dump”/transnational abandonment
  • Marriages as business transactions
  • Marriage brokers promoting underage brides
  • Arrangements driven by poverty

Abusive international marriage is a form of domestic violence that involves deceit, fraud, manipulation, and sexual exploitation. It is a trend that is rising in the recent years. It impacts almost everyone in the Hmong community.

BOF AIM

Build Our Future 2013 flyer

Building Our Future (BOF) is a national and transnational community campaign, founded by Kabzuag Vaj, KaYing Yang, and Bo Thao-Urabe, that launched in October 2013. BOF focuses on building a violence-free society for the Hmong. It addresses gender-based violence, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and abusive international marriages. This grassroots movement strives to “build strong Hmong families who are free from abuse that thrive from generation to generation,” as stated on their Facebook page.

The first Building Our Future Call to Action Day was on October 25, 2013. Organizers and advocates from the U.S. and Laos united together to bring awareness to domestic violence and abusive international marriages in the form of vigils, forums, teach-ins, and radio talk shows. California held the BOF Call to Action Day in Sacramento.

This year, I am working with a group of BOF advocates and organizers in Northern California. Our slogan is “Champions Against Abusive International Marriages.” We will be holding two events on October 25th, 2014; one in Sacramento and one in Fresno. Our goals for this year is to promote the Building Our Future movement, address how AIM has impacted our community, and to empower community members to support victims and survivors of domestic violence and AIM.

I want to point out that advocates and organizers are not against international marriages. The Hmong are displaced all over the world due to imperialism and war. Family reunification through international marriages is a must to some families. We support international marriages and relationships. It’s when individuals engage in practices through international marriages that exploit individuals that we must speak up against abusive international marriages.

More information will be provided about the location and time of the Call to Action Day events, nationally and internationally. Please visit the Building Our Future Facebook page for more information as they update in the coming weeks.

“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.