This blog post is part of the My Mermaid series.
Click on the links below to take you to the previous posts:
Many girls grow up dreaming of falling in love with Prince Charming and living happily ever after. I never had such a dream. While my friends day dreamed of fairy tale romances, I was the skeptic and made fun of hopeless romantics. I didn’t believe in love at first sight. I didn’t believe in a soul mate. I didn’t believe in happily ever after.
My parent’s marriage framed and influenced my perspective on love. My mom met my father when she was 14, maybe 15 years old. He, being the “bad boy,” swept her off her feet and she married him soon after. My mom bitterly ended the marriage after 13 years of heartache, being cheated on, and abused. I only knew love in the form of neglect, extramarital affairs, control, emotional and physical abuse, and heartache. I saw how much pain my mom was in all those years—all because of love—that I told myself I was going to make sure I didn’t waste away the years of my youth and repeat her miserable life.
It was spring of 1999 when I met him. I was 14 years old, still very much a child, almost ready to graduate from junior high school. He was a year older than me, a freshman in high school. He moved into town and brought along his baggy pants, over-sized jackets, and notorious reputation. Gangs, misdemeanor crimes, school truancy—the whole works.
Gossip traveled fast and by the end of the week, I heard all that I needed to hear about him. I wasn’t impressed. He is the younger brother of the Hmong couple who owned the laundromat down the street from where I lived. His acting out and getting into trouble at home forced his father to send him out of town in hopes that it would stop him from walking further down the destructive path he was on.
He initiated contact with me. A week later, my little sister came in from outside and told me that Yawg Phwj Txwv Nkhaus (Mr. Curvy Mustache—her nickname for him back then) wanted to talk with me.
“Who is Yawg Phwj Txwv Nkhaus?” I asked.
My sister, only 9 years old, replied, “Koj tsis paub nws yog leej twg lod? Nws nyuam qhuav khiav los. Nws muaj ib tug phwj txwv nkhaus nkhaus heev li. Nws hais tias nws nyiam koj na (You don’t know him? He just moved into town and he has a very curvy mustache! He says he likes you).”
Uninterested, I told her to tell him I was sleeping.
My sister opened the door, and yelled out, “Kuv tus sister pw lawv os (My sister is sleeping)!” As she closed the door behind her on her way out, I heard a male voice say, “Who sleeps this early?” I looked at the clock; it was 9 pm.
Two evenings later, my mom called to let me know she had not received the electricity bill. She asked me to check the mail.
“Right now?” I asked because even though it wasn’t late, it was already dark outside.
“Yes, right now.”
I heard the usual commotion when I stepped outside. The parking lot was filled with Hmong kids running about. I saw my neighbor, Bill (the new boy’s sister-in-law’s brother), and his friend, Bee, standing in the parking lot with the boy.
Bee approached me, “Ej, kuv tus friend xav nrog koj hais lus (Eh, my friend wants to talk to you).”
I didn’t like Bee because he threatened to kill me and my friend a year before, so I ignored him and continued on my way to the mailboxes at the other end of the complex. Bee had ruined my mood just by talking to me. And because I was not in a happy state, when my friend’s sister walked up to me to tell me that the new boy liked me, I snapped at her. “I don’t give a shit. Can you people just stop talking about him already?!”
I opened the mail, and sure enough, the electricity bill was there. I dreaded the walk back home. I didn’t want anyone to approach me because I was annoyed. I could’ve avoided all those Hmong kids if I had just walked behind the apartments. However, it was already dark and since that side of the apartments were only lit in certain areas, I did not dare walk in the dark. You’d think growing up on the impoverished part of town, I would be afraid of gangsters and criminals, but no—I was afraid of ghosts.
The new boy walked toward me. Shit, I thought to myself. Maybe he won’t talk to me if I pretend I’m busy reading the letter from the electric company.
“Is your name MaiBao?” he asked.
What did he expect me to say because he and I both know that MaiBao is my name, I thought to myself.
“Yes. And?” I replied. I will admit it: I was stuck up. Because he associated with Bee (or so I thought), I didn’t have any intentions of being friendly.
“Oh, I was checking to make sure. Well, I just wanted to say hi.” He didn’t seem fazed at all by my attitude.
“Um… Hi?” It was a question because I wasn’t sure if he had expected me to reply. Then without waiting for him to say anything else, I turned and quickly walked home.
Rumors were that many girls liked him. I didn’t understand why. He had the typical Asian boy hair cut of the 90’s—the mushroom haircut either parted in the middle or slicked back with hair gel. You could see puberty had already hit him because he sported a baby mustache—although it’s not curvy as how my sister described. The way he dressed in baggy clothing didn’t bother me. It was how he walked—oh, that gangster limp walk. Not very attractive in my mind. And his notorious reputation did him no good because I didn’t care for bad boys.
Regardless of what I thought of him, we saw more and more of each other. I attended a Baha’i youth group each week. He began to attend those weekly meetings too. Many people told me he went only to see me. I like to think that our small town did not have a lot for him to do, so following the Hmong teens to these meetings kept him busy. I also saw him each week when my mom dropped me and my sisters off at the laundromat to wash the family’s clothes.
Stuck up was my personality when it came to talking with boys—and boy, was I stuck up with this one. With boys who were looking for more than friendship, I instinctively went into stuck up mode. Maybe it is to protect myself or maybe because I didn’t know how to act when approached by someone who liked me. Nonetheless, I was stuck up.
However, he was very persistent and got my attention. We started talking. To me, it was nothing serious. I was still young and knew nothing about relationships or love. What I knew about love was what I witnessed in my parents’ marriage: abuse, lies, heartache, and sorrow. At 13, 14, and 15 years old, my friends were already dating and seriously committed. Even though I’ve had crushes and boys have liked me, I had never seriously dated anyone nor had I thought about dating anyone.
To my surprise, he told me he “loved” me after a mere two months of getting to know each other. Some friends told me that “bad boys” know how to “play” you, so of course, they’re going to use and abuse the word “love” until they get into your pants. One friend said, “If you want to have butterflies in your stomach, don’t date good boys because they don’t know how to talk to you. Good boys will use those corny and sappy lines like ‘Koj niam thiab koj txiv noj dab tsi cas yuav yug tau koj zoo nkauj ua luaj li (What did your parents eat to make you so beautiful)?’ You have to date bad boys. Bad boys know how to say the right things at the right time.”
I didn’t believe that he loved me. How could you after 2 months of knowing a person? And even if he really did loved me, there was nothing I could do. Those were his feelings and he was entitled to them. In no way was I responsible. One day, he asked me if I loved him. I didn’t know what to tell him. I’ve always been a compassionate person, so I grew to care about him, but to love? No, love was not something I felt for him. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I also didn’t want to lie, so I sat in silence, avoiding eye contact with him. “It’s okay,” he confidently said to me. “You’ll love me.”
A month later, he got into an argument with his older brother. My friend found out from her boyfriend that he was upset and was contemplating suicide. We both hurried over to Bill’s house, where we saw him sitting outside.
He wouldn’t talk about the argument, but he did speak of dying. I can still remember those chilling words: “It’s as easy as putting a gun to my head and—boom—I die.”
For the first time, instead of seeing the tough gangster persona that he put on, I saw this fragile boy who had problems beyond my apprehension. Were these problems the root of his rebellious behavior at home? I wondered if his family realized that he was struggling internally. He was clearly reaching out for help. I sympathized and pitied him.
I tried to reason with him. He said there would be only one thing that would solve his problems and that was if he got married. “Will you go with me?” he asked.
“What?” was all I could say, bewildered.
“I’m asking if you’ll go with me to see my dad.”
My eyes widened with disbelief. I had just graduated from junior high. I was looking forward to high school, college, and whatever was waiting for me beyond that. This boy, whom I hardly knew and didn’t love, was asking me to marry him.
Marriage at this age was common during the 80’s and 90’s in the Hmong community. I heard numerous stories of young girls getting married at the tender ages of 13 and 14 only to be disappointed in the life they had envisioned for themselves. This was not something I wanted for myself.
“Do you really think that marriage will solve your problems?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he responded without looking at me.
“You’re 15 years old. Yog wb sib yuav no wb yuav noj dab tsi (If we get married, what are we going to eat)?”
“I can work.”
“What about school?”
“I don’t have to go to school.”
“You’re ruining your future.”
I stood there, looking down at him on the grass. I was sad for him, yet angry at the same time that he was just going to throw away his future over an argument he had with his older brother.
My friend asked, “Koj tsev neeg yuav xav li cas mas? Koj yuav tsum xav kom zoo zoo tso nawb. Kev sib yuav tsis yog kev ua si (What will your family think? You need to think about this. Marriage is not child’s play).”
He didn’t answer her. A minute later, he looked up at me and asked, “So, what’s your answer?”
From the moment he asked me to marry him, my heart thumped so hard I thought it was going to jump out of my chest. Thoughts were racing through my head, most of them repeatedly. Would he really kill himself if I reject him? Would I be responsible for his death? Would others consider me a heartless bitch who killed their son, brother, and friend? What would happen to me—my future, my dreams—if I were to marry him out of pity to prevent him from killing himself? What argument did he and his brother have to have pushed him to the edge? Why did he think that marriage would solve his problems? Was the argument about me—is that why he said everything would be solved if he just married me? It must’ve been about me. Fuck, it’s about about my parents—particularly my mom—again, isn’t it?
So, when he asked me for the last time if I was going to marry him, I looked straight at him and said without hesitation, “No, I’m not going to marry you.”
Kill him if I may, but I had so many things going for me and I wasn’t going to let my parents’ divorce or the Hmong community’s opinions of me or my mother get the better of me. I will prove to people that I am worth a Hmong son’s time—that I wasn’t any of those hurtful words the Hmong adults were whispering behind my back.