Oroville Hmong New Year Festival that happened last weekend (first weekend of October) marked the start of the Hmong New Year celebrations. Some cultures celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival), but the Hmong communities start our new year celebrations.
Besides the music, performances, food, merchandise booths, and exhibits, the Hmong new year festivals can be a place where mothers bring their young daughters to find their potential husbands and where Hmong sons may expect to meet their future wives. These festivals were the bane of my adolescent existence.
As a single mother, my mom attended every Hmong New Year in Northern California along SR 99. And she forced took me, her oldest daughter along. Let’s see… Chico, Oroville, Marysville, Sacramento, Stockton, Merced, Fresno. Every October, my mother took out her suitcases full of beautifully colored, beaded, coined Hmong clothes, heavy silver jewelry. I stood for what I remembered as forever while she carefully clothed me in traditional Hmong clothing and wrapped my head up in the iconic dark purple turban. I drudged along behind her as we walked through each festival, sometimes bored out of my mind, many times annoyed at the number of men flocking around her.
Many of my friends didn’t go to as many Hmong new years as I did. I had a friend whose mother grew up in Merced, so the only festival she attended was in Merced. And when my mom took me to Merced for the new year festival, I was excited that I got to hang out with her. However, because I was supposed to be a proper Hmong girl, I had to diligently toss balls with aunties and female cousins I had never met or follow my mother wherever she went. It would be considered poj laib* to stray from her just a bit. And when I did because I was bored out of my mind, I would get an earful when we left the new year.
One of the great things about my mother was I don’t ever remember her pressuring me to toss ball with any male individuals. Although I didn’t have much of a choice but to stay at my mother’s side, she gave me autonomy when it came to accepting a man or boy’s invitation to toss ball. So, I’ve only tossed ball with adolescent boys.
It was common in the 80’s and 90’s for older married and single Hmong men in their late 20’s, 30’s, and even 40’s to court an adolescent girl at the new year festival. Just thinking about this makes me shiver with disgust. When I was a teenager, I had a couple requests from older men.
I remember one event very vividly. I was 13 and a man who seemed to be in his 40’s approached me. With my taller-than-your-average-Hmong-girl-but-a-bit-shorter-than-the-average-American height and heels, he came up to my shoulders. He complimented on my height and proceeded to ask for my name and number. When I rudely refused, my mother apologized to him. In the moment, I was upset that my mom apologized. But as an adult reflecting back, I understand that she was saving face. After she apologized, he asked if he could toss ball with me. She said (not verbatim), “Kuv tus ntxhais tseem hluas hluas tsis tau paub tab dab tsi. Kav liam os yom. Muaj hluas nkauj coob coob heev tuaj hnub no, koj mam li mus nug lwm tus os (My daughter is still very young and ignorant. Why don’t we disregard it? You can ask another since there are many single women here today).”
Because my mother took me to almost every Hmong new year that she attended, I started to dread them as October approached. So, I stopped attending them for some time as an adult. But, as I age, I find that I look forward to attending the Hmong New Year festivals and enjoy them very much.
Hmong New Year festivals give me a sense of community. I now understand why my mother felt the need to travel to these festivals, especially during a time in her life that she did not have much of a community. We get to see old friends and family whom we’ve not seen in a long time. We see people wearing new Hmong fashion trends as well as traditional Hmong clothing. We watch individuals and groups showcase their talents on stage. Sports teams compete in volley ball, soccer, and top spinning competitions. Hmong men and women confidently participate in beauty pageants. Hmong artists taking pictures with fans and selling their new albums. Hmong vendors and small business owners selling Hmong clothes, trinkets, and accessories. And Hmong food! Although Hmong food is something we usually eat at home, there’s just something about walking through the food section at the festivals, smelling the meat grilling over charcoal, eating purple sticky rice with Hmong sausage and spicy papaya salad, and slurping up nab vam (tapioca colored dessert).
Nyob zoo xyoo tshiab!
Happy New Year!
If you want to know how Hmong families who practice shamanism celebrate the new year, you can read this blog (previously linked above): Noj Peb Caug.
* Poj laib means trouble-maker. Literal translation is “female gangster.” It is a term used to describe girls/females who are not proper, gangster, rebellious, someone who strays from the Hmong norm and disrupts the family or community.