The Hmong are one of the most populous hilltribes in Southeast Asia. They live in southern China, north and central Vietnam, north Laos, northern Burma, amd throughout Thailand’s Golden Triangle region. And if you are lucky and find yourself on one of our motorcycle tours on the thirtieth day of the first lunar month after the rice is harvested, you also will be able to witness a Hmong New Year ceremony just like I did in the story below, which was published in Marie Claire in Hong Kong & Singapore in June, 1996.
The budding young beauty listens, dreamy-eyed, as she sits at her mother’s side by the glowing embers in the dying fireplace. “You can tell a whole lot about a person by the way they throw the ball. When I first saw your father, I could tell he was a strong man. We threw the ball back and forth for nearly two straight days and he never broke into a sweat, not even in the middle of the day. This told me he would be a good worker. And he had a good heart because he never lost patience with me, even when I made a bad toss. He had to chase the ball so many times. Then he would just smile at me, so sweetly. I knew he was the boy for me.”
Her mother’s hands, never idle, are putting the finishing touches on her daughter’s new skirt which she will wear in the morning during Zoo Pah or the “Ball Game” courting ritual. Lee See Wan Noi is very nervous, but excited at the same time. Tomorrow will be the most important day in her young life. This is when, at fourteen years of age, she will look in earnest for the man she will marry.
In another village, not too far away, sixteen year old Deng Gai Sak asks, “Father? How did you know to marry Mom?” His dad stops for a moment, looks at his son, and smiles. He remembers asking his own father that very same question, not so many years ago. “The first time I laid eyes on your mother, I just knew. Her clothes were shining like the stars. Her bangles made the noises of forest birds singing in the morning. No one from our village ever wore such finery. I was stunned. Like in a trance, all the other girls in the line disappeared from my sight. I had to win her heart and bring her back to my family hearth. I knew my father would be proud to introduce this young lady to our ancestral spirits. Don’t worry,” he tells his oldest, “you will know which one, just like I did.”
There is only one break in the Hnong’s year long toil of scratching a living from the hardscrabble land, from land that no one else wants or knows how to use. It starts on the thirtieth day of the first lunar month after the rice is harvested. For a full three days none of the Hmong Hilltribe will work in their fields. During this respite the Hmong will celebrate their New Year. It is their time for relaxation and for visiting distant family and friends, for feasting and for making sacrifices. The spirits that protect their lives, homes, and forest, must be consulted anew. But most of all, this is a time for the young to fall in love.
On the morning of the second day of the New Year, the unmarried boys and girls will gather in a riot of color, proudly wearing their new courting outfits. Their vibrant clothes lends a festive air to the normally dusty and barren village square. Decorated to the hilt, the youngsters form two long lines, eight meters apart, boys on one side, girls on the other. Each pair begin to throw a cloth-covered ball back and forth in a slow and easy rhythm. They throw the ball to get to know each other, to flirt, to break the ice. They throw the ball to fall in love.
Where they stand in line is not a matter of chance. Most of the youngsters are from the same village and know each quite well. Some have had a crush on each other for a while and the ball game is a way of publically announcing their ardor. Others are lovers, but not yet married, in this society that encourages pre-marital relations. Parents get into the act by not-so-subtly pairing the shyer children with those from other families.
Neighboring villages and other outsiders are always invited. Each village is small and contains only a few families from a few clans. In some years, the pool of marriagable material is too meagre for a decent choice of partners. Hmong taboos forbid marrying a person in the same clan. The New Year break allows the more isolated tribespeople time to travel in from other settlements. The children of the visitors are looked after especially well. Introductions are made. Eligables are pointed out. Or the chemistry of natural attraction simply takes its unfathomable course.
From early in the morning until almost dusk, the balls bridges the gap in long, lazy arcs. They throw and catch, over and over, a thousand times at least. For the pre-adolescents standing in line, it is merely a game to play with their friends. The young adults are much more serious, trying to figure out if the person opposite them is the one and only, the person to make babies with, to grow rice with, to grow old with. Each can tell pretty quickly if their partner has the right stuff.
A bored look, a wandering eye down the line, an excuse for a break, are tell-tale signs to start looking for another player. Changes in position become less frequent as the day stretches on, as chance pairs up compatible mates.
Successful matches will stand rooted to the ground, fascinated with the other’s every nuance of movement. A quick smile, a lift of an eyebrow, a shake of a wayward lock of hair, will send shivers of excitement coursing through hormone-laden bodies. After many hours, fingers become clumsy and balls are dropped, not always accidentaly. Each drop means a penalty must be paid. The currency is an item of clothing or jewelery in exchange for a song. A lot of apparel can be taken off of these seriously bedecked paramours: sashes, belts, aprons, bracelets, necklaces. Later when dusk halts the ball game, each couple repays their debts. New avenues of affection are now made possible.
The sunlight sparkles off silver ornaments which shimmer and jingle with every single toss and catch. Multiply this by one thousand and the throwing field fills with a cheerful, sweet, tinkling sound. The smiles and laughter of the players mixes with those of the surrounding families and friends. The audience watches fascinated, because everyone has a vested interest in seeing the relationships that result. The day is turned into a magic celebration of love and life.
All love exacts a price. Like in every society, there are practical marriage considerations beyond mere animal magnetism. The girl’s father must approve of the lad before he will agree to let his daughter go off and live in the boy’s household. Likewise, the girl must meet with the boy’s family’s approval. Then there is the pragmatic matter of the “bride price”.
This bride price is not to be considered an outright purchase of a female. It is more of an insurance policy that works both ways. For the girl, it will make sure she is well taken care of. Because if she is abused or neglected, she can return to her family and the bride price is not refunded.
The boy, on the other hand, must ask his father to pay the “bride price” because a young man living in a hilltribe village will not have any money. His father must be convinced that the betrothed will become a hard working member of his household. A father would never lay out a stockpile of silver bars for a lazy or disobediant son. And a good son would dare not do anything wrong to cause a lose of such a sum. To minimize problems involving bride prices, the Hmong children try to marry within their family’s means.
Subtle signs of wealth are apparent in the ball game costumes. All of the outfits are hand-made by the older women. Each garment is crafted in their clan’s distinctive style and color. One piece may take a hundred hours or more to construct. Made completely from scratch, hemp stems are split with a thumbnail into flax fibers, and pounded with rocks until soft. Then it is spun into yarn and woven into rough cloth on a back-strap loom. After many separate boilings in natural plant dyes, the cloth is cut and sewn into garments and elaborately embroidered and decorated with appliques and old silver coins. The garments are made in the precious few interludes of leisure the women can grab in between their nonstop daily chores.
The more elaborate costumes announce to all that the wearer is from a family with a lot of leisure time. In the mountains leisure signifies wealth. Only a boy from a rich family would dare court a young lady wearing layers of thick silver necklaces, bracelets up to the elbow, and other costly ornamentations. These family heirlooms come along with the bride and must figure into the bride price. The boys wearing fabrics shimmering with the intricate batik patterns would not be interested in a poor girl who will have very little to bring into his family.
In today’s modern Thailand, the Hmong culture is facing its biggest challange as it hurles into an uncertain future–how to hold onto their traditions and culture in an encroaching world. An upsurge in tourism and modern roads bring increasing numbers of falangs–foreigners–into contact with the Hmong villages. The entrapments of this global society is a powerful pull on the young. In the last decade and a half, so many have left the village. They have gone to schools and universities in the city and have seen the outside world. Once exposed to this other way of life, it is hard to keep them interested in a life in the fields.
Some have even married falangs and have one foot in an alien culture. Even so, when it comes to that time of year when their old village celebrates the Hmong New Year, a powerful urge to return never leaves their spirit. They will put aside their suits and dresses and drive up from the city with children in tow. They will expose their offspring to the old ways and values, dress them up in the traditonal Hmong costumes. And show them how the ball game is played.