On October 6th and 7th of 2018, my Hill Tribe Field Study Class and I spent two days and one night with a Hmong Village. Here, we observed the lifestyle of the Hmong people. Because I am also Hmong, I was very excited to learn about the life of my Hmong people in Thailand, their integration, and the difference of languages due to Thai influence. Early in the morning of that Saturday, we took the red trucks to meet up with Khun Win, who would be our tour guide for the weekend, at the Royal Project. He gave us a tour around the green houses and we saw amazing plantations of macadamia trees, cocoa trees, and even strawberries. He explained that in the past, the Hmong relied on their opium plantations to survive; however, King Bhumibol Adulyadej helped them stop that dependence with the development of the Royal Project. He supplied tools, man-power, and knowledge for the hard labors and ideas. Because of his devotion, the Hmong have a great love for their King.
After the tour of the Royal Project, we left for the Hmong Village. When we have finally arrived to our common place of the village, Khun Win divided our class into groups of eight-to-nine people and showed us to our home-stay families. The family welcomed us in with open arms and my friends and I felt truly at home. We set our bags in our living space and without rest we returned to our common communal place to be designated into two groups for the hikes. Being the weakling I am, I chose the easier route–the agricultural route with Khun Win as our guide. Although I was excited to see the progression and integration of my Hmong people, I was afraid of crossing paths with a snake, finding leeches in my shoe, or even getting bitten by a centipede therefore I was mentally prepared for anything but my heart would skip a beat whenever I envision an obstacle in our way along the agricultural route.
During the hike, Khun Win would stop and speak about the nearby healing plants or the plants that can cause serious injury. He spoke in Hmong and I would translate to the class. I was unprepared for such a task; with my very limited Hmong I tried to translate word for word to the best of my abilities. However, it is quite difficult because
he and I spoke different dialects. For those who does not understand the background of the Hmong language, I will give a quick lesson. The Hmong people have two main dialects: the White Hmong and the Green Hmong. However, there will be a blending of languages due to different regions and migration. Khun Win would speak in his green dialect and add in a blend of Thai words. I would be lost because I spoke the white dialect and did not understand Thai. Although there was that small language barrier, I was still entrusted to fully translate the words to English that held just as much meaning and power as being said by Khun Win.
Initially I did feel a bit uncomfortable but I trusted in my abilities. This is something I wanted to acquire and strengthen while being in Thailand–people forget to trust themselves that they search for that trust in others–however, this can lead to bridges being burned and miscommunication. Although Khun Win had to repeat himself a few times, I believe he enjoyed my help. He was patient with me because he understood the difference of dialects and the blending of languages was an obstacle we had to overcome.
Trekking through the agricultural route, Khun Win would stop and explain about how the Hmong would use a specific plant. For example, he showed us a plant that the Hmong people would use when people were working in the fields and accidentally cut themselves with their sharp tools. They would turn this into a paste then spread it onto the wounds and wrap it with a cloth.
After a few days, the wound would heal and turn into a scab with no infections. Then he also showed us a plant that can cause itchy-irritable large patches on the skin if one were cut themselves with the leaves’ sharp edges. As we walked along the path, we came across a large tree with multiple thorns grown on the bark. Khun Win tells me in Hmong that when a couple divorces and does not negotiate with the two clans or a married woman or man elopes with a lover, the heaven punishes the sinner in the afterlife. Although the body would be free from consciousnesses, the soul of the being will be tied onto the thorny tree and scraped along the bark for eternity until the heavens believe they have suffered enough.
This story shows the importance of marriage to the Hmong people; as I translate the story back to my classmates, they were shocked for the Hmong to have such a story. But the ties of a marriage is so strong in the Hmong culture that even in the afterlife, one is punished for not being faithful. Although both men and women are punished in the afterlife, those who are divorcees are judged against. The Hmong believe that when one marries, the soul of the wife enters the husband’s shrine of ancestors. Marriage is a very powerful link; it can be used for political purposes or quick money to find food on the table. In Thailand, the Hmong men still practice bride-napping where a woman is taken away by a male without consent by the woman. But because purity is another treasured “item” of Hmong families, the families of the soon-to-be-bride will allow the marriage to happen.
Towards the end of the hike, Khun Win showed us a plant that can stop the thirst for water. He gave me a sample and I remember the taste of lemon. He told us that if one to run out of water, one must find this plant to chew on so that they will not be too thirsty. After this we continued our hike until he returned to the original meeting place. We then left to our home-stay families and ate boiled chicken with herbs. Our Mother mentioned that these herbs are use detoxify the body and to maintain a good figure. After eating, the class met up again for the fireplace. Here, the villagers showed us some traditional Hmong performances. In one of the performances, lady was playing a very quiet instrument and Khun Win spoke upon the importance of the object. He said that when men wanted to court women at night; they would creep up to the maiden’s bedside from the outside and use that instrument to court her. They would use this instrument to communicate with each other and if the woman allows this courtship, she would reply.
This was new information for me because I understood about the courting rituals and ceremonies but I did not understand the importance of that instrument. Before, I thought it was used to be listened to but I did not know that it can be used for communication. After the campfire, we left to finally sleep our exhaustion away.
I grew up in California with two parents and ten siblings. My father and mother maintained the traditional roles of the Hmong culture. Therefore, opportunities for women were less compared to the men. When I was young, I remember being more free compared to my adult life. I would roam the outdoors, trip over mud puddles and dance under my family’s collection of cherry blossom trees. My father also raised chickens; therefore, I would remember chasing after them and getting yelled at my mother. She would tell me to act more ladylike and more cautious but I would disobey and run free. However, as I grew up I started to see the world through a different light. I became more bitter to the world and to my family for not allowing me the same opportunities as my brothers had. I remember being unable to attend my father’s hunting group because he desired me to stay home and help my mother. They wanted I to become the perfect wife but also the perfect student so I would excel in my academics and learn domestic duties at home. I learned how to stitch and sew, cook and clean, and also become the best student I can be. However, each year as I would attend school, the more I was exposed to the real world and the more independent-thinking I have cultivated. I started to understand the terms sexism and patriarchy–they were terms used to describe my Hmong culture. Therefore, I became very distant from my family and started to smile less.
I was a child when I realized that my parents treated my brothers and I differently. I would often be very mean to my brothers because I understood they had more privileges than I do. This anger cultivated for years up until my father passed away in 2015. By then, I have already lost my native tongue and honor. I spoke more English than Hmong; I felt more American than Hmong. Because of that, I suffered depression and lost my honor along with it. All these years I have been so caught up with jealousy and anger, I forgot to love. Therefore, I decided to study abroad in Thailand to connect with my Hmong people and learn to love my language again. I understand that although a woman’s role is different compared to the man–whom has to uphold the family’s name and honor–there are still importance to the roles of a daughter, wife and mother. I just need to learn to embrace it and incorporate my own free thought to the new generation.