mobile or address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required. To get the free app, mobile phone. A man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her. Felipe and I had arrived in this particular village after an overnight journey from Hanoi on a loud, dirty, Soviet-era train. In any case, after the loud, dirty train journey, there had been a long, loud, dirty bus ride. The bus had finally dropped us off in a staggeringly beautiful place that teetered on the border with China—remote and verdant and wild.
We found a hotel and when I stepped out alone to explore the town, to try to shake the stiffness of travel out of my legs, the little girl approached me. She was exceptionally beautiful.
Her skin was dark and healthy, her hair glossy and braided, her compact body all sturdy and confident in a short woolen tunic. Though it was summertime and the days were sultry, her calves were wrapped in brightly colored wool leggings. Her feet tapped restlessly in plastic Chinese sandals. She had been hanging around our hotel for some time—I had spotted her when we were checking in—and now, when I stepped. She shrugged. I practice often with tourists.
Also, I speak Vietnamese, Chinese, and some Japanese. She immediately saw my funny and raised it. Indeed, Mai was from Vietnam, but I realized later she would never have called herself Vietnamese. Kurdish-like, the Hmong have never really belonged to any of the countries in which they live. Stumbling on a Hmong village like this one, then, in the early years of the twenty-first century is an anachronistic wonder. Their culture provides a vanishingly rare window into an older version of the human experience.
All of which is to say, if you want to know what your family was like four thousand years ago, they were probably something like the Hmong.
The hope that I would pass her some cash? Which, of course, I did. But regardless of her motive, she did agree. Mai led me inside and introduced me around to a group of women, all of them weaving, cooking, or cleaning. Every single thing about me seemed to crack her up beyond measure.
She put a tall Hmong hat on my head, pointed at me, and laughed. She stuck a tiny Hmong baby into my arms, pointed at me, and laughed. She draped me in a gorgeous Hmong textile, pointed at me, and laughed. I had no problem with any of this, by the way.
I had long ago learned that when you are the giant, alien visitor to a remote and foreign culture it is sort of your job to become an object of ridicule. Soon more women—neighbors and relations—poured into the house. They also showed me their weavings, stuck their hats on my head, crammed my arms full of their babies, pointed at me, and laughed.
As Mai explained, her whole family—almost a dozen of them in total—lived in this one-room home. Everyone slept on the floor together. The kitchen was on one side and the wood stove for winter was on the other side. Rice and corn were stored in a loft above the kitchen, while pigs, chickens, and water buffalo were kept close by at all times.
This, as I learned later in my reading, was where the newest bride and groom in any family were allowed to sleep alone together for the first few months of their marriage in order to get their sexual explorations out of the way in private. After that initial experience of privacy, though, the young couple s the rest of the family again, sleeping with everyone else on the floor for the rest of their lives.
Her father had died of death. The way people used to die, I suppose, before we knew very much about why or how.
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It was hard to imagine loneliness here. Just as it was impossible to imagine where in this crowded domestic arrangement you might find the happier twin sister of loneliness: privacy. Mai and her mother lived in constant closeness with so many people. I was struck—not for the first time in my years of travel—by how isolating contemporary American society can seem by comparison. You almost need an electron microscope to study the modern Western family these days. Also, sociologists have long known that incidences of incest and child molestation increase whenever so many relatives of different ages live together in such close proximity.
In a crowd so big, it can become diffi cult to keep track of or defend individuals—not to mention individuality. But surely something has been lost, as well, in our modern and intensely private, closed-off homes.
Watching the Hmong women interact with each other, I got to wondering whether the evolution of the ever smaller and ever more nuclear Western family has put a particular strain on modern marriages. Yes, you have a spouse. Yes, you have sex with that spouse. Yes, your fortunes are tied together. Yes, there might very well be love.
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Men work and socialize with other men; women work and socialize with other women. Whatever the men were off doing farming, drinking, talking, gambling they were doing it somewhere else, alone together, separated from the universe of the women. Hmong women, instead, get a lot of that emotional nourishment and support from other women—from sisters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers.
A Hmong woman has many voices in her life, many opinions and emotional buttresses surrounding her at all times. At last, all the greetings having been exchanged and all the babies having been dandled and all the laughter having died down into politeness, we all sat. With Mai as our translator, I began by asking the grandmother if she would please tell me about Hmong wedding ceremonies.
Once the wedding date arrives, a good many pigs are killed. A feast is prepared and relatives come from every village to celebrate. Both the families chip in to cover expenses.
There is a procession to the wedding table, and a relative of the groom will always carry an umbrella. At this point, I interrupted to ask what the umbrella ified, but the question brought some confusion.
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The umbrella is the umbrella, I was told, and it is carried because umbrellas are always carried at weddings. That is why, and that is that, and so it has always been. Umbrella-related questions thereby resolved, the grandmother went on to explain the traditional Hmong marital custom of kidnapping.
This is an ancient custom, she said, though it is much less in practice these days than it was in the past. Still, it does exist. This is all strictly organized and is permitted only on certain nights of the year, at celebrations after certain market days. There are rules.
The kidnapped girl is given three days to live in the home of her captor, with his family, in order to decide whether or not she would like to marry this fellow. Which sounded reasonable enough to me, as far as kidnappings go. Where our conversation did turn peculiar for me—and for all of us in the room—was when I tried to get the grandmother to tell me the story of her own marriage, hoping to elicit from her any personal or emotional anecdotes about her own experience with matrimony.
Her entire wrinkled face arranged itself into a look of puzzlement. Assuming that she—or perhaps Mai—had misunderstood the question, I tried again:. Again, my question was met with what appeared to be polite bafflement. Now some of the women in the room had started giggling nervously, the way you might giggle around a slightly crazy person—which was, apparently, what I had just become in their eyes.
Again, the very shape of my curiosity seemed a mystery to the grandmother. Politely, though, she gave it a try. She had never particularly met her husband before she married him, she tried to explain. There are always a lot of people around, you know. Anyway, she said, it is not an important question as to whether or not she knew him when she was a young girl. After all, as she concluded to the delight of the other women in the room, she certainly knows him now.
The instant Mai translated this question, all the women in the room, except the grandmother, who was too polite, laughed aloud—a spontaneous outburst of mirth, which they then all tried to stifle politely behind their hands. You might think this would have daunted me.