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ASIAN-AMERICAN AFFAIRS: Hmong among us

Source: The Asian Reporter

The Hmong compound, as I will call it, has very few visitors that are outsiders. On any given Sunday, several clans gather and eat. The children, boys and girls all wearing western clothes, are playing baseball in the pasture. All laughing and running. To the side of the pasture, there is a shed, where elders are doing something that seems odd. They are burning wood to make charcoal so that they can use it in their foundry. They make swords and knives that they use to butcher the bulls, chickens and the ducks. Other elders are pounding the steel and forming the edge of the blades. It is a scene out of "Apocalypse Now."

One Sunday, I was invited to take part in a religious ceremony performed for a younger member of the clan. A Shaman performed a ceremony for a young couple and their infant. We all took a string, blessed by the Shaman, and tied a loop on the wrist of the mother, father and infant as we wished them good fortunes. The strings would remain on their wrist for three days. My children were allowed to participate in this as well. As part of the ritual, a bull was sacrificed, and the meat was prepared for cooking. The incredible feast was laid out on a large table.

My youngest, who coincidentally looked like any Hmong child with his crew cut, reached out for the food, and Grandpa lightly tapped his head and issued a warning in the Hmong language. I would never let anyone touch my children, but it seemed so natural, he was so gentle even when he was disciplining my son, that I never thought anything of it. My son didn't mind either. It was just that natural. Then a laughter among the women first, and then the men, started to turn into a loud roar and overtook the group. Everyone was laughing so hard, and grandpa was visibly blushing. He came over to me, took my hand with his two weather worn, combat tested hands, and said, "I am sorry." It seems that he thought my son was one of his! I started to laugh, and told him through an interpreter, that it is an honor to have him consider one of mine as his own. It will be a moment that the clan will talk about for a long time, when grandpa mistook a son of a guest as his own, and was embarrassed.

My sons grabbed sticky rice and vegetables and proceeded to run outside like there was no tomorrow. Later, as I went outside after I could no longer eat another bite, I found out why my boys made two trips for rice and vegetables, but no meat. Next to the foundry, the elders were teaching the youngsters how to cut and cook the meat. There were no cooking utensils, just hands, blood, beef and boys. They were covered in blood and turning the meat over with their bare hands, my sons included. These boys all looked so proud. It was one of the rights of passage from boyhood to manhood.

The men were inside, reflecting on the meal, the day, and their lives in between a sip of heated sake that I brought as a gift. Grandpa would talk and everyone listens, asks questions, and tries to remember. These elders will not be around forever, but the stories of their lives, and the lives of their elders must survive, and be passed on to the younger ones. These question and answer sessions, which have gone on for centuries, in between sips of rice wine, are a part of the rituals that has survived the test of time, of distance, and cultures. It goes on today, as it did a millennium ago.

The women, in their own groups, are passing on the rights of womanhood from mother to daughter, grandma to granddaughter. My little girl is witnessing the rituals of empowerment. Something that she doesn't see often in this culture in the United States.

This is all happening right here in Oregon. The only reminder that we are in the United State comes from the realization that an Isuzu Trooper is parked in the driveway, the microwave oven is in the kitchen, and there is a 27 inch television where the children are watching Disney's Anastasia.

When they go into the Safeway in Wilsonville to shop, people treat them like they were lepers. They make subtle comments, and sometimes even follows them around the store. Even though they own the property, they have been stopped by the local law enforcement and questioned extensively about what they were doing in that neighborhood. It is, after all, a small community. The younger ones pray that the elders won't have to face any of this, and try to shield them from these incidents. At least when they get home, they can go back to being the gentle tribal people who are connected to life through the soil, the elders and the spirits of their ancestors. They have come home, to their new home, which will, for centuries, become the ancestral grounds for the Hmong among us.