In the back room of a south Sacramento welfare office, a quiet revolution is under way.
A dozen Hmong women sit around a table, eating strawberries and trying to solve the mounting problems facing Hmong families in America.
Tonight, they are learning how to say "I love you" to their children. While many American parents say "I love you" as often as "Good morning," few Hmong are comfortable with the expression - as if to say it would somehow devalue it.
Slowly, the crushing burden of Hmong womanhood unfolds. Debbie is missing tonight; no longer able to cope with her 10 children or the shame of her rumored affair, she has tried to hang herself. Meanwhile, three of Nue's four teenage sons are AWOL, and after 19 years, her arranged marriage is crumbling.
Though nearly every woman in the group is in the throes of a personal crisis, an aura of strength and optimism fills the room.
That confidence is embodied in May Ying Ly, the cherub-faced founder of Hmong Women's Heritage Association, which earlier this year received a $400,000 grant from The California Endowment to help troubled families - and to help Hmong elders bridge the generation gap.
Ly's sister-in-law Nue embodies the angst of Hmong women. At 31, Nue has six teenagers (including the three who are AWOL). "She takes care of everything, the dinner, the homework, the housecleaning, the parent-teacher meetings," Ly says. "Her husband never changed a diaper."
Some Hmong men consider Ly and her confederates heretics intent on dismantling male-dominated Hmong society. But the organization is fast becoming one of the most influential Hmong groups in California.
"Some of the women say life in America is scarier than running from the war in Laos," says Ly, 32.
Many Hmong women, including several in Ly's family, "are looking at their situation and they're taking off - or trying to," she says. "They're willing to give up everything, including their kids, to do what it takes to be happy."
Hmong men won't publicly criticize the group's Hmong-style feminism, but Ly suggests they're feeling a loss of control.
"There's more rights in this country and women take advantage of it," she says. "Hmong men are actually very nervous - they blame Hmong Women (Ly's association) because there is this problem and we want some voice ... We have to combine what's positive from the old culture with what's good in this country."
Ly's life is a high-wire act between old and new. Her two daughters have American names - Mercedes and Candace; she named her son, now 9, Ntuj Tshiab (pronounced Tdoo Che), which means "New World" in Hmong. "So he'll always remember that he has to make a difference in the world," she says.
One weekend, Ly and her children pick strawberries on her mother's farm in Merced. The next, Ly and Mercedes, 11, fly to Las Vegas for a Backstreet Boys concert. Ly has held dinners honoring Hmong clan leaders - even though they are always men - and criticized the old Hmong guard for living in the past.
She peppers her English with "yada yada yadas," yet she's fluent enough in Hmong to be author Ann Fadiman's interpreter for "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," a nonfiction book about a sick Hmong child caught between cultures.
Up at 6:30 a.m. on a typical weekday, Ly makes rice, eggs and maple sausage for her family, then changes into SuperHmong.
From 9 to noon she teaches survival skills to Hmong women who know a thing or two about the subject. One 56-year-old grandmother says proudly, "I delivered all 12 of my babies by myself and never let their heads touch the ground."
Then Ly bounces from crisis to crisis.
She rushes to UC Davis Medical Center to visit a pregnant 15-year-old in intensive care with pneumonia and a bladder infection. "The family was really traditional. They tied strings around their wrists for good luck and called in a midwife to massage away the sickness," she says later. The hospital "gave her some antibiotics and she's doing fine."
After that, she's on the trail of her nephews, Nue's sons, only one of whom showed up at school.
Two of them, enticed by Ly's promise of "delicious, delicious food" and a $ 5-a-day stipend, turn up at her evening survival skills for teens class. They and eight other youths learn how to find and keep a job, set goals, solve legal problems and deal calmly with the turmoil raging in their often crowded, chaotic homes.
The most anguished part of Ly's day is yet to come. That night and the next, Ly and her husband host emergency meetings of clan leaders.
Their objective: to save her sister-in-law's marriage.
Fed up with a spouse who shoots pool five nights a week while she scrambles after her sons, Nue is nearly at the end of her rope.
"I don't know what to do," she says. The vice principal at Burbank High School told her to stick around a couple of days a week, as some other Hmong mothers do, to make sure her sons get to class. "I can't do that," says Nue, who works for a children's advocacy group. "If I don't go to my job, they don't have food on the table."
She visited a Hmong fortune teller, who tried to sell her a $400 elixir guaranteed to keep her sons out of trouble. "She said if I put it on my lips and talk to my kids, they will listen."
Instead, Nue bought a $25 bottle of "magic" water. She poured it into five cups for her sons and husband. "They said, 'What's this for?' I said, 'Just drink it.'"
The water didn't do the trick, so Nue has been salting away money from her job to start a new life.
"There's nothing good in my marriage," she says. "He doesn't talk to me, and he's not a good father to my children ... If I don't get out, I'll sink and drown."
The clan leaders order her husband, Joua, to start acting like one - less pool, more parenting. He says he'll try harder. "I'm short-tempered," he admits, but says Nue's acid tongue is partly to blame. "I do 60 percent right, but that's still not good enough for her."
Like many Hmong women her age, Nue played by the rules in Laos, only to find the game of life turned upside down in America.
When she was 6, her family landed in Santa Barbara. She'll never forget the humiliation of her first day of kindergarten: She was sent home because she wasn't wearing underpants beneath her skirt. "We don't wear underwear in Laos," she says.
Then her family moved in with a stepbrother in Orem, Utah. When she was 13, one of her stepbrother's soccer buddies, Joua, paid her stepsister a $20 bribe to get Nue out of the house for what Nue thought was a baby-sitting mission.
Instead, Joua and four male members of his clan grabbed her and put her in a van. Then Joua held her hand, announced he loved her and said he was going to marry her.
Nue knew girls were kidnapped into marriage in Laos, but couldn't believe this was happening to her in Utah. He was 22; she was a sixth-grader.
She cried, screamed and begged them to let her go. But Joua's mind was made up.
Joua didn't touch her, but he spent three days in the same room with her, making sure she didn't jump out the window. According to Hmong custom, if a girl spends three days in a man's home, even if there's no physical contact, she must marry him as long as he can pay the "bride price" set by her parents.
When Joua brought Nue back home, Nue's mother wept, then told her, "Just go and learn what you have to do to be a good wife, mother and daughter-in-law."
Joua bought Nue for $1,500.
"Why do you want to sell your daughter like an animal?" Nue says. "Every time you have a fight with your husband or your in-laws ... they remind you how much they paid for you."
Wife-napping is slowly fading away in America. If a Hmong girl marries before her 18th birthday these days, it's usually because she's madly in love, pregnant or desperate to get out from under her mountain of chores.
But most clans still support arranged marriages, and most husbands are still expected to pay a bride price ranging from $6,000 to upwards of $10,000. Looks are less important than a woman's clan reputation, capacity for hard work and education - though some traditionalists accuse college-educated women of using their careers as a cover for extramarital affairs.
"My uncle married a woman with a master's degree in social work; her bride price was $25,000," Ly says.
The bride price serves as an insurance policy against bad wives and husbands. If a woman dishonors her husband, some clans give him a refund. And if your clan helps you pay the bride price, you'd better not do anything to shame them or you can forget about their help in the future.
Even in California, the pressure to go through with an arranged marriage can be enormous.
Nue didn't call the cops when she was kidnapped because, tired of picking up aluminum cans for pocket change, she saw marriage as a way out of her poverty-stricken family.
It took her about a month to fall in love with her husband. "He treated me right," she says. They had six children in rapid succession.
In Laos, each child meant another pair of hands to harvest crops, feed pigs, cook and clean. There was no birth control; even in America, many Hmong know little more than what their children learn in sex education. In Sacramento, there are Hmong families with as many as 14 children.
About eight months after Nue's youngest child was born, she says her husband beat her up over $20 - he admits striking her but says it was over $40 - that had fallen out of his pocket.
"The minute I walked in he called me a thief," Nue says. "He slapped me, then he kicked me and I fell down. The next thing I remember I was in the hospital" with a ruptured spleen.
Much of her love died that day.
Joua begged forgiveness and paid Nue's mom a $1,000 fine. A Hmong who beats his wife can be fined $5,000 by her clan, which is refundable if he treats her lovingly for three years.
"I'm trying to change a lot," Joua says. "I don't want her to go; I'm really worried about it."
On Mother's Day he took Nue out on the town and bought her a $300 Hmong outfit, imported from China, at the Hmong store on Stockton Boulevard. Back home, while the family watched a video of Hmong New Year's in Sacramento, two of Nue's children brought her a teddy bear and some flowers and told her they loved her.
Then Joua told her, "I love you, too."
"I only hear that once a year," Nue says. "It's very hard for us to say that word. It made me feel special."
(Contact Stephen Magagnini of the Sacramento Bee in California at http://www.sacbee.com.)