I was on the phone, talking to my girlfriend Sheng. She was sharing her dreams of the future with me, about marriage. Sheng was talking about us having kids and how cute they will be. I teased her, “They won’t. I won’t be with you later on.” She sighed and said I was being mean. I laughed. Still, in my mind, I could only see dark clouds.
Sheng and I are young. I’m only sixteen years old, but I’ve been thinking lately about marriage. Some people might say, well marriage is just marriage and it won’t be that hard to do, but I’m Hmong, and that creates many challenges for me.
First being Hmong means that getting married requires a lot more preparation and a lot of money. Hmong traditions are complicated and I still don’t understand everything, especially the bride price. It’s what the groom pays the wife’s family, more of a gift to thank them for raising the wife. Identifying an amount requires negotiations from both families, and it can range between five and ten thousand dollars. The price can also depend on the wife’s educational level and whether or not she was an obedient daughter, which can bring the price up. The good thing is that when paying a bride price, the groom’s family can ask extended family to help pitch in. Or most Hmong guys just save up their own money.
If I plan to get married right now, it would be difficult to get the money for the bride price because I simply don’t have it. I have too much pride to borrow from family so I will probably just work hard and save my money.
I believe these marriage traditions and values exist because back then, in the old country, this was how they did it. I hope these values don’t disappear, no matter how disapproving I feel, because it’s still a part of who I am. But I don’t think the younger generation will continue the traditions because they are so complicated. Many of them can hardly speak the language. It will be hard to uphold these traditions, and that goes for me as well.
Second, getting married depends on the approval of the elders. In the community, a lot of elders know each other. Even if you are not related to each other, people still know each other.
If your family has a good reputation, then your family has to live up to that name and the sons in the family have to find wives who also have good family reputations. To uphold a good reputation, the children have to be educated and know the traditional cultural practices, such as how to do ceremonies, how to speak Hmong, and not be lazy.
But if you or your family is on a black list, it can be difficult for you to date a girl from a good family.
I know other cultures may have these same rules too, but it seems like they are so much more emphasized in the Hmong community.
If your parents did something wrong, you would have to prove to others that you won’t turn out the same way. Many Hmong elders judge you by how your parents behave. The same goes in the reverse. If you did something wrong, like committing crimes or doing drugs, your parents would be at fault and they would be viewed as bad people because they didn’t raise you right. That means you can ruin your family name.
When it comes to dating, a lot of Hmong parents have similar questions, “Do you really think she is pretty? Look at her hair, it’s like she is a gangster,” Or “Look at the way he is dressed,” or “Who are her parents?” There are plenty of things they will say and many of them are ridiculous. These comments are usually followed by, “No, you cannot date that person!”
Since a lot of parents and elders know one another, they can ask around and find out quickly about a person’s family background, and then they decide whether you can date that person or not.
One of the funniest reasons I’ve ever heard for not dating someone was a story I heard from a friend. This one boy asked his dad if he could date this girl. The dad asked for her parents’ names. Then, when he found out their name, the boy’s father said, “No way! Long ago [back in our homeland], their great-grandfather snuck into your great-grandfather’s farm and stole many of his chickens and his prized cow. They are very bad people!”
I think my family has a decent reputation. We don’t have a lot of family issues with others and we keep to ourselves. We don’t put ourselves out there to get a bad name. I remember we only had one major problem with another family but we resolved that problem with a marriage between my sister and one of their sons.
It wasn’t a forced marriage because they fell in love. It did create controversy at first because my dad hated their family, but my sister and the guy were in love. My parents did not want to interfere and so they allowed the marriage. They are loving parents, but they are strict.
I’m not so sure about my own situation. I’ve been with Sheng for about two years. We have our good times and our bad, but no matter what, we’re always there for each other. It hurts me to think that things might not work out for us in the future, even though right now, we have a pretty serious relationship. Sheng wants to get married some day. I feel very uncertain. I’m afraid I won’t be able to marry her because of strict family rules and of course money.
Plus, I don’t know what my father will think, if he will allow it.
I feel like my father’s opinion always has ruled over my own happiness. He will decide if I can get married or not. I am the youngest son in the family, which means I also bear the cultural responsibility of taking care of my parents, as they get older. I want to be happy, but I want them to be happy as well.
Sometimes I feel like I should just run away but I don’t want my parents to feel like I’ve run out on them. Also, I want my Hmong culture to be preserved in America. I won’t give it up, even if there are some things that frustrate me. But in the end, I know I will have to make some hard decisions and some tough sacrifices in order to be with Sheng.