There was a small notice in a throwaway paper in San Diego about the Hmong New Year in a public park in Kearny Mesa. I had known about the Hmong (pronounced Mong) mountain people for decades. In the 1960s, the United States recruited ethnic Hmong soldiers to fight on our side in the Vietnam War and help us conduct a secret war in Laos. This resulted, of course, in thousands of deaths and casualties and, when the war was over, there were terrible reprisals in Laos against the Hmong. Many fled to refugee camps in Thailand, and the United States promised to resettle them, but the process has been difficult, controversial, wrought with duplicity, and painfully slow. Today, there are almost a quarter-million Hmong in the United States.
I asked a few people in San Diego if they wanted to go with me to the New Year celebration. They declined, adding that the Hmong aren’t friendly, and it was probably a small, immigrant event that wouldn’t be of much interest.
I went anyway. The section of the park reserved for the festivities was ablaze with the dazzling traditional clothing of the hundreds of Hmong who’d come from all over the country for the celebration. My husband and I were the only non-Hmong there. I didn’t know what to explore first: booths with native food and drink; stands laden with intricate embroidery, accessories, and clothes for sale; a lion dance; or a potluck with huge casseroles of food prepared and offered for free by Hmong women.
I was juggling a platter of pickled and spicy vegetables, green papaya salad, sausage, chicken, and a sweet drink with tapioca, when something caught my eye: a row of teenage or twenty-something Hmong men gently throwing tennis balls to a row of young women about their age. I watched until my food started to get cold, and then I wandered over to a wooden table to eat. As I was savoring the little-known Southeast Asian delicacies, I looked up and saw another row of boys tossing tennis balls to a line of girls opposite them.
THE BALL TOSS
“Excuse me,” I said to a middle-aged couple at my table. “Can you tell me what that game is?”
“It’s how our young people meet each other,” the man said.
“They come from Wisconsin, Sacramento, everywhere to maybe find a Hmong husband or wife,” the woman added, grinning.
Other Hmong joined in the conversation.
“While they throw the ball back and forth, they talk,” said a stunning woman decked out in a long black dress trimmed with red embroidery. “Maybe a girl asks how old a boy is, or they exchange names. If they find out the other person is from the same family, it’s not a suitable partner.”
“Is there ever love at first throw?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” said my beautiful interlocutor, laughing. “And if a boy likes a girl, he will begin to sing to tell her about her wonderful qualities.”
“He literally sings?” I asked.
The woman nodded. “Singing to express love is very important in our culture.”
SINGING YOUR SORROWS
I walked over to the lines of potential mates, trying to guess where the tennis balls might lead to a game ending in love. I mused that if I were single, I would much prefer casually tossing words and tennis balls to hooking up with someone in a bar or fidgeting at a singles party. I would have happily stood there watching for hours, but my attention was drawn by a crowd gathered in front of a booth that sold CDs and DVDs. The man who ran the booth slipped a documentary film into a DVD player.
On a small screen, a young Hmong girl in the mountains of Laos was singing and sobbing. Opposite her, an older man looked on with compassion. The girl’s voice was hypnotic, and the sounds seemed to come from her soul.
I inquired of a man standing next to me, “Could you tell me, please, what the girl is saying?”
The man turned his face to me, and I could see that he was crying, too. Tears pooled in his big, brown eyes and then trickled down his chin onto his neatly pressed white shirt. He seemed to have no embarrassment about weeping in front of a stranger.
“She is an orphan, and she is telling the story of how she has suffered. She is alone in the world. Her family is dead, and she has no one. That man says he wants to help her. He is too old to marry her, but she can come and stay at his house for as long as she wants.”
“But why is she singing?” I asked.
“In our culture we sing our sorrows,” he answered. He wiped his tears with his hand and added, “I am crying because her story is my story, too. I am also an orphan. I had nobody to help me. I suffered the way she is suffering. I endured what she had to endure.”
“I am so sorry,” I muttered. “Thank you for telling me. Thank you for teaching me.”
The man handed me his card. “If you go to visit the Hmong people in Laos, I can accompany you and show you around. I will introduce you to our people. I am so happy you came here to share our New Year with us.”
It was a sentiment that was voiced throughout the day: Hmong people kept thanking me for coming and for being interested in their culture.
I was so moved, fascinated, and excited that I didn’t want to leave as the celebration wound down. I had learned a bit about people who sing their sorrows and joys, take pride in their national dress, and find love in a sweet ball game. I had sampled a Southeast Asian cuisine I knew nothing about, heard the Hmong language, experienced the power of a man weeping in public, listened to music I didn’t know, and bought an embroidered and tasseled indigenous hat. And I didn’t have to buy a plane ticket, plan an itinerary, or spend much money.
There are different ethnicities and customs all around us and people willing to share with us who they are and how they think, celebrate, love, eat, and understand the world. All you have to do is cultivate a desire to explore cultures other than your own. The rest is easy. Look at bulletin boards, magazines, newspapers, and websites, and seek out events, festivals, and experiences in your hometown. If you attend with an open heart, you will be rewarded with new connections, instant learning, expansion of your horizons, and a richer, more textured, and deliciously varied life.