In my junior or senior year of high school at Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul, the population of which was probably diverse for that time and place, a substantial number of Hmong refugees were received into the student body. To say that they were welcomed would be an overstatement, as there was virtually no integration of the Hmong kids and the established high school community, and to my knowledge, there were no actions taken by the administration or other adults to help the established community learn anything about these newcomers, their culture or the circumstances that brought them to St. Paul and our school.
I remember hearing references to “the boat people” which evoked images of small, crowded boats full of Asian kids, who incidentally, were the only ones at Highland who saw eye to eye with the Jewish kids. While we may have been similar in stature, I cannot recall one instance of personal interaction with a Hmong individual during my time at Highland.
Over the years I’ve learned a bit more about the Hmong and their cooperation with the CIA in the so-called Secret War, but I still had little knowledge of Hmong culture. So, when a copy of The Bride Price by Mai Neng Moua appeared in the Little Free Library in front of our house, I decided to read it.
Published last year by the Minnesota Historical Press, the story is set mainly in St. Paul, which has one of the largest Hmong populations in the United States. Moua is married to Blong Yang, who was elected in 2013 as the first Hmong person to serve on the Minneapolis City Council until he was unseated by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison’s son, Jeremiah Ellison, this past November.
The Bride Price is an intimate look into Hmong culture, its clan structure, and deeply embedded sexism. Mai Neng Moua questioned practices, especially those surrounding her own marriage and the traditional payment made from the groom’s family to the bride’s family.
Much that I read was entirely foreign to me as a native-born American and a member of the Jewish community, but, when I came to page 54, I stopped dead at what was written on the page and its uncanny resemblance to an old Jewish practice.
Within a chapter entitled “It Takes a Family,” where Moua discusses Hmong marriage as a contract not between two people, but between families and clans, where a bride price is paid, at least in part, to compensate the bride’s family who “loses” their daughter (and her services) when she marries and becomes a part of her husband’s family and clan, an Animist Hmong tradition is described and it has striking similarities to an old Jewish ritual. The Hmong lwm qaib, or “chicken blessing,” requires that before a groom can bring his bride into his parent’s home, an elder must swing a live chicken in a circular motion above the heads of the couple, while speaking ritual words to sweep away wandering evil spirits, sickness and misfortune, and requesting children for the couple and that the children be imbued with good fortune, prosperity and kinsmanship.
The lwm qaib immediately brought to my mind the kaparot ritual. Kaparot, traditionally occurring on the day prior to Yom Kippur, is a ritual where a live chicken is swung over a Jewish person’s head and specific verses from the Machzor are read. Kaparot, literally atonement is meant to transfer a human’s sins to the chicken; shades of both the scapegoat and the Rosh Hashana Taschlich tradition.
While not identical rituals, the use of a live chicken being swung over the heads of individuals to banish things that are characterized as negative is used in both cultures in a very similar way.
While the kaparot ritual is not widely practiced today outside the most religious communities, it was certainly practiced more widely among the Jewish immigrant populations and first-generation Jewish Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I remember my mother talking about being afraid of live chickens after she was pecked as a child during a kaparot ceremony.
The Hmong, who did not begin to arrive here until the late 1970’s are still relatively new immigrants to the US, and it is not surprising that this ritual is still common at this time in their history.
Later in the book in a chapter entitled “Finding Grandfather,” Moua describes planning a visit to Thailand to see her paternal grandfather who she has not seen since leaving their Thai refugee camp in 1981. Here Moua talks about how she acquired her name, Mai Neng. According to her mother, when she was born she cried relentlessly, and a shaman was called to perform a ceremony called an ua neeb, or healing ceremony during which he gave her the new name of Mai Neng. In Hmong culture, names are changed to confuse the spirits if a person has continued sickness or misfortune.
Again, I stopped and thought that his sounded strangely familiar. While changing a Jewish person’s first name is done primarily among the most religious Jews, the reasons for doing it are virtually identical to Hmong reasons. When a Jewish person is ill or suffering from some misfortune, their first name may be changed to “ward off the evil eye.”
According to Chabad.org, a Jewish person’s name cannot be changed by just anyone, but by someone possessing special qualities. Additionally, that site counsels that the name change should be done in the person’s presence and with a minyan while Psalms are read.
In email correspondence with Ms. Moua, I learned that the Hmong also practice levirate marriage where the single brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow. The practice, mandated in Deuteronomy, is practiced by some Jews, and is found in cultures with strong clan structures that require marriages remain within the clan. In fact, she claims that the many striking similarities between the Jews and the Hmong, have convinced her Hmong pastor that the Hmong may be a lost tribe of Israel.
More broadly throughout The Bride Price, I noted other more nuanced examples of experiences common to various immigrant groups and noted similarities based in large part upon where each group is in their immigration story. What started out as an exotic tale became for me a study of commonalities among immigrant groups, their experiences, and their stories.