Mai Neng Moua founded the Hmong literary arts journal Paj Ntaub Voice and edited the groundbreaking Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans. In her new memoir, The Bride Price: A Hmong Wedding Story, she shares how she struggles to reconcile two cultures: Hmong and American.
Meet Mai Neng at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 15 at Buenger Education Center, Concordia University, St. Paul for the book launch celebration.
What is the bride price and what is the difference between a bride price and a dowry?
In the Hmong culture, the bride price is money the groom’s family pays the bride’s family as part of the marriage ceremony. It acknowledges the hard work the bride’s parents have done in raising a good daughter. It offers a promise of love and security from the groom’s family. A dowry is the money and goods that the bride brings to the marriage, often including gifts the bride’s relatives give to her to start her new life.
Does the Hmong community still collect bride prices for their daughters?
In general, yes, this still happens today. This is how most Hmong marry. However, the Hmong have been in the U.S. for over 40 years, and, in that time, some Hmong have changed, and they no longer collect bride prices for their daughters.
Why did you decide to write a book about the bride price?
As a writer, I am committed to my individual story, which sheds light on the struggles of being Hmong American or what it means to be Hmong in America. I love being Hmong and yet, because I came to the U.S. when I was eight years old and I became a Christian, I struggle with separating culture or traditions from religion. I do not know or understand the deep meaning of many of the animist rituals or ceremonies. I decided to share my story so that it may stimulate conversations in the community about what it means to be Hmong. I am not telling young Hmong Americans take a stance against the bride price. I am challenging them to deeply understand who they are and why they believe what they believe. If they do not know, they should talk to their parents or elders. I am saying, know who you are and own your beliefs.
What do you think will be the reception of your memoir in the Hmong communities in the U.S. and elsewhere?
The bride price is a controversial issue. Some may appreciate the honesty of the book. Others will be angry that I am calling it a bride price, that I have not explained the full cultural context for it. The title itself may be too controversial for some. I do not pretend to be an expert on Hmong culture, traditions, or history. I do not speak for Hmong women or the Hmong community. This is a memoir, which means it’s a story told from my perspective. And that perspective is of someone who came to the U.S. when she was eight years old, grew up in the church memorizing Bible verses and singing Christian songs. Her level of understanding of Hmong culture is that of the first level of translation, that of a child’s, the literal translations only. If you read it in that context then it will make sense.
How did you go about writing your book? Did you have to do any research for it?
When my mother and I stopped talking, I started writing letters to her. I called them Letters to Niam (niam is the Hmong word for mother). Since I could not talk to my mom in real life, I talked to her through those letters. Then I started writing different vignettes, short scenes of conversations or moments at the farmer’s market. It was such a “big” story that I did not know how to piece it all together, so I just kept writing different moments. This went on for years. Finally, I put it all together and gave it to some writer friends to read. They gave me valuable feedback about what made sense or needed more work. They asked me hard questions. I went through so many drafts that I lost count. In between the different drafts, there were years when I did not look at it. Finally, I was so sick of my own story that I either wanted to be done with it so I could write something else or stop being a writer. I took a year’s leave of absence from my day job. I did not have an agent or a publisher, but I had kept in touch with the editors from Bamboo Among the Oaks. I cleaned up the manuscript and sent it to my editor along with a handful of other readers. I thought I was done, but one of my readers said, “This needs more work.” I cursed him, took a little time off, then went back to the comments of all my readers. I took them seriously. One of my readers encouraged me to interview cultural experts or elders about the bride price. “The last thing you want is for them to accuse you of not knowing what you’re talking about.” I interviewed a handful of experts, including my uncles, cultural experts or facilitators, and leaders or practitioners of animism. I also read a lot of books on Hmong culture and traditions.
You write about the toll of the bride price on you and your mother, yet many other Hmong women have gone through traditional Hmong weddings in which their parents have collected bride prices for them without objecting to the custom. Why do you think that is?
The reactions Hmong women have about the bride price are indicative of how complicated this issue is. You will find women who do not know what it is or why we do it. Some do not really care what happens, as long as they are married. Others feel that their in-laws do not “value” them as much because their parents did not ask for bride prices. Some women say, “My parents better ask for a big bride price for me!” Whatever Hmong women feel about it, the decision to collect a bride price is not theirs to make. They have no say about it. It is their parents who decide if and how much of a bride price to collect. So, Hmong women are all over the place about the bride price, because we live in America and the rules here are different. Our parents sometimes feel differently about it, too.
Your mother is a central figure in your book. In the memoir, you describe how you and your mother did not talk for over a year. What is your relationship with her now?
My mom and I are good. She loves my girls. She loves me. It took having my own kids for me to understand my mother’s deep love for me. In writing this book, it was important for me to get her take on things. There were certain factual things I wanted to make sure I got right. Besides, I had unanswered questions for her. I took the manuscript and translated many parts of it for her. I taped our conversations. Half the time she was saying, “You know what you did was wrong, right?” I just sat there and took it. Other times, I argued with her. We cried. We laughed. We loved each other.