Hmong Community Debates ‘Dowry’ Cap
New America Media, News Report, Pha Lo and Stephen Magagnini Posted: Dec 22, 2006
SACRAMENTO -- At the sprawling Hmong New Year celebrations at Gibson Ranch and Cal Expo last month, tens of thousands of American Hmong came to celebrate ancient customs - and perhaps find a mate for themselves or their children.
Hmong of all ages line up to toss tennis balls to members of the opposite sex - a classic ice breaker and conversation sparker.
And in the back of nearly every female catcher's mind is the question: how much am I worth to my future husband and his family?
Many pitchers are asking themselves the same thing: if she's the love of my life, how much will it cost me to marry her?
In traditional Hmong culture, the bride and groom's families will negotiate a "wedding gift," "dowry" or "ceremony price" that has averaged $5,000 to $8,000, and has gone as high as $25,000 for a Hmong bride who graduated from Stanford.
Wedding gifts have been negotiated for thousands of years, and serve as a sort of marriage insurance policy. If a couple divorces and clan leaders judge it to be the bride's fault, her family will have to return the gift, so everybody on the bride's side has a vested interest in making the marriage work.
But as more Hmong become Americanized, and new Hmong from Thailand struggle to house and feed their families, the escalating gift price has become a large bone of contention.
There have been reports of Hmong couples who elope because their parents can't agree on the gift price, and Hmong who ignore the gift price and marry out of the culture. Then there are heartbreaking accounts of young Hmong who tried to commit suicide because marriage negotiations collapsed.
Last year, a national Hmong council representing all 18 clans met in Fresno to minimize the strife caused by rising wedding gift prices.
On July 9, 2005, the clan council - calling itself United Hmong International Inc. - capped the "gift price" at $5,000, plus another $800 for other wedding expenses, such as food.
The cap was published in the first-ever "Hmong Traditional Culture Procedural Guide," containing codes of conduct. The 31-page booklet was unveiled at a gathering of 500 Hmong leaders who were supposed to disseminate it to Hmong communities across America.
The codes or guidelines - drafted by clan leaders with the help of two Fresno lawyers - seek to preserve and standardize tradition by setting rules for ancient ceremonies related to births, funerals, shamans (spirit healers) and marriages.
But some say the codes have caused more problems than they've solved, impinging upon the time-honored practice of marriage negotiations between clans. At least four Hmong marriages in Sacramento have fallen through in the last year because of disputes over the gift cap, said Victor Vang, a local businessman who helped author the codes.
Vang and other clan leaders have sent out a form letter signed by Fresno attorney Sandra Smith asking families who charge more than $5,000 to return the overpayment.
"It's painful," commented Sacramento Hmong radio personality T.T. Vang. "Things are not going as planned. Parents become bitter, and very often the kids are caught in between. A lot of times the girl will run away with the boy. We will see more and more young ladies marry other races."
T.T. Vang would like to see the cap based on a sliding scale so poor Hmong men, especially orphans of war who have no parents, can afford to marry.
Rich or poor, many Hmong are perplexed by the codes, questioning the authority of the clan leaders who drafted them and their validity in a court of law.
"There is no law that's going to force them to comply with this," Smith said. "I have not heard there are ramifications for not following it."
Hmong are also confused by the way the information is being passed on - and by whom, said Larry Thao, host of a local Hmong radio news show and president of the group that organizes the annual Hmong New Year festival at Cal Expo.
Thao translated the codes, which were written in English, and read them on air to his listeners. He says the authors did not establish a way to uniformly distribute the information, nor did they provide a way for redress from Hmong who did not agree. "Disagreements will only continue," he said. "The authors should approach local clan leaders and educate them on each clause and give people a way to discuss their concerns."
Others in the tight-knit Hmong community learned about the codes through word of mouth. In North Sacramento, Hmong were directed to pick up copies of the booklet at Lo Market, which specializes in Southeast Asian foods. Co-owner Tony Lao distributes them to customers.
"If all Hmong accept these rules, then it would be a good thing," says Lao. But as tough as it's been to get the word out, compliance will be even tougher.
"Some Hmong say they are leaders," says Lao, "but they care more about building their reputation than about progress." Lao, who now has three married daughters and one married son, was one of the first Hmong to propose banning the gift price - but his efforts were thwarted by clan elders.
The tradition is so rooted in Hmong culture that even some well-assimilated Hmong resent the idea of being told what to do when it comes to their daughters.
"My daughters are worth more than $5,000," declared Fong Thao, a Suisun bookkeeper with 13 children - 10 of them girls - as he strolled the make-shift boulevards at Gibson Ranch Hmong New Year with several unmarried daughters.
"Not everyone is created equal," said Thao, 43, whose two married daughters each fetched $7,000.
"Sometimes it's not negotiable. If your daughter is a good person, well-educated and follows all the rules some parents ask for more than $10,000. If you have a gang daughter, you will get nothing."
Thao's wife Pang Vang also opposed the cap: "It's not right - are we going to adjust it for inflation?" A wedding is more than a union of two people, it's a union of two clans and extended families, Thao said.
"When there's a wedding going on, we always go through the roots of the family and it's proper etiquette for people to come and contribute. We have a saying, `when you get a husband we can celebrate, when you get a wife we come to help'."
The Hmong Thomas Jefferson who drafted the codes, Thao Vang - president of United Hmong International - said they were inspired by General Vang Pao of St. Paul, considered the leader of the Hmong worldwide.
"He asked us to write it because these have been our laws for thousands of years, but we only passed them on verbally," said Thao Vang, a translator in Modesto. "I worked on this over a year," he said, and after much public comment and input from the 18 clan leaders, the laws were codified. But culture experts such as Vang Cha Lo, a respected mej koob (wedding negotiator) in Laos, Thailand and the U.S. who is currently training a new generation of mej koob in Sacramento, say they were never consulted. Lo, who cannot read or write, teaches wedding songs and customs through oral lessons and pre-recorded cassettes, saying, “the essence of our culture cannot be written down. It must be contained in the heart.”
Xia Kao Vang, director of Sacramento Lao Family Community Inc., said about half the Hmong he knows are observing the cap.
Meanwhile, the debate continues. Those who say that the new rules should be followed in order to create unity are opposed by those who say that gift prices should be decided on a case by case basis.
May Ying Ly, a nationally-known Hmong feminist who's director of Sacramento's Hmong Womens Heritage Association, said she sees both sides of the wedding gift controversy.
"From a cultural standpoint, this is a very reverent way of respecting one's parents because when a bride gets married you're losing your child and in a sense, she's going to be reborn into another clan," Ly said.
"The heftier the fine (gift price), the more it signifies the importance of the bride,"Ly said. "It means she comes from a good family, she's a good person with all the qualities that are going to raise the status of the family she's marrying into."
But the gift price places a huge burden on the bride to make the marriage work at all costs, Ly said. "If anything should happen it's your fault, you're returnable, and she and her family would have to return the gift price."
Sometimes brides are unfairly blamed for a failed marriage, "even if it wasn't her fault or was in an abusive relationship," Ly said. "The wording is, `you now belong to your husband's family.' When you have trouble in the marriage, usually what we hear the men say is,`I bought you, and it's worse when the inlaws say `remember we bought you'."
Such statements "make you a commodity, don't respect you as a person, and that's what gets most people up in arms," said Ly. "We have all these young women coming out of college saying it may be a gift but I don't want anyone down the line saying `you're our property.'"
Added Ly, "It's a very beautiful tradition but some people go overboard with it and demand an outrageously high price. At $800, I was a steal," she joked.
She and her husband, now Mormons, won't expect a gift when their 17-year-old daughter marries. Regardless of the price, the tradition has always meant to ensure each clan has a stake in the success of each marriage. Many agree that without lengthy negotiations and monetary investments, easy marriages make for easy divorces.
More assimilated fathers say that Hmong should do away with the perception of the wedding gift as a "bride price.” Nhia Kao Lao, a father who recently negotiated the terms of his daughter’s wedding says, “if you keep calling it that, then people will say we are selling our daughters and it is impossible to put a price tag on a person."
Tony Vang, a Fresno State education professor who was the first Hmong elected to a school board in California, said that when his daughter married last year, "I didn't even collect a penny for her. I figured out, this is a poor couple, they have their master's degrees but they're just starting new jobs and new lives.
"We should understand we live in 21st century America," Vang said. "The challenge our kids face is different than it was 30 years ago when you lived in Laos."
He remarked, "If my daughter married and I collected $8,000, it's never enough. I'd probably collect a million dollars and feel better."
SIDEBAR: Wedding Gift Discrepancies
Capping the wedding gift can be a tough sell when a family paid $8,000 to another family for their son's wedding. They often expect the same courtesy (and gift) when they marry off their daughter, especially if it's to the same clan their daughter-in-law comes from.
That's what happened to Chang Vang, a 23-year-old Sacramento warehouse worker whose marriage collapsed under the weight of the gift price.
Vang recently decided to marry his 20 year old girlfriend after a year and a half of dating. But his wedding's been stalled since September when negotiations between the bride's and groom's sides broke down over the gift price.
Vang's family asked the bride's family, from the Her clan, to abide by the new rules and ask for no more than $5,800. The bride's parents wanted $6,000 for the bride price plus $800 for expenses.
Vang does not agree with paying any gift price. He says that the tradition worked in the old days because parents often fixed domestic problems in a marriage, but since he expects to turn to courts and the American system should things go awry in his marriage, he does not see the value in paying it.
His fiancee’s mother, Ker Lo, contends the gift price has not lost its traditional value, which validates the success of a mother in raising her daughter.
Lo asked for more than the cap because she says raising this daughter was her biggest challenge. "I had her in Thailand and I had no milk so I worked harder than the children I had in America," says Lo. "Right now I cry a lot over this. If they do not come back and finish the wedding, then they do not value me as a mother."
Each side claims they're waiting on the other side to restart negotiations. The couple intends to get their marriage license regardless of whether they have a Hmong wedding.
Pha Lo is an contributor to New America Media and Stephen Magagnini is a staff writer with the Sacramento Bee. This article is part of a project of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and New America Media, which the Knight Foundation has supported with fellowships for the ethnic media.
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