Born and raised in the United States, Noah and I are what you could call a typical American couple. But we also treasure our Hmong heritage and wanted to honor our families by following the tradition that has spanned many generations. Although we’ve been engaged for a year, we can’t get married until our families give their official approval and agree on a dowry. There is no guarantee this will happen.
According to tradition, I must be at my mother’s house when the groom and his wedding party arrive, even though I no longer live there. There is no church, no reception hall—the entire negotiation process and feast will take place at my mother’s house. And so, in a 1,600-square-foot rambler, my family is prepared to jam fifty to sixty people.
At 5 p.m., my groom arrives with his best man, or phib laj, and two negotiators, or mej koob. Then his family follows, and must ask if our family is refraining from having guests. After my family allows them inside, the mej koob sing a song to start the ceremony.
There are a number of things Noah and his relatives must offer my family so the ceremony can be recognized as an official wedding. First, the best man carries a basket on his back, filled with items that Noah’s mom woke up extra early to prepare: a boiled, whole chicken, uncooked rice, salt, and oil. There’s a blanket, which Noah carried like a child on his back. They also need to have a black umbrella and several cartons of cigarettes, which would traditionally be smoked during the negotiations—but that will not happen in my mother’s house, she would never allow it. If even one of these items is missing, the ceremony could be called off.
The groom and best man must bow down to my mom and each member of my family to show respect. I had never seen Noah try so hard to get it right.
Before any negotiations begin, we have dinner. On this night, it’s boiled chicken with tofu, broiled fish, and chicken stir-fry. After dinner, more members of Noah’s family are allowed to enter the home, including his father. As our relatives get to know one another, it is finally starting to feel like perhaps we can be one big happy family.
Moments later, my mom and I are summoned downstairs, where about twenty male members of my family are waiting. My father, a Lao veteran who fought alongside the United States during the Vietnam War, passed away when I was a little girl, so these relatives are here to make certain that I am making a good decision and that my family is well-represented in the marriage negotiations. They grill me about my relationship with Noah. They want to make sure I’m not being tricked into marrying someone I don’t truly love. When they are convinced of my commitment, they ask me to leave. Then, they get additional reassurance from my mom.
By 8 p.m., everyone has agreed that Noah and I should be married, but that doesn’t mean we’re done. Now it’s time to talk money—the dowry.
This phase focuses around a coffee table in my mother’s living room, where two representatives from each of our families negotiate. It could take hours, or even days. It may sound old-fashioned, but this is an important part of Hmong tradition. The amount the groom’s side is willing to pay is an expression of appreciation to the bride’s parents for loving, caring for, and educating a young woman.
Before discussing the dowry, however, negotiators decide which members of my family will receive money and how much. This can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. It’s traditional to transfer the money wrapped up in cigarettes. When my family accepts the gift, I am officially a part of Noah’s family and my bridesmaid joins the party. She has been chosen for me by Noah’s family, just as they chose a best man for him. Fortunately, my bridesmaid is a woman very dear to me, Noah’s sister, Cheng Feng. She’s told to stay by my side and make certain I’m happy. We’re offered a toast to seal the deal.
And yet, for negotiators, it’s back to the bargaining table: they still have to decide a few more things, including how much my mom will receive in exchange for giving away her daughter, and the date and time of the wedding feast, a more formal celebration we’ll have next month for family and friends.
Several hours have passed, and I confess I’m starting to feel a little emotional. Our families still have not come to an agreement on these final things. My mother must act as both mother and father in these proceedings, and she has turned out to be a tough negotiator.
Noah’s feeling a different kind of pain. “My knees are hurting from all the bowing,” he said. We are reminded by our elders that although we are modern Hmong Americans, these traditions are important to us and our families, so we’ll need to be patient.
Around 1 a.m., twenty-four hours after I started my day, there’s finally an offer on the table that my mother accepts. The dowry money will be counted not once, not twice, but three times by members of the family.
We’re relieved and ready to call it a night, but where we spend our wedding night is up to my in-laws, and my new mother-in-law wants us back home in Wausau with her. So I quickly grab my things and say my good-byes. While my family is happy, it’s a bittersweet moment. For my mom, she’s letting go of her baby. She tells me to go and that I should start my new life. But she wants me to visit and always remember where I came from.
As I leave home, I am a married woman.
I am reminded that I shouldn’t look back with my eyes or my heart as Noah and I begin our own tradition as husband and wife.
Bao Vang is hard at work, while many of you are asleep, as the executive producer and morning anchor at WSAW News Channel 7 in Wausau, Wisconsin. Bao’s family immigrated to the United States in 1978. She was born and raised in Saint Paul and attended Harding High School and the University of St. Thomas.