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What You Should Know About Traditional Hmong Wedding

Every time the shutter opens in my camera, I'd like to think that something beautiful was being captured.

Whether it is the details of embroidery on Hmong textile, the expression of a smiling child, a flower dancing in the wind, or a happy couple sharing their first moment as wife and husband; I've become familiar with and anticipate that instant so it can be captured in time. I started my career as a photographer shooting landscapes as I was taken by the colors of sunsets and moonrises; shortly after, I fell in love with weddings. There is just something unexplainable about the exhibition of love from everyone present on the day that two people plan to unite as one. Having been in the wedding industry for several years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with many people from different backgrounds. Some of the most meaningful weddings I feel that I have shot however were where the couple implemented something into their day because it was important to the history of their family. You might say I feel that way because of my Hmong American roots and love for sharing culture and history; nevertheless I cannot disagree with you.

I have only become more knowledgeable and appreciative of the traditional Hmong wedding (tshoob) within the last couple of years as it is my duty to know what to capture for Hmong wedding clients. Before then, what little I knew about it can be equated to something like background noise; similar to that of reading and writing in Hmong, because it is unnecessary knowledge unless one had somewhere to use it so no one takes the time to consider learning it. In general, a tshoob has many detailed steps that must be taken in order to complete and its components stem from a long history of stories and lessons. When a Hmong couple plans to marry, it not only ties them together however it joins their two families and extended family. The success of their marriage is intricately woven together with strings from an entire community with the hopes that having a foundation this strong, it will be very difficult for them to separate. There are so many things happening behind what most can see than just the drinking and feasting. The problem is that the younger generations are not educated on the matters unless they were considering becoming an officiant or were actually planning to marry. And even then, one will not be able to grasp everything because there is so much information that it can be overwhelming.

"In the Hmong community, people come to see you when you are born, when you get married, and when you pass away; everything is connected and why some of the ritual songs and customs must be done in a specific way."

The only people who have extensive training in the matters of Hmong weddings and funerals are the mej koob - txiv xaiv as it is one of the main roles they play solely in the Hmong community. Even a mej koob can tell you that they have yet to see all possible scenarios after many years of practice therefore a regular person will never fully understand a traditional Hmong wedding. I had the privilege to sit down with a couple of them in order to learn some of the cultural pieces and timeline of a tshoob. To start with, the Hmong have traditionally followed in the animist belief where there is the perception of an interconnectedness of all living things and spirits. In some western references it is also known as Shamanism as the shaman plays a big role in rituals. The processes of a tshoob are deeply rooted with the religion, so it is understandable then for those who have changed religion to choose not to have a tshoob yet that does not mean you cannot have one if you choose to. Mej Koob - Txiv Xaiv, Bee Yang simply said that "in the Hmong community, people come to see you when you are born, when you get married, and when you pass away; everything is connected and why some of the ritual songs and customs must be done in a specific way." In that case, when a person decides to marry, it is a very important third of their life journey; therefore the ceremony must be performed correctly.

When I was in college, my little sister ran off with her boyfriend to marry. In the evening after she did not come home; two men came to our doors to ask to speak with my parents and give them the news of her decision (fiv xov). My parents automatically knew when the messengers arrived with a sis ceeb, the stripe string that decorates a Hmong woman's turban, and some money that a wedding will be in the works. In historical times, arrange marriages and engagements were the only acceptable ways to marry someone. Young couples who were unable to marry their true love usually ended tragically like Romeo and Juliet until one couple decided to run off together. According to a folktale, it was said that as they reached the edge of town, the bride gave her sis ceeb and the groom gave his pocket silver to a farmer and asked him to bring it to the bride's parents. The tradition of the messenger fiv xov and couples getting married in this "runaway" fashion came from this instance.

Mej Koob – Txiv Xaiv, Chue Ka Yang noted that women just wear their sis ceeb today because the fashionable turbans come with one however it was not always worn this way. He said "The sis ceeb in a way is similar to that of a wedding ring when referencing American culture. Only a woman who is still single will wear the sis ceeb as a married woman no longer has hers because it has been handed over in the process of the wedding."

I have always noticed the sis ceeb and how it was tied with the umbrella and used by a mej koob while performing his rituals and songs however never knew the significance of it. Bee Yang shared with me another folktale highlighting how an orphan received an umbrella from a dragon king from the heavens. Without going into much detail, it was said that when he opened the umbrella after arriving on earth, a fortune poured out along with a house and a beautiful bride who awaited him inside. The umbrella then is used in Hmong wedding ceremonies because it symbolizes the wealth and future of the couple.

Even though some respectable folks in the community prefer their daughters to receive a proper engagement, the runaway wedding is presently most common as the youth do not know better. I interviewed Susan Vang-Xiong of Circle of Events, a wedding planner who is Hmong, because fusion weddings may be the new way for the modern Hmong bride and groom. According to Vang-Xiong, a fusion wedding is one where different elements from one culture are fused with another one in order for a couple to have the best of both worlds. The key thing she noticed that helped her and her parent's accomplish their dream tshoob, because she and her husband had a proper engagement arrangement, was being open to having dialogue with the elders.

I could not have agreed more with them about open dialogue as her tshoob was among some of the few that I have shot that really incorporated details from both her love and passion to design with that of the traditional tshoob. Because people are getting married at a more mature age and are able to make smarter choices; it should be easy to openly communicate with elders in order to come up with the best solution for planning their tshoob.

To back track a little, about a year after I had begun my photography business and have shot a handful of American weddings, my brother called me to let me know that he was getting married. My initial reaction led me to ask about a venue, the décor, a dress, and other wedding vendors. He was finishing school at the time so he told me that he would be unable to have an elaborate white dress wedding but would instead have the simple at home tshoob, in which my parents will assist him with. Hearing that, I went into that typical careless feeling that I believe many of us have as Hmong youth or Hmong women. I told him to call back once the elders figured out a date.

"The sis ceeb in a way is similar to that of a wedding ring when referencing American culture."

Why did I say Hmong youth? That is because in general, the youth only care to know when a wedding is so that they can come eat, drink, and visit with relatives. Why did I say Hmong women? I figured that if he was going to just have a tshoob, that all he would need me for are my hands to help cook. My parents took care of all the planning and gathering of the important figures like the mej koob, the maid of honor (naim tais ntsuab), the best man (phij laj), and the relative to represent them (niam txiv lav tshoob). They also took care of all the other details too like the menu, the guest list, and pretty much he and his wife just showed up.

On the morning of their hand tying ceremony (hu plig) at my parent's house, I woke up ready to cook because it was my responsibility as a daughter and sister, and then the photographer in me kicked in. I soon realized that the women preparing the food were having the same interactions as the ones at the American weddings I am hired to shoot. The couples especially love candid moments like this and others that they miss because they were not present. I thought to myself as to why my brother did not hire a photographer to capture this day, even though it was just their tshoob? A million thoughts rushed through me as I realized, this tshoob was just as important if not more important than the handful of other weddings I have captured up to then as it too was a once in a life time event.

Being the photographer that I am, I take my gear with me everywhere, so I asked my parents to relieve me of cooking duties as I wanted to gift him these memories.

My mom was hesitant to lose a pair of food preparation hands to someone who was going to do nothing but carry around a camera. My brother eventually saw the value after I explained to him that in ten years when he looks back at the cellphone photos, he would be disappointed that I was present and did not snap a few photos. Unlike some of the weddings I have captured with small elements to the day that I did not know were important yet still took a photo of anyway, I had been to enough tshoob celebrations that I knew there were some key things I had to put in focus. My brother's tshoob was my first Hmong wedding I photographed, why I have fallen in love with the simple yet rich traditions of our culture and the rest was history. During the post processing and reviewing his images, I was speechless of my own work as it was the first time I could recollect in my memory that a plain at home tshoob could be captured in such beautiful light. My brother's tshoob photos were beautiful and I thought to myself, it should be captured in this way, however why has it not been done before?

Why some modern couples tend to choose either not have their Hmong tshoob and/or choose to have an entire separate reception, is because they want their wedding to be as unique as them. Mainstream wedding vendors have also glamorized the American white dress wedding celebration and have made it much more desirable even if couples do not practice the faith.

With social influences playing a big role in our decision making, young couples have been pushed to want to celebrate their personalities in this romanticized way. Having just a traditional tshoob does not cut it because couples feel that they are not important in the process as you can see with my brother and his wife's tshoob. Some couples feel as though they are just being pushed around through it by their parents and the wedding officiators.

I attended a white dress church wedding of a friend of mine several years ago. One of the other guests that attended the wedding with me was Hmong. She leaned over and noted that she was saddened that in the Hmong culture, we do not have things to pass on to our daughters because our friend, the bride, was wearing her grandmother's veil. In that moment, a melancholic feeling came over as I wondered about what things I would receive from my parents. I suddenly realized there was so much that could be passed down that we just do not appreciate because it is not sentimentalized in mainstream media like a veil or white dress. I first reassured her that the only reason our parents may not have items to pass down is because they may have gotten lost in the war and other hard times. Secondly, I pointed out that if our parents had the opportunity that they would pass down things like a sis ceeb, their original Hmong silver neck piece or xauv, other pieces of jewelry, and even their traditional Hmong clothes. My friend looked down at a golden bracelet that her mother had given her for graduation and told me in realization that she never appreciated it more than she did in that moment.

With social influences playing a big role in our decision making, young couples have been pushed to want to celebrate their personalities in this romanticized way. Having just a traditional tshoob does not cut it because couples feel that they are not important in the process as you can see with my brother and his wife's tshoob. Some couples feel as though they are just being pushed around through it by their parents and the wedding officiators.

I attended a white dress church wedding of a friend of mine several years ago. One of the other guests that attended the wedding with me was Hmong. She leaned over and noted that she was saddened that in the Hmong culture, we do not have things to pass on to our daughters because our friend, the bride, was wearing her grandmother's veil. In that moment, a melancholic feeling came over as I wondered about what things I would receive from my parents. I suddenly realized there was so much that could be passed down that we just do not appreciate because it is not sentimentalized in mainstream media like a veil or white dress. I first reassured her that the only reason our parents may not have items to pass down is because they may have gotten lost in the war and other hard times. Secondly, I pointed out that if our parents had the opportunity that they would pass down things like a sis ceeb, their original Hmong silver neck piece or xauv, other pieces of jewelry, and even their traditional Hmong clothes. My friend looked down at a golden bracelet that her mother had given her for graduation and told me in realization that she never appreciated it more than she did in that moment.

Through time, without a formal way to preserve the Hmong culture, most of the colorful and desirable pieces to the Hmong wedding have been lost. Both mej koob told me that it used to be that when a Hmong woman arrives at the groom's house, after a three day rest period, the hu plig ceremony would take place. Immediately the day after, they would have the tshoob at the bride's parent's home. For the trek, the groom's parents would have packed a basket or kawm with a meal as well as have a bag of uncooked rice, some salt and oil, and a blanket. It is said that in the old days, the groom's family would throw a big feast and bring an entire feast to share with the bride's family. With no way to keep the tradition alive during historical hard times, the items in the kawm were created to represent this traveling feast.

Observing this change in how things are done to accommodate, Vang-Xiong notes "going into our future with trying to keep alive what is meaningful to us, we might have to pick and choose what our priorities are in the same way our elders decided that the best way to keep that tradition alive is creating the kawv with the items. It's exciting to be a Hmong American at this time as we are shaping the future of how things should be done. Who says the modern Hmong bride and groom can't have it all?" Bee Yang even said "we are no longer in hard times, if we wanted to have these traveling feasts, we can and should! We just really need to educate our people about the history of our beautiful culture."

A while back, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to cover my very first Chinese fusion wedding. The ongoing discussion I had with the couple and their parents throughout the day was how terrible they felt for not inviting more than a handful of their relatives and close friends. Similar to the Hmong, it is respectable for them to invite their extended families and community to such an important occasion. The couple said they would have to throw a party at a later date however they kept their wedding day very small in order to not lose the intimate detail of the tea ceremony that they chose to do in honor of their parents and grandparents. Then recently I captured a Punjabi wedding where three consecutive days were dedicated to the celebrations and feasting. Carefully planned, the days had specific deadlines that had to be met in terms of ceremonial and ritualistic pieces that were performed at a specific time in their temples. Down to the tiniest of details like the bangles that the bride wore, you can tell that every piece to the wedding was well thought out.

In revision of the other Asian weddings I have captured above, both the young couples were unaware in the very same way Hmong couples are about the traditional details. From attending other weddings in their youth, they were exposed to a little and knew what was expected of them however asked many questions as the elders took care of the rest. Like Hmong parents, these parents played a big role in making sure that everything took place as planned and the couple just showed up. The difference with them however is that they took hold of their wedding and made it uniquely theirs because there were elements that the parents did not plan for like the look and feel of the day.

Being Hmong in the wedding industry, I feel as though I am obligated to educate couples about the tshoob because there is so much one can do in preparations for the big day. Ultimately the Hmong American wedding just needs to be redefined and more valued. The industry has not been invested in greatly as compared to other Asian American communities, but there is a big market for it. Bee Yang noted "It is unfortunate to see that we do not give more thought to weddings as we do funerals but that's because in our history, a good passage into the afterlife is more important. That's not to say that we shouldn't make weddings a bigger deal into our future because we are heading into a more positive time. I think that we should invest into creating a hall specifically to rent out for weddings, have our young fashion designers create the white dress fused with Hmong designs, and make the tshoob just as fabulous, if not better than the ,000 funerals we hold."

If young couples only knew how beautiful our history is, they would appreciate the little details and get lost in planning

their special day.

If you are thinking about planning your tshoob soon, some hot trends Vang-Xiong has seen in the Hmong fusion wedding scene that she shared with me are the custom invites in Hmong and English, sweet stations, Hmong themed wedding cakes and cupcakes, wearing mom's old piece of jewelry as their "something old", fusion foods, more organized buffet stations with chafing dishes, seating for guests, tables and tent rental, a basic linen, fresh flowers and arrangements, a program with speeches and dances, and even renting a hall to have the hu plig and tshoob ceremonies. "One of my best investments was hiring a professional wedding photographer just to capture my backyard Hmong tshoob. It warms my heart when looking back at the small forgotten details of the day," she says as she notes it has not been acknowledged however documenting the tshoob is also very important to preserving our history.

In trying to keep costs down, the venue is usually the last thing on any couple's mind if they can have their tshoob at their parent's.

Vang-Xiong mentioned that even if the tshoob is done at home, some savvy brides have set up an entrance table for when guests arrive to sign in to create a more formal setting. "We've always had cookie and fruit trays at our hu plig ceremonies, I decided to put a twist onto the cookies with these little Hmong people cookie heads," says

Vang-Xiong as she shared her unique cookies and that they can be custom ordered however creative friends and family can easily make them too. A lot of modern couples have resorted to Pinterest or wedding blogs to find do-it-yourself (DIY) items to decorate or add that last finishing touch to their wedding. Creating a nice look and feel, even in the at home tshoob, will make and shape Hmong weddings to become a more valued entity in our community.

My family recently changed their faith because of a spiritual sickness of one of my younger sisters.

Shortly after, my baby sister was be wedded, my father jumped up quickly to tell the messengers who came to

fiv xov, "With my new faith, we do not need to discuss a price. Just invite me to the party when the young couple throws their wedding celebration at church." In that instant, my mother's heart fell to the ground as she felt as though

all she has invested into my little sister was worth nothing. As I mentioned before, it is hard to try and separate the religious part to the cultural part of a tshoob however my parents had performed the same ceremony for four out of their seven kids before they changed their faith, and my mother did not feel right to not give my baby sister the same blessing. Without performing the spiritual pieces like the hu plig ceremony, my mother was able to organize a beautiful tshoob for my sister and her husband involving all the important figures.

One of the meaningful pieces to a tshoob that is there but not visible is the support from the entire community and the extended family. Everyone who comes and joins in on your celebration or surrounds your marriage is rooting for it to succeed and stay strong. If I had to do it all over again, which I plan to do some day when I meet mister right, I would still pick having a tshoob over the white dress celebration that has no real meaning to me and my elders. It was the way my mother and her mother got married,

I see no other way. Youa Za Yang, a local Fresno shaman and Txhawb Magazine associate publisher said it best when he noted at the end of our meeting,

"The youth is infatuated with what is presented to them in American media but they have to remember that, ‘that is theirs' and that we have to remember our roots in order for us to keep our culture alive because ‘this is ours...Hmong tshoob is how your parents were wedded and it's how their family began and it will be how you can honor your ancestors, honor your identity and honor your parents."

Post on: January 15, 2014Written by Youa Vang
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