Hmong Soul

Ring! Ring! I slowly open my eyes to look at my phone. “Mom and Dad” appears on the screen as I look to see who was calling. I know it’s my Mom calling to check up on me, to do a favor and the usual, to make sure I’m not doing anything she doesn’t think I should be doing, which is just about anything.

Geez, that’s terrible, I think to myself as I clear my throat and sit up to make it seem like I was up, since it was noon. This is what I think when my mom calls, that something is wrong, that something isn’t good enough, or that she’s calling because she needs something, which is never really a favor but more like a demand. All of these thoughts pop in my head in the few short seconds before I pick up.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, already feeling guilty for almost not wanting to pick up her phone call and being an ungrateful daughter.

“Why do I call and you don’t pick up? I called you four or five times yesterday. You didn’t pick up,” she said, stating the obvious and the facts. In my head I’m thinking, “Uh, where’s the ‘Hello, how are you doing?'” But I guess that went out the window when I didn’t pick up the first time.

“I know, Mom. I’m sorry. I was out last night and couldn’t really pick up.” I told her the truth because it was the truth, and because I know she knows I’m lying when I don’t tell her the truth.

“See, I knew you were out and that’s why you didn’t pick up. You probably just got up.”

“Yes, Mom, I did just get up. How are you? What are you doing?”

“Your dad and I need you to not go anywhere this weekend and come home. We’re going to uaneeg and need you to be here.” Uaneeg is a religious Hmong ceremony that requires preparing a large meal and is usually attended by close relatives.

What? I suddenly sit up a little straighter and thoughts about the upcoming weekend start clicking in my head as I try to counteract her casual dictate with anything worthy of a fight. I wanted to keep my weekend open because some mutual friends of friends were going to stop by from out state. Okay, fine. This may not be the fight worth fighting for, I quickly concluded, as if I really had a choice.

“Okay, I’ll be home this weekend,” I said in a defeated tone.

“Make sure you come home on Friday to help me clean and run some errands. I know you won’t wake up early on Saturday. We’ll be done by the time you get here, so be here Friday. Okay?” She dragged out the “Aaaaahhhhh” in Hmong to emphasize her sternness.

“Uuhhhh,” I said in Hmong, letting her know I understood.

“Uhhuhh, but we’ll see,” she said, to let me know that she was doubtful whether or not I would be true to my word, but hoping that I would prove her wrong.

“I’ll be there,” I reassured her.

“We’ll see,” she said, not giving in.

“Okay. Bye, Mom,” I emphasized the bye to let her know that I was hanging up.

I looked at my recent calls and saw four missed calls from her. I let the guilty feeling linger. I sat in bed asking myself why it was so hard for me to make the two-hour trip home to help my parents. Nothing good enough came to mind. All the cooking, table setting, cleaning seemed so minuscule compared to all the work my parents put into this traditional practice. But somehow the ceremony (uaneeg) became more of a burden than a practice that I wanted to fulfill. I went home that Friday, and by the time the weekend was over,I didn’t think more of it. However, a few months later I moved back home to live with my parents.

The challenges of living back home felt burdensome and inconvenient, similar to being told to come home to uaneeg. I was upset by the obligations imposed on me, and then I was upset for feeling obligated because these were my parents. I was ashamed. As I adjusted to living with my parents, balancing work and a social life, I realized I was hardly paying any attention to my parents. I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one growing older. I needed to help take care of my parents. I wanted and struggled to understand this new growth that I was experiencing, but I couldn’t embrace fast enough.

Unfortunately I didn’t wake up one day and put my parents at the top of my list. My realization was far more reactive and I found myself in the emergency room with my Mom whose blood sugar was at 585 when it should be no more than 180 (non-fasting). That night in the ER not only forced me to find a way to help my Mom recognize the severity of her diabetes, but more importantly, it made me want to know her better and understand the things she cares about.

A few weeks later my Mom and I went to her follow up appointment. Her lack of knowledge about diabetes, what she’s heard from others, her personal views, her fears and other factors all affect the way she manages her health. Talking to her and hearing her share these thoughts relieved some of the frustration and anger I had at her for not taking her medication as directed or injecting insulin. As I opened up to her, I wanted to understand so much more of her, her cultural values, practices and beliefs that she and my father have taught me.

Leaving the doctor’s office that day, I remembered the Hmong story cloths that used to hang on the walls of that office, which happened to be the same doctor I went to as a child. The Hmong story clothes reminded me of the folktale of the creation of Hmong.

The story on the cloth begins with a couple named “Nkawm Kab Yeeb” who were the first two people on earth created by “Yam Saub” who is known as the Hmong creator.They are always referred to as a couple, which is “Nkawm” with the name being “Kab Yeeb”. The couple is actually a brother and sister who asked Yam Saub why there were no other people. So Yam Saub instructed them to each roll a rock down opposite mountain tops, and if they landed on top of each other at the bottom that meant that they were destined to marry and have children. The brother, being faster, ran to the bottom of the mountains and placed one rock on the other, knowing that that would be the only way that they could create more people.

Yam Saub then told them to wait nine years before they could conceive. However when they did conceive, there wasn’t a baby but a lump of meat that Nkawm Kab Yeeb separated into pieces that they divided across the land. From each of those pieces came each group of people with a different last name that we call Hmong clans today. Although this story is told a little differently from different people, the significance is that Nkawm Kab Yeeb becomes the keeper of the Hmong soul or spirit.

As I learned more about traditional Hmong practices, I began integrating what I was hearing with what I witnessed growing up. My interpretation may be different from others, but I’m learning to tell it in my own words through my own understanding.

The spirit of the soul begins with the birth of every child. An essential practice that happens right after a baby’s birth is the burial of the placenta. The burial of the placenta represents the beginning and end of the soul’s journey. When a person passes, the spirit traces its way back to the placenta to reclaim it in order to return to the spiritual world to be reincarnated. In homes that were built in Laos, which were built on dirt, the male’s placenta was buried by the main pillar which was located at the center of the house. The female’s placenta was buried under the parent’s bed wherever that was located in the house. Traditionally the men stay with the parents and the women marry and leave their families. (This particular practice probably doesn’t happen anymore as a result of the many changes that Hmong have experienced living in the United States.)

When a child is born, there is a ritual known as the calling of the spirit(Hu Plig) that takes place on the third day after the child’s birth. This is performed at the front door step where the wandering spirit of the baby is called to come into contact with the body.

Following the calling is the separation of the spiritual bond between the baby and Nkawm Kab Yeeb where they are honored and thanked for the birth of the child. This practice is out of obligation as well as appreciation, because if this doesn’t happen, Nkawm Kab Yeeb will determine that the child is not going to be loved, leaving the child prone to sickness and even death if the appropriate precautions are not taken.

Traditionally after the first month, there is another ceremony (KhiTes) where close relatives are asked to be present to tie a string on the baby’s wrist to show Nkawm Kab Yeeb that the baby is loved and welcomed to the family. This made me think about how alert my Mom is when my siblings make innocent jokes about their children (her grandchildren). Any time she hears a joke, she immediately responds with a contrasting statement to make up for it, and then she firmly reminds us to be more mindful. That is how sensitive the spirit of a person is, especially that of a child. Whenever your spirit is hurt, your well-being and health can be compromised.

There are several rituals performed early on when a child is born. It is a critical time when the child’s spirit is highly vulnerable and exposed to many dangers. As depicted in the drawing, the act of cutting the baby’s hair is to rid the baby of any negative energy that could have been experienced through the birthing process, which is viewed as a very traumatic process.

As a child I remember my grandfather painting a cross-like figure on my baby nephew’s forehead before my nephew left the house. At that time I didn’t know that that ritual symbolized the spirit of my nephew being claimed, that he belonged to our family, to ward off any evil spirits.

Throughout one’s life, the spirit is continuously being protected by the family’s annual practice of uaneeg, where animals, such as a chicken, pig or cow, are sacrificed. The resistance that I had before to help my parents prepare for a traditional ceremony slowly disappeared as I developed a new understanding and appreciation of honoring the spirit of the soul.

One of the most esteemed practices of honoring the spirit happens at death. The end of a person’s life is as important as the beginning. During the funeral there are key individuals who help guide the spirit back to the spiritual world to be reincarnated. This is done by the “QhuabKe” who is verbally guiding the spirit back to its birth. In addition to being guided by the “QhuabKe”, the spirit is accompanied by the qeej which is a Hmong instrument in coordination with the “Nruas”, which is similar to a drum. All of these individuals are specifically skilled in their role because they are required to help the spirit find its way back home.

My Dad began playing the qeej at a very young age. Although I can’t understand what is being said when he plays, he has encouraged me to observe, listen and ask questions at funerals to better understand the many responsibilities that are involved in such an elaborate occasion. Guiding the spirit back is an intricate and delicate process, especially if the spirit is not ready to return. These individuals can only guide the spirit to a certain point, and from there they can only advise the spirit on how to complete the rest of its journey.

Everywhere that the spirit has been is the path that it needs to travel back on to return safely to the spiritual world. Once the spirit finds its home where the placenta was buried, the spirit must dig it up and take it back in order to be reincarnated. Usually when someone is said to have returned to Laos, that means that that person has passed and her/his spirit has gone home wherever the placenta was buried.Before Laos they would say China, which is where Hmong originated.

It is believed that your spirit, your Hmong soul can only be reincarnated back into your immediate family or clan again. In a sense your children’s children are believed to be the reborn soul of your great grandparents. To have a beautifully adorned funeral shows how much a person is loved and wanted to be reincarnated into the same clan. At Hmong funerals, family members will sit or stand near the body to cry and mourn their loss. They are also crying because they hope to receive as honorable a service as the one they are mourning.

The spirit of the soul is so fragile, yet I’ve fallen into the trap of neglecting it. From taking away my weekend to taking off work, I never thought of it as taking care of myself and the ones I love. These ceremonies and practices are not a burden or inconvenience, but an obligation to give back to my soul. I hope that I can practice this more and that these practices are passed on to others.

The intention of this story is not to explain how each traditional practice happens. It is to share my passion to learn about a faith that I don’t fully understand, but that I value because it is what keeps me grounded. I know that whatever challenges I’m faced with, I am rooted in the foundation that my parents have built for me; and that is what gives me the will to overcome any test in life. Even though I may not be able to emulate each of these traditions, I know that I’ve acquired their values and beliefs. That is what has helped me shape the foundation of who I am.