There was a strange buzz in the air, not like a bee’s or a dying refrigerator’s, but like the invisible, electrical energy of a community attuned to one thing. Like excitement about a new school going up or the fair coming into town. Except this buzz wasn’t an excited buzz, it was a bittersweet buzz tinged with finality. My neighbor’s daughter had just been captured for a man. A bride kidnapping. A practice we brought over to the United States from Thailand and Laos.
When I was growing up in Willows, California, most days were serene and lazy. We spent them catching dragonflies and flying kites in the empty field across the street. Interstate 5 ran along the western edge of the town, but it was far enough away that we didn’t hear the traffic. In the late 80’s to the early 2000’s, the Hmong population skyrocketed in that little town. I don't know if the long-time residents expected their town to change so drastically, but somebody thought the town could handle it. Social services were available to help us transition to the new world, ESL classes sprouted up for both adults and children, and Pine Ridge Apartments, where I lived for ten years, became a little Hmong village. We even raised a rooster named Mr. Lucky.
A Hmong convenience store popped up two blocks away, and on hot summer days, my sister and I walked there to buy two-for-one candies and sugary popsicles that made our tongues blue. I heard that was where they grabbed my neighbor’s daughter. She was there with her little brothers, and three men pulled up in a car and wrestled her into the back seat. By the time the boys ran home and told their mother, their sister was long gone.
Sixteen and married
What happened to my neighbor’s daughter was an out-of-practice cultural practice called “bride capture” (in the U.S. it's called kidnapping). She knew her captor. He had been one of her courters. Traditionally, a Hmong man could “court” as many women as he wanted and a Hmong woman could be “courted by” as many men as she wanted. Then she eventually chose the best courter to marry. What happened in the case of my neighbor’s daughter was he chose her, but she didn’t choose him. So he got a few of his buddies, and they “captured” her while she was out of the house running an errand. Not the most romantic way to start a marriage, but it was tradition--and, unfortunately, in many cultures, women lose out when it comes to tradition.
Once a girl was “captured”, she couldn’t really say no. In many cases, it would bring shame upon her parents. So my neighbor’s daughter was married. Sixteen and married.
When I think of sixteen, I think of braces, high school dances and chemistry. I think of young adult novels about vampires and werewolves and faeries. I don't think of marriage and babies and what it means to be a wife or a mother. And yet this happened almost every week while I was growing up. Not the whole bride capture thing, but marriage. Girls were running off with their boyfriends at fourteen and fifteen and sixteen. Like they were rushing to be an adult, to have a husband and to start having babies.
I think back then many Hmong girls felt like they didn’t have a lot of options. Running off with their boyfriends promised romance and freedom. What most girls got was just two more cages: their husband’s and their in-laws’. After all, there was no way two sixteen-year-olds could afford their own place. No way a girl could live with her in-laws and be independent. The moment you married their son, they wanted to see children.
Well, I wasn’t having that. I wasn’t getting caught in a marriage trap. But when my 32nd birthday happened (I rarely celebrate my birthday, it just kinda happens to me), I began to wonder, “Had I been too quick to judge?” These girls now have children in high school and college. They have families, homes full of chatter and running feet and toys. I have to deal with the baby question on a daily basis. Meanwhile they have already lived a season of life that I am only dreaming of. Have I missed my window of opportunity?
Waiting for the right moment
I was in my late twenties the first time my mom mentioned having a baby. I was working in Fresno and had come home for the weekend. From the early commotion outside my parents’ townhouse, I could tell the neighbors were having a party. A Hmong party isn’t just a party, it’s a party. You wake up at the crack of dawn--I struggled with this part of being a Hmong girl all my life--and begin prepping the food. Several pots of steamed rice and rinsed veggies later, there would be a fresh-slaughtered pig or cow, chickens to pluck, more cooking to do, a shaman, a chant and dishes to wash. Then, if you’re really lucky, you’d get to eat around noon.
Mom had been at the party and returned with a bundle in her arms.
“Whose baby is that?” I asked, reaching out to grab his little cherubic hands.
“The neighbor’s daughter’s,” Mom said.
Different neighbor. Different daughter. I had a lot of neighbors with a lot of daughters.
“You and Alex won’t have a baby for me, so I’ll just have to hold other people’s babies.”
It was so nonchalant--a slight mention, an afterthought. She wasn’t so brazen (yet) to say right out that Alex and I should have a baby, but she left that part for me to figure out. Almost as if she was saying, “Oh, by the way, your cousin is coming to visit on Sunday.” So you better be here and you better be on your best behavior.
Alex and I were living together at that time, but we weren’t married yet. Mom is fairly traditional, so I wonder when “don't you dare step out of this house after dark” became “who cares about a wedding, just have a baby”?
As I ventured into my early thirties, Mom’s baby mentions became more blunt. “I asked your brother and his girlfriend to have a baby, but they won’t, so you and Alex have a baby for me.”
“Have at least one child,” she said right before my 32nd birthday, “so that you have someone to take care of you when you get older.”
These days I’m careful about when I hold a baby because the last time I had a baby in my arms in public, an auntie gave me googly eyes and said, “Your mother is getting old. You should have a baby for her.”
Mom had me when she was twenty-one. Then she had six more children. Six. That’s seven children total. I think in Mom’s time and possibly even now for some people, having children was the sole purpose of being a Hmong woman. Carry on the line--or, rather, the clan name (there are roughly 18 clans in the Hmong culture, all identified by last names). And here I am, at age 32, childless. I think it must be frightening for Mom to see her oldest daughter like this.
Flowers bloom at all seasons of the year, and I was like one of those flowers that bloom in December. Like a calla lily or a camellia (yes, I totally looked those up). I was an awkward girl. I didn’t know how to talk to boys and didn’t know how to make myself look good to attract boys. I didn’t really date until college, and by then I had chosen not to have children until after I locked down my career.
Once I began my professional journey, I had to start paying back my student loans. Then Alex became sick, and while he recovered I made the decision to wait. People say, “There’s no such thing as the right moment. You just have to have the baby and then take it day by day.” Nobody is ever really ready, they say.
I’m not naive enough to think that there will be a perfect moment to have children, but the responsibility of bringing a life into the world weighs heavily on my heart. Having a baby before I’m ready emotionally, physically and mentally seems selfish and thoughtless. It seems unfair to a child who will have no say about what kind of world he or she is being brought into. No, there is no perfect moment, but I think there is a right moment. Or at least some moments are more right than others. As this child’s mother, I can make sure that I have my finances under control and am not living paycheck to paycheck. I can make sure that Alex and I have a trusting, healthy relationship. I can’t do everything, but I can do whatever is in my power to make sure this child has the best start.
Did I miss my window? I sure hope not. I hope I’ve only opened it wider so that many more opportunities can come into my life.
Finding meaning in the choices we make
I once heard a realtor say it took her client a week to decide what color to paint a new house. It's not quite the same as deciding to have a child, but nobody wants to feel like they made the wrong decision. Not the house-buyer and certainly not me. I believe we give more power to the choices we make than we’d like think. We compare ourselves to our peers and what they have in their lives and whether or not what we have measure up. We start to feel FOMO (which I discuss in my post about success). Am I missing out on something? Did I make the wrong choice? Is that...regret that I’m feeling?
I believe our choices only have power over us for a short amount of time. It’s that period of time when we realize we have choices to that moment when we actually make a choice. After that the ball is back in our court (Only sport reference I’m gonna make EVER). We get the power back. But I can see how easy it is to misunderstood the kind of impact our choices can have on our lives. As a recovering perfectionist, choosing something as easy as a coffee pot can sometimes seem overwhelming. What if it doesn’t match with all my other kitchenware? What if it doesn’t fit into the cabinet?
The truth is, the choices we make may shape the direction of our lives, but they don’t define whether or not our lives are meaningful. Only we can do that. The ball is in our court. If my neighbor’s daughter hadn’t gone to the store that day, she might’ve led a different life. If I had married at age sixteen and had six children, my life would be completely different. But both of these lives would’ve still been meaningful. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say every life lived is meaningful.
I’d like to think that my window is still wide open, and there’s a cool breeze blowing through, swaying the white curtains that hang on either side. And outside the sun shines on a blank canvas for me to paint whatever choice I want to make and it will be be meaningful.