Sunday, September 18, 2016

Scenes From The Life Of A Black H'mong Woman

On the second day of the homestay trek from Sa Pa, there were only two of us left; me and Scott from Vancouver. So we asked our guide a lot of questions about her life as a Black H'mong woman in Vietnam, and this post is based on the answers she gave us.

I really haven't had much contact with the H'mong men. I think a H'mong male was a bus driver on one of the treks I was on. But he didn't say much. The H'mong women are ubiquitous as guides on the tours.

A H'mong woman will usually go through primary school and secondary school (secondary school is analogous to junior high or middle school), which is provided for free by the state. But high school costs money. So most H'mong don't go to high school. And very few go to university.

There are very few H'mong who have been outside the area where they grew up. Very few have been to Hanoi. Even less have been out of the country of Vietnam, though it is possible. If a H'mong does not make it through high school (mostly because of the cost), then there is a choice of either continuing with the farm that is in the family, or trying to find a job. And if the job is chosen, then money must be paid to secure the job in many cases; the H'mong often have to save up money to buy their way into a job.

There are rules about how their property is passed down through the family, and family members who did not inherit and have not been able to get an outside job are usually cared for on the family plot of land and assist with the subsistence farming. The small amounts of land the H'mong own have usually been passed down for many generations, and it is the bulk of their wealth. Our guide told us they only harvest one crop of rice a year. I don't know why that is, because in Japan, they often harvest two crops, and Vietnam is even more temperate, being able to grow vegetables through the winter. But they don't usually have enough land to go beyond subsistence farming. They only grow enough to feed their families and animals, and cannot grow a surplus to sell. The meals they prepare are usually from the grains, beans, and vegetables that they grow, and from the animals they raise, so you almost can't get a more locally sourced meal.

A Black H'mong woman is expected to awake before anyone else in the household, as early as four in the morning. Especially if parents of either the woman or the man live in the house.  If the Black H'mong woman does not wake up to work on the farm and cook meals, she is considered lazy.

Most Black H'mong women are married between the ages of 15 and 17. If the woman is not married by her 20s, she is considered to be lazy, and unmarriageable.

Black H'mong women are expected to make the clothes for the family. If they don't make the clothes, they are considered to be lazy. There are a lot of points on the Black H'mong flowchart that lead to lazy, and that is not a good thing in the Black H'mong ideology.  Keep in mind that this "lazy" thing is not a value judgment I am making, but the description given to me by the guide.

Despite all the rigidity in what is expected of the Black H'mong, and despite the fact that they are desperately poor, work very hard for almost nothing, and they are not treated so well by the ethnic Vietnamese (who are the majority in Vietnam), the H'mong seem to be very happy, and some of the most carefree and spirited people I have met. They seem to survive through the strength of their will and the force of their collective character, and they don't seem to nurture so much a sense of grievance about their position in society or of any perceived wrongs that have been done to them. They seem to take what they have and really maximize it. Their lives are fairly uncomplicated.

There is a lot of hemp grown by the H'mong. It is spun into thread for clothing by the women of the tribe, who then make it into cloth.  They then dye the fabric black by soaking it for several passes in a solution made from the indigo plant. Once they have made the cloth, they then will sew clothing from it, and the clothing is heavily embroidered. The black cloth that they make the clothing from is where the Black H'mong get their name. Though they make most of their clothes, they do buy some items of clothing (our guide was wearing a windbreaker she bought), and they usually buy shoes.

The guide I talked to had never been to Hanoi, and neither she nor her husband owned any transportation vehicle, not even a bicycle.  Mostly she walks everywhere she goes, between the various villages in the close-knit area where she lives, with the exception of riding with the caravans that bring in the tourists. Though many of the guides learn to speak English to be able to guide tourists, they may not be able to read it at all

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic! I love that you asked her about herself and her people and shared this with us.