I am a Hmong woman. A wife, mother, daughter, sister, village member. I am Hmong. The Vietnamese tried to make us part of their culture once. Some people left my village, others were sent to jail for being Christian or Buddhist. Not my family. Our culture runs through our veins like the roots of the trees on the mountainside, and no one can take it from us. We have always been a part of the earth. My ancestors lived on and harvested this land for as long as time, farming chickens, goats and pigs and growing rice on the tiered mountainsides two seasons out of the year. The animals were fattened and saved for special occasions like holidays and family celebrations. Whatever was left from the rice harvest they would take to the village to sell. They didn’t make much, but it was enough for their simple lives. The men worked in the fields hand planting and picking the rice, and the women cared for the children—three sometimes four or five.
Sometimes I think about the lives of my ancestors and the traditions they passed down to us; how to work the rice fields with water buffalo, the colorful hand woven head scarves we still wear and how to wrap cloth around our bare legs when it’s cold outside. It’s funny to think how much my life resembles theirs hundreds of years ago, yet how many things have changed with the influence of the Vietnamese and tourism.
It’s a Tuesday morning. I wake up at five, dress my son, Liaj and walk him to school. I had two other children but they died as babies. It has always been just Liaj and me, but I recently got the joyous news that I an pregnant with my fourth child! Liaj just turned five and just started at the primary school built in my village last year. He is the first generation in my family to get an education. I am happy he can have the education I never got. I can’t read or write but I can speak English!
After saying our goodbyes I catch a ride on a motorbike to the nearby Vietnamese town of Sapa. It is in the north of the country near the Chinese border and has become very popular with tourists in the past few years. I spend the day selling silver earrings, bracelets, woven scarves and purses made by me and my fellow villagers.
I get to Sapa and there are tourists everywhere! I greet them saying, “hello, where are you from? What is your name?” and they turn around stunned at my English! Sometimes they answer me and sometimes they simply rush down the street ignoring my questions.
I talk with the foreigners who do stop and tell them about my culture. Sometimes they even come to my village and I cook them lunch and invite them to stay the night with my family. I get out our nicest bowls, pick fresh greens from our garden and we all gather around the table for a meal sharing each other’s company laughing and drinking rice wine.
The tourists say they don’t have meals like this at home. Their family eats different food at different times and they rarely see each other. This is hard for me to imagine. My family is the most important thing in my life. We share everything.
Tonight the tourists have come. They ask me questions about my village and culture, trying to understand our lives. They look surprised to see my small house with dirt floors and a single bed that my husband, son and I share. They spend time playing with the village children and even give them crayons they have carried along as presents. We don’t have paper, but the kids are happy coloring on wood planks and smooth rocks.
My mother, cousins and neighbors come over and we have a big dinner and sip rice wine all the while telling stories about our cultures. We live such different lives and I’m not sure they will ever understand our choice to live so simply, and I will never understand their busy schedules and separated families, but we have become friends and respect each other.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up and return to Sapa hoping to sell my crafts to tourists. The tourists will give me the money I need to support my family, and I will give them memories to bring home to their countries. Maybe one day they will tell their children about the Hmong villages in Vietnam, and my children will grow up hearing stories from their far off lands and we will learn to listen to the sound of harmony growing stronger with each passing word.