Originally published in the Houston Chronicle.


Dec. 13, 2003

In Hmong society, simple ball game leads to marriage

Associated Press

BAN HAI HIN, Laos — It seems a simple game of catch, but for Kanee Neengmai each toss of the tennis ball is filled with portent.

Wearing a traditional costume of layered cloth decorated with beads and jingling silver coins, the 17year-old ethnic Hmong eyes the young man standing about 10 feet from her on a dirt track in this village in northeastern Laos, sizing him up as a potential suitor.

“Handsome or not, I don’t care,” she says, gently throwing the pale green ball to his hands. “I just want a boy that likes me.”

It was the first day of the Hmong New Year, a festival celebrated at various times in November and December after the rice harvest and a time for teenage girls to don ceremonial outfits and go out to meet prospective mates in a courtship ritual known as pov pob, or throwing the ball.

The game — an ice-breaker for Hmong youths — is played during all three days of the New Year festivities, which for the non-romantically inclined include water buffalo fights, rice whiskey drinking, elaborate feasts and a rest from toiling in the fields.

According to Hmong lore, the New Year celebrates the victory of a mythical hero over an evil spirit that ate Hmong people in ancient times. There is a Hmong calendar, but there are many versions, so the festival is held at various times in Hmong communities.

The holiday began Nov. 24 this year in Ban Hai Hin, a village of about 300 people nestled in the lush mountains of Xieng Khuang province, just over 100 miles northeast of the Laotian capital, Vientiane.

The area was a battleground during the Vietnam War, when many Hmong joined a CIA-backed army to fight communist guerrillas.

After the war, thousands of former Hmong soldiers resettled with their families in the United States, where many still observe ancestral traditions and send money back to relatives in Laos in exchange for New Year dresses.

The Hmong, an ethnic minority representing less than 10 percent of Laos’ population of nearly 6 million, are a tough, rural people who have lived for centuries in mountain settlements away from the country’s dominant lowlanders, or Lao Loum.

The New Year is a time when Hmong begin a new chapter of life, and it is considered a highly auspicious time for courtship.

“I want to get married because I like her,” said Xay Xua, a 16-year-old boy, adjusting his denim jacket and tossing apov pob ball to a bejeweled girl named Bria, who held an umbrella to shade herself. “I throw the ball because this time of year is very important.”

Hmong generally participate in the ritual beginning at age 15. They once used soft cloth balls filled with kapok, and a couple might toss the ball for all three days of the festival and sometimes for as long as a month, said Suen Suesa, a 27-year-old Hmong tour guide.

Some Hmong girls spend several years sizing up suitors at successive New Year festivals.

Mii Singthong, a 17-year-old who stood in a clearing with other girls in the village of Lat Huang, said she was willing to wait for the right suitor.

“If I don’t find him this year, I can always keep looking next year,” she said.