hmong

Nia Ngao Zhua Pa: Paragon of Hmong Femininity

The legend of Nia Ngao Zhua Pa is supposed to serve as a code of conduct for Hmong girls, providing a story of a “good girl” versus a “bad girl.”

The end result, at least to non-Hmong ears, is a lot stranger than that.

The core story across all variations of the NNZP story (and there are many – the book I found spent 100 pages on just NNZP stories) is one of those “I’ve made a huge mistake” stories. In all versions, it starts with the male lead, Orphan Boy (who is not the world’s worst Mega Man villain, but instead the anonymous protagonist of many Hmong stories) meeting and romancing the titular Nia Ngao Zhua Pa. In each version, she demonstrates that she’s awesome in a way befitting traditional Hmong femininity:

  • Most often, she makes food and a house virtually out of thin air.
  • In one, she proves she can find clean water in the Orphan’s filthy hovel by following a duck.
  • In another, she teaches the Orphan how to transform into a 12-horned buffalo in order to wrestle with her father, who is a dragon.

You may notice that one of these things is not like the other. That’s Version 3. Version 3 is special.

Inevitably, after showing that she’s awesome, she settles down with the Orphan – who, by this point, has only shown his character by either helping an old lady, startling NNZP’s horse, or burning down a village (hello, Version 3!). They live a pretty nice and comfortable life, until a fly in the ointment appears. This is Nia Ngao Kou Kaw (NNKK).

NNKK is the classic pretty girl. She’s thin, wears fancy clothes, and has soft skin, while NNZP’s somewhat more muscular and has rougher hands from all her hard work. NNKK, seeing the Orphan’s now-baller house, worms her way in by telling the Orphan that NNZP secretly drinks sheep blood. Like, a lot of it. Nine bowls, in fact. In some versions, NNKK even smears her own menstrual blood on NNZP’s sleeping face in order to frame her. Eugh.

The Orphan – who, it must be mentioned, is never mentioned to be a smart man – immediately kicks out the otherwise angelic NNZP. This is not a quick process. You know how fairy tales like to repeat things three times? Cue NNZP telling the Orphan, at length, in triplicate, that he’s a god damned idiot and will regret his actions. Good ol’ Orphan Boy replies, “get out of here, I’m banging a new chick now!” three times, until she’s gone, like an inverse Beetlejuice.

Oh, and in about half the stories, she has a baby at this point. Nice going, Orphan.

NNKK, of course, turns out to be terrible. She’s lazy, burns rice, and lies around like an opium addict (a fact which the narrator harps on a *lot*). In Version 3, she is so lazy that, while chopping a tree, she actually climbs inside of the part she’s chopped up, so she can take a nap – and lays there so long that the tree grows around her and swallows her whole. This woman is Garfield’s god.

By this point, the Orphan has realized he done goofed, and sets out to win back NNZP. Except by this point, NNZP is in the clutches of a dragon, at the bottom of a lake, in a baller house. In most versions, she met and married the dragon after being dismissed by the Orphan. And because she is better off by virtually every conceivable metric, the Orphan sets out to liberate her from her life of peace and tranquility.

The Orphan, being unable to breath underwater, enlists the help of some nearby frogs to drain the lake. They promise to do so if he doesn’t laugh at them as they swell up to gargantuan sizes from swallowing water. The Orphan laughs anyways, because he is kind of a jerk, and causes the frogs’ bellies to burst open repeatedly. Eventually they get it done, but the Orphan is not very helpful in this regard. Or almost any other.

After he meets NNZP on bent knee and begs for her to take him back, she tasks him with a secret mission. He’s to make 9 tubs of water, whose reflection he can use to see her flying around in the sky at night with her dragon beau. If it’s meant to be, she says, he can reach up and grab her from her flying horse, and she’ll be his forever.

So what does the Orphan do? Makes the tubs, sees her flying, and starts grabbing at the god damned water. Yes – this is a person so stupid that he cannot grasp the concept of reflections, and instead of looking up, just keeps confusedly hitting the water with his fists. In several versions, NNZP says “peace out,” drops their baby’s cap, and that’s the end of the story.

Version 3 is a bit more awesome, though. In that one, the Orphan, after far longer than necessary, realizes his stupidity, and manages to grab onto the tails of NNZP’s apron. This leads to the dragon-folk chasing them through the sky as the Orphan hangs on helplessly. NNZP fixes this scenario by using her weaving shuttle to shoot lightning at the dragons. This has led to some Hmong to say, upon seeing lightning, that “Nia Ngao Zhua Pa is weaving.”

ART NOTES AND TRIVIA

My roommates can attest that this one was more difficult for me to draw than most. Given the huge number of things going on in this story, paring it down and making a single image – and figuring out how to portray NNZP – proved really difficult. I created a ton of different concepts and none really spoke to me. But I had a deadline, and several folk kept asking for a Hmong princess, so here you go.

  • NNZP is seen here frustrated as hell at the Orphan’s rampant idiocy. She is so exasperated that she’s crushing the hand of her new beau, the dragon (whose hand is coming out of the water - in Hmong mythology, dragons can easily change form to humans).
  • The Orphan is, of course, slapping a tub full of water, next to some overly-full frogs. The hut in the background is not a traditional Hmong structure, but gets at just how run-down his filthy hovel was before NNZP showed up.
  • NNKK is reclining like an opium addict, wiping off some blood in the lake. Doing anything in rural lakes like this is a huge no-no to traditional Hmong, as they believe dragons live in said lakes. So she’s being pretty dang stupid here.
  • The duck that helped NNZP find water is here also helping her find a good man.
  • There’s a bunch of dragons in the sky around the bolt of lightning.
  • This isn’t even nearly a comprehensive overview of all the variations. I’ve left out subplots involving the Orphan being a messenger for a dragon; said dragon’s son accidentally killing a baby and starting a riot; the Orphan asking for a dead burnt cat from NNZP’s dragon parents (hello Version 3!); parables about how various animals got twisted or curved horns; the Orphan getting a mouse and a snake to kill NNZP’s new husband; and significant amounts of arson. Suffice to say, it’s a pretty wide-ranging folk tale.

CITATIONS

Dab Neeg Hmoob: Myths, Legends, and Folk Tales from the Hmong of Laos by Charles Johnson and Se Yang (thanks to my brother for getting this for me – it was hard to find!)

NEXT WEEK ON REJECTED PRINCESSES

Taking a week to patch things up on the website and introduce a couple features, not the least of which is bringing back the “next week” guesses. Will put out a hint next week and have a new entry up in two weeks!

Happy Hmong-American Day!

I used to be unhappy being Hmong since we weren’t really well known. When people asked me, “What is Hmong?”, I would tell them that it’s sort of a mixture of Chinese, Laotian, and Thai. The more I grew to like my culture, I realized that Hmong is Hmong and not “sort of a mix" of other ethnicities. It is unique as its own.

Way back then, the Hmong and Chinese had wars for whoever could take over the land. Eventually, the Hmong lost and they fled to other countries. That’s why we don’t have a country under our name like how Chinese people have China, Koreans have Korea, the Japanese has Japan, etc. During the Vietnam War, the U.S turned to the Hmong for help. Once the U.S saw no hope of winning, they evacuated their troops and left the Hmong allies to fight the North Vietnamese alone. The evacuation of the American troops led to the Hmong genocide and many Hmong people fled and moved around constantly because they were afraid of being caught and dying. Thailand allowed incoming Hmong people into the country as refugees but were soon put in concentration camps to be closely watched for rebellion. Soon, the Thai government sent about 4,000 refuges back to Laos and killed about another 4,000. No matter how much the Hmong people cried for help, the U.S did nothing about it. With the help of General Vang Pao, a Hmong military chief that was recruited by the CIA, over 200,000 Hmong refuges found a new home in America. General Vang Pao died on January 6, 2011 in which over 10,000 Hmong people mourned over his death on the first day of his funeral. He was a hero, leader, and father to the Hmong community.

When we learn about the Vietnam War in class, I always get pissed off because there’s no talk about how the Hmong were involved and how badly the U.S impacted the Hmong people. I’m thankful for my ancestors and proud of my culture. I hope that one day, the Hmong culture and tradition are more well known throughout the world.

vimeo

Choua Thao: Female Hmong Veteran Reflects on Secret War

New America Media, Video, Kyle Moua, Posted: Apr 30, 2015

Choua Thao wasn’t like other Hmong girls. At the age of six, she believes she was the first Hmong girl in Laos to attend school and learn English.

Her father, a regional chief, had seen other Laotian girls attend school and decided that his five children, too, should become educated. But it was unheard of for a Hmong girl to go to school, rather than learning to cultivate the fields.

Thao, now 72, recalls the disparaging comments she heard among villagers of Ban Phoukabaht, in the Xieng Khouang Province in Laos, where she grew up. Some questioned her father’s decision, calling him a “stupid man,” and saying she would turn out to be lazy. “She will go be a prostitute,” she remembers hearing them say. “The lazy don’t know how to farm.”

Her father’s decision set in motion a series of events that would lead her to become a nurse during the CIA’s Secret War in Laos, and eventually flee to the United States.

Now living in San Jose, Calif., the grandmother and war veteran says it was learning English that offered her an opportunity to escape the fields and farming life traditionally expected of young Hmong women.

For eight years, Thao’s father sent her out of the house every morning at 6:00 am. She would walk for two hours to reach school in time for lessons, and walk two hours home again.

Becoming a nurse

When she turned 13, she was recruited by the International Volunteer Service to join a one-year nursing program. After that she went to Thailand to train for two more years at the U.S. Udon Military Hospital.

At the age of 16, she was sent to a hospital in Xieng Khouang to “be a good example,” of Western medical practices. Trained in the “American way,” Thao infuriated her colleagues by throwing away needles and syringes after a single use. Although her fellow nurses were older and had more years of experience, Thao was a supervisor and would take on some of the doctor’s responsibilities when he was away.

In 1969, at the age of 22, with three small children, Thao was asked to oversee the busy American Sam Thong Hospital.

Thao says Edgar ‘Pop’ Buell, the American humanitarian aid worker, told her she would be the boss. “I say no… I’m too young,” she recalls. But he insisted, telling her that her language skills set her apart from the older nurses. In the end, Thao found herself working around the clock at the hospital.

Fleeing Laos

Like many Hmong who assisted the United States in the Secret War in Laos, Thao found that her close associations with the U.S. and its allies carried a high price.

The United States was not officially supposed to be in Laos through an international agreement signed in 1962. So the CIA fought communism in Laos through a secret army. Though other indigenous populations were recruited, much of the army was Hmong. The Hmong army was used to rescue downed American fighters, combat Communist forces in Laos and cause havoc on North Vietnamese forces along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

After the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam and the Lao Communist forces took over the country, the Hmong and other allies of the U.S. were targeted for death.

“It was… the Communist way,” Thao explains. “If you are working for the American, they want to capture you, take you to kill you.”

She recalls her escape from the Laotian Communists, called Pathet Lao, or Lao Nation. “They [were] late by about two hours,” she recalls. “I took off before that.”

Journey to the U.S.

Thao, her husband, Nhot Kham Sinwongsa, and their six children arrived in Winpun, Wisc. on April 15, 1976. They were sponsored by a local church, a common support network for the first wave of Hmong refugees.

Thao delayed her arrival by three months, however, because she wanted to train young women at the Napho Refugee Camp in Thailand on proper nursing techniques before she left for America. She and her family stayed at the refugee camp for nine months.

Within weeks of arriving in the U.S., Thao and her husband had found jobs. But she was determined to make a new life for her family, and set about getting an American education. “I work during the day, I go to night school for seven years,” she recalls.

With her daughter at her side, she went to the University of Minnesota for two years to get a degree in social work.

But she says her children felt neglected, and thought she was being selfish by pursuing her own education. She agreed to stop getting degrees, on the condition that her children all did well in school. ‘[If] you don’t make it, then I‘m gonna [be] very angry,” she told them.

Caring for the community

In order to help other women refugees, Thao and several other Hmong women founded the Women’s Association of Hmong and Laos (WAHL) in St. Paul, Minn. Initially, she says, some men in the community feared that their authority would be usurped. But Thao says she simply wanted to empower and educate women, to prepare them for their new lives.

Her reputation from the Secret War helped her gain the trust of the older Hmong men, and eventually her work on behalf of both men and women won the community over.

In 1985 Thao received an invitation from President Reagan to go to the White House. When questioned on what she wanted for her people, Thao told the president, “I’m here today, in D.C. I want to advocate for the poor in America.”

Kyle Moua is a 20 year old youth writer from Fresno. This story was produced by ThekNOw, a Fresno youth-led media project of New America Media, as part of a collaboration between PRI’sThe World and New America Media.

The family of a 14-year-old Clovis East High School student who died in a car crash on his way to class is speaking about the tragedy.

Bill Moua was one of seven siblings, raised in a traditional Hmong household in Fresno.

“He was very young. He worked so hard in school and worked hard with me around the house,” his father Thao Moua said.

Thao said his son missed the bus to school the morning of the accident. So he asked another son, 22-year-old Richard to drive Bill to class.

“We have a big loss and now we still worry a lot about Richard,” Moua said.

Richard came to a two way stop at Leonard and Shields Avenues just a mile away from the high school. The CHP says Richard stopped at the stop sign but then drove into the path of a Ford Edge going Westbound on Shields.

Both drivers survived but Bill Moua died at the scene.

His father says Richard is in a lot of pain from the accident physically and emotionally.

“Dad how come it’s Bill and not me. He always says that and I say no it was an accident. He still says why Bill and not me because I am the driver I feel like I killed Bill,” Moua said.

Now their family is planning Bill’s funeral. A traditional Hmong Service they say will last several days.

They have set up a Go Fund Me Account online and are hoping the community will help them raise funds for the service.

“He’s so young and his life was cut short. He has a lot of great potential. It’s a great loss for his parents and for me as well,” May Vang, Bills aunt said.

In the aftermath of the Secret War in Laos, thousands of Hmong walked and sought safety in the refugee camps in Thailand. Plus, many lives were perished on this treacherous journey. Learn more about the Hmong story and culture at the ‘We Are Hmong Minnesota’ exhibit, which opens March 7, 2015 at the MN History Center.