Ib Sab, Ob Qeg (One High, Two Lows)

There’s a saying in Hmong that goes like this: Ua kwv tij yuav tsum sib sib hlub vim thaum ib sab, ob qeg, koj yuav nrhaav koj cov kwv tij. It translates to: As brothers/siblings, you must love one another. When you reach one high or two lows, you will look for your brothers/siblings. The metaphorical meaning behind this is as a Hmong person, you will share your greatest achievements and biggest downfalls with your family.

Zawm no, peb tau ntsib txuj kev tsaus ntuj (this time, it is us who has sad news). My uncle, my dad’s only brother, has passed away due to the COVID-19 virus.

When I started writing this post, I thought about my memories of him, which were mainly imagined through hearing stories about him from my parents. My mom always spoke about how young my uncle was when she married my father. My dad talked about how they used to play and run around together in their village when they were young boys.

Because we lived in a different state, it wasn’t until I relocated to California that I was finally able to really put a personality to his face. He had a reserved, quiet nature (opposite from my dad), and his smile was usually dressed with a grown out mustache. He walked with a slight limp, sometimes with the help of a cane, due to his various chronic health issues. While I didn’t know him very well–we’ve probably exchanged less than two words–you always felt his presence when he was in the room.

My dad’s parents died during the time of the Vietnam War, thus he took on the parental role at a very young age. Compared to other Hmong families, they are a smaller unit–with only two boys and two girls. And although they didn’t have anyone but each other, I never once saw them pick up the phone and call one another.  It was always their wives transmitting conversation. When my uncle and aunt did come to visit, the wives did most of the talking. Being that my father valued familial ties, I always pondered if their emotionally-distant relationship was because they had grown apart after starting their own families?  Maybe it was because they didn’t have anything to talk about? Maybe, they had a big argument? Then again, maybe nothing happened at all?

Since the news broke, my family has been in meetings back to back, day and night to assure that there is a proper send-off, within the realms of the CDC recommend guidelines for gatherings during this pandemic. This is the responsibility of the family, particularly, the Hmong men. And because he was my father’s kwv tij, ib sab hab ob qeg (one high and two lows or good/bad), they are both responsible for one another–despite any transgressions they may have had.

This is because the Hmong are organized by a patriarchal 18-clan structure. The deceased’s clan will be responsible to give a proper send-off, either that be through a traditional Hmong funeral ceremony or through a Christian funeral, whichever is fitting to the deceased’s faith. I sat and listened as they debated–going in circles–about what which faith to conduct the funeral in–being that their family recently converted to Christianity just a few days prior. And although this pandemic is raging and multiple California counties are still in the purple tier–including our own–it was our family’s duty to attend. 

But due to my dad’s poor health conditions, if he attended the funeral during this pandemic it could compromise his health. So at the very least, it was decided that my brothers must go in his place. These are their gender and cultural obligations. As their sister, I know this isn’t fair–that they have to carry the burden of responsibility simply due to their gender. But, they carry the weight for us without resentment. I know that our culture isn’t perfect, but I’m hopeful because things are changing for the better. As a Hmong daughter, I know we have an important role. But, I see now how it is different from my brothers.

In 2020, our lives changed in ways we could have never imagined. A nearly invisible entity with tiny, pervasive spikes had the power to shift the lives of an entire generation. It redefined what it meant to “work” and “play,” intermingling the two into one space. It also reminded us of what it means to have health, time, and privilege.

In the last moments of my uncle’s life, we all crowded around a small 5.8 inch screen–crying and speaking to him as he laid in his hospital bed, intubated. My dad’s last words to him were:

We’ve never had a polarized relationship. We don’t share memories of extreme hatred or disagreements nor do we share memories of hugging and holding each other by the shoulders. But, I’m happy you and I were born to be brothers in this lifetime. And, I love you. 

Seeing my father suddenly express these last words to his brother through a screen was a reminder of what it means to be born once as kwv tij in this lifetime. I know they both have shared many memories together, but I wonder if they could have had more. Did my dad have regrets? Or was this really all their brotherhood was meant to become? As I watched the last twenty-odd years of their life unfold up to this point, it made me realize that it wasn’t worth it to leave on bad terms. Everyone has a different love language and I am not judging them for not showing bromance–as they were born in a different time. But, if we have a choice, choose to lose the small battles. If you love someone, show it. Buy them flowers and give it to them today. Please don’t wait to drop one last rose atop the wooden casket.

Lastly, thank you to my Hmong brothers who support their Hmong sisters. You carry cultural burdens of your own while also helping to push for equality and equity for us. Ib Sab, Ob Qeg, we are kwv tij (siblings). I will be there for you as you were here for me.

I wish you courage on your journey to your own satori.

Until next time.


Thank you to Yia Vue for your editing contributions to this piece.


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