I went back home to celebrate the holidays with my family. It had been a few weeks since I had last seen them after I moved away to begin my graduate program.
We celebrated Christmas early the night before so I was up cleaning the house. After all the chores were done, I sat down within an arms-reach distance on the couch with my mom to catch up on HMong news on YouTube when all of a sudden the house began to shake. Immediately we looked at each other and knew: there was an earthquake! We ran towards the center of the room and both realized my dad was still sleeping in his room. Then my mom shouted, “Go wake your dad!”
The house continued to shake. Everyone came together in the living room and looked at each other, assessing the situation.
Then, the shocks began to subside. Instinctively, I thought to hu our plig (call our spirits) because we had poob plig. Poob plig is a phrase that broadly translates to “experiencing trauma.” The HMong shamanistic, cultural context for this definition is as follows: when you experience some level of shock or trauma, it impacts your spiritual self to some degree. If this is the case, your spiritual self may have left your physical body and is now “lost” at the time and location of the traumatic incident.
It is understood that when you experience trauma or poob plig, it can manifest into different symptoms: night sweats, post-traumatic stress, even physical and mental illness. In order to improve one’s health, a method to realign the spiritual self with the physical body is via reciting a ritual to realign the two entities. The ritual that is often performed at the location of the incident (but can be done at the front door of one’s home) calls for the spirit to return to its physical body–sometimes it is as simple as acknowledging that individual (by name) has poob plig and to call upon the spiritual self to return home to its physical body.
It was instinctual for me to think that maybe one of us had poob plig during this sudden event because we had always recited this ritual when one of us experienced trauma. But I then realized, we were no longer followers of the shaman faith. My mom then said, “Let’s pray to Yesus (Jesus).”
This trip home was a stark contrast to how I left. I started my college journey with a ritual to bless the new house I was going to live in while away from home–a ritual otherwise known as a spiritual house cleanse or saging the house. It was the same ritual I had heard my dad recite many times before.
In preparation to move in, I gathered bamboo, joss paper, and incense sticks. I asked my parents to teach me the ritual so I could bless the house. I went from room to room, corner to corner, cleansing the home of negative energy–asking it to allow us to become the new occupants. The ritual demanded that any current (spiritual) occupants accept that this house was no longer their home and to leave since it has now become ours. I asked for my ancestors to bless and protect me, guide me, and rid me and any of my occupants of any sickness, illness, and death. I bargained, in return, with joss money and incense to help send any current spiritual entities on their way to find a new home.
I didn’t foreshadow how my spiritual journey would evolve over the semester. When I came back to my family’s home this Christmas, our ancestral alter was gone. Red and white strings that once dangled on every family member’s wrists were cut. Corn, no longer, were adorned on our front porch. While cooking, I opened the cabinets and was reminded: small glass cups–once used to make water offerings to our ancestors–were packed away into the back. I came back to the same, but different, house.
In the patriarchal HMong culture, girls and boys are born into two distinct roles. Girls are taught to become the best version of a daughter–a homemaker and caretaker–in order to prepare us for our future role as a nyab (daughter-in-law). Boys are taught to become the future of the clan–their responsibilities are to carry on the clan name, faith, and traditions. I have seen how our roles are different, but I also see how they are the same. As a HMong daughter, there are many battles I have had to endure that my brothers would never know. But, I also have seen them take on wars that I would never have to experience. We are two sides on the same coin; we each carry a variation of the burden for the family.
My father is one of the last descendants of his ancestral line to know and understand our specific, shaman rituals. Shamanism has many strengths–one of them being community. Shamanism in the HMong culture has survived for as long as it has because of the small, tribal communities that permitted it to flourish. Historically, HMong clans and tribes settled in distant mountain tops and valleys. Survival was dependent on community collaborations. As with the shamanism faith, it requires many helping hands; you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Therefore, animal sacrifices, spiritual ceremonies, ancestral offerings and much more could not be done with just a party of one.
But, that is also one of its weaknesses. Without a community, it cannot continue, successfully. We were one of the last families in our clan and town to still subscribe to this faith. Because many of the remaining relatives had converted to Christianity, they cannot take on roles during our shamanistic ceremonies. They cannot help with the animal sacrafices. They cannot eat the meals that are cooked. They simply don’t know how to recite the rituals, anymore. I saw how lonely this was for my brothers. They had the monumental responsibility to carry on the faith, but no community to support them. Nonetheless, a faith that was suppose to help carry you in the times of sickness and death…didn’t.
There were many family meetings to brainstorm on how to continue. One of the biggest points of concern was: funerals. HMong funerals are very intensive and precise. Corners shouldn’t be cut and mistakes cannot be made. Each personnel role must be filled and the ancestral, ritual traditions must be followed to the T. While my brothers could learn each and every step, they simply cannot fill all the roles. That was the reality for our family.
So after you’ve believed in something for so long and made every offering possible, what do you do? Do you continue on this lonely path with no help? Or do you turn to the other side? Do you accept a new way of life? How do you even begin? Was my family backed into a corner? Or were they finally ready to accept Yesus? Was it both? I don’t know. But, what I’ve realized is: to be HMong is to adapt. Within me, I carry genes from thousands of years of evolution, struggle, pain, celebrations, growth, and what it means to truly survive.
For the longest time I questioned Shamanism because it seemed like such a blanket faith. My dad did all the offerings and rituals for the family; my parents’ belief in it was enough. But, the conversion confronted me with questions of my personal responsibility in choosing a faith. I came home this Christmas and realized we will no longer noj peg caug (celebrate the New Years) with a bowl of eggs and incense nor will we seek answers for the New Year from a pair of chicken’s paw and its beak structure. The familiar sound of shaman bells combined with early morning hustle and bustle will no longer wander the halls for New Years this winter and all future winters to come. But, we are trying. We are adapting. And, we are living. I’m still trying to find the right way to cope when I experience poob plig; I’m learning from the ebbs and flows of life and using it to cultivate my ever-evolving HMong-American identity.
This chapter is signing off on a life that I once knew in hopes of starting something new–my real spiritual journey, whether that is with Yesus or something else. To be continued…
I wish you courage on your own journey leading to your own satori.
Until next time,