Effectively sentenced to wed in order to live in America with her Brazilian-born partner (both were survivors of horrific divorces)‚ Elizabeth Gilbert tackled her fears of marriage by trying with all her might to discover through historical r
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Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of a short story collection, Pilgrims-a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and winner of the 1999 John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares-and a novel, Stern Men. A Pushcart Prize winner and National Magazine Award-nominated journalist, she works as writer-at-large for GQ. Her journalism has been published in Harper's Bazaar, Spin, and The New York Times Magazine, and her stories have appeared in Esquire, Story, and the Paris Review.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Marriage and Expectation
A man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her.
A little girl found me that day.
Felipe and I had arrived in this particular village after an overnight journey from Hanoi on a loud, dirty, Soviet-era train. I can’t rightly remember now why we went to this specific town, but I think some young Danish backpackers had recommended it to us. In any case, after the loud, dirty train journey, there had been a long, loud, dirty bus ride. The bus had finally dropped us off in a staggeringly beautiful place that teetered on the border with China—remote and verdant and wild. We found a hotel and when I stepped out alone to explore the town, to try to shake the stiffness of travel out of my legs, the little girl approached me.
She was twelve years old, I would learn later, but tinier than any American twelve-year-old I’d ever met. She was exceptionally beautiful. Her skin was dark and healthy, her hair glossy and braided, her compact body all sturdy and confident in a short woolen tunic. Though it was summertime and the days were sultry, her calves were wrapped in brightly colored wool leggings. Her feet tapped restlessly in plastic Chinese sandals. She had been hanging around our hotel for some time—I had spotted her when we were checking in—and now, when I stepped
out of the place alone, she approached me full-on.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Liz. What’s your name?”
“I’m Mai,” she said, “and I can write it down for you so you can learn how to spell it properly.”
“You certainly speak good English,” I complimented her.
She shrugged. “Of course. I practice often with tourists. Also, I speak Vietnamese, Chinese, and some Japanese.”
“What?” I joked. “No French?”
“Un peu,” she replied with a sly glance. Then she demanded, “Where are you from, Liz?”
“I’m from America,” I said. Then, trying to be funny, since obviously she was from right there, I asked, “And where are you from, Mai?”
She immediately saw my funny and raised it. “I am from my mother’s belly,” she replied, instantly causing me to fall in love with her.
Indeed, Mai was from Vietnam, but I realized later she would never have called herself Vietnamese. She was Hmong—a member of a small, proud, isolated ethnic minority (what anthropologists call “an original people”) who inhabit the highest mountain peaks of Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and China. Kurdish-like, the Hmong have never really belonged to any of the countries in which they live. They remain some of the world’s most spectacularly independent people—nomads, storytellers, warriors, natural-born anticonformists, and a terrible bane to any nation that has ever tried to control them.
To understand the unlikelihood of the Hmong’s continued existence on this planet you have to imagine what it would be like if, for instance, the Mohawk were still living in upstate New York exactly as they had for centuries, dressing in traditional clothing, speaking their own language, and absolutely refusing to assimilate. Stumbling on a Hmong village like this one, then, in the early years of the twenty-first century is an anachronistic wonder. Their culture provides a vanishingly rare window into an older version of the human experience. All of which is to say, if you want to know what your family was like four thousand years ago, they were probably something like the Hmong.
“Hey, Mai,” I said. “Would you like to be my translator today?”
“Why?” she asked.
The Hmong are a famously direct people, so I laid it out directly: “I need to talk to some of the women in your village about their marriages.”
“Why?” she demanded again.
“Because I’m getting married soon, and I would like some advice.”
“You’re too old to be getting married,” Mai observed, kindly.
“Well, my boyfriend is old, too,” I replied. “He’s fifty-five years old.”
She looked at me closely, let out a low whistle, and said, “Well. Lucky him.”
I’m not sure why Mai decided to help me that day. Curiosity? Boredom? The hope that I would pass her some cash? (Which, of course, I did.) But regardless of her motive, she did agree. Soon enough, after a steep march over a nearby hillside, we arrived at Mai’s stone house, which was tiny, soot-darkened, lit only by a few small windows, and nestled in one of the prettiest river valleys you could ever imagine. Mai led me inside and introduced me around to a group of women, all of them weaving, cooking, or cleaning. Of all the women, it was Mai’s grandmother whom I found most immediately intriguing. She was the laughingest, happiest, four-foot-tall toothless granny I’d ever seen in my life. What’s more, she thought me hilarious. Every single thing about me seemed to crack her up beyond measure. She put a tall Hmong hat on my head, pointed at me, and laughed. She stuck a tiny Hmong baby into my arms, pointed at me, and laughed. She draped me in a gorgeous Hmong textile, pointed at me, and laughed.
I had no problem with any of this, by the way. I had long ago learned that when you are the giant, alien visitor to a remote and foreign culture it is sort of your job to become an object of ridicule. It’s the least you can do, really, as a polite guest. Soon more women—neighbors and relations—poured into the house. They also showed me their weavings, stuck their hats on my head, crammed my arms full of their babies, pointed at me, and laughed.
As Mai explained, her whole family—almost a dozen of them in total—lived in this one-room home. Everyone slept on the floor together. The kitchen was on one side and the wood stove for winter was on the other side. Rice and corn were stored in a loft above the kitchen, while pigs, chickens, and water buffalo were kept close by at all times. There was only one private space in the whole house and it wasn’t much bigger than a broom closet. This, as I learned later in my reading, was where the newest bride and groom in any family were allowed to sleep alone together for the first few months of their marriage in order to get their sexual explorations out of the way in private. After that initial experience of privacy, though, the young couple joins the rest of the family again, sleeping with everyone else on the floor for the rest of their lives.
“Did I tell you that my father is dead?” Mai asked as she was showing me around.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “When did it happen?”
“Four years ago.”
“How did he die, Mai?”
“He died,” she said coolly, and that settled it. Her father had died of death. The way people used to die, I suppose, before we knew very much about why or how. “When he died, we ate the water buffalo at his funeral.” At this memory, her face flashed a complicated array of emotions: sadness at the loss of her father, pleasure at the remembrance of how good the water buffalo had tasted.
“Is your mother lonely?”
It was hard to imagine loneliness here. Just as it was impossible to imagine where in this crowded domestic arrangement you might find the happier twin sister of loneliness: privacy. Mai and her mother lived in constant closeness with so many people. I was struck—not for the first time in my years of travel—by how isolating contemporary American society can seem by comparison. Where I come from, we have shriveled down the notion of what constitutes “a family unit” to such a tiny scale that it would probably be unrecognizable as a family to anybody in one of these big, loose, enveloping Hmong clans. You almost need an electron microscope to study the modern Western family these days. What you’ve got are two, possibly three, or maybe sometimes four people rattling around together in a giant space, each person with her own private physical and psychological domain, each person spending large amounts of the day completely separated from the others.
I don’t want to suggest here that everything about the shrunken modern family unit is necessarily bad. Certainly women’s lives and women’s health improve whenever they reduce the number of babies they have, which is a resounding strike against the lure of bustling clan culture. Also, sociologists have long known that incidences of incest and child molestation increase whenever so many relatives of different ages live together in such close proximity. In a crowd so big, it can become diffi cult to keep track of or defend individuals—not to mention individuality.
But surely something has been lost, as well, in our modern and intensely private, closed-off homes. Watching the Hmong women interact with each other, I got to wondering whether the evolution of the ever smaller and ever more nuclear Western family has put a particular strain on modern marriages. In Hmong society, for instance, men and women don’t spend all that much time together. Yes, you have a spouse. Yes, you have sex with that spouse. Yes, your fortunes are tied together. Yes, there might very well be love. But aside from that, men’s and women’s lives are quite firmly separated into the divided realms of their gender-specific tasks. Men work and socialize with other men; women work and socialize with other women. Case in point: there was not a single man to be found anywhere that day around Mai’s house. Whatever the men were off doing (farming, drinking, talking, gambling) they were doing it somewhere else, alone together, separated from the universe of the women. If you are a Hmong woman, then, you don’t necessarily expect your husband to be your best friend, your most intimate confidant, your emotional advisor, your intellectual equal, your comfort in times of sorrow. Hmong women, instead, get a lot of that emotional nourishment and support from other women—from sisters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers. A Hmong woman has many voices in her life, many opinions and emotional buttresses surrounding her at all times. Kinship is to be found within arm’s reach in any direction, and many female hands make light work, or at least lighter work, of the serious burdens of living.
At last, all the greetings having been exchanged and all the babies having been dandled and all the laughter having died down into politeness, we all sat. With Mai as our translator, I began by asking the grandmother if she would please tell me about Hmong wedding ceremonies.
It’s all quite simple, the grandmother explained patiently. Before a traditional Hmong wedding, it is required that the groom’s family come and visit the bride’s house, so the families work out a deal, a date, a plan. A chicken is always killed at this time in order to make the families’ ghosts happy. Once the wedding date arrives, a good many pigs are killed. A feast is prepared and relatives come from every village to celebrate. Both the families chip in to cover expenses. There is a procession to the wedding table, and a relative of the groom will always carry an umbrella.
At this point, I interrupted to ask what the umbrella signified, but the question brought some confusion. Confusion, perhaps, over what the word “signifies” signifies. The umbrella is the umbrella, I was told, and it is carried because umbrellas are always carried at weddings. That is why, and that is that, and so it has always been.
Umbrella-related questions thereby resolved, the grandmother went on to explain the traditional Hmong marital custom of kidnapping. This is an ancient custom, she said, though it is much less in practice these days than it was in the past. Still, it does exist. Brides— who are sometimes consulted beforehand about their kidnapping and sometimes not—are abducted by their potential grooms, who carry them by pony to their own families’ homes. This is all strictly organized and is permitted only on certain nights of the year, at celebrations after certain market days. (You can’t just kidnap a bride any old time you want. There are rules.) The kidnapped girl is given three days to live in the home of her captor, with his family, in order to decide whether or not she would like to marry this fellow. Most of the time, the grandmother reported, the marriage proceeds with the girl’s consent. On the rare occasion that the kidnapped potential bride doesn’t embrace her captor, she is allowed to return home to her own family at the end of the three days, and the whole business is forgotten. Which sounded reasonable enough to me, as far as kidnappings go.
Where our conversation did turn peculiar for me—and for all of us in the room—was when I tried to get the grandmother to tell me the story of her own marriage, hoping to elicit from her any personal or emotional anecdotes about her own experience with matrimony. The confusion started immediately, when I asked the old woman, “What did you think of your husband, the first time you ever met him?”
Her entire wrinkled face arranged itself into a look of puzzlement. Assuming that she—or perhaps Mai—had misunderstood the question, I tried again:
“When did you realize that your husband might be somebody you wanted to marry?”
Again, my question was met with what appeared to be polite bafflement. “Did you know that he was special right away?” I tried once more. “Or did you learn to like him over time?”
Now some of the women in the room had started giggling nervously, the way you might giggle around a slightly crazy person—which was, apparently, what I had just become in their eyes.
I backed up and tried a different tack: “I mean, when did you first meet your husband?”
The grandmother sorted through her memory a bit on that one, but couldn’t come up with a definitive answer aside from “long ago.” It really didn’t seem to be an important question for her.
“Okay, where did you first meet your husband?” I asked, trying to simplify the matter as much as possible.
Again, the very shape of my curiosity seemed a mystery to the grandmother. Politely, though, she gave it a try. She had never particularly met her husband before she married him, she tried to explain. She’d seen him around, of course. There are always a lot of people around, you know. She couldn’t really remember. Anyway, she said, it is not an important question as to whether or not she knew him when she was a young girl. After all, as she concluded to the delight of the other women in the room, she certainly knows him now.
“But when did you fall in love with him?” I finally asked, point-blank.
The instant Mai translated this question, all the women in the room, except the grandmother, who was too polite, laughed aloud—a spontaneous outburst of mirth, which they then all tried to stifle politely behind their hands.
You might think this would have daunted me. Perhaps it should have daunted me. But I persisted, following up their peals of laughter with a question that struck them as even more ridiculous:
“And what do you believe is the secret to a happy marriage?” I asked earnestly.
Now they all really did lose it. Even the grandmother was openly howling with laughter. Which was fine, right? As has already been established, I am always perfectly willing to be mocked in a foreign country for somebody else’s entertainment. But in this case, I must confess, all the hilarity was a bit unsettling on account of the fact that I really did not get the joke. All I could understand was that these Hmong ladies and I were clearly speaking an entirely different language here (I mean, above and beyond the fact that we were literally speaking an entirely different language here). But what was so specifically absurd to them about my questions?
In the weeks to come, as I replayed this conversatio...
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