From St. Olaf College’s founding by Norwegian immigrants to today’s “Dreamers,” the college’s commitment to immigrants from all nations is reinforced by its mission. In the most recent issue of St. Olaf Magazine, alumni and students share their personal immigration stories in the hope that Oles will continue to work alongside neighbors, friends, and strangers to welcome all voices and experiences to America. This is one story from that series.
Mai Neng Moua ’95 was born in Laos sometime in the early 1970s (like many Hmong, she is unsure of her actual birthdate). After her father’s death, she and her mother and brothers spent two years in a Thai refugee camp before resettling in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1981.
She earned a sociology/anthropology degree at St. Olaf and has worked with public policy organizations on issues important to refugees and immigrants. She is the author of The Bride Price: A Hmong Wedding Story, a family memoir about balancing two cultures, centered on her refusal to follow the traditional Hmong custom of the groom’s family paying a “bride price” to the parents of the bride.
She shares her story in her own words:
“We came to the United States in the winter. I remember seeing snow from the plane. They gave us huge coats because we were skinny little refugee kids. I felt like a penguin.
“I didn’t know any English. We went right into school, without any understanding of the language. They’d only taught us a few words, like how to ask for the bathroom, in the refugee camps. I remember flash cards and a circular toy with a lever that I pulled to tell me the alphabet.
“We moved to Minnesota when I was in high school, and I was excited to be among a larger community of Hmong people. I walked up to people in the street or the grocery store, saying, ‘Hi! Are you Hmong too?’
“It was challenging to be an American at school and Hmong at home. Our church, the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, was a supportive environment for me. The Sunday school teachers told the girls, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ They showed us their college photo albums of happy, smiling people in beautiful places. I wanted to be there.
“It was challenging to be an American at school and Hmong at home. … The Sunday school teachers told the girls, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ They showed us their college photo albums of happy, smiling people in beautiful places. I wanted to be there.”
“My mom wanted me to go to college. She always said that education was our way out of being poor. She hoped we’d get a desk job, so we wouldn’t have to do manual labor. [After I came to St. Olaf,] I took her for a campus visit so she wouldn’t worry about where I was going to live and sleep, and what I was going to eat.
“The Hmong culture is patriarchal, and the community is very gendered. Girls are expected to
care for home and family, to cook and clean. The girls marry out and we become someone
“I grew up hearing my mom’s stories of how her bride price was used against her, and I didn’t want that for myself. When my husband and I got married without following the custom, my mom was so angry that we didn’t talk for a year. I had end-stage renal disease and I’d had a kidney transplant, so my mom thought I was damaged goods and that if my in-laws paid my bride price, it meant they really wanted me in their family. She was trying to ensure that I was loved and taken care of.
“My book started out as a series of letters to my mom. I wanted to figure out why she was so hard on me. I never intended to write about myself. It took persistence and my having kids to repair our relationship. The first time she stepped foot in my house was when my daughter was born. My kids were able to get through to my mom in a way that I couldn’t.
“The book was revealed to me in three parts that follow a shaman’s journey: trauma, the rituals to find a lost spirit or soul in the trauma, and being made whole. I’ve been a Christian for a long time and believed that you had to choose between the ancestor’s spirits and God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost, so it was surprising to realize my book was following the shaman’s journey.
“I hope my book stimulates conversation in the Hmong community about the bride price, and that we come to some sort of cultural understanding about valuing women without putting a monetary amount on their value.”