In the Facebook era, Hmong stick to traditional courting

The five young men, friends since high school, are here to meet girls.

So they carry tennis balls.

In the age of Facebook, the ancient Hmong courtship ritual of pov pob — looking for true love by tossing balls with potential mates at Hmong New Year — is making a comeback.

The tradition had been losing ground to the likes of friending and picking a match off a computer screen. Indeed, a standard question year after year for contestants in the Miss Hmong International Contest, roughly translated from Hmong, was, "Why would young people abandon the blessings of the New Year and their traditions for Internet dating? How can this be stopped?"

But over the last few years the number of ball tossers at Fresno's International Hmong New Year festival has been growing and many young Hmong say it's a reaction to casual Internet interaction.

"I'm not a player," said Neng Her, 25, at which his four friends laugh. "I do meet a lot of cute girls on Facebook. Maybe it's a way to find someone compatible, you know, have fun.

"But meeting someone at the New Year is different. It's about fate and destiny and stuff."

Brenda Lee, 30, a financial advisor who met her boyfriend last year playing pov pob, said modern forms of matchmaking make Hmong singles all the more eager for face-to-face relating.

"Facebook isn't real. It makes you hungry for the old traditions. This is a chance to see the person, see if he laughs when he drops the ball. All year, people wait for the new year. They come here from the world over to play pov pob and hope for love."

In the Laos and Thailand of old, the balls were made of colorful material and boys and girls courted one another by singing traditional love songs.

The words to those songs are now largely forgotten, banter is favored over warbling and woven cloth has been replaced by fluorescent felt stamped "Wilson." But for the most part, the tradition made it intact through the Vietnam War, out of Thailand refugee camps and here to these fairgrounds.

The Hmong have been in the United States about 35 years. The CIA recruited the isolated tribe, which lived in the mountains of Laos, to fight communists during the Vietnam War. In 1975, the U.S. retreated, leaving Laos under communist control and the Hmong hunted and on the run. An estimated 120,000 Hmong died.

Beginning in 1975, the American government resettled some Hmong in the United States. More than 150,000 Hmong have emigrated since then, including about 30,000 in California's Central Valley.

This history is made tangible during the colorful whirl of the weeklong festival which ends New Year's Day. Leathery old men wearing Vietnam-era U.S. Army uniforms walk past young Hmong breakdancers with swooped, choppy and multi-colored hairstyles.

Girls who usually favor jeans are resplendent in elaborate Hmong finery. Some wear the most traditional hat: purple and wrapped high, designed to give the face a heart shape accented by black and white checked ribbon. Others choose boxy hats topped with pink feathers, or wide brims dangling long strings of beads.

It's a tradition for mothers to chaperone during pov pob. The tiny mothers, stunted by malnutrition before and after the war, barely reach the shoulders of their American-born, college-educated daughters.

Coins are sewn to the costumes of men and women. The jangling of these symbols of hope and prosperity creates a swell of sound as steady as ocean waves, audible even over the Thai dance music, Hmong rap and traditional love songs blaring from competing speakers.

Though all are welcome, the crowd is almost entirely Southeast Asian, except for the Mormon missionaries; white men wearing wildly patterned, billowy Hmong pants with short-sleeved white shirts and ties hand out pamphlets promoting Jesus' love.

In the center of the busy fairgrounds, sisters often toss the ball to each other, pretending not to notice the boys noticing them. Boys shove each other, trying to get one of their pals to make the first move and ask the girls to play. In the past it was an excuse to get close enough to woo, and it still is.

Some toss the ball with shy elegance. Others like Houa Cha, 20, and Dara Yang, 22, throw hard and high, making one another jump for it.

The universal fits and starts of courtship play out:

"I believe in love. I believe you can sense something from that first moment at the New Year," Cha said.

"I don't believe you can fall in love just tossing a ball, but it's fun," said Yang.

Longer life spans and divorce have added many older pov pob players.

Zong Xiong, 76, sporting a white double-breasted suit, black bowler hat and scarf, tosses the ball with a line of giggling older women in traditional Hmong clothing.

"I came to meet girls from other villages," he said through a translator.

Potential romances are not limited to one's ball-tossing partner; men sidle up close to chat with girls tossing the ball to someone 4 feet away.

"I'm like an iguana, my eyes keep moving. I'm seeing all the other hot boys," said Kelly Her, 17.

Last year she met 20 suitors playing pov pob.

"And I'm still talking to three of them. It's a little like the TV show 'The Bachelorette.' "

Mitchell Xiong, 22, a public health student at San Francisco State, said that as she tries to balance tradition with her modern life, pov pob makes her think of her parents' marriage and the vagaries of love.

"Hmong love is different than American love. American love is 'I love you, I love you!' Hmong love is more quiet, small gestures. Like at dinner my dad will give my mom the best piece of meat. Hmong love is 'here honey, here's this nice bit of meat for you.'

"If I have to choose, I want to be loved the Hmong way."

Her boyfriend, Shelong Yang, 25, who designs characters for video games, doesn't believe in the love at first sight of Hmong tradition.

But he believes in keeping tradition.

"I don't know the words to the songs. I don't know all the history. But I'm Hmong and I feel when I play pov pob I'm keeping something important alive," he said.

"This isn't flirting on Facebook. If you court on the New Year you are expected to be polite about it. You are approaching a beautiful girl in a gaggle of other girls, probably with her mother behind her. It's real. Its intimidating, like approaching love should be."

Marcum is a special correspondent.

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