Hmong refugees have been resettling in California’s Central Valley since the late 1970s, when the CIA retreated from their “Secret War” in Laos. Today the Central Valley is a hub for Hmong refugees. Most arrived with few personal belongings, but they did carry their cultural practices with them — and their recipes. At a traditional Hmong ceremony in the small town of Winton, a few dozen family members gathered to honor a young, pregnant Hmong woman — Leena Yang. The ceremony was to ensure the healthy birth of the baby and a safe delivery for the mother. “It’s like a healing, prevention and protection together. The shaman welcomes the baby soul to the world,” said Changvang Her, a Hmong translator.
First the shaman, May Yang, and her husband prepare an altar with offerings of eggs, uncooked rice, paper money and incense. The eggs, the shaman explains through an interpreter, are toys for the shaman spirits to play with. The rice is for the spirits to eat if they get hungry. Family members then spread a plastic sheet across the living floor, and carefully laid a slaughtered pig on the sheet. The pig had a rope wrapped around its belly that led to another rope, wrapped around the belly of a pregnant woman. For the next two hours the shaman chanted while she swayed back and forth and played ceremonial bells. The chants, she later explained, are prayers to the spirit world, offering the slaughtered pig as a sacrifice in exchange for a healthy birth. Throughout the ceremony, the shaman’s husband burns pieces of the paper money as offerings to help the shaman pass through different spiritual levels, or realms.
After the ceremony the men in the family took the pig to the garage to prepare it for the feast, while the women cooked in the kitchen and in a makeshift kitchen in the backyard. The first dish they began to prepare was the “pork and cabbage,” a pork and rice noodle dish wrapped in steamed cabbage.
One dish was prepared only for the mother-to-be: a freshly killed chicken. The chicken, cut in half, represents the separation of the mother and baby’s spirits and is part of the ceremony. The Hmong believe that mother and daughter are joined in one life, and soon before birth you must split them into two lives.
The final, and most complicated dish was the trout, which was mostly prepared in the yard while the shaman performed the ceremony in the living room.
The women of the family — who did the vast majority of the cooking — proudly pose with the pregnant lady-of-honor in front of the feast they prepared.
Then the men sit down to eat, while most of the women eat in the kitchen or the backyard.
After the feast, the mother-in-law warmly thanks the shaman and her husband. As they head to the front door, the shaman is gifted a bag filled with dozens of steamed pork and cabbage rolls to take home to her own family.
Visit KQED’s State of Health blog to read about how Hmong shamans in Merced are being trained in the basics of western medicine.