A Hmong shaman blesses a young pregnant woman in rural Merced
A Hmong shaman blesses a young pregnant woman in rural Merced.

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.

A traditional Hmong altar.
A traditional Hmong altar.

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.

May Yang, the shaman, rattles ceremonial bells to help the unborn baby's spirit.
May Yang, the shaman, rattles ceremonial bells to help the unborn baby’s spirit.

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.

Yep, that's the pig.The men in the family cut up the pig in garage in preparation for the feast.Meanwhile in the kitchen, the women carefully steam leaves of cabbage.

The pork meat is mixed with cilantro, green onions and thin rice noodles.The women then wrap the steamed cabbage around the meat.The cabbage rolls are steamed, then served

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 mother-in-law plucks the chicken in her backyard.She then rinses the last of the feathers off the chicken.The shaman's husband carefully places the chicken in the doorway.

He adds a paper cut out of two people on the chicken, representing mother and child.The shaman’s husband cuts the chicken – and the paper dolls – in half. This symbolizes the separation of the mother and child’s souls.The mother-in-law takes the other half of the chicken to her daughter-in-law, who eats it before the feast.

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.

Family members prepare the fish in the backyard.A young woman carefully cuts off a fish’s head.Garlic cloves are baked, peeled, then mashed up with a mortar and pestle.

Grilled chili peppers are also mashed in a mortar and pestle.After baking the women painstakingly take out tiny fish needles from the dish.The fish is then mixed with garlic, eggs and chili peppers. Then it's baked and ready to serve.

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.

Hmong women pose in front of the feast.

Then the men sit down to eat, while most of the women eat in the kitchen or the backyard.

Men sit down to eat.

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.

Traditional Hmong Healers Learning to Partner With Valley Doctors

After a Hmong Healing Ceremony, A Feast 6 May,2012Shuka Kalantari

  • Shuka, Thank you for providing this fascinating glimpse into the Hmong culture’s spiritual practice. Inspiring to know that even so far from “home” these traditions are still followed.

    • Shuka

      Hi Anna, I feel lucky to have gotten a glimpse of such a rich culture! — Shuka

  • Mike Moua

    Thank you for such a nicely written article. Many younger generations in the US, including myself (Hmong), don’t understand why we do what we do as part of our culture. Thanks for taking the time to study and understand our culture as we try to keep it in us.

    • Shuka Kalantari

      Hello Mike,

      Thanks for the message; I am glad that you enjoyed the story. If you have a story you’d like to share about aspects of your experiences as a Hmong immigrant in California, please check out KQED’s “What’s Your Story?” project. If interested, my contact information is on the program page. Thanks for your time!



      Shuka Kalantari


Shuka Kalantari

Shuka Kalantari is a Bay Area journalist reporting on health, food, culture and immigrant communities in California and internationally. She’s reported for Public Radio International’s The World, BBC World News Service’s Outlook, Philosophy Talk, Vice Magazine. Shuka is also a frequent contributor to KQED Public Media. You can follow her @skalantari on Twitter and Instagram.

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