The Hmong Orphan: A Suffering Servant

Hmong Girl in Long Tieng 1973 Garry Jenkin
Hmong Girl in Long Tieng, 1973, by Garry Jenkin

In chapter 53 of the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, the text describes an individual who is “despised and rejected of men,” who has “borne our sorrows,” who has “no form nor comeliness…that we should desire him,” and so forth. The Christians (Mormons included) interpret these verses to be prophecies of Christ and his mission, while most Jewish scholars recognize the individual mentioned as a stand-in for the House of Israel. Either way, these verses are known as the “Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant,” the other three songs occurring in the preceding chapters of Isaiah. The “Suffering Servant” endures abuse and mistreatment, sometimes even unto death, and because of his suffering, redeems his people as a whole.

The Hmong people have their own “Suffering Servant”: The Orphan. In Hmong media, the orphan is front and center. The orphan’s plight is one of the primary motifs running through Hmong folktales, novels, stories, sung poetry (kwv txhiaj), and movies. Like the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah, the Hmong Orphan can be viewed both as an individual, Christ-like figure and as a representation of the Hmong people and how they view their situation in the world.

As portrayed in media, especially in Hmong movies, the life of an orphan is a sad and nearly hopeless situation. Through no fault of her1 own, the orphan has lost her parents and, therefore, her place of security in the structure of Hmong society as a whole. Having lost her parents’ protection, she is exposed to the world’s abuse. Even if she is taken in by relatives, her aunt and uncle will not love her the way they love their own children. She will do most or all of the chores around the house. Her guardians will criticize any imperfection in her work and then beat her for what they consider to be “laziness,” even if the fault lies with her cousins who have done something to frame her. At meals, her fare will be rice and vegetables. If she makes the mistake of reaching for any meat, her guardians will slap her hand and reprimand her mercilessly, complaining that she is ungrateful for what she has received.

The list of possible abuses is long. In just one Hmong movie I watched recently, a little orphan girl about five or six years old was beaten for not being able to operate the rice quern to her aunt’s satisfaction (a quern is a large rice grinder that requires a lot of strength to operate). She was also reduced to tears when her aunt ripped up the only picture of her mom she had left because she kept missing her mom and didn’t do her chores. Finally, she was sold off to another woman of no relation to her for a few pigs, to be a slave in that lady’s house.

As a Westerner, I want to believe that such extreme abuse, as portrayed, is exaggerated for the sentimental effect it can engender in a movie audience, but I understand from a reliable source that orphans are treated this way in real life. “If it wasn’t true,” says my source, “they wouldn’t make a movie about it.” (At least, such was the case in the Old Country. Not so certain about here in America or other Western countries.) Because the orphan has no parents, her guardians feel they must be ever more strict in disciplining the orphan child or else she’ll grow up to be a burden on society or a criminal. In addition, for her part, the orphan must endure all with little or no complaint in order to be praised at the end of all her trials as a person of perfect long-suffering, forgiveness, and gratitude. Even when she eventually triumphs over her abusers, her gratitude for their giving her a home must constrain her to show kindness and mercy to those who are now in her power. As a Westerner, raised on a diet of independent spirit and movies in which clever children triumph over their adult oppressors with not a little unmitigated vengeance, I ask myself these two questions:

“Why would anyone who has endured such abuse from childhood choose to stay with her abusers, even after she’s old enough to go somewhere and try to make it on her own?”

“Why, once triumphant, would she forgive her tormentors?”

Regarding the first question, there are a number of possible reasons, to be sure. It could be fear. The orphan is afraid that she can’t make it on her own. It could be that she doesn’t know much about the world beyond her village, and the jungle has its own dangers, so it’s better to deal with the demons you’re familiar with. But perhaps the primary reason is that with her aunt and uncle, or her guardian-master, the orphan has a foothold on a rung in Hmong society, however low or tenuous that step may be. In the case of a female orphan, as long as she can endure, her salvation may come through marriage. Her guardians will marry her off, reap the bride price for the effort they took to rear her, and release her to become a part of someone else’s family. (I say her salvation may come through marriage, because marriage can bring its own set of trials and abuses.) A male orphan, however, does reconnect fully with Hmong society through marriage. Many folktales emphasize the redemption of the Orphan Boy by a beautiful, heaven-sent woman who marries the orphan to set him up in life. Either way, marriage is seen as an orphan’s redemption in Hmong society, because it allows her to start anew with her own family. She takes up the parent role she was denied the benefits of as a child. In a way, she comes home.

As for why she would forgive her tormentors after succeeding in life despite their abuse, the Orphan motif in Hmong narrative (whether spoken, written, or acted on stage or in cinema) requires that the orphan be of the highest character. This is where the “Suffering Servant” idea comes into play. She has suffered all these things with the utmost patience, and the suffering is behind her now, so why would she sully her pristine character by being vindictive? That is the ideal motive. Another may be a cultural constraint. If she is vindictive, complaining of all the abuse she’s been through to justify the punishment she wants to meet out, then she plays right into their hands. They can then point out how ungrateful she is for their rearing her despite her not being their own. They can show that she is unruly and rude to her elders and so should not be respected. Whatever accusations she has against them, they can turn it to their advantage and be heard because they are the elders. So it’s better for her to forgive and forget and go on with her life. She absorbs and absolves the pain and suffering she has endured and accounts it to molding her good character. She wins by not becoming like them.

The Orphan is a Christ-like figure in that she is nearly perfect in word and deed. In their orphan narratives, the Hmong seem to heap abuse on her to see how much she can take and still demonstrate the love and forgiveness they wish would reign among them in reality. Hmong often say, “Hmong must love Hmong.” At the same time, the orphan is also the Hmong people, for the Hmong see themselves as country-less, of uncertain origin, and compelled to live according to their host country’s rules and regulations, much like an orphan in someone else’s house.

In a world where the media portrays heroes as those who fight their oppressors with the same means by which they are oppressed, the motif of the Orphan as Suffering Servant in Hmong media, while difficult to endure vicariously, is refreshing and cathartic.

Perhaps love can conquer all.

Do you have any thoughts about Hmong orphan stories? Share them in the comments below.

  1. Opting to make my example orphan female. Male orphans are not exempt from these abuses either. ??

Author: Michael Andrew Ellis

I write literary fiction at the confluence of Mormonism, Hmong culture, and the human condition. Here on my blog I write about Mormon arts and letters, Hmong history and culture, classic and contemporary literature, existentialism, and my journey as a writer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *