The Hmong game of love

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

By Liz Price

Throw the ball and catch a husband. If you see a boy you like, toss the ball to him and hope he returns it. But if you don’t like your prospective partner, then drop the ball he throws you.

Novel, isn’t it?

This is pov pob, the ball-tossing game of the Hmong, a minority ethnic group in Laos. The ball-tossing game is a common activity for adolescents. Boys and girls form two separate lines in pairs that are directly facing one another. The players throw a soft black ball back and forth to each other.

Catching the ball gives him hope. Dropping it could mean she’s got her sights on someone else. — LIZ PRICE
The ball is thrown so that the other player can catch it with one hand. If the throw is good and the other player drops or misses the ball, an ornament or a piece of silver or a belt from his or her costume is given to the opposite player in the pair. Ornaments are recovered by singing traditional courting songs to the opposite player.

Girls can toss the ball with other girls or boys, but boys cannot toss the ball with boys. It is also taboo to toss the ball to someone of the same clan, as Hmongs may not marry within the same clan group. Through playing this game, the youngsters get to know each other, forming relationships that may eventually lead to marriage.

If the boy throws the ball and the girl makes no attempt to catch it, then he has been rejected. Traditionally the ball was made of cotton, but today the couples use tennis balls.

Every unmarried girl tries to make a new dress especially for the ball game. During their spare moments from working at home or in the fields, the girls embroider special designs on their costumes. The boys, too, wear their best new clothes.

Each player wears at least one silver collar. However, today, many have compromised on the dress code and wear unbecoming trainers or clumpy modern platform shoes. Some of the boys don’t even bother to dress up. It seems such a pity that the girls make a big effort to dress up for the occasion whereas a few of the boys come in their everyday clothes.

I had to laugh at the number of handphones I saw. Many of the boys and girls were catching the ball with one hand, while the other one clutched a handphone. In years to come they will probably give up throwing the ball and just send text messages instead!

Traditional Hmong society is very ordered and a marriage partner must be found from another clan. The ball throwing game takes place during the Hmong New Year celebration, because they usually work all year round and have no time for courtship. All the Hmong communities in the country celebrate the New Year.

It is held at the end of the 12th lunar calendar month and the beginning of the first lunar calendar month, which is the time of the full moon in November (of the Laotian calendar). This is at the end of the rice harvest, and the festival lasts anything from three to 45 days.

However, not all communities celebrate the New Year at the same time since it may not coincide with the end of the rice harvest for them. It is preferable that the New Year celebration coincides with those in other nearby villages so that the unmarried men can meet prospective wives in other communities as well.

Young people usually get married after the New Year, between the first and the 15th of the month. They believe that it’s a good time for marriage, because everything starts as new, especially with a new moon – something the Hmongs live their lives by.

There is an interesting story of the origin of this ball-throwing game.

A long time ago, before the Hmong migrated to Laos, they lived in China. There were specific times set aside for courting. It was the man’s duty to court a girl and the actual activity of pov pob occurred when some love-stricken fellow devised a plan in which he would be able to send symbols of love to his girlfriend.

He would hide some charm or personal item wrapped up in a bun and throw it to his chosen girl. Then she proceeded to do the same. Back and forth they threw these items. If they were separated by a high wall, he would sing to indicate he was there and she would have to answer with similar lyrics.

Over the years, the buns turned into balls made from strips of fabric and were tossed at New Year to show affection or interest. The beautiful lyrics continue to be a feature in this courting game.


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