These words feel like a meager offering in return for the cherished gift I received with this experience and friendship. Yet it felt wrong not to write about it.
I had half of this story written a week ago, and low and behold, you let your kids anywhere near your computer and a blank page greets you when you return. Ugh. All of my raw feelings and thoughts and words that flowed naturally no longer exist, but that's real.
Instead we can start from a more seasoned place where all those experiences have had a chance to expand and grow in knowledge and understanding.
Three weeks ago I asked for help on Facebook in finding an Hmong grocery store so that I could bring an offering of food to my next door neighbors whose husband had just passed away.
(We have lived next door to the same family for 15 years. They speak Hmong, and we don't. We have worked in our gardens side by side. We have exchanged plates of food for every birth of every baby. My kids play with the grandkids all the time. We are neighborly. Ms. Yang's children have been able to help me translate at different times, and we chat. It's been wonderful.)
I could have easily just looked it up online and gone about my way. I included my network of folks for a few reasons.
1. I knew I could bring a lasagna and that would be fine because my culture dictates that's what I do. But I believe a true gift is one that is thoughtful and says, "I took time to recognize your culture and traditions and learn a little about you and bring a gift that would mean something to you, not to me".
2. There is so much knowledge and wisdom and ideas and creativity housed in the people who live around me and I wanted to tap into that humanity instead of a stale electronic search.
3. I love giving people an opportunity to be apart of something bigger then themselves. Asking for help does this. Including folks in the process does this. Do you know that people I rarely talk to ended up reaching out to their neighbors and asking what an appropriate gift for me to give would be? People searched all over and sent me messages and texts and emails sending me to all sorts of great locations and ideas of what to give. Strangers were invested in this simple gift to say "I'm sorry" to a woman who just lost her husband. The circle of care and kindness that surrounds this one little act now extends all across the city. That's why I did it! Come on, I am an intelligent woman, I can figure this shit out on my own. That's not the point.
Lastly, two incredible things happened by being vulnerable and asking for help. First my neighbor and friend Mai Neng Moua offered to meet me at the local Good Deal market and walk me through it. She met me after work, taking time out of her day, away from her family to help me learn more about Hmong culture and food and traditions. We strolled down every aisle rich with ingredients I recognized and a bunch a I didn't. Explaining and teaching me Hmong for the items I couldn't read. She showed me the difference between herbs and different pork sausage.
I was very humbled that this woman would be so patient with me, and also very kind in giving me her time so that I could learn more in turn so that I could love more.
It is often in the position we take that will increase our relationships and expand our knowledge. When we can openly and humbly ask for help in learning what we do not understand, those who hold that knowledge often can meet you with more understanding because of our willingness to learn.
Mai Neng Moua's willingness to walk with me through a generally uncomfortable experience (I was clearly out of place in this market, especially not being able to read much of what was around me, or how to use half of the items sold there.) made it possible for me to release my ridiculous fear and be ready to shop there even more. She turned something uncomfortable for me and made me feel comfortable.
Thank you Mai, I can't wait to cook with you soon and have our families share a meal.
Now... the reason for this story. Mai's husband Blong Yang read my post on Facebook and sent me a message that said,
"A 50lb bag of rice is a good gift and says, 'I'm sorry for your loss and I care.' But a slaughtered pig says, 'I'm sorry and I love you like family.'"
Wait... what? Really? I mean I guess I assumed somewhere there was a place where those things happened, but truthfully, my meat comes dead and wrapped in paper from the store.
Then. "If you are serious about the pig, I can take you to the slaughter house down in south St. Paul. Do you want to try to give them a pig?"
As I was sitting on my couch, I looked over at Paul to which he squinted his eyes at me and said, "You are completely curious aren't you?"
Um... Yeah! Wouldn't you be?
For the next 45 min, Blong proceeded to walk me through multiple layers of cultural context surrounding death and rituals in the Hmong culture. I told him I was in. I wanted the pig. Since I was convinced already I wanted to do this, I then decided to ask. "What does this entail?"
"Well... you pick a pig. They weight it. They kill it. They clean it. They gut it. You take it home."
"You mean like in a cooler?" Is my brilliant and naive response.
"No, like in a tarp. Fully intact. Oh and bring a bucket for its insides."
And.... we have officially entered unchartered territory. What exactly have I done I wonder as a full fledge city girl who has incredibly limited experience on any type of farm.
In the end, we set a date to head to the slaughter house.
The next day I hit the streets and started door knocking to my neighbors in attempt to collect enough money to bring a pig to a family in mourning.
A family in mourning. Friends, I wish I could unhear my sweet and devastated neighbor as she sits on her back porch and wails from the depth of her sadness. I have never heard crying sound like this. I have never heard pain sound like this. Every morning, before the sun is up, her tears are falling and it is her cries that tell me another day is coming, and she will be facing it alone. And every morning as I lay next to my own husband, I squeeze him a little tighter as my heart breaks for her a little more. It feels like a pig is the very least thing I can organize.
Our official "Get the pig day" arrived with a trip to the gas station to pick up coffee, the golden rule of getting up early, and I went to get Blong for our adventure at the Slaughter house.
When Blong gets in the car he asks, "Do you have any idea what you are walking into?"
Not at all.
Not even a clue.
But I packed my garden rubber boots just in case. (who knows right? Not me obviously.) And a jacket. And I put a tarp in the back of the minivan because you know... full faced empty pig.
Blong and I make it to the slaughter house around 8am, to discover it is already packed with people. We came to realize that it was Ethiopian Easter and so everyone was there. Blong takes me to the back where the livestock is. They have separate sections for chickens, cow, and sheep and lambs. Blong looks at me and says, "Pick one".
Sure. Just like that. Just. You know...pick one.
But how? How can you tell if its a good pig? Or a bad one? Should it be fat? Do the marks on the skin matter? What about short legs, or bad breath? Do I pick a slow one or a fast one? How in the world do you a pig to be slaughtered? I mean, I stood there with the full weight that I was now solely in charge of ending the life of a living thing. I know my eyes got big, my heart lurched a few times, and I will admit it took me a little bit of time to decide.
This struggle of ending a life to give a gift. To bless a family. In trying to do a good deed, I felt like it was starting with a dark deed. To give to one, I must take away from another. And I had to wrestle with all these heavy feelings in a span a few moments, because the guy speaking Hmong in his rubber apron and paddle was coming towards us to mark the pigs we had chosen.
I tell you that I would have not survived without Blong. As one a very few women in this place, I was also the only white person. Oh the extent of my Hmong speaking skills are about nill. Not only do I look out of place, it is clear I have never done this before and am struggling to communicate. Blong led this whole ordeal for me, he answered all of my questions, and was so patient as I know I asked some ridiculous questions. I mean not only are our cultures very different, I also have very limited experience with animals in general and my skills in the kitchen are still new. So I feel a little green in all things in this situation.
Because it was so busy, we stood in line waiting for our pig to be next in line, we got to talk about everything. From our families, to different cultures and thier impact on America, his wife's book, North Minneapolis, politics, what it means to be an unseen minority. You know...small things.
After a couple hours and a tour of the rest of the warehouse (with cows being skinned and chickens being chosen and feathered), it was our pigs turn. My heart turned over once realizing this was the moment that I set into motion. In full disclosure, this moment was hard for me yes, but knowing what a gift it would be to the family made it better. Knowing that Hmong culture animals are sacred and there is only respect for the animal in giving up its life. They utilize and eat every part of the animal so as not to waste it. I came to this with understanding, but the reality was just... more real.
I don't know that I want to write about the process of what happens next. Not because it is simply to grotesque to discuss, but because it really isn't the point. I wan't ever disgusted by what was happening in front of me. I simply kept thinking,
"Everyone in here is Hmong, or Muslim, or variety or version of a "minority" here in America. There is such a strong cultural experience happening here that I never knew existed. I am experiencing something that I never would have had the chance to see and know without the gift of Blong and my neighbors."
For this small moment in time I got to see a little bit of their world and what they experience. Not only their culture, but truthfully? I was a minority that day in a place where my language is second. Communication was hard. I clearly stood out because of my skin color and my gender. I believe it is imperative, especially for white folks, to put themselves in uncomfortable situations and walk a bit in someone else's shoes. For a brief moment, and in a fraction of a similar context, I experienced what it means to be in a place that doesn't fully make sense. I didn't hold all the knowledge of what happens in this place. I was lacking in almost every way to know how to navigate this.
Yet people were kind, though maybe looked at me a little funny. We made our language barrier work, and I met some really wonderful folks while waiting for this whole showdown. And I was there for awhile.
Yeah. Cause this girl? Picked the only sick pig all morning. After it was all dead and cleaned and ready to go, they slit that pig open to find out it was diseased.
Yeah. I am really good at this.
So we had to start all over. From the beginning. Blong looked at me and said, "Pick another one!" I thought, "Clearly I showed my lack of skills last time around. I can't even be trusted in this!"
But I scored a good one, and they rushed us through to the front of the line where we watched the whole thing again. Where they gave us all the innards in a bucket then wrapped the pig in a tarp and dropped in my trunk.
Blong and I enjoyed an authentic Mexican lunch (where I ate tongue tacos for the first time. This was a day of many firsts!). Hours and hours later (Seriously, he was going to be with me for two max and ended up spending six hours with me on this adventure!) I dropped him off at home.
Then with a car smelling of dead pig that is getting warm from the sun and the hot car, I started to make the drive to a northern suburb where my neighbors family was gathering. Ms. Yang's son has a home about 20 min outside of the city.
In my sweatpants, big garden rubber boots and tank top, smelling like slaughter house, I pulled up to a huge family gathering with tents and lots of food. Many of the adults were sitting around tables quietly talking while kids played in the yard trying to distract themselves from all the melancholy adults. Then there's me, timidly looking for a man I have never met before who owns this house. A woman stops me and I say,
"I am the next door neighbor of the grandfather who passed away. The neighbors and I pitched in to buy your family a pig as a way to say we are so sorry for your loss. I hope this is an appropriate gift to bring and I haven't done anything offensive by bringing a pig. Otherwise this a really terrible practical joke."
We laughed together. Whew.
And I looked at her hoping I made sense and praying that I did't have to keep explaining myself, still feeling unsure about looking so out of place, in the suburbs, with a Hmong family and a rotting pig in my trunk. I mean come on.
Everyone came out then, and I had to talk again, and I was so uncomfortable and the attention was getting to me, and grandma just kept hugging me, and then they sat me down and kept bringing me food to try. The family sat with me and talked for more than an hour. More than we ever have.
It was so incredibly overwhelming.
It was so incredibly beautiful.
It was so incredibly humbling.
My day started at 630am. I came home at 7pm. This was what I was going to do with my morning. I was gonna make a quick trip to the slaughter house then "drop" off the pig with the family.
I am reminded again that people do not belong on a timeline. That giving of ourselves means sacrifices we never thought we would need to make.
I am reminded that being in someone's pain with them is potentially one of the most powerful things we can do.
I am reminded by the beauty in people. That Blong and these neighbors of mine would give of themselves without expecting anything in return. They simply gave because someone was hurt. Human interest stories aren't going to save us, but they do give us strength to go on. That's what this did for me. I saw the Beauty in people. I saw hope and love. I saw the way it could be when we look out for each other.
I learned what it means to walk a little in someone else's shoes simply to know them more. To understand them in a way I didn't before. To grow my heart and make room. To remind myself that my way isn't always the best or only way.
My neighbor still wails in the morning. I still wake up to hearing her cry. Her pain is deep. Yet, now, she stops and hugs me. We didn't do that before.
A wall came down.
We are closer now.
We share something now.
Special Note: I did not take any pictures of this as it felt insensitive to me. I wasn't there to capture something for you, I was there to experience it fully for me. (yes I am sharing now, but only after I took everything I wanted to keep and protect for myself. You get the highlights)
Special Thank you: Blong Yang and Mai Neng Moua for ALL the time you gave to walk me through this. To help me see and understand. For your patience with all my questions. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
To my neighbors who contributed to make this moving gift happen. We couldn't have blessed them without you.
To all the folks who shared info with me, asked their neighbors to help me, and took time to do research for me. You went above and beyond and that was very heartfelt. Thank you.