Ntxhais/On Staying Grounded

Photo credit: Maisoue Yang | www.pixelpluie.com

Photo credit: Maisoue Yang | www.pixelpluie.com

I wrote this piece fall semester, 2018, as part of a project I’m developing at my university to help Hmong students connect and build community through reflective writing. I had originally titled it “Ntxhais” but am now thinking the title might be better as “On Staying Grounded”. You can also listen me read it here.

Mom has laid a three-foot spread of newspaper over the yellow linoleum floor. In an old, fifty-pound rice bag, several chickens squirm. I’m standing to the side waiting as the kettle sings its readiness on the stove. Mom picks up the kettle and pours steaming water into a white bucket next to the spread of newspaper. With an expert hand, she opens the rice bag and pulls out a chicken.

“Tuav lias,” Mom says. Hold it.

I twist the chicken’s wings back and try to fit my small hands around the drummettes, close to its body. Once, I learned that if I held on too close to the tips of the wings, I could lose my grip and upset this whole setup. Like anything at the brink of death, a chicken will try its best to escape.

Mom takes hold of the chicken’s head with one hand, quickly plucks some feathers from its throat, and slices the neck in a couple of quick sawing motions. The home-made knife cuts through skin, muscle and a little bit of bone. Blood gushes out into a waiting bowl to be used later. At first, the chicken is still. Then it begins to jerk and shake, pulling against my hand, until all the blood is drained. Until it finally quiets. Poop plops down on the newspaper, and my sister--who has been holding the feet--wrinkles her nose.

On to the next chicken.

For eons, Hmong mothers and daughters have been responsible for killing chickens and getting them into the pot and onto the dinner table. In fact, I’ve often heard aunties say ib tug ntxhais--a daughter--must know how to kill a chicken. The chicken, after all, is at the center of Hmong cultural practices and traditional cuisine. Readily available and full of protein and fat, the chicken is the perfect postpartum diet. Rumored to have special powers, it is the preferred animal to sacrifice during soul-calling ceremonies. Still, I’ve never settled into slicing those little throats and watching the blood drip from their strained bodies. And I think it’s because I feel sorry for them, because often I feel like a chicken myself--small, voiceless, winged but grounded.

To me those words describe perfectly the experience of ib tug ntxhais--a daughter.

“Ntxhais”--daughter--is a packed word. It starts with one of the most complicated sounds of the Hmong language, a four-letter consonant cluster, N-T-X-H, followed by the heart of the word, a two-letter vowel A-I, and closing with S, one of the softer low tone markers. Ntxhais. As if the creator of this language knew that a daughter’s life could not be simply fitted into a tiny word. Take for comparison the word “tub” or son. It starts with a one-letter consonant, a T, followed by a one-letter vowel, a U, and closing with one of the higher tone markers, B. Tub. Clean, quick, done.

As ib tug ntxhais the space I occupy has always felt unstable and unsafe. I think it’s because ib tug ntxhais often walks a narrow road. Ib tug ntxhais has to speak softly, keep busy, stay grounded. Ib tug ntxhais has to be a chicken even when she wants to be a hawk. When she gets a little too excited, she gets labeled muaj phlus. When she goes to the movies with her friends, she gets labeled poj laib. When she goes away to graduate school, she gets labeled poj mes cab. As a young woman trying to find herself in America, trying to find her way between ib tug ntxhais and “American woman”, those words, whether said intentionally or ignorantly, pulls her closer and closer to the ground--to stay grounded and voiceless and small.

Chickens can’t fly.

I think we’ve made that clear. But they can sure leap, and they can heal, and some believe that they can even see spirits. And you know what’s funny? After two degrees and seven years of being a professional, of trying not to stay grounded like a chicken, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve completely misunderstood the idea of staying grounded. Maybe the aunties meant to say ib tug ntxhais should keep her head low, be watchful, make sensible decisions.

Maybe it had nothing to do with flying after all.