A can of worms

Posted October 30

It is a strange moment in history for the Hmong people of our little valley, and this is quite likely The Human, Earth Project's most bizarre episode ever. 

One of the reasons that the women here are so vulnerable to human trafficking is that their options here at home are generally poor ones. 

The Hmong women here have traditionally had little choice but to marry Hmong men in villages deeply affected by poverty, alcoholism, male dominance, domestic violence, and low levels of education. 

Now, however, it is becoming increasingly common for the girls and women of neighbouring villages to come to town to sell handicrafts and trekking tours to domestic and international tourists. 

While the men stay at home in the villages, the women now have their own - potentially more lucrative - source of income. They learn foreign languages, and are exposed to more modern ideas and ways of living. Many of the tourists offer them opportunities for education and travel, and sometimes even marriage. 

It's a moment of empowerment, and a great number of the Hmong girls who have glimpsed the world beyond their valley are simply not interested in returning to their villages to marry Hmong men. P is one of those girls.

The general consensus of M, P, and both of their families was that they'd be better off remaining as victims of trafficking in China than returning home to marry Hmong men.

Since her return, P has been very vocal about her distaste for the idea of marrying or becoming involved in any way with a Hmong man. She now has the power and freedom to choose from a world of possibilities, and has chosen an uncomplicated life. 

Her life has just become very complicated, however, if not entirely surreal. 

On Monday evening, after returning from our five-day motorbike tour, P and I went for a celebratory beer with a pair of Belgian cyclists we'd met on the road. 

P - who rarely touches alcohol - was in such high spirits that she joined us for two or three glasses of beer, and became a little tipsy. There was a group of young Hmong men drinking at the next table, one of whom took a keen interest in her. 

One of the few Hmong men I've met here who speaks passable English, he came and introduced himself by the cringe-worthy name 'Lucky Charm'. He was 20 years old, told us he worked at a nearby hotel, and spent the rest of the evening speaking in Hmong with P. 

At the end of the evening, I offered to walk P home, and Lucky Charm tagged along. As we passed my room, however, I was surprised by P's sudden announcement that she would be fine to walk home alone with her new friend. 

I've felt responsible for and protective of P since her recent return from China, and never in my life had I felt more like a concerned parent than at that moment. 

After all we've done to help win her freedom, however, it would be beyond hypocrisy for me to impose my own judgements on her. P assured me she'd be fine, and I let her go. 

I'll skip the suspense: P is fine, at least for the moment. Lucky Charm, on the other hand, is not. 

Two years ago, Lucky Charm's girlfriend - who supposedly bore a striking resemblance to P - left him to seek a new life in China. When he first laid eyes on P, he believed his long-lost love had finally returned. 

Even after he realised his error, Lucky Charm continued to profess his love for P. 

In the past 48 hours, he has also professed his love of brawling, the fact that he carries a knife at all times, his intention to stick it into any other man he sees with P, and his imminent suicide should she refuse to marry him. 

(I'll confess P and I high-fived on hearing his final claim). 

In short, Lucky Charm is about as lucky as breaking a mirror over a black cat beneath a ladder. P considers him locally well-connected and genuinely dangerous, and, as the police can't be expected to provide any meaningful assistance, it's not difficult to understand why his ex-girlfriend fled the country. 

On that first night, P turned him down cold and left him outside her home, where he was allegedly seen still lingering six hours later. P has made it abundantly clear she wants nothing to do with him or any other Hmong man. 

Lucky Charm is enraged with her refusal of him and his entire culture - it's likely all a little too familiar for him, considering his experience with his ex. He has since been searching for P throughout town, at one point grabbing her in the street. 

There is a peculiar Hmong custom which greatly facilitates human trafficking in this area, and is to be a focus of our forthcoming documentary, Sisters For Sale

If a woman resists the advances of a Hmong man, he's able to gather a group of friends to kidnap and hold her captive in his home for three days and nights, while attempting to negotiate a bride price with her family. Rape and subsequent suicide are known to occur.

This is the greatest danger facing P now. 

P's solution is to pose as my girlfriend - which is not a great solution, considering that girls with partners are also known to have been abducted for marriage. Nor is it entirely safe from my point of view, given Lucky Charm's threats. 

In the past month, P has seen more than her share of drama, and I wasn't going to wait around for Lucky Charm to make the first move. This evening I went to confront him at the hotel where he lived and worked. 

Like most Hmong men, Lucky Charm stands a full head shorter than me. I'll admit to idle fantasies of lifting him by the front of his shirt, teaching him a few new words of English, and possibly throwing him somewhere. 

(Also not a great solution, but a step in the right direction).

Lucky Charm, however, was nowhere to be found, and the hotel staff told me he'd disappeared 24 hours earlier. We don't know his real name, or where he's from. He's out there somewhere. 

This evening P is sleeping at a friend's house, and tomorrow morning I'll take her to a safe location further out of town until we can untangle this can of worms. 

The prevailing mood has been outrage, tempered by stunned disbelief. It's difficult to say how this will all play out. 

What's P got to say about it all? 

'Hmong boy, Vietnamese boy, get out from my face!

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