Monday, January 17, 2011

The Games That Some People Play ...

A Hmong Young Man Plays Pov Pob
The games that some people play ... is not about deception, cheating, or the manipulation of human emotions or social intercourse.

The games that some people play ... is not about politics or even politicians.

The games that some people play ... is not about international affairs involving Iran, North Korea, the USA, or any other country.

This blog is literally about some of the games that we saw the Hmong people playing during our trip to Laos in early December 2010.

A Hmong Beauty Prepares to Catch A Ball
We had gone up to Luang Prabang to once again witness the Hmong New Years Celebration.  The Hmong people in Laos celebrate New Year after the harvest and in accordance to the stage of the moon in accordance with their lunar calendarr.  It is a time for the people from various clans to get together and socialize when there is a lull in the field work.  During the Hmong New Years celebration there are spiritual rituals and observances that are rather private and mostly limited to family members. During the public aspects of the celebration there is traditional music, traditional dancing, traditional clothing, eating drinking, gambling, and socializing.  The public activities are very interesting events for at least four of the five senses - propriety limits the opportunities for the sense of touch.  Socializing besides involving sharing gossip includes playing games.

Hmong Girls Playing Pov Pob
The most widely known Hmong game is most likely "Pov Pob".  Pov Pob is a ball tossing game.  It is played throughout the year in Laos but it is special during the New Years festival.  Especially in the older times it was difficult for young Hmong men and young Hmong women to find potential mates.  Hmong people are forbidden to marry within their clan.  Since the villages are often made up exclusively of a single clan and the burdens of farming leave little time to go off in search of a potential mate.  It was at the meeting of various clans at the New Year Festival that the young people had an opportunity to meet potential husbands and wives.  This tradition continues today for the Hmong people in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR).

Pov Pob In Progress at the New Years Festival
Pov Pob is described as an activity for adolescents and akin to a courtship ritual.  That is true just as it is true to describe dancing as a fertility ritual in the United States.  Although it is true in both situations, the description is incomplete and also not completely accurate.  Just as you will see very elderly people in the USA dancing to the tunes of their youth and thoroughly enjoying themselves, you will observe older Hmong people playing Pov Pob.  The older Hmong people participating in Pov Pob like the adolescents are looking for a mate.  They are either divorced or widowed however there are some who are looking for an additional mate.  Polygamy is illegal in Laos but some old cultural practices still remain albeit not commonly.  During our visit last month we found a middle aged man who with the assistance of his middle aged wife was courting an 18 year old girl to be his wife.

Young Boy Holding a Traditional Hmong Ball for Pov Pob

Willing, if not yet capable of playing "Pov Pob"
Along with the adolescents and older  people playing the match game, there are plenty of young children who also participate in their own way in pov pob - sort of like young children dancing back in America - they imitate their older siblings and just because it is FUN.

Hmong Teenaged Men Participating in Pov Pob

Because of the match making possibilities of Pov Pob during the New Year Festival, girls wear the best traditional Hmong clothing.  Their garments are colorful, emblazoned with intricate embroidered designs.  The girls and women also wear their traditional Hmong silver jewelry.  Their ensemble is often topped off with a traditional and colorful hat.  To a lesser extent boys and young men will wear elaborate if not traditional clothing. 

Sometimes a person has to generalize in order to describe or to approach any semblance of effective communication.  The mere fact that it is a generalization means that the description is not 100% accurate for all cases and circumstances.  As is the case for most things in life there are exceptions.  In order to describe Pov Pob I will be generalizing.

A Girl Sings As She Prepares to Catch A Ball
In general girls and boys form two lines facing each other.  A small soft cloth ball, or a tennis ball, or sometimes an orange is lobbed back and forth between the lines.  Girls can throw to girls but boys are not allowed to toss to another boy.  In addition you are not allowed to lob the ball to a member of your own clan.  The person on the receiving end of the toss catches the ball with one hand.  If you are "interested" in someone you toss the ball to them.  If a boy makes a good throw to a girl and she doesn't try to catch it, she is letting him know not too subtly that she is not interested him.

If you make a good lob to someone and they drop the ball or miss catching the ball, the person is supposed to take a piece of their costume, a piece of silver, or  a bell from their costume to the person across from them.  To get the ornament or trinket back, the person has to sing to the person opposite them.  The singing and ball tossing are ice breakers for the people.   For those who are playing the game to find a match, 15 years and older, if they make a love connection they and the person who is also interested in them will leave the game.  The pair go off to get to know each other better.  If they determine that they are right for each other they will publicly announce their intentions three days later and will be married about three weeks later when the moon is right - a new moon.

A Private and Personal Pov Pob - Perhaps a Prelude to Much More

A Spinning Top Is Hurled Down Field
During this trip to the Hmong people in Laos, Duang and I watched another Hmong game called "Tujlub" (Spinning Tops) which is played by men and boys.  We watched a spinning top match on our first day in the field that served as a parking lot at one of the two festival sites that we visited throughout our stay in Luang Prabang.

The tops are carved out of very dense hardwood.  They reminded me a great deal of  turnips that were cooked for Thanksgiving dinners back in Connecticut.  A heavy cotton string about 3 or 4 meters (9 to 12 feet) long is wrapped very tightly around the wood top.  The other end of the heavy string is attached to a stick about 4 to 5 cm in diameter (1-1/2 in. to 2 in.) and 60 to 90 cm (2 - 3 feet) long.  The top is held in one hand the stick in the other hand.  The top is thrown down field while at the same time the stick is jerked downwards in a whip like or slashing motion.

The rules for playing Tujlub differ from location to location.  For the match that we watch, this appeared to be how the game was played.  There were two teams of three players each.  The first team went down the hardened dirt pitch about 10 meters (30 feet) and set their tops spinning in a somewhat tight grouping in a slightly recessed area which reminded me of a greatly worn horseshoe pit.  Once the tops were set about spinning the other team members one by one heaved their tops at the spinning stationary tops to strike them; driving them out of the area and stopping their spinning.  Apparently points were awarded for every top that was stopped by the second team.

One of the Target Tops Is Set to Spinning While One Is Already Spinning
The process was repeated again about 20 meters from the starting line and once again about 30 meters from the starting line.  After completing the three distances, the teams swapped positions with the second team setting up their tops spinning at the predetermined distances and the first team attempting to hit the spinning tops by hurling their tops down field.

A Spinning Top About To Escape From Its Line

It was amazing how often a spinning top was hit by a hurled top.  The sound of the colliding wood tops was like the sharp crack of a well hit baseball with a hickory bat.  From my position down field I had a clear and impressive view of how fast and powerful the tops were hurled towards their targets.  I was also impressed and extremely grateful as to how accurate the players were.

A Player Puts All That He Has Into His Hurl

At the other end of the festival site, men - older and appearing to be of a higher social status, were playing petanque.  Petanque is similar to bocce.  It is a French game whose current form was developed in 1907.  It is played with metal balls on a hard compacted dirt or gravel rectangular area.

A Petanque Player In Vientiane, LPDR

A small wood ball is thrown and points are earned by throwing or rolling the larger metal balls closer to it than the other team's attempts similar to bocce and not that much different than horse shoes.  Perhaps the saying of "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades" should be modified to "Close only counts in horseshoes, bocce, petanque and hand grenades as well as nuclear weapons".

Part of the game strategy in addition to getting your balls closet to the wood ball called "cochonnet" is also to knock your opponent's ball away from the wood ball so that yours are closer or his are eliminated from the pitch.

Petanque Players Figuring Out Who Is Closest
The penchant for playing petanque is a legacy of French colonialism here in Southeast Asia.  There is a factory that produces petanque balls (boule) in Vientiane, Laos.  Although the French never colonized Thailand, petanque is played here in Isaan.  I suspect the interaction of Thailand's Lao Loum population with their cousins across the Mekong River in Lao People's democratic Republic goes a long ways towards explaining its popularity here.  I have played some with my brother-in-law and the Tahsang Village officials.  It is a nice game to play when the weather is hot and the beer is ice cold.

Playing Petanque Along the Bank of the Mekong River In Laos
It was interesting to see how people in a different culture entertain and amuse themselves.  A common denominator for all three of the games was the fact that people were making do with what was readily and perhaps more importantly what was cheaply available to them.  Their games did not involve a great deal of investment of time, equipment, space, or energy.  The Hmong games were also very social events with participants socializing as much as they were competing.


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