The Hmong have a phrase, _hais cuaj txub kaum txub_, which means “to speak of all kinds of things.” It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are, that no event occurs in isolation, that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point, and that the storyteller is likely to be rather longwinded.
“In New York, freedom looks like too many choices,” Bono sings. When I moved there I was shy about ordering the plainest deli sandwiches and confused by the flashing Don’t Walk signs that made people run. I had no visa, and it took a month or two to find work at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a proud literary publishing house I’d never heard of. I filled Jiffy bags with reviewer’s copies, and cut out the assessments that were sometimes granted in response. I filed the reviews in moldering folders–Kincaid, Jamaica; Nadas, Peter; O’Brien, Edna–along a corridor where Mike Hammer might have rented an office. I was paid in hardbacks, which I rarely read. It’s a rule of mine: never read anything bigger than your head.
Eight years later, I arrived for my last shift at another volunteer job on a freezing New York night. Between calls I flicked through People and US Weekly and worried about Brad and Jen. My shift partner, whom I didn’t know, read for a while too, and then slung his feet up on the desk and fell asleep. Because he was handsome, and wore yellow socks, I sneaked a look at his book to see if he was worth waking up.
It was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. At Farrar, Straus & Giroux I’d packed a carton full of review copies and sent them around the country, but I’d decided it was too worthy to bother taking home (and I lacked the enterprise to sell it). Who wanted to read an epic about a Hmong toddler’s epilepsy, and the clash between her refugee community and the doctors at a Californian county hospital? I wasn’t sure what a Hmong was, even, and in any case I was preoccupied with Princess Diana’s funeral.
Since then I’ve visited a Hmong village in Laos, a day’s walk from the nearest dirt road. At sundown, when the villagers went to the river to bathe decorously under sodden sarongs, I slipped on the muddy bank and fell in, and cried. For dinner they killed a rooster–a precious rooster–and fed me the boiled head. I eyeballed this baleful Pez dispenser and made a show of fake humility in handing it to the teenaged monk who was my guide. Pon lit up. It was the end of Buddhist lent, and for over a month he’d eaten nothing after midday, and no protein at all. He sucked the rooster’s tongue like a lover, and then crunched through to the brain. I swallowed gritty gizzards. The villagers gathered in the doorway to watch the feast in silence, though they didn’t eat. Afterwards, someone made coffee, pouring the whole packs of Nescafe and sugar I’d brought into a kettle of river water and boiling it to syrup. I sipped mine, until Pon pantomimed that there were only two plastic tumblers and no one else could drink until we finished. We unrolled mats on the earthen floor, feet pointing towards the door to keep bad spirits out. I lay awake in a coffee buzz while underneath the stilted house the men hammered a coffin for somebody dead, and got raucously drunk on laú-laú moonshine.
I was an ungracious guest, frustrated that I knew so little and hung up on details. How much money should I offer the head man? Which one was he, anyway? How would I tell them I needed to go to the toilet? Why were the children scared of me? Why wouldn’t these people build better shacks? Were the men opium junkies? Were they really this dour? Oh Jesus, was that a _leech?_
I didn’t know how to begin.
Nor did the people in Anne Fadiman’s wonderful book, which my new friend hand-delivered to San Francisco last month. Both Hmong immigrants and locals were baffled and helpless. The Hmong didn’t want to be on welfare in Merced, California. They wanted to be back in their villages in Laos, where ‘pig-feeding time’ marked sunset and sunrise. The local taxpayers wanted them back home, too. Kissinger’s adventures in Laos had been kept so quiet that most Americans neither knew nor cared that Hmong tribes had been recruited to fight a private war for the CIA, and had been kicked out or slaughtered when the Americans lost 1975. Their path to America was traumatic, involuntary, and took a great deal longer than the Orderly Departure planes that left them stranded as homegrown traitors. “It was a kind of hell they landed into, ” said Eugene Douglas, Reagan’s ambassador-at-large for refugee affairs. “Really, it couldn’t have been done much worse.” Both sides expected gratitude, and got resentment. The Hmong had little left but their culture, and no interest in giving it up to become American.
That’s not an immigrant approach that America is prepared for. Think of the graffiti in Rio: “Yanqui go home–and take me with you.” America defines us so thoroughly that I could arrive in New York as a full-grown adult and feel at home except at the deli counter. But the Hmong had stayed apart so successfully that they were confused by toilets, and canned food, and electricity, and money, and hospitals. American doctors were known to steal body parts, without which souls couldn’t rest. (For their part, the doctors saw their Hmong patients as ungrateful and “non-compliant”.) It would be hard to imagine the scale of their bewilderment, except I remember it first-hand, stumbling in that river and wanting desperately to go home.
Fadiman begins with a description Fish Soup, as told by a Hmong student at Merced High School:
To prepare fish soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing, you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is. Continuing in this vein for forty-five minutes, the student filled the blackboard with a complexly branching tree of factors and options, a sort of piscatory flowchart, written in French with an overlay of Hmong. anecdotes about his own fishing experiences. He ended with a description of how to clean various kinds of fish, how to cut them up, and, finally, how to cook them in broths flavored with various herbs.”
To tell Lia Lee’s story, Fadiman makes a fish soup of her own, winding through Hmong history and culture, the American War, immigration policy, western medical training, anthropology, welfare reform, a changing community, and a family. Like Tracy Kidder, or a Hmong fisherman, she watches and waits, and unfolds her tale with startling delicacy. In puzzling out a catastrophic clash of cultures, she looks for answers rather than blame. Along the way, she changed medical culture and won the National Book Award. It’s beautiful. Read it if you can.