The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

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.

“A Problem From Hell”

The United States has never in its history intervened to stop genocide and has in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred.”
–Samantha Power, “A Problem From Hell”
Caitriona at Lough Derg
At college, my best friend Caitríona studied History and Politics. I got Hob-Nob crumbs on the western canon, and wondered how she crawled through those dull books. She went to Bosnia after we graduated, and wore white Levi’s as her UN observer uniform. Afterwards, in Boston, she won a Fulbright scholarship to study Balkan conflict resolution, which I rarely asked her about for fear she would tell me. She went back to Bosnia. This time she lived in Tuzla, near where General Mladic had executed more than 7,000 men in a UN “safe area”. She worked for a group called Physicians for Human Rights. They gathered forensic evidence from the Srebrenica massacre so that each case could be prosecuted as a murder. She spoke daily with the widows and families, trying to reunite them with the bodies of their missing, murdered men. She drew media attention to the work they were doing, and needed to do. Later, she was called as an expert witness at the first war crimes tribunal held at the International Court in The Hague.

I spent those years caught up in the New York internet culture. I read _The Economist_, but often as not I skipped the depressing International news section. Why bother? I worked long hours, made more money than I needed, and puffed up on the importance of the startup company that grew out of my living room. The word “revolution” appeared in the business plan and nobody laughed. We used to call late-night code “hero check-ins”. CEOs studied _The Art of War_. When bad things happened to go projects, I would say “Babies won’t die, kids.”

Twice I went to visit Caitríona in The Hague, after she broke her back when knocked off her bike on the way to her first week at the tribunal. I met her friends: human rights lawyers, activists, and war reporters. Their intensity reminded me of the geeky evangelists in my world, only more so. They were animated as they tried to explain what had happened, who had stood aside, who was evil, why this _mattered_. All night I couldn’t get the Bowie song out of my head: “This ain’t rock and roll. This is…GENOCIDE.” I concentrated on getting the names of the generals right, and failed. These old Yugoslavia hands struck me as institutionalised, addicted to the intensity of a war zone, unable to let go. They drank too much. They acted like this was life and death.

I had never visited Cait in Bosnia, though she was there for three years. I was afraid. I wanted to spend my few holidays in comfort. I didn’t want to know about this unpleasant world, and I didn’t want to feel guilty for doing nothing to improve it. She came to me instead, in busy, glitzy, boomtown New York. I showed her my new toys and lectured her on the wireless revolution. I worried that she didn’t earn enough, that she lived in horrible conditions, that she dealt with decomposing bodies and desperate widows every day. She has always had an uncanny ability to interest influential people, and I thought she should use that to her own advantage, for once.

I was booted out of that New York life just as I turned thirty. I could only afford to travel in cheap countries, so I started to go to the kinds of places that Caitríona had studied and lived in. I wept in the War Crimes Museum in Saigon. Why, I wondered, had Cambodia turned out like this? What was wrong with Bolivia? With Burma? Politics, which I had seen as a dull, corrupt abstraction, began to seem real at last. In Laos, a sixteen-year-old monk said, “Why did America bomb my village?” I didn’t know how to explain the Domino Theory to a kid from the Plain of Jars.

I gave up most novels and scrounged books to puzzle it out. I read The Quiet American. William Shawcross’s Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. Robert McNamara’s confession. Air America. The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War. Norman Lewis’s Indochina books. Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters from Burma. War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges.

They told me, over and over, that bloodbaths and famines are rarely unexpected or inevitable; that wars are usually caused by a very tiny number of influential people; that genocide can often be prevented by a very tiny number of influential people, but rarely is; that the law of unintended consequences leads to catastrophe in geopolitics. It was fresh news.


As a Christmas present this year, Caitríona gave me “A Problem from Hell” : America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power. Power is a friend of hers from their Bosnia days, and she is Irish too, though she moved to the US when she was nine. She is 33; fabulously young to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book award, but this book deserves all its praise. I couldn’t wish for a more patient teacher to sew together the scraps of an education I picked up in the last few years. In one chapter, for example, she sets out how the United States directly created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge to come to power, and then looked away as Pol Pot killed almost a third of his own countrymen in under three years. It was left to Vietnam, still reeling itself, to invade and overthrow Pol Pot–but since they were on the “wrong” side in the Cold War, the US and the UN continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge for many years after the Killing Fields had been dug up for the west. Her charges are clear and devastating.

She believes that much of the misery of the last century was predicted in advance and could have been averted. Failure to stop it was due not to ignorance but to considered decisions not to intervene. Referring to the many instances of genocide in the last hundred years, she says that “No US president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence.”

Several heroic figures did work to oppose and expose ethnic cleansing as it took place, but the quiet majority of American politicians chose always to do nothing, as did the American public.

I am ashamed to be a silent voice in that majority.

Caitríona lives in Iran now, with her American husband Dan, who writes for the Guardian and The Economist. She and I just spent a few days together here in Limerick, catching up after too long apart, as usual. She had come back from a Christmas trip to the US and Dublin, and felt down. People couldn’t understand why she and Dan were still caught up in their little human rights kick. In New York, friends who “made a window” barely asked about Iran; they were busy telling her about the ups and downs of their own careers. In California, their family wanted to know when they were going to come back to America and start living like proper, middle-class adults.

Iran is not easy. She tells me about the men who scream obscenities and sexual come-ons in the street, no matter how modest her _hejab_, and about the rich Tehran women who talk of little but cosmetic surgery and clothes. Her phone is bugged. She caught typhoid. Still, she presses on, and will continue to, like Mary Robinson before her. As well as reporting for the Irish media, she volunteers helping victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attacks; the Iranian women and children who were unlucky enough to be on the side not supported by the Americans. Sixteen years later, they have been long forgotten by all but the few like Caitríona.

The Cu Chi Tunnels

During the American War, the Viet Cong spent years in warrens like the Cu Chi caves. These tunnel networks were dug in the rich soil of the Mekong Delta when Agent Orange and other defoliants dropped by the Americans made jungle cover impossible.

During the American War, the Viet Cong spent years in warrens like the Cu Chi caves. These tunnel networks were dug in the rich soil of the Mekong Delta when Agent Orange and other defoliants dropped by the Americans made jungle cover impossible.

Last year I crawled through these tunnels, cradling a broken hand for authenticity. The mud walls pressed tight, and the smell of the stale air and damp, packed earth was heavy. We had the luxury of occasional lightbulbs; the original tenants crawled in blackness.

Long bamboo pipes funnelled smoke from the underground kitchens away to outlets under distant bushes. The underground hospital was stocked with sticks to bite away screams. There was a small factory for turning out hideous booby-traps. Silent villagers sharpened stakes, brushed on poison, made pipe bombs. Their designs were modelled now by large Caucasian dummies, and our stomachs flipped at the sight. There were bouncing betties; forget-me-nots–foot traps you could take home with you; concealed drums that spun above a stake-lined pit; staked boards that would swing down from the trees and impale a soldier at chest level.

Americans threw grenades down the tunnels when they found them, so the Viet Cong developed a system of blind alleys and sharp turns where explosives were marooned. Cave-ins were a constant danger. Sometimes Americans invaded the tunnels, but so many were killed on these missions that they began to refuse to go down. They sent dogs instead. The Vietnamese began to wash with American soap and eat C-rations to confuse the dogs’ senses. Sometimes the tunnels were so extraordinarily well-concealed that they were simply never found. The day I visited, the bigger westerners had trouble wedging their protein-fed bodies through the hidden trapdoors, but the Viet Cong had managed to stay so inconspicuous here that the Americans had once built a camp right on top of a network of caves. They couldn’t figure out why they kept getting shelled.

Mr. Hai, my tunnel guide, was a handsome, charismatic man in his mid-fifties.
   “The question I want you to answer me when we leave,” he announced just before we crawled into the tunnels, “is _where did they shit?_ Think carefully! Where did the people who lived in these tunnels take the shit?”

Mr. Hai had been an officer in the South Vietnamese Army. He worked as a translator for the Americans. Tank Division. Years later he still got a kick out of the memory of those American boys. “Hai,” they would say, “Is hot. Is _damn_ hot!” He laughed, delighted at his command of idiom. The short words sounded good from Mr. Hai.

The boys Mr. Hai fought with went home suddenly in 1975. Mr. Hai was sent to a reeducation camp for three years. His uncle, who was far more senior, was cruelly “reeducated” outside Hanoi for seven years. When he got out, he refused to go back to his job as a surgeon. He would not work for the communists; he would sweep the streets instead. Eventually he got out on a boat and became a heart specialist in Ohio.

Mr. Hai did not hide his own dislike of the communists. “We give them name Viet Cong. They never call themselves Viet Cong. You know why? Because it mean “Dumb Vietnamese”, or “Stupid”. They do not like this. And when they won they took revenge on the South Vietnamese. Especially anyone who had helped the Americans. I did not speak English for twenty-five years. Pretend I never learn English. Only in last five years I can speak English again and work with tourists.”

He had never heard from any of the Americans he served with, though in the last few years he has met a few other servicemen. He could find them on the Internet, I told him. He smiled vaguely.

Tim O’Brien wrote an extraordinary short story about serving in Vietnam. It’s called “The Things They Carried“, the title story in his first collection. In it he lists with great care every item he and his fellow U.S. soldiers carried as they slogged through the jungles outside Saigon.

They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, _The Stars and Stripes_, fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more. Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green mermite cans and large canvas bags filled with iced beer and soda pop. They carried plastic water containers, each with a two-gallon capacity. Mitchell Saunders carried a set of starched tiger fatigues for special occasions. Henry Dobbins carried Black Flag insecticide. Dave Jensen carried empty sandbags that could be filled at night for added protection. Lee Strunk carried tanning lotions. Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct.

Pages and pages of stuff, he lists. The personal choices reveal the human beings in O’Brien’s soldiers, and the pounds of standard issue show them as grunts. The people they fought wore black pyjamas and carried a pouch of rice, perhaps a rifle and a few magazines.

We sat in the tiny kitchen, deep underground, and ate boiled taro root dipped in salt.
   “And now,” said Mr. Hai, “you will tell me, where did the Viet Cong living in these tunnels take the shit? Because remember, if the dogs smell, they are dead.”

They buried it in dead-end chambers, we guess. The women who sneaked in rice smuggled it out again in bags. They…burned it in the kitchen fires. They piped it out, like the smoke. Mr. Hai kept shaking his head.

Tim O’Brien had the answer.

They would often discard things along the route of the march. Purely for comfort, they would throw away rations, blow their Claymores and grenades, no matter, because by nightfall the resupply choppers would arrive with more of the same, then a day or two later still more, fresh watermelons and crates of ammunition and sunglasses and woolen sweaters–the resources were stunning–sparklers for the Fourth of July, colored eggs for Easter–it was the great American war chest–the fruits of science, the smokestacks, the canneries, the arsenals of Hartford, the Minnesota forests, the machine shops, the vast fields of corn and wheat–they carried like freight trains; they carried it on their backs and their shoulders–and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and the unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.

They were defeated, these American boys, by the things they carried and by the things they dropped. They were bogged down in the swamps and the jungle on size twelve boots. They dropped C-rations and soap, and all kinds of materials that shored up tunnels. They dropped ammunition and knives that were turned into booby traps against them.

Meanwhile, under night cover, boys in black pyjamas combed the rice fields for metal ammo containers dropped from the choppers. Shockproof. Waterproof. Stinkproof.
   “You don’t know,” says Mr. Hai, laughing again. He waves an ammo case at us. “They take the shit in the ammo box, and carry it out at night. That is how they stay down here for all the years.”

Learning to Love the Khao San Road

When I arrived in Bangkok, I was determined not to stay at the Khao San Road. Bangkok’s Khao San Road is what Piccadilly Circus was to soldiers in the Great War: sooner or later, if you survive, you’ll meet everybody there.

When I arrived in Bangkok, I was determined not to stay at the Khao San Road. The Khao San Road is what Piccadilly Circus was to soldiers in the Great War: sooner or later, if you survive, you’ll meet everybody there. During the day, dazed and jetlagged foreigners dodge the tuk-tuks and the taxis, bumping backpacks. Newbies are tempted by the tailor shops which advertise two suits and five shirts for two hundred dollars–hand-tailored, sir. The windows are plastered with photos of lumpy, sunburned tourists in their poorly-fitting purchases, which belie the testimonials in Danish, German, Dutch, and English.

At night the area is closed to traffic and hucksters bark their pirated DVDs, marijuana t-shirts, chopstick sets, orange juice and knock-off Diesel gear. On Sri Ram Bhuttri, vans set up mobile Red Bull cocktail shops beside the blaring CD stands. There are fried-spider sellers catering to those who need a quick dose of exotica to dine out on back in Lewisham. Young locals arrive to gawp at the _falangs_, though many of the clubs and bars have a no-Thais policy.

It’s a freakshow. Some timid visitors pick through pad-thai-with-egg before burrowing back into the nearest internet café, but elsewhere every possible variant and combination of tattoo, piercing, sun damage, hairstyle, strange clothing and bared skin parades the street. Ancient hippies with waist-length hair trawl near English skinheads. New Age mamas are serene as their toddlers play with the bongs, but they scoop them up when the Chrish-tian missionaries appear with their white smiles. American frat boys can’t believe their luck with all the fake ID and international press cards for sale. Sometimes glum young monks show up, waiting out the end of their retreat like military service. It’s on the Khao San Road that the international phenomenon of Bad Israeli Pants reaches its height.

It’s a horror. It’s irresistible. If you want to travel in Southeast Asia, and Nine Days of Splendour and Elephants is neither your style nor your budget, you will wash up on the Khao San Road at some point. The bucket-shop travel agents are rude and efficient. A girl who has never had the money to leave Bangkok for a holiday can get you a visa for any of the surrounding countries in two days, or book your “trekking” in Chiang Mai. There are ATMs, money-changers, tourist police, cheap airport minibuses, even a branch of Boots that heavily promotes its morning-after pill and STD tests.

Of course, I was too good for the Khao San Road. I have the sort of notions of being a Traveler, not a tourist, that irritate me so in other people, mainly because it’s central to the pose that _everybody else_ is just a tourist. (And self-styled Travelers are so damn annoying. I want to shout “Get a job, hippie,” at every rugged, misty-eyed one of them, including myself.) But it’s ingrained, this unattractive smirk at those who order sausage and chips instead of _som tum_ with fermented crab, this condescension towards those who think Koh Samui counts. Sometimes I want to smack myself for being a snotty cow.

So it served me right that my decision to stay in Bangkok’s Chinatown rather than the Khao San Road scared the daylights out of me.

The push factors for my trip were far stronger than any great pull to travel. My husband and I had separated. Since it was my decision and my fault, I didn’t think I deserved sympathy, so I didn’t talk to anyone about it. It didn’t help that I was his employee, and dependent on that job for immigration status in the US. We bore it as well as we could for six long months, but when we couldn’t stand it any more, I had to leave the company. My six-year visa allowance was running out; no one would hire me, I thought, with just fifteen months left. So I cooked up the plan of traveling for a year, as cheaply as possible, so that I could reset that allowance to the beginning. I would go back to New York as soon as I could, I thought. Now that looks both less likely and less appealing.

I have never felt more alone than I did the night I arrived in Bangkok with a year to fill. I had insulated myself from reality in New York, but it was hard to ignore it here. I knew no one. I couldn’t read the street signs. There wasn’t a westerner in sight. I couldn’t cross the street; the traffic ploughed right through the pedestrian crossings. I didn’t know how or where to get food, so I ate the Kit-Kats I’d brought from London. Stray dogs growled and snapped whenever I went out. I started to count how much I had left and lost.

But somehow it seems pointless to stay miserable without people to mirror it. My cautious exploration radius grew bigger every day. I ticked off all the attractions and faced every Bangkok scam listed in my _Rough Guide_. When I made it all the way up to the Khao San Road, I was joyful. It was a freakshow, but it was familiar. I wallowed in the second-hand bookstores and cappuccino houses and spent hours on email. It felt like cheating. I told myself, my bossy, condescending capital-T Traveler self, to just shut up.

Adam Stein’s Vietnam

If you visit regularly, you may recall that I broke my hand in early December and pretty much stopped updating this site for a while. At the time, I was in my favorite country of the Southeast Asia trip, Vietnam, and it was frustrating not to be able to post my wide-eyed ramblings. I kept a notebook for future transcription instead.

In the meantime, Adam Stein sent me a link to his Vietnam journal and immediately made my notebook redundant. He’s biking through Vietnam, which is the way it should be seen, instead of through the window of a Sin Café bus glumly cradling a cast. Otherwise, he seems to have made exactly the trip I made, and his travelogue made me snort with recognition.

Do check it out. It’s funny. It’s pithy. It’s about dog meat and saddle sores.