The Latehomecomer

A HMONG FAMILY MEMOIR
By Kao Kalia Yang

COFFEE HOUSE PRESS

Copyright © 2008 Kao Kalia Yang
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56689-208-7


Chapter One

A WALK IN THE JUNGLE

The world that they were living in could no longer hold them safe. It was 1975 and the Vietnam War, as the world knew it, was over. For the Hmong of Laos, for those who still lived in the mountains of Xieng Khuong, for my mother and my father, the American shield had been lifted.

The communist government that came to power in May of 1975, declared a death warrant against the Hmong who had helped the Americans in a war that would later be termed "The Secret War." On May 9, 1975 Khaosan Pathet Lao, the newspaper of the Lao People's Party, announced the agenda: "It is necessary to extirpate, down to the root, the Hmong minority."

The communist Pathet Lao soldiers and their North Vietnamese allies infiltrated Hmong villages and began a systematic campaign to kill off the Hmong who believed in the tenets of democracy and had fought against communist rule. While many of the 30,000 Hmong men and boys recruited by the CIA of the United States had been killed, the remnants of their fight remained, in the hearts and the homes of their wives and children, their mothers and fathers, their friends and neighbors. The Secret War, the biggest covert operation in CIA history, and its ramifications would tear into the history of a people, break into the pages of their lives, and let the winds of war and death blow them all over the world.

By 1975, the Hmong existed mainly as ragtag villages of mostly women and children. After most of the men had died, the CIA had gone to the boys, ten years old, eleven and twelve, and asked them to do the work that their fathers could not finish. In old photos, they hold guns in their small, dirty hands. Sometimes, with big smiles on their young faces. I know that their mothers waited by empty doorways for their return. By 1975, many of the Hmong were ready for peace.

The Hmong knew that the Americans had left: one day there were American pilots landing planes on the airstrip, tall men with fair skin walking around the village, laughing and buying local food items, giving candy to the small children. And then one day the planes flew away into the fog of the clouds, passed over the dark green mountain tops, and did not return. At first, they waited. When the murders started, and the last of the men and boys began disappearing, the Hmong knew that the only thing coming for them was death.

My mother was sixteen years old and my father was nineteen. She had dreamed of marrying an educated man and hoped to wear a white nurse's outfit. She imagined that one day she would be able to type with quick fingers on a typing machine, something she had once seen as a little girl in a provincial town. He yearned for a small farm with pens full of pigs and horses, a chicken coop of squawking, healthy chickens running around merrily about his feet. They were young. They did not know of each other. They each dreamt of a life that could not have included one another.

My Uncle Sai, my father's third eldest brother, was one of the first men to run into the jungle. He was only thirty years old. He had never been to school. He did not know how to write his name on paper. He could only vocalize in words. He had not fought as one of General Vang Pao's soldiers in the war. Still, it did not take long for the communist soldiers to come for him and his brothers.

It was noon. The soldiers were on a truck on the dirt road-men with guns in their hands. Uncle Sai saw that they were coming, and he looked at his family of starving children; because of the fighting, because Laos had been the most heavily bombed country in the war, and because of the bombs the Hmong could not stay in place and farm, and because the Americans had left and there were no more rice drops, because they were hungry and scared and they would die if he died, he looked at them, and he looked at the truck on the road, and he ran. He ran into the Laotian jungle. He was labeled a rebel. North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao soldiers were sent to hunt him and those who would follow him.

My mother's and father's families, like many others, fled into the jungle after Uncle Sai. For the families who surrendered to the soldiers, there were death and reeducation camps, syringes of hot liquid inserted into trembling veins, days in the blistering sun digging useless craters into the earth. For my mother's and father's families, the possibility of a new life, of foraging in fear, was a better choice than the separations of defeat, of death.

My mother and father met in 1978. By the time they met, both their families had been rebels in the jungle, scavenging for food and scrambling for shelter, for three years. They were hungry and dirty. They had gotten used to the scabs on their backs from the heavy packs, the gnawing hunger, the feeling that there was air in their stomachs all the time, and the bombs that fell from the sky destroying the green canopy and shattering the bodies of old men and women who could not run fast enough. They were used to the patterns of soldiers approaching, the bullets, the noise and the confusions of ambush, bullets that found home in hungry flesh. They saw this death all around them, but they were still young. They kept looking to live. Their first meeting was a small moment in passing.

I imagine sun-dappled jungle floors, a young man and a young woman, peeking at each other through lush vegetation, smiling shyly and then walking away slowly, lips bitten by clean, white teeth. Slow movements toward each other again, like in a dance. An orchestra of nature: leaves and wind and two shadows, a man and a woman, moving in smooth motions on even ground. How fanciful I am.

My mother does not talk about her past in terms of heartache. All the things that happened were things to live through. Her father had been a prosperous farmer; he left each son thirty heads of water buffalo. She was only six when he died. All she has of him are memories of an old thin man with a long braid who wore shoes all the time, whose feet were tender as a baby's. She was the only girl in her village to have the privilege of attending school with the boys. Her family could afford to do without her labor. She was an apt pupil who did her lessons carefully and recited them proudly, a rare trait in a Hmong girl of that period. If not for the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese soldiers entering their village, my mother would have achieved her dream of becoming a nurse, learned to type with quick fingers, and attracted an educated man.

She was well loved. Her brothers told her stories late into the night about beautiful Hmong girls who ventured too deep into bodies of water, Hmong girls who were taken as dragon brides into worlds of shimmering liquid. Her mother bought her good-quality velvet to make the traditional Hmong clothes and cooked special meals for her because she had a light appetite. The people in my mother's life cherished her, and she carries warm memories of the times before her marriage. Even the years of eating cornmush and cassava, because there were no more rice harvests, are years full of people who cared for her. My mother holds on to the times when her mother would save the sweetest wild yam, the softest part of a roasted cassava for her, even in the jungle, even in a war that carried no name, even among the dead bodies; my mother felt loved.

Unlike my mother, my father had a difficult childhood, with only a mother to take care of him. He was the youngest of nine surviving children. His father had died when he was just two years old. My father carries an image of an old man twisting long pieces of dried grass into twine for him to tie around chickens. All his life he would love chickens because of this one memory alone. His childhood was spent wishing for a father; he watched his four older brothers with their children and he yearned for his. His mother was a shaman and a medicine woman. She was always busy trying to find food and money to support her younger children, to send them to school. She spent much of her time scurrying over the hillsides looking for healing plants and walking from one village to the next performing rituals for the sick and soul-weary, leaving her youngest child to look at the ways his older brothers loved their children. Whenever he was lonely or sad, my father climbed to the tops of tall trees and looked at the world, searching for the places where his father could be.

My father has never been to the place where his father is buried. All he knows is what his brothers told him, their fingers pointing to a mountain that looked like an uneven green box rising out of the ground. When his family ran out of their village, my father, with a chicken tucked underneath his shirt, his thick black hair sticking straight up from his head, kept looking back at the mountain where his father's body was buried. He says that if he closes his eyes, he can see the imprint of the mountain on his lids. He'll always know the way back.

The Hmong had been living in the mountains of Laos for nearly two hundred years-since they fled from the wars in China. The mountains were their home and they knew them well. When Edward Landsdale, an agent for the CIA, advised the use of the Hmong in Laos against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao soldiers, he could not have known what history would do to them. The Americans entered the country and recruited Hmong to serve, first as guides and then later as fighters, without thought to the price their recruits would pay with their lives and the lives of their children for generations to come. The old ones who survived would carry shrapnel in their bodies, broken lives in their souls. For the young, for people like my mother and father, seeing bodies on the jungle floor, pieces of cloth wilting in the humid heat, was a horrible sight but a fact of being alive.

The day my father met my mother was a normal day of scavenging for food in the jungle. My mother was with her mother-they were returning from a search for bamboo shoots-when they passed by my father and his two best friends, who were hunting. It was a small moment in passing. If the sun had hidden behind a cloud, if the sound of wild game had come from a different direction, then perhaps I would still be flying among the clouds. But it wasn't so: he noticed her. He saw that she had clear skin and long black hair. He saw that her complexion was lighter than the average Hmong woman's. He noticed that there were beads in her hair. He thought her nose was too big. She pretended not to see him. She looked at him out of the corner of her eyes: a young man in rags with high cheekbones and spiky hair. She made note of his straight shoulders; her own were soft and curved. Discreetly, they passed one another; neither looked back.

After that fleeting moment, my father found out that the young woman with beads in her hair was named Chue Moua. Her family name was easy to trace; the Hmong families in the jungle had worked out a system of warnings and precautions against the soldiers hunting them. He found out that her family was camped not too far away from his, only a few hours of brisk walking. He admits with a smile that he was first attracted to her beauty, the way she carried herself with her chin parallel to the ground, and her fearlessness. She had developed a small reputation among the single men as being cold and haughty. Her smiles were reserved for those who knew her well, and she rarely spoke to strangers. When she did, it was efficient, straight talking. When the bullets started to fly and people were running in fear, my mother walked away. This to my father showed courage and calm, a rare maturity that he himself didn't have. She did not try to win his affections; she just accepted them.

My mother did not know very much about men. Her mother and brothers had always told her that when she wanted to marry anyone, she should let them know-they wouldn't stop her. She didn't find my father particularly attractive, although she thought he had a perfect smile (it would be years before she noticed that his two front teeth overlap a bit). He was different from my mother's other admirers because of the way he talked: he did not rush his words or slow them down. She had no patience for men who communicated, in their speech, the unsteadiness of hurried hearts, hungry bodies. She thought my father a serious young man; she had heard of his reputation for song poetry, although he never sang any for her because she was not the kind of young woman to seem interested. When they met, a handful of times under some jungle tree, he talked and she listened. There was a war being fought against them, and they were in the middle of a jungle, so she was not thinking about marriage. There were no moments of peeking through lush vegetation, no biting of lips, no even floors to dance upon.

My mother says she would not have married my father had she known that in doing so she would have to leave forever her mother and everyone else who loved her. For her, the future stretched only as far as the next step. It is hard to penetrate the density of a Southeast Asian jungle, with its heavy brush, its bamboo thickets, and its gnarled trees. The foliage, the paths, the terrain-it was all unmarked and unpredictable. There were no roads, no maps, only instincts. There had been news of a large regiment of North Vietnamese soldiers approaching the area. Many families had hidden for months trying to gather food, to wait out the harvest of wild plants, but it was no longer safe to stay in place. My mother's family wanted to go east, climb higher up the mountain slope; they hoped to find isolated peace and stay in Laos. My father's opted for the west, down the mountain; they had heard that there were refugee camps in Thailand across the Mekong River. It was dusk. They were supposed to say good-bye.

"I am not sure if I ever made a decision to marry your father," she says. "It was time for us to let go of each other's hands. I did not want to leave him. He did not want to leave me. So we thought we would walk together for a bit. I was thinking about how my mother would worry. The sun was setting, and the wind was rustling the leaves. At a tree where our paths would diverge, I realized that we were both standing still, not moving. The air came out of my chest, and I did not know where to look. If I had known that another sun would rise and I would see your father again, I would not have walked with him so far. I thought we were parting forever, and I wanted the walk to continue as far as it could go. Your father was not squeezing my hand, but his grip was firm. We kept holding hands. We chose a direction. I had no idea it would lead to marriage. Did I love him? Did he love me? It is the kind of decision that only young people can make in a war of no tomorrows. At that moment, I think neither of us saw the future."

Both families were unhappy with the match. My mother's family did not like the size and noise of my father's; they worried that my mother would not get enough to eat in a family with so many hungry children to feed. My father's family did not like my mother's size; she was small and they worried that she would not travel well amid the harshness of life. Worse yet, my father's older brother had married just a month earlier. There was no more money for a bride price, not even a modest one. My father's mother had nothing but a few cans of sweetened condensed milk and her shaman's tools, a bag of medicinal herbs, and a small collection of rags. My father begged and promised to pay back whatever each of his brothers could give. They looked at him, and they remembered that he had no father and that they were like his father, and so they worked hard to find a small bride price as a token of tradition. My mother heard about my father's family's objections. She asked if it mattered to him that she was small. He told her that small was cute. She believed him.

They were married in a clearing in her family's camp, which was little more than three or four banana-leaf-covered lean-tos around a small fire. There was no lavish wedding feast and only a few guests. Surrounded by the vast jungle, with the threat of soldiers approaching, a small group of people sat, at their center two young people concentrating hard on the ground. Whatever hopes my mother and father carried were suddenly caught in fear, in unknowing. They sneaked glances at the faces of the adults.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Latehomecomerby Kao Kalia Yang Copyright © 2008 by Kao Kalia Yang. Excerpted by permission.
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