The Last of the Free

by Kenneth Champeon, Aug 21, 2004 | Destinations: Laos / Vientiane

During the Vietnam War, the Hmong of Laos had the dubious distinction of being at the very bottom of that conflict's pecking order. They constitute a particularly revealing example of an ethnic group supported, and then more or less abandoned, by the fickle CIA, who hired them as mercenaries to fight Communism. And then when the fight became a losing one, they were left to shift for themselves in a country suddenly hostile. Some of them escaped, however, and it is with these that Hmong Means Free, which consists mainly of autobiographies by American Hmong, is concerned.

According to Sucheng, there were approximately 100,000 Hmong in the United States as of 1990, most of them in California, but also in Minnesota and Wisconsin and elsewhere. A sizable population is scattered around Southeast Asia (in Vietnam they used to be called the montagnards); some of Sucheng's subjects even spent a fair amount of time in France.

In a sense this movement is not so out of character for the Hmong, given that they originated in southern China and only migrated to Laos in the early 19th century, which may partially explain their generally poor relations with the ethnic Lao. And the Lao, it should be said, are also believed to be descended from migrants out of the north. On the other hand, Laos is one of the most sparsely populated countries on Earth, so one would think that there would be plenty of space to go around. But that was not really the problem; the problem was that the Hmong, farmers just above the subsistence level, were genuinely averse to Communism because it would have destroyed their traditions. The irony of course is that for many of them their traditions were destroyed anyway -- not by Communism, but by their new lives in the United States, where it has become practically impossible to live honestly and independently off the land.

The Hmong grew mostly rice (their food), corn (their animals' food), and opium (their cash crop). They also ate wild game and assorted vegetables, and sometimes they drank corn whisky. If this sounds paradisiacal -- well, it was and it wasn't. "Life as a Hmong," says one, "was very hard." Work was back-breaking and almost continuous, for women especially, and the only respite was the New Year's festival. The Hmong had no machines, no running water, and no medicine to speak of; instead shamans were consulted in case of sickness. Had it not been for opium, they would have had virtually no capital; as it was, payment for the folk analgesic came in the form of silver bars.

So some Hmong were all too happy to have moved to the wealthiest country in the world, to put their feet up, to drive cars, to use American stoves. But not all. Others report that life was easier in Laos, that at least before the war it was more "peaceful and harmonious", and many confess to feelings of helplessness and restriction. A country that prides itself on the freedom it bestows on its citizens may be surprised to hear one Hmong say, "I feel no freedom at all," where freedom in this case means the ability to farm more or less where one pleases -- a not at all common way of living in Providence or Fresno. The older men in particular are often discouraged, not only by their often menial (but not agricultural) jobs, but also by the higher status accorded women in America. (The women are fairly content for the same reason.) As for the kids, they're all right. Confused, like any immigrant is, and some have become involved in drugs or gangs, but the ones featured in this book possess those other cherished traits of immigrants: optimism and industry. The "land of opportunity" remains more than an empty slogan for some. The only problem with the place, says one lovable Hmong, is that it is "too big". (By this he means, rightly, that it is a pain in the neck to visit one's far-flung relatives.)

Even up to and during their arrival in America there were things to get used to. As one delicately puts it, the Hmong are of "short stature", so America is commonly described as the "land of giants". Most Hmong had never seen snow before, or black people, whom some believed to be cannibalistic. (Others believed that all Americans ate people.) The Hmong are polygamous; indeed, it is common among them to kidnap a wife-to-be. Needless to say, in America such practices are not only frowned upon but illegal. Some well-intentioned but ignorant American sponsors fed their Hmong friends peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until the Hmong informed them about their diet. Hmong do not hug. Americans hug. One of the more interesting differences is that, according to one Hmong, the English language has too many synonyms. But then, according to Sucheng, the Hmong language didn't even have a written script until the 1950s.

And can you guess who devised one? Why, the Christian missionaries, so that the Hmong could read the Bible and be converted. And many of them were: several of Sucheng's subjects thank Jesus Christ for saving their skins. Of course like many Asian converts to Christianity, the Hmong have not thereby abandoned all of their other religious beliefs, as a Westerner might. These include the beliefs that everyone has three souls and that there are four levels of spirits or gods. Not that the missionaries were purists either. One Hmong recounts how a missionary told him that "the only way to break the curse upon our clan was to become Christians." So they did.

One of the most charming aspects of Hmong culture is its courtship rituals. Dating is unheard of, but so for the most part are arranged marriages. One common way for Hmong to hook up involves boys and girls lining up in two opposite rows and then tossing small balls back and forth to their would-be lovers. (A friend of mine lived in a Hmong village in Thailand for some time and was able to see this firsthand. "Amazing," was his assessment.) If a boy likes a girl, he may disguise himself and try to speak with her from outside her house at night, but she is not allowed to come to the door. And marriage, as said before, sometimes involves a boy and his friends running off with the girl of his dreams until something more formal -- usually involving a dowry -- can be arranged. Divorce is rare. Big families, on the other hand, if the Hmong in this book are any indication, are common, with one obviously hearty woman having ten kids. (Some of the photos of the families are evidence of the American Miracle-Gro diet, with the young Hmong men towering over their almost ovoid parents.)

In addition to interviews, the author provides a fairly lengthy introduction to Hmong history with an emphasis on their involvement in the Vietnam War. This is hardly ancient history: as recently as 23 June 2003, there were reports of possible Hmong guerilla activity coming out of Laos; there may be as many as two thousand Hmong still trying to attain autonomy and respect through armed struggle. According to Sucheng, it has been alleged that the Lao PDR used chemical weapons on the Hmong as part of an effort to crush their resistance, and that Thailand occasionally hires Hmong mercenaries to shake things up in its northern neighbor. You don't hear this in the news every day either, that there may be Vietnamese soldiers still stationed in Laos, and that there are most certainly members of the Kuomintang still in northern Thailand.

The story of the Hmong is in a way the story of humanity played at 78rpm, what with their transition in one generation from subsistence farming to, say, pharmacology (an interesting choice for the descendants of opium-growers to make). And the story's ending is not one that we should unconditionally declare a happy one. Everywhere the world is suffering from a cancer of sameness, and though it is true for example that a Hmong-American represents something never before seen, soon a true Hmong may never be seen again. Everyone will drive a car and go to the supermarket and speak English; they will be free only to be identical with everybody else; and the land itself shall no longer speak to its former caretakers.

* * * * *

Review of Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America, edited and with an introduction by Sucheng Chan, Temple University Press, 1994.

* * * * *