Stories can empower, entertain, and educate. And in the Hmong-American community, they also keep the memory of past struggles alive. Hmong-American storyteller Tou Ger Xiong brings us a sample of Living on Earth's Asian-American storytelling special coming up next week, by reviving his family's tale of crossing the Mekong River to escape persecution.
[SOUND OF GONG]
XIONG: Loooong time ago there was no sun, there was no moon, there were no trees on earth, no people, no animals, it was a dark and quiet place.
CURWOOD: In this dark and quiet time of the year in the Northern hemisphere - and let me tell you, here at the climate change talks in Poland it gets dark by about three in the afternoon - we at Living on Earth take a break from the news and turn to storytelling. So on our holiday special next week, we’ll bring you tales with an Eastern flavor, like this one from Tou Ger Xiong, a Hmong-American born in Laos, and raised in Thailand and Minnesota.
XIONG: I think stories are empowering. I grew up listening to stories. As a Hmong American growing up here I would listen to the storytellers that my librarian at school would tell. You know they take their little book and they open up, and they’ll start, Once upon a time there was a bear named Tom….
And that was story telling at school, but when I came home my dad told stories, but he told ‘em Hmong style. And if you know Hmong language, it’s a tonal language similar to the Chinese language in that it flows like music. My father told Hmong story in his own way, and he begins… “[Speaking Hmong]… Loooong time ago there was no sun, there was no moon. There were no trees on earth, there were no people, no animals. It was a dark and quiet place. And from this little crack in the mountain, this man came.” And that was a typical Hmong story, folktale, about the beginning of the world.
And most Hmong families in the United States will have a story of crossing the Mekong River. It’s our story of the Trail of Tears, and it’s our story of the underground railroad or the internment camps. The Mekong River separates Laos from Thailand, and it’s a very symbolic place in the history of our people, of Hmong Americans, because after the communists take over southeast Asia, of Laos, there was a secret document circulating the new communist government saying annihilate and kill the Hmong in revenge for helping the Americans. So thus began the exodus of Hmong people leaving Laos.
We made our escape crossing the river in September of 1975. My father had this plan to get us closer to the border, and we heard about families who made it across the river, we heard about those who died trying, ’cause we knew soldiers were up and down the banks of the river waiting to shoot people who tried to leave. But we also knew that to survive we had to risk it because there were some refugee camps along the Thai border set up specifically to help Hmong refugees who did make it across.
So my father had secretly arranged for some Laotian fishermen who had a boat and access to the river who knew certain parts of the river were not patrolled as heavily as others. They came to meet us by the banks of the river at one o’clock in the morning. My father had paid them some money like he’d promised. So my family got on board, they took us across, and in my mother’s words, she said it was raining season, there was some lightning, thunderstorm. The boat was literally just inches away from overfilling with water. And she said the whole time she just prayed to our ancestors for them to watch over us and to guide us and to protect us.
CURWOOD: Stories from the Mekong River, Japanese-American internment camps, and Long Beach, California - next week on Living on Earth's holiday special. Be sure to join us.
[SOUND OF STAFFS STRIKING THE GROUND]
CURWOOD: We leave you this week on the streets of Poznan, Poland.
[SOUND OF STAFFS STRIKING THE GROUND]
CURWOOD: In an underground pedestrian passageway, near the old town square, an unfamiliar sound reverberates.
[SOUND OF STAFFS ON THE GROUND]
CURWOOD: A group of young scouts, boys and girls, dressed in grey uniforms, checkered neck scarves and black berets, strike their long wood staffs on the ground, the sounds echoing as the scouts climb the stairs to the city street.
[SOUND OF WALKING UP STEPS]
[KIDS CHANTING IN UNISON]
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