The mass exodus of the Hmong hill-tribe from South East Asia in the 70’s brought new families, new cultural traditions and new stories to the United States. Hmong-American storyteller Tou Ger Xiong raps, chats, and tells us his family's true tale of escaping persecution in Laos by crossing the Mekong River.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
We’ve been swapping stories today for our special holiday show. And we’re back with Asian-American storytellers Brenda Wong Aoki and Megumi, as well as Tou Ger Xiong. Tou Ger, can you tell us about why you tell stories?
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, 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 his stories, it just took me to another world. So, as a kid I’ve always been fascinated by stories.
CURWOOD: So now I understand why hip-hop is part of your repertoire, because that’s telling a story with a bit of music, you know, kind of the American way. Can you give use a little sample of what you do?
XIONG: Sure. One of the first raps songs I wrote, it’s called the Go Hmong Boy Song. Here we go.
XOING: [Rapping] 'As you can see I’m Asian, and I’m not black. What I’m about to say might sound like slack. But just lend me your ears and hear me out. I come to tell you what I’m all about. Yes my name is Tou and I come to say I’m the refugee talented in many ways. Well you might think it’s weird to see that I’m Asian. I’m busting some rhymes on such an occasion. Well let me tell you how I came to be. I was born in Laos, in-in-in-1973. And in my culture we sing and we dance, but I’m gonna start rapping and take my chance. And even though this is my first rap, you don’t have to like it, you don’t have to clap. To those you listening it might be nice to see this Hmong boy kick it like Vanilla Ice. Hey.'
XOING: [Rapping]: 'Yo, yo. I fled my country at the age of four. All because of the Vietnam War. My family has running from place to place. Running from the guns at a very fast pace. My people was dying. Here and there, dead women and children everywhere. When I think about these tragedies, I thank goodness for my life and my families. And now that I live in the U S of A. I’m proud to be and I’m glad to say. But, sometimes I face resentment from others and feel only the mark on my sisters and my brothers. Wherever I go, people give me the eyes as they call me the oriental guy. With my round face and my dark hair, it still doesn’t give them the right to stare. Deep down inside, hey, I’m just like you, with the emotional feelings and affection too. Hey everybody knows what’s right or wrong. Can’t we all just learn to get along. Yo, I want to say thanks for those who accept me, for who I am and not for who I should be. I want to say thanks for those beautiful smiles, I’ll make it worth your time, I’ll make it worth your while. Until then, peace, a universal love, soaring through the sky like a beautiful dove. Yo, yo. Peace.'
CURWOOD: All right, nice.
Now, Tou could you tell us about the Hmong New Year. As I understand it the Hmong New Year celebrations last what, two weeks? Now that’s a party!
XIONG: Two weeks, yes, we do know how to party because in Laos you farm most of the year. We have a saying, [speaking Hmong], most of your life if you’re in the jungle, in the mountains, your face is towards the ground and your back toward the sky. So, for two weeks we party and all these different villages coordinate some kind of a New Year’s celebration where young men can go from different villages to meet the young girls who host them. Perfect time for courting. And we toss ball, we call it [speaks Hmong], which we toss a ball back and forth between the young men and women. To the westerners, they’re saying what’s the big to deal to playing catch, but to Hmong young males and females they are flirting and romancing. So it’s very common to meet each other during the New Year and marry a month or two afterwards.
CURWOOD: So, for those Hmong who live now in the United States, I think there’s a certain kind of story that’s told in the family. And I’m wondering if you could tell us that story.
Yeah. Most Hmong families in the United States will have a story of crossing the Mekong River. The Mekong River separates Laos from Thailand, and it’s a very symbolic place in the history of our people, of Hmong Americans, because it’s our story of the Trail of Tears, and it’s our story of the underground railroad or the internment camps where many people know people who have died along the way, who saw lots of dead bodies along the way.
And so, my family’s story is similar to that of many Hmong families’ stories. We made our escape crossing the river in September of 1975 after the communist takeover of Southeast Asia, of Laos.
And the reason why we had to leave in particular is my father at the age of fourteen, fifteen, left his village to go fight with the CIA in the secret wars in Laos. Just a little historical background, the American CIA came into Laos in the sixties and said well, if you Hmong people help us fight, we’ll take care of you. We provide the weapons, you provide the soldiers. The Hmong soldiers said well what happens if we lose? 'We’ll take care of you'-- a promise made to the Hmong soldiers. And after fifteen years of war, to make a long story short, Americans returned home to America. Hmong people said, 'wait a minute, where do we go?' And literally in 1975, after the Americans left there was a secret document circulating the communist governments saying annihilate and kill the Hmong in revenge for helping the Americans.
So thus began the exodus of Hmong people leaving outside of Laos, especially if you were allied and had military documents saying that you fought alongside Americans. So that’s why we had to leave. Now my father had this plan to get us closer to the border, the Mekong River, 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 our chance to survive - we had to risk it - because there were some refugee camps along the Thai border which were set up specifically to help Hmong refugees who did make it across. So we planned our escape in September of 1975 and I was just a baby then, but my mother and father tell these stories all the time. Lots of Hmong families will tell it to remind the kids: hey, look what we sacrificed for you to come to America.
[MUSIC: Nouthong Phimvilayphone : Khene from Vision Of The Orient: Music Of Laos (Amiata Records 1995)]
The night we made our escape, 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, and my father had paid them some money like he’d promised. We also had a neighboring family that was traveling with us. So there were about forty of us in the group. These Laotian fishermen in their boat, they had to make two trips. So when we met up with these fishermen, they had doubled the price per person. Our neighbors were not able to get on this boat. They said well, we don’t have our money together. Why don’t you guys go first and we’re gonna try to work something out so we can take the second trip.
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 literally, just the whole time she just prayed to our ancestors for them to watch over us and to guide us and to protect us. It was about a forty-five minute ride in total darkness. When we made it to safety, these fishermen turned to my family and said well, you stay we’ll go back and get your neighbors. They came back to the Laotian side, they picked up the rest of the party and they took ’em across. Somewhere along the line, halfway to the other side my mother said she could hear they were approaching closer to safety. But out of nowhere she said she heard splashes into the water. She knew there was some kind of a confrontation and struggle on board. She heard babies choking - and it all became silent. And then we didn’t find out ‘til what happened the next day. And that halfway across the river these same fishermen who had helped our family, pointed their guns at our neighbors. They robbed them of everything they had they threw everyone overboard, including the children, and everyone. Of the 23 people on that second trip, 18 did not make it, only five were able to survive. One of our neighbors, a gentleman there, he was the only person who could swim. So he swam and he was able to save two of his little children because he would swim up and there were all these babies choking and crying and under water and as their heads would be floating along he would grab them by their hair, pull them up, if it wasn’t his kid he would drop the kid back in the water. He did that and he was able to save one of his little boys and one of his little girls.
So, growing up these are stories I heard not only from my parents, but from aunts and uncles and when they tell these stories, it’s very therapeutic. In that it helps them to connect and to kind of let go and put a sense of closure. And it also helps them to, I guess, celebrate what we do have, the second chance that we do have here in America.
In the year 2000, my business was doing good and I had a pretty busy schedule. But one year I said, you know, it’s my mom and dad’s 40th anniversary. We’re gonna take them to Hawaii on an all expense paid trip and so my brothers and sisters pitched in and I took them to the island of Kauai. And here we are just - we spent a whole week there and we got a chance to see the dolphins and the whales and we went on some excursions. And we also took a helicopter ride over this entire island, and just the lush green mountains, the waterfalls –all of that reminded them of the native country Laos.
And on the last day, our last full day that we were there, we decided to go up on this mountain, go up on the highest peak overlooking this, the canyon and the entire island. Along the way we had picked up some fruits, some mangoes. So we get up this top of the mountain. My aunt and uncle were there too. And my mother takes a leaf from a tree and she starts leaf blowing and in Hmong we call it [Hmong word]. And she starts singing a song with this leaf. She starts playing some music and – that she did when she was a young girl, when the different young men from different villages come and try to court her. And my father took the mango that we had picked up from the roadside and started tossing to my mother. And my aunt and uncle got involved, so there were these couples, out in their sixties just tossing the ball back and forth, tossing this mango back and forth.
And my father started breaking down to tears and I don’t ever remember seeing my dad cry before, so I said dad, why are you crying? My father said, son, these are happy tears. He said I feel like I’ve died and been reborn again. And you children, you are like the seeds that I brought into my little secret pouch when I came to this country, not knowing what to expect. Here, your mother and I came to this country, we didn’t know the language, we didn’t know what we were in for. All we knew was we had ten kids and we didn’t have a sense of hope at the time. But we came to this country and we planted our seeds into American soil. And he said, you know it is darn good soil, because you’re done with school now, and have jobs and are contributing citizens, now are naturalized citizens. My father says, these tears – don’t be mistaken – they’re happy tears. And my mother started crying too.
XIONG: Yeah, he says, 'I wanna come back as an American. So I can get to do all these cool things Americans do, like drive convertible cars and things that they take for granted.'
XIONG: I said, 'why your driver’s license and your citizenship papers? He said, because when I come back they’re gonna wanna check my I.D., you know.'
XIONG: ’cause I’m gonna need my I.D. And I so thought, 'oh, yeah, that’s pretty clever,' so…So yeah, so he had a sense of coming full circle, of being an American. And he was just really happy. And that was in January of 2000. September of that year, unexpectedly my dad had an aneurism, at the age of 62. And September 3rd to be exact, he was pronounced dead at a hospital in Rochester, Minnesota at six o’clock in the evening.
And we had a traditional Hmong funeral for my father, which lasted three days and three nights, here in St. Paul. During that weekend, we had over 1500 people who came to pay their respect to my dad. Yeah, so I tell that story to remind me that hey, as my father said again, America isn’t really about, in his words, the color of your skin or the shape of your nose or your eyes, but it’s really about what you have to contribute to the spirit of America, and Americanism.
CURWOOD: As long as you’ve got a valid I.D.
XIONG: Yeah, as long as you have a valid I.D.
CURWOOD: Well, unfortunately, we’re out of time here. I’d like to thank all our storytellers—Brenda Wong Aoki, Megumi, Tou Ger Xiong—Thanks for joining us today.
WONG AOKI: Thank you.
XIONG: Thank you, Steve. [Hmong greeting] A happy new year.
MEGUMI: Thank you, Steve. [Japanese greeting]
[MUSIC: Nouthong Phimvilayphone: Lam Tamvai from Vision Of The Orient: Music Of Laos (Amiata Records 1995)]
CURWOOD: Now, the funny thing about stories is that once you start telling them, it’s hard to stop. In fact, long after time was up for our holiday special, the storytelling continued. We’ll leave you with a little bit more from storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki , but I have to warn you: for the rest of the story you’ll have to visit our website, www.loe.org. That’s www.loe.org.
WONG AOKI: Well, everybody always says that my parents look like Betty Boop and Elvis. And that’s because my dad always wears his hair in that kind of, you know, do. My mom has curls and big round eyes.
But everybody in their department was, as my mom would say, 'American.' You know, we used to tell her, 'Hey mom, we’re American too.' But she’d always said, 'You know what I mean.' They were the only Orientals. And so all their American friends kept telling them to go out. So my parents said, 'Okay. We’ll just go out, and we’ll just say, you know, we didn’t like each other.' And so they decided to go out.
But when my dad came to pick up my mom, she was there fortified by four of her home girls. She really called them that. Because my mom was raised in this orphanage, this Chinese orphanage, called The Home. And all the girls who lived there called themselves The Home Girls. So Mom got in the back seat with one of her home girls on either side and two of her other homies got in the front seat and watched Daddy to be sure that he didn’t try any funny business. But my dad was really smart. He took ’em to church. And then he took ’em out to lunch. And then my aunties, my mom’s home girls said, 'Oh, he’s not so bad. Too bad he’s [Chinese word] - Japanese subhuman devil.'
CURWOOD: And I bet you can guess Brenda’s parents do get together - but for the rest of the story, including an explosive ending, go to our website www.loe.org. There you can also see a picture of the parents of Brenda Wong Aoki - they really do look like Betty Boop and Elvis - and find out more about all of today’s storytellers.
[MUSIC: Mark Izu: Obake. Music provided by Mark Izu, www.markizu.com]
Our storytelling special today was produced by Mitra Taj and Ingrid Lobet. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Helen Palmer, and Jeff Young.
Our interns are Sandra Larson and Jessie Martin. Jeff Turton is our technical director. You can find us anytime at loe.org.
I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening and Happy Holidays!
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science, and Stonyfield Farm: organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use artificial growth hormones on their cows. Details at stonyfield.com.
Support also comes from you our listeners, the Ford Foundation, the Town Creek Foundation, and the Oak Foundation supporting coverage of climate change and marine issues; The Rockefeller Foundation and its Campaign for American Workers. More at rockfound dot org; and Pax World Mutual Funds: socially and environmentally sustainable investing. Pax World: for tomorrow. On the web at paxworld.com.
ANNOUNCER: PRI, Public Radio International.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth