"I salute the spirit of my communities" (1): autoethnographic innovations in Hmong American literature.
Whenever marginalized peoples come into a historical or ethnographic space that has been defined by the Western imagination,... "[e]ntering the modern world," their distinct histories quickly vanish. Swept up in a destiny dominated by the capitalist West and by various technologically advanced socialisms, these suddenly "backward" people no longer invent local futures. What is different about them remains tied to traditional pasts, inherited structures that either resist or yield to the new but cannot produce it. (James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art) (2) It is essential for the Hmong and other communities of color to express themselves--to write our stories in our own voices and to create our own images of ourselves. When we do not, others write our stories for us, and we are in danger of accepting the images others have painted of us. (Mai Neng Moua, Bamboo Among the Oaks)
As James Clifford asserts, an outdated version of ethnography labels the objects of study as "vanishing," giving "backwards" peoples the option to assimilate or disappear as a culture. Clifford's work challenges this objectifying formulation of "culture," focusing upon how cultures are alive and adaptive, exerting active agency in the face of globalization. As examples of the "new ethnography," Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon theorize a feminist ethnography and Renato Rosaldo considers how ethnography illuminates the debate over multiculturalism and the clamor to uphold a common culture. Ethnography, the study of culture, incorporates participant observation, the method of gathering data from the experience of living within the community. Giving voice to members of this culture themselves, autoethnographies capture more nuanced dynamics of cultural negotiations. Achieving a voice, these writers compose in diverse genres, incorporating the traditional and modifying it to reflect the exigencies and struggles of their contemporary condition.
Autoethnography can serve as a synecdoche for postmodern experiences of transculturation while retaining attention to local specificities. Clifford describes the ethnographic and autoethnographic stance as
a pervasive condition of off-centeredness in a world of distinct meaning systems, a state of being in culture while looking at culture, a form of personal and collective self-fashioning.... It is perpetually displaced, both regionally focused and broadly comparative, a form both of dwelling and of travel in a world where the two experiences are less and less distinct. (Clifford 1988, 9)
The term "autoethnography" points to an intersection between autobiography and ethnography, suggesting the limitations of the individualistic conventions of traditional Western autobiography. Pointing out that "[b]oth female and Native American autobiographical narratives focus on a communal or relational identity and tend to be cyclical rather than linear," Hertha Wong suggests "autoethnography" as an alternative term, giving its etymology: "self-culture-writing" (1992, 7, 6). Autoethnography introduces the cultural informant's own voice, rewriting and reclaiming authority from the genre of anthropological participant observer ethnography. A case in point is the emergence of ethnography and autoethnography on Hmong Americans, refugees of the Vietnam War. Anne Fadiman's work of ethnographic journalism, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, was published in 1997 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2002, the first anthology of Hmong American literature, Bamboo Among the Oaks, appeared. Editor Mai Neng Moua asserts, "these writings mark the foundation of written Hmong literature as works of art first and foremost and then perhaps as sociological or anthropological findings" (2002, 14-15). Apart from academic studies, ethnographic narratives, folklore, oral histories, and writing in Hmong, the creative writing in Bamboo and the literary journal Moua co-founded, Paj Ntaub [story cloth] Voice, represents "a new category" of Hmong American literature (10). Indeed, the voices of these younger first- and second-generation Hmong American writers achieve a sophistication which opens the door for their path into American literary recognition. Earlier works of a less literary nature also fill an important role, illuminating the folk arts and visual culture and representing an older Hmong American generation. These Hmong American autoethnographies highlight the value of emerging literatures in offering alternative genres and fresh analysis of recurrent cross-cultural concerns: gender inequality and the "unhomelike" double marginalization of forced migration. (3)
Hmong Americans, like any minority group, exceed the ethnographic evaluation of their culture, which often focuses on the very real issues of cultural maladaptation, non-Western belief systems, and the oppression of women. Ethnographic methods are subject to constant interrogation partly because the history of ethnography has been bound up with colonial projects and racialist thought. In the early twentieth century, even Franz Boas, the progressive "father" of American anthropology (Behar 1995, 3-4), "rationalizes the marginalization and disappearance of the very people that his writings celebrated" (Briggs and Bauman 1999, 518, 520). Boas implicitly supported the ideologically driven myth that Native Americans were a vanishing culture. He also overlooked some of his Native collaborators' aims and concerns:
Boas erased many of the ways that his collaborators sought to frame their writing, thus making the texts speak for "Kwakiutl culture" (etc.) rather than articulating particular interpersonal, social, and historical locations within a colonial context and advocating specific strategies for resisting domination and marginalization. (Briggs and Bauman 1999, 518, 520)
Boas's imposition of his own academic narrative raises H.L.Goodall's question, "'Who has the right to speak for a culture?'" (2000, 12).
Questions of power and representation continue to surround the genre of ethnography. Noting the absence of women ethnographers in James Clifford and George Marcus' collection Writing Culture, Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon edited a collection of feminist ethnographic studies, Women Writing Culture (1995). (4) While historicizing the marginalization of women anthropologists, Behar acknowledges the culpability of mainstream feminists in marginalizing women of color. In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Audre Lorde (1981) questions the dynamic of white feminists speaking for, yet at times failing to listen to, women of color. Several of the essayists in This Bridge challenge the authority of others to represent them--women of color who had once been "the colonized, the native informants, the objects of the ethnographic gaze" (Behar 1995, 7). (5)
Gaining the power to represent themselves has been especially important for Hmong Americans because of their veiled role in the Vietnam War and their highly visible social problems in the U.S. The CIA recruited the Hmong, a minority hill people in Laos, to fight for them against the Communist Pathet Lao and to hamper North Vietnamese supply lines. Because Laos was a neutral country, these actions were covert. After the final withdrawal of all American military advisors by the end of 1974 and the Communist succession to power in Laos, the Hmong suffered retribution, displacement, and accompanying disease and starvation: 100,000 perished after 1975, and many were forced to seek refuge in the U.S., with smaller numbers going to France, Canada, and Australia. The Hmong relate their refugee experience to an earlier exodus: in the nineteenth century, some Hmong fled their earlier home in China to settle in Southeast Asia due to persecution and efforts at forced assimilation by the Chinese government. Most Hmong lived in the mountains as nomadic slash and burn farmers, removed from the civilization of the river valleys (Herrold 1996, 18-20).
With the arrival of these refugees, ethnographic sources tended to dramatize their exotic qualities. Spencer Sherman, in a 1988 issue of National Geographic, describes the Hmong as primitive: "illiterate working-age men puzzle over the tools of the industrial revolution as the rest of America marches into the computer age" (589). While the Hmong were admittedly an agrarian and isolated people, some of them had been military communication specialists and flight crewmen, highly trained in technology (Fadiman 1997, 206). (6) Yet, the ethnographic image of the Hmong as primitive is persistent. Ethnographer Suzanne Bessac opens her work describing the Hmong as having "an exotic tradition ... lacking a central gathering point, a place of pilgrimage, or a geo-political focus, they became culturally impoverished, but in their traditions, hints of their rich and sophisticated past are clearly evident" (1988, 1). Her use of the terms "exotic" and "impoverished" downplays the existence of "culture" for groups who are in motion, physically or metaphorically, as they encounter changes (Rosaldo 1989, 209). As Renato Rosaldo points out, in a model where groups gain more and more culture until they are like us, and then they have no culture, "to pursue a culture is to seek out its differences, and then to show how it makes sense, as they say, on its own terms.... Social analysts commonly speak as if 'we' have psychology and 'they' have culture," and may fail to take into account the notion that while "they" have culture, "we" have power (202).
Ethnographic Insights: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
In Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the Lees, a Hmong American family in Merced, California, find that cultural difference contributes to their disempowerment in the face of their daughter Lia's epileptic seizures. They lose control of Lia to medical institutions and the state when their doctors order that Lia be taken from her family and put in foster care because of the Lees' failure to properly administer Lia's medications. Poignantly illustrating the struggle between family members and doctors who believe they are acting in Lia's best interest, Fadiman's ethnography itself becomes a site of contestation.
Just as The Spirit reveals power struggles between world views, the book's reviewers exhibit blind spots and ideologically driven interpretations. As a prominent child psychiatrist and scholar of social inequality, reviewer Robert Coles is well aware of the distortions that may arise from our own preconceptions. He refers to Margaret Mead's ironic reflection that anthropologists travel the world to study exotic cultures while "studiously avoid[ing]" examining their own (1998, 19). Fadiman's book is indeed about the ways we "are apt to see others through the sometimes distorting lens of our own learned assumptions" (19).
This distortion is apparent in selected reviews. Physician Charles Gropper sets up the book's central conflict starkly: "what about situations in which the physician and patient's basic conceptions of life and sickness are so different that no real common understanding or communication about the medical problem is possible?" (1998, 301). Gropper states that Lia "was never medicated consistently," which is false (301). Although the Lees were negligent in administering Lia's medicine for much of her treatment, at the crisis point which led to Lia's brain death, "[l]ike every test since Lia's return home from foster care, [the test] showed that [Lia's parents had been giving her the prescribed amounts of medication]" (Fadiman 1997, 144).
Dr. Gropper sees the central problem as one of differing beliefs: "[w]hat a western doctor calls a medical problem is always a matter of the soul and spirit for the Hmong: for them, a physical symptom meant that the entire universe was out of balance" (1998, 301). In reality, Hmong American approaches are often less dogmatic and more open to incorporating whatever works. Lia's parents believed that "a little medicine and a little neeb [Hmong shamanistic ritual]" could be combined to cure their daughter (Fadiman 1997, 110).
Fadiman mulls over the question, "Was the gulf [in belief systems] unbridgeable?" (1997, 259). She thinks back to Lia's first visits to the hospital, when no translator was present and Lia's epilepsy went undiagnosed. Fadiman also reflects on how no doctor ever tried to find out "what they [the Hmong] believed, feared, and hoped" (259). Certainly, not everything that could have been done to bridge the gap had been done.
Contrary to the idea that "objective" and spiritual views of illness are sharply opposed, reviewer Sherwin Nuland notes that illness "is the total of the psychological, social, and cultural ways in which the sick person experiences the bodily changes caused by disease" (1998, 31). Doctors often overlooked the fact that the Lees were devoted parents trying their best with traditional healing methods to help their daughter. In contrast to the miscommunication between the Lees and their doctors, Fadiman gives several examples where interpreters were able to diffuse tensions, fears, and misunderstandings (1997, 264).
In an ironic twist towards the end of the book, Fadiman reveals that the parents were "actually right that the hospital made their daughter sick" (Conniff 1998, 39). Lia's medications may have left her "vulnerable to bacterial infection" which was the immediate cause of the seizure which left her brain dead (Ng 1999, 192). Lia's doctor did not notice the infection in the critical early time period of this seizure. When she was rushed to a specialist, he immediately identified her illness as septic shock caused by bacterial infection. As another doctor asserts, Lia's doctors failed to notice the bacterial infection because they were so focused on Lia's epilepsy. (7)
Fadiman notes how this book project has altered her perceptions: in the thick of recording conflicting points of view, she "stopped parsing the situation in such linear terms, which meant that without intending to,... [she] ... started to think a little less like an American and a little more like a Hmong" (1998, x). (8) Despite this self-reflectiveness, Fadiman falls into some common objectifying tendencies in ethnography: generalizing about cultures, highlighting cultural differences, and obscuring her subjects' creativity. (9) Reviewer Jo Ann Koltyk, who has written a full-length work on the Hmong and done extensive fieldwork with the Hmong in Wisconsin, notes,
[a]t times,... the larger narrative of Hmong history and culture leaves the reader with the general impression that the Hmong are a homogeneous group, provincial, and locked in by their traditional beliefs and customs so much so that they are unable to successfully adapt to their new cultural surroundings.... Fadiman focuses mainly on the obstacles to adjustment and adaptation; she misses opportunities throughout her book to highlight Hmong creativity and their own strategies to adaptation.... Instead of delineating Hmong creativity and problem solving within the daily life routines of family and community, Fadiman locates them within the Hmong folktale. Although this adds to the richness of the book, it also tends to enhance stereotypes of the Hmong which may not be true. (Koltyk 1999, 194)
As with Boas, Fadiman's focus on weaving a coherent, folk-inspired ethnographic narrative obscures the agency and adaptations of her subjects.
Readers and writers of ethnographic analysis are drawn to points of divergence from a universalized standard of Western culture. The Hmong have been characterized, both by outside observers and the Hmong themselves, as uniquely unassimilable (Fadiman 1997, 158). Fadiman notes that "[o]ver and over again, the Hmong have responded to persecution and to pressures to assimilate by either fighting or migrating--a pattern that has been repeated so many times ... that it begins to seem almost a genetic trait, as inevitable in its recurrence as their straight hair or their short, sturdy stature" (13). This essentializing historical analogy paints a homogenizing portrait of the Hmong, although Fadiman's choice of words, "begins to seem almost," leaves room for multidimensional representations.
As women of color speak out against their appropriation by mainstream feminists in This Bridge Called My Back, Hmong Americans respond to ethnographic and popular representations which leave something to be desired. Considering that Lia Lee is the focal point for Fadiman's exploration of Hmong American culture, it is ironic that she is not only a voiceless child upon whose body the illness and the cultural battle play out, but, tragically, she ends up in a "persistent vegetative state" (1997, 210). While Fadiman painstakingly represents Hmong American points of view and concerns, we must move to other texts to see the variety that emerges when the subjects of study speak for themselves. Hmong American creative self-representations in a plethora of visual, oral, and literary forms fill a silence in The Spirit.
New Autoethnographic Genres: Dia's Story Cloth and Trails Through the Mists (10)
Hmong American autoethnographers express the nuances of being between cultures, bearing witness to the devastation, upheaval, and mass migration engendered by the Vietnam War. As an emerging literature, Hmong American autoethnography has featured minor genres, such as the children's book Dia's Story Cloth and the collaborative autoethnography, Houa Vue Moua and Barbara J. Rolland's Trails through the Mists. While these genres may lack the New Critical literary values of ambiguity and complexity, they illuminate cultural interfaces, adaptations of folk traditions, and alternative approaches to negotiating cultural difference. Deborah Reed-Danahay defines the genre of autoethnography as
a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context. The most cogent aspect to the study of autoethnography is that of the cultural displacement or situation of exile.... This phenomenon of displacement--so linked to issues of rapid sociocultural change, of globalization and transculturation, as well as to the extremes of violence occurring in many parts of the world--breaks down dualisms of identity and insider/outsider status. (Reed-Danahay 1997, 9, 4)
While Fadiman links insiders and outsiders through the heart-wrenching plight of Lia Lee and the Hmong, Dia's Story Cloth and Trails Through the Mists not only connect insiders and outsiders, but trouble this distinction. While Lia Lee is subject to others' competing definitions and authority, autoethnographers redefine selves and rapidly changing societies.
Hmong American autoethnography incorporates folk traditions, including oral storytelling and textile arts, bringing tradition into dialogue with contemporary contexts. Drawing upon alternative traditions illuminates differing conceptions of narrative, of individuality, and of group identity. Visual artifacts emerge from specific social contexts and power relations, representing the artistic expression of those who may not have the time, the resources, or the cultural proclivity, to write texts.
Hmong textiles contribute to a tradition of American folk art. According to Elaine Showalter, "piecing, the technique of assembling fragments into an intricate and ingenious design," can illuminate the forms of American women's narratives (1986, 224, 227). Form reflects the necessities of women's lives, serving both practical and artistic purposes. Under the social and economic constraints faced by southern black communities, bell hooks' grandmother, Baba, learned quilting as a way to "calm the heart" and "ease the mind" (1990, 117). Baba's early works were crazy quilts made from the scraps she received as payment from white employers, from the leftover remnants from dress making and from the worn clothes of her family members (119).
Illuminating the visual arts, in her work on Native American autobiography, Hertha Wong asserts the importance of examining early American Indian pictographic representations "[i]n order to expand Western definitions of autobiography to include non-literate modes of self-narration" (1992, 6). Examining non-literate forms is also important for the Hmong who, in the hills of China and Southeast Asia, were primarily an oral culture. (11)
The Hmong had been well known in Southeast Asia for their traditional embroidery art, paj ndau, or "flower cloth," which evolved in the refugee camps into one of their few commercial outlets. In the U.S., some Hmong refugees continue to make quilts and other embroidery to help support their families, while their daughters may continue sewing as a creative avocation (Anderson 1996, 25). As with hooks' grandmother Baba, Hmong women find an avenue for self-expression within the material and social constraints of their lives, including a traditional culture which stifles women's direct participation in public discourse.
Traditionally, embroidery served both practical and ritual purposes in decorating objects of everyday use--such as baby carriers, bags, and clothing--with symbolic patterns. The bag shown in Figure 1 was made in the White Hmong tradition by Lao Thor in Minneapolis in 1984. The eye-shaped loop, here arranged in patterns of four with a common center, is known as "cucumber seed" and reflects the traditional Hmong agrarian lifestyle (Cubbs 1986, 28 [See Figure 2 for illustrations]). A triangular pattern with one jagged edge is known as "chicken tail" and evokes the chicken's important position in Hmong cuisine and as a ritual offering (22). A chicken is sacrificed at funerals, since it is believed to guide the soul of the deceased to the afterworld. Lines of triangles are known as tiger or shark teeth, "images which thwart attack through the symbolic threat of violence" (22). These ridges are also known as "'protecting mountains,' figures which defend against malevolent forces just as the hills in Laos sheltered Hmong villages from outside intrusion" (22). Such symbolic patterns are particularly important when the soul is seen as being vulnerable and "prone to wandering" at the beginning and end of human life (23).
Thus, in traditional contexts, paj ndau "were dynamic materials of performance, enabling and negotiating the most critical junctures of a person's life [such as birth, marriage, and death], encoding the collective vision and power of a human community" (Conquergood 1992, 214). In the Thai refugee camps, the Hmong, with the help of international relief workers, began to market their embroidery to buyers in the U.S. and France, selecting colors and designs that would appeal to their audience. In the acculturated sampler shown in Figure 3, made by ten women artists in Philadelphia in 1984, the selection of jewel-toned colors and the use of the wall-hanging form are tailored to appeal to American consumers (Cubbs 1986, 27). This sampler includes traditional Hmong designs, such as chicken tail, cucumber seeds, and mountains. The paired snail shell design symbolizes "the growth of the extended family as circle upon circle evolves from a single point of origin" (22). The paired snail shells also represent marriage, mirroring the exclusive mating this snail species is said to exhibit.
Through the refugee experience, paj ntaub evolved into the narrative form of story cloths. From the more symmetrical traditional designs emerged representational narrative tapestries. June Anderson illuminates the function of story cloths as records of the past, similar to a photograph album. In the camps, the making of story cloths provided a welcome occupation for those displaced from their ordinary lives and activities. While traditionally, needlework was reserved for women, in the camps, men participated by penciling the initial designs on cloth. From the earliest cloths in 1976 which presented simple animal and human shapes on a plain background, the story cloths became more elaborate with human figures in horizontal rows. The story cloths developed into large panels depicting many events arranged in more fluid forms featuring a "cast of thousands" (Anderson 1996, 33).
Dia's story cloth, shown in Figure 4, is one example of the fluid large panel form. Creating a children's book, Dia Cha wrote the text accompanying a story cloth designed by her aunt and uncle Chue and Nhia Thao Cha in the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. Cha manages to convey the normalcy of Hmong lives and the tragedy that ensued in a manner appropriate for her primary audience of children. Cha gives an autobiographical frame-work for the ordinary life that the Hmong family lived before the war: "After breakfast, my family walked for almost two hours to our mountainside fields, where we worked all day. Every evening we walked back home. At harvest time, we each carried a backpack basket filled with rice or corn" (1996, 4). Cha's father never returned from fighting against the communists. Fearing persecution, Dia's mother destroyed all records of her husband. In the refugee camps, a friend of Dia's father gave the family a photograph of her father on the front lines, and it was only this photographic evidence which enabled the family to seek asylum in the U.S. When Dia came to the U.S. with little knowledge of English at the age of fifteen, school officials did not know where to place her, but thirteen years later, she was one of the first Hmong Americans to receive a post-graduate degree--a Master's degree, then a Ph.D., in anthropology.
The story cloth links insiders and outsiders. The artists, Dia's aunt and uncle Chue and Nhia Thao Cha, embroidered a story that resonates with Dia herself, who recalls her own journey to the U.S. in 1979. The story cloth also appeals to Dia's nieces and nephews, who have no direct experience of the Hmong migration. Cha asserts, "The story cloth is a bridge to all the generations before us.... When I show the story cloth to my niece and nephew, who were both born here in the United States, I point to different pictures and tell them that this is what it was like" (1996, 17). Story cloths can be read intertextually with oral narratives. By stimulating questions and allowing reflection, the form of the story cloth allows for participation and dialogue in the oral tradition (Conquergood 1992, 233).
The story cloths also serve as a vehicle by which Hmong refugees represent themselves to American and European audiences. Ethnographer Suzanne Bessac observes,
As the story cloths illustrate the old ways of life in Laos, the war, and escape across the Mekong, and the traditional stories Hmong like to tell, they were also self-conscious statements about Hmong ethnicity--in this case, directed at the buying public whom it hopes to convince of their plight and their legitimacy as refugees from communism. The Hmong's search for their recognition as a people both by themselves and by outsiders is an important consideration which animates their visual arts. (Bessac 1988, 6)
Bessac illuminates the strategic purposes at the surface of these artistic representations.
The frame of Dia's Story Cloth rehearses a familiar immigrant narrative. Denver Museum of Natural History curator Joyce Herrold, in the afterword, weaves Cha's story into a larger American narrative. The subtitle, "The Hmong People's Journey of Freedom," ties into Herrold's formulation of the U.S. as "many nations of immigrants," among whom the Hmong Americans are one group who "daily face choices for change, stability, and renewal," choices for which the paj ndau serve as important preservers of storytelling traditions (1996, 18). Yet, that tradition itself developed out of changing circumstances, and is itself in flux. As Anderson points out, the time-consuming work of making paj ndau was well suited to the refugee camps, where individuals were separated from many of their daily agrarian activities. While refugees continue to make story cloths in the U.S., the economic viability of such handcrafting is questionable: "No longer functioning as a therapeutic occupation during the long days in the refugee camps, the art of story cloths may die a natural death. And, if the Hmong continue to make storycloths, perhaps they will tell a different story" (Anderson 1996, 37).
Story cloths served a dual purpose in the refugee camps, both as a commercial enterprise and as "a tangible statement of Hmong collective identity--a psychological necessity in the face of cultural displacement" (Anderson 1996, 32). Sewing for themselves and others enhances Hmong artistry, since the Hmong refugees
began to look at themselves and their own experiences through the eyes of the other. This exotopy ... enriches rather than corrupts their self-representations. According to Mikhail Bakhtin: "In the realm of culture, outsideness is a most powerful factor in understanding.... A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning." (Conquergood 1992, 234)
At its best, ethnography can enable "seeing others against a background of ourselves, and ourselves against a background of others" (Fischer 1986, 199).
Because the story cloth lays out historical migrations on one large panel of cloth, narrative is organized spatially and visually. Rather than unfolding history in a traditional linear narrative, the spatial juxtaposition of events, such as the Hmong migration from China to Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century and their flight from Laos after the Vietnam War, creates a sense of the mythical and cyclical. Placing their recent plight in a larger historical context, Hmong refugees bolster their sense of ethnic identity and their confidence that they will survive further exile. The visual images of the story cloth, tracking changes over space, make the past seem less remote. Emerging out of a traditional folk form, Dia's story cloth also conveys a very timely sensibility, a global conception taking into account not only our own corner of the world, but vast distances spatially and culturally that many Americans from diverse backgrounds have traveled. Dia's Story Cloth illuminates that the global is not only the space of the new media and international markets, but also a place occupied by those cultures that were on the outside of a homogenized transnational culture. Entering into other cultures through forced migration, the Hmong have negotiated who they are and how they are viewed by others through creative cultural productions. In Dia's Story Cloth, we see the Hmong conceiving of themselves as a people over space and time, relating the past and the present in a crisis of spatial displacement subtly suggestive of associated cultural and psychological traumas.
As the Chas adapt traditional embroidery to create accessible textile narratives, Moua and Rolland incorporate oral storytelling into an autobiographical account, Trails Through the Mists (1994), which also builds upon a cyclical, mythical perspective. (12) As one of the early refugees in 1975 who received intensive English language training, Moua is a bilingual-bicultural interpreter for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department in Wisconsin, where she lectures widely on Hmong American culture. Barbara J. Rolland was Moua's English professor at U.W. Eau Claire and encouraged her to write this book, which the two women produced in collaboration.
The narrative emphasizes the continuity of Hmong culture in the midst of the dangers and uncertainty of the Vietnam War. Written in third person and following the protagonist Houa from the age of eight to twenty, the narrative shifts from the point of view of Houa's father, Cher Xiong, a shaman and community leader, to that of the young Houa, emphasizing a link between the generations.
The book illuminates how "[c]ulture and biography are jointly thrown into clearest relief when autobiographies are written by immigrants, exiles, and refugees" (Daniel and Peck 1996, 24). Moua and Rolland's autoethnography illuminates an "originary," pre-war culture, wartime upheaval of everyday practices, and the development of the dual protagonists. The Hmong agrarian lifestyle in Cher's village of Hoi Hung is threatened by the incursions of the Communist Pathet Lao. In one of multiple displacements, the village leaders decide to lead the villagers to refuge in the city of Bouam Long. Drawing a parallel to their present journey on foot, Cher tells the children a story of the migration of their ancestors from China. While semi-historical, the characters take on the heroic and villainous roles of folklore. Envious of the Hmong king's wealth, the Chinese king attacked the Hmong king but found him too powerful and resourceful to defeat. Resorting to trickery, the Chinese king succeeded in overthrowing the Hmong king through the agency of a beautiful princess who acted as a Chinese spy (Moua 1994, 39-40). After continuing persecution by the Chinese, some Hmong made the long migration to Southeast Asia, three generations before Houa's narrative takes place. Storytelling serves the purpose of creating "self, space, and genealogy" (Daniel and Peck 24), even in the narrative's highly unstable wartime context.
Close to the interfaces between different cultures, autoethnographers may attain multivalence, what Michael Frisch describes as
the holding of different values at the same time without implying confusion, contradiction, or even paradox. Multivalence implies a way of being in the world--one that may be particularly characteristic of the experience of "other," challenging and complicating a dominant culture's categories and asking us to think about things in very different ways. (Frisch 2001, 214)
As a cultural insider and a cultural outsider, Moua and Rolland respond especially deftly to mainstream American misperceptions of the Hmong.
Through multivalence, the co-authors complicate the vexing issue of women's roles within patriarchal Hmong society. Similar to the way in which nineteenth-century African American writers placed the tragic mulatto as their protagonist to gain the sympathy of white readers, Moua and Rolland also present Houa as an "Americanized" girl whose family fosters her courage and capabilities (Wong 1992, 144). On the one hand, Houa's precocious personality is defined by her departures from conventional female roles. As the oldest child, she is cherished and trusted by her father; she is praised by an aunt for digging a shelter "like a man" (Moua and Rolland 1994, 106). As a teenager, she is placed in charge of the poppy harvest (139) and defies gender roles by learning to shoot for self-protection (159). Later, as a married woman, Houa circumvents the patriarchal decision-making process by persuading her husband that the family should leave Laos before the outbreak of persecution against the Hmong.
Houa is the exception who nevertheless confirms gender inequality as the backdrop of the narrative. The centrality of men is reinforced by their official role as decision-makers and women's deferential stance, waiting for the men to eat first (Moua and Rolland 1994, 51, 81). Most strikingly, the practice of bride kidnapping highlights the powerlessness of women in deciding their own destinies (199-200).
Being kidnapped is not the expected fate of the tomboyish Houa. After knowing Houa only a few days, Kay proposes to her (Moua and Rolland 1994, 199). Houa accepts the "traditional Hmong gift of money to symbolize ... [their] ... engagement," but Kay insists that she "can still change ... [her] mind later" (200). When she does change her mind shortly due to parental incompatibility, Kay forcibly takes her away: "Gently but firmly, Kay took Houa's wrists in one hand," and abducted her onto a waiting plane (211). Despite Houa's assertiveness throughout the autobiography, when it comes to her marriage, she finds herself an object to be stolen and negotiated over (238). The bride to be has no voice at the bargaining table between male representatives of the two families (240).
Moua and Rolland maintain multivalence in their celebration and critique of different elements of Hmong culture, their respectful portrayals of multidimensional individuals who are more than just the sum of their cultures, and their sensitivity to world views from inside and outside of the culture. By centering their narrative in Laos, the authors succeed in shifting the focus away from Hmong experiences of marginalization by colonial and American cultures. David Lloyd observes how the logic of racism
exposes the colonial self as a divided self, one part constituted by acculturation as "modern," the other identified by the racist judgment as permanently lodged in a primitive moment incapable of development. Nationalism offers to suture this division by relocating the institutions of the modern state on the very terrain that the colonizer regards as primitive. (Lloyd 1996, 262)
In a way similar to the claims of emergent nationalism, Moua and Rolland focus on a Hmong perspective, where their culture, beliefs, and strategies are at the center of the narrative, and the impact of colonialism, war, migration, and racism do not yet inflict "an inferiority complex" on what Frantz Fanon terms the culture's "local cultural originality" (1986, 18).
Daniel and Peck suggest that "the act of writing itself becomes the hyphen writ large" (1996, 24). The written text mirrors the function of oral folklore, which in the book narrates origins against ongoing dislocations which threaten cultural continuity. As the family escapes across the Mekong River to Thailand, another identity "hyphen" begins to be formed, and it is the oral tradition which keeps a people grounded in an identity in motion, a nomadic cultural self-definition. As we saw in the previous section, the Chas arrange on their story cloth the nineteenth-century migration from China, a perilous escape from Laos, and departure from Thai refugee camps to the U.S. These historically distant events are distributed cyclically over space rather than time. In a similar cycle, Moua and Rolland's narrative ends with a return to the beginning: Houa's mother recounts the story that Cher had told the children as they were fleeing their village early in the book: "'You and your father were talking about his grandparents, about the time they were forced to leave China. He said that they were seed, Hmong seed. That they had to go to a new land and settle there in the earth and grow.'" She sighed. "'It looks like we're the seed now. I wish your father could have come with us'" (1994, 320). Both Dia's Story Cloth and Trails Through the Mists tell a similar, spatialized narrative of displacement and renewed growth, coming to terms with a history of Hmong migrations. While the forms of these narratives may seem uncomplicated, their closeness to folk traditions and pre-migration experiences establishes a centrality of Hmong culture which combats marginalization and forges a sense of a creative and courageous communal and individual identity.
Literature as Autoethnography: Bamboo among the Oaks
Younger Hmong American writers illuminate to a greater extent the process of marginalization in the U.S.: while they understandably lack confidence in an originary culture, their works gain fluency and legitimacy in the literary marketplace. With the emergence of Hmong American writers from the first and second generations, autoethnographic forms have multiplied in a full range of literary genres. These writers move beyond representing the Hmong towards grappling with issues of gender inequality, experiences of exile, and social justice. Through literature, these writers maintain an autoethnographic stance, interweaving personal and cultural identities with implicit critical analysis. Kamala Visweswaran notes that in autoethnography, "ethnography is being reappropriated as 'fiction,' as autobiography and oral history, by groups previously marginalized by this medium" (1994, 14). In autoethnography, "in situating an individual within a particular community, the local and specific are broached in ways we might well term ethnographic" (8).
Like Fadiman, the Chas, and Moua and Rolland, the contributors to Bamboo Among the Oaks adapt folk forms to their artistic purposes and with greater irony. Three of the writers retell a Hmong folktale about a tiger that kills a Hmong father, wears his outer skin as a disguise, and devours the Hmong family. Only the youngest daughter, Yer, survives to later outwit and slay the tiger. These rewritten tales trouble the stability of identity, the boundaries between self and other, victim and victimizer.
Ka Vang, in the poem "REM & Dab & Neeg & Dab Neeg," tells the folktale from the tiger's perspective:
Inside my interior not on the exterior I wait for Yer floating in a chasm between REM, the Dab, the Neeg, the Dab Neeg lurking underneath the humid green canopy my layers, yellow and black stripes cover my outside like a snug fur jacket inside, patiently in my disguise I wait for Yer (Vang, Ka 2002a, 109)
Emphasizing the contrast between interior and exterior, Vang troubles the distinction between human and animal. The speaker is between the dream state of REM (rapid eye movement), the Dab (translated as a monster, spirit, or ghost), the Neeg (a human being or person), and Dab Neeg (a legend or folktale) (2002, 205). The very definition of folktale brings together the monster with the human, and by stating that his exterior is "yellow and black stripes," the speaker calls into question his unnamed interior identity.
In another retelling of this folktale, "The True Tale of Yer" by Bryan Thao Worra, the Tiger King appears in the narrator's apartment, commanding him to pass along the true story behind the folktale. According to the Tiger King, in the encounter between the tiger and the Hmong man, contrary to widespread belief, the man killed the tiger. Not yet quenched of his blood thirst, the man then returned home to maniacally murder his family. Horrified by these acts of carnage, the villagers decided to lie and say that a tiger had committed these gruesome killings. The tiger addresses the narrator, "you could not admit to yourselves the awful truth of your own nature" (2002, 96).
The monstrous potential of the patriarchal father resonates with a current social problem, domestic violence of "epidemic" proportions in the Hmong American community (Foo 2002, 146). In M.S. Vang's "943," the father lies in wait for his daughter, also named Yer, who he has learned has skipped school. The father beats Yer and her mother, chops off Yer's hair, and forces her to marry her boyfriend, ignoring the grandmother's intervention, "'Stop, Cha. What kind of family are we? Are we people or are we monsters?'" (2002, 141). The naming of the daughter and the reference to monsters suggest that this story also rewrites the tiger tale, again questioning the distinction between the monster and the father. In the name of protecting family honor, Cha reduces his proud and chaste daughter, who wove a spell "with her hair" (138), to shame at her disfigured ugliness and butchered locks (145).
These younger writers broach issues of gender inequality and violence much more bluntly than Moua and Rolland, in part reflecting the increase in family dysfunction after migration. Bee Cha, in a philosophical essay drawn from journal entries, "Being Hmong is Not Enough," poses a challenge for Hmong Americans:
When will we allow our mothers, wives, sisters, and aunts to sit among us at the clan-gathering dinner table?... What Hmong organization will stand up to make a pledge to look for ways to help control the population explosion within our community? Which clan leader will no longer force a fourteen-year-old to marry her rapist in order to save the family from disgrace? (Cha, Bee 2002, 30)
Cha recognizes the censure he will receive from those Hmong Americans who wish to present a positive image of the Hmong, but he has "allowed honesty to sew an ugly storycloth" (2002, 32) in the interest of social justice and community uplift.
Many of the writers express a sense of homelessness, distanced from both Hmong and American cultures. In her poem, "Running Away from Home," Pa Xiong notes her multiple experiences of homelessness:
i'm homeless didn't you know? I never saw my mountains my jungles, my fields of opium my home built by my father's two hands I left before I was even born. (Xiong 2002, 181)
Exiled from a home she never knew, the speaker continues to be displaced from one location after the next: the scarcity of a refugee camp, white children calling her names in Long Beach, and the "All-American Town" with "people too ignorant/it made me hate/the parents too hard" (2002, 182). Racism from the external society becomes internalized against the speaker's own culture. As David Lloyd says about the logic of racism, "[d]ifferences that in the first instance have no meaning and no law come to signify negatively under the law of identity that produces them. Racial discriminations, accordingly, 'make sense' and achieve their self-evidence only in relation to the law of identity that governs equally assimilation and exclusion" (1996, 258). Lloyd illuminates that racist exclusions and ignorance are linked to assimilation, suggesting the need for an alternative to "the implicit affirmation of assimilation" (267).
However, Xiong suggests in "The Green House" the difficulty of resisting assimilation when one's originary culture becomes not only distanced, but obscure and oppressive:
they are deaf when I speak they clothe me in the old ways that I cannot understand traditions that have become too heavy I have worn them on my back for too long as woman and as child I know I cannot stay buried voiceless (Xiong 2002, 183)
Seeking to escape the confines of ethnicity and racism, the subject becomes trapped in what Lloyd defines as an "impossible predicament": "At that limit, the racialized individual splits between what assimilation absorbs and what it necessarily produces as its residue," defined by the state as negativity (1996, 265, 258). Xiong's valorization of homelessness, flight, and emergence from voicelessness expresses the individual's struggle to evade the representational forces of the dominant state and the marginalized ethnic culture.
Despite the anguish of the experience of displacement, postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha celebrates "living on the borderline of history and language, on the limits of race and gender," suggesting that individuals gain power and knowledge from dwelling in such unhomely, transitional spaces (1990, 320; my emphasis). Several of the contributors to Bamboo turn their marginalization towards critiques of racism, patriarchy, and internalized oppression. In her poem, "Yellow Man's Burden," Ka Vang exposes the history of Western imperialism, what Lloyd terms "the universal history of cultural development" (1996, 267), parodying Rudyard Kipling's notion that it was the white man's burden to civilize "primitive" cultures:
We built your railroads In the Old West Dug your diamond mines In India Harvested your rubber trees In Vietnam Fought your war In Laos (Vang, Ka 2002b, 113)
Vang turns the ethnographic gaze upon the conventionally unmarked and unlimited "universal" Western subject (Lloyd 1996, 225), illuminating the violence, racism, and cultural degradation brought about by colonial encounters; she terms this damage "[t]he Yellow Man's burden" (2002, 114).
In a similar vein, in his poem, "Immunization," Soul Choj Vang labels as diseased the dominant culture, usually mantled in the legitimacy of normalcy (Lloyd 1996, 225):
How were we to know that we have come unprepared, not immunized against the diseases of this free land-- where sloth, dishonesty, hatred, and betrayal are as easy to be infected with, as deadly as tropical malaria was, back home. (Vang, Soul Choj 2002, 165)
While inverting the definitions of the scorned and infectious "other" by laying blame with the dominant culture, Vang also chooses internalized vices--sloth, dishonesty, hatred, and betrayal--for which the victims cannot deny responsibility.
For the Hmong, the experience of collaborating with the CIA in Laos highlights that "the product of assimilation will always necessarily be in a hierarchical relation to the residual, whether this is defined as, variously, the primitive, the local, or the merely contingent" (Lloyd 1996, 258). In "The Last War Poem," Bryan Thao Worra laments,
There is no justice from poetry-- Any veteran can tell you that. They want their land, their lives, Their livestock back. (Thao Worra 2002a, 98)
Despite fighting for the U.S., the veterans go largely unacknowledged and are even labeled as "primitive" by the dominant American culture. Unrecognized, they lost their world in the process.
The veterans go unmemorialized, absent from the text of the Vietnam War Memorial, in Mai Neng Moua's poem, "D.C.":
I want the imprints of their names Some American proof that they were known Their courage recognized The sacrifice of their lives acknowledged. The ranger in khaki shorts and Smokey-the-Bear hat said "You have to know someone who died there"... What had I expected him to say "Your father Tooj Cib Muas is right over here?" My mute tongue could not scream "But I do know someone who died there" I know six who died there Grandfather Soob Tseej Vws Uncle Txooj Kuam Vws Uncle Kim Vws Uncle Looj Muas Men who are supposed to be-- But are not-- Here taking care of me Showing my little brother how to be a man (Moua 2002, 62)
The veterans' courage and sacrifice in assisting the U.S. are rendered illegible by the dynamic by which race, nationality, and culture are "constructed and reproduced as the constitutive negative of the identity that the state represents" (Lloyd 1996, 266), adding bitterness to the concept of "homelessness."
What Lloyd explores as "the narrative subordination within metaphor of difference by identity" seems to leave no foothold for the racialized subject, who, once assimilated into the dominant culture, still carries a remainder which will continue to be subordinated (1996, 257). Bee Cha illuminates how assimilative pressures and hierarchal judgments emerge in interactions between the Hmong American community and the dominant culture, noting that "Hmong means free but we feel trapped" (2002, 26). Moving beyond the focus of many Hmong American texts (such as Dia's Story Cloth and Trails Through the Mists) on introducing Hmong history, Cha asserts, "[t]he truth is, how we lived in China, Laos, and Thailand cannot explain what we feel or justify who we are today in America" (26). Cha argues for the kind of idealistic, yet practicable, ethical stance, that Michael Fischer proposes: "a desire for communitas with others, while preserving rather than effacing difference" (1986, 232-33). Cha advocates moving beyond the limitations of the way Hmong American identity has been imagined, inquiring, "Who will stand by my side when I choose to fight for the preservation of the rain forest or who will even pitch in a dime when I collect donations to help save the humpback whale from extinction? It's no excuse that being Hmong should preclude us from being concerned about worldly issues" (2002, 30). Cha urges his community towards self-reflection and self-betterment: "We must live beyond ourselves. We have to be different. We need to change" (33).
Lisa Lowe suggests that the current Asian American subject may be "less narrated by the modern discourse of citizenship and more narrated by the histories of wars in Asia, immigration, and the dynamics of the current global economy" (1996, 33). She contends that immigrants' experiences of international contexts and U.S. exclusion offer the potential for an Asian American critique of "nationalist institutions and the simultaneous global economic exploitation of immigrant and third world labor, particularly women" (33). Many of the works in Bamboo suggest that the younger generation, Hmong Americans who immigrated at an early age or who were born in the U.S., also engage with their parents' narratives of war, immigration, exile, and global economic forces. Bee Cha implies that Hmong Americans' double marginalization may motivate social activism beyond identity politics, such as environmentalism.
In a similar vein, Pacyinz Lyfoung celebrates her Hmong identity and advocates universal social justice in her poem, "Walking Manifesto #2":
I salute the spirit of my communities And am spending my years Learning how to read The shade of their dreams, Shaping the wave That will take us all To a true American shore Of peace, justice, and equality. (Lyfoung 2002, 56)
Lyfoung illuminates the link between individual aspirations and social movements, laying out her project to read "[t]he shade of ... [her communities'] ... dreams" like a text. Like Dia Cha's family and Houa Moua, Lyfoung imagines a genealogy of her culture. She opens the poem with a tribute to the first Asian Americans, the Native Hawaiians, acknowledges her roots in the Hmong nomadic lifestyle, and celebrates "Pan Asian villages" (2002, 56) set in the Western world. Lyfoung thus broadens autoethnography to include a coalitional and ethical sense of communitas.
Combating a traditional ethnographic sense of nostalgia and the loss and extinction of "pre-modern" cultures, autoethnographers Moua, Rolland, the Chas, and the contributors to Bamboo Among the Oaks all provide a sense of the continuation, change, rebirth, and hybridization of Hmong American culture. All of these writers rework traditional stories to tell a new story, reimagining an evolving sense of cultural and human identity. As James Clifford asserts, "modern ethnographic histories ... oscillate between two metanarratives: one of homogenization, the other of emergence, one of loss, the other of invention" (1988, 17). These creative works themselves are part of the continuing production of culture.
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(1) This quote is from a poem by Pacyinz Lyfoung, "Walking Manifesto #2."
(2) Historian James Clifford criticizes objectifying practices of ethnography, instead advocating an alternative ethnography which would acknowledge the agency of people who reinvent themselves through creative syntheses of their old and new cultures.
(3) Homi Bhabha coins the term "unhomelike" to describe his adaptation of Freud's psychoanalytic term, the uncanny (the unheimlich), to a postcolonial context. In Freud's foundational essay in 1919, he describes the uncanny essentially as "that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar" (1956, 370). While Freud frames the uncanny primarily from the perspective of the individual psyche, I argue along with Homi Bhabha that minorities and women may also emerge metaphorically as an uncanny to the nation, and vice versa. For the Hmong who experienced forced migration, alienation, and racism and their offspring who grapple with their parents' loss and demands, the familiar home takes on many strange and "unhomelike" dimensions.
(4) In defense of his editorial selections, Clifford makes the claim that "women anthropologists were excluded because their writings failed to fit the requirement of being feminist and textually innovative," textual innovation being the main criterion for Writing Culture (Behar 1995, 5).
(5) Lorde, in "An Open Letter to Mary Daly," questions why Daly, a white lesbian critic, chooses to incorporate black women's words only in her chapter on genital mutilation in Africa while overlooking inspiring work on the goddess figure in African cultures (1981, 94). Lorde asserts that Daly's selective use of black women's words demonstrates a Eurocentric feminism and renders invisible and voiceless minority women writers and scholars. In contrast, in This Bridge Called My Back, women of color appropriate autoethnography as a complex form of narrating and studying their cultures.
(6) Fadiman critiques stereotypical accounts of the Hmong arrivals as "'transplanted from Stone Age to Space Age,' [a claim which] grossly underestimate[s] the complexity of traditional Hmong culture, but ... also ignores the immense social, cultural, and economic changes that many Hmong had already gone through in the course of the war itself" (1997, 136). Fadiman sensitively treats the tremendous "role loss" that many older Hmong experienced, especially the traditional patriarch who found it difficult to become employed without the skills and language necessary for many jobs; women and children became relatively more powerful in the family structure (206).
(7) When I taught The Spirit in a college class, I was surprised at how many students missed the point that not only was there a lack of understanding of Western science on the part of the Hmong family, but also the doctors themselves were biased and lacked the objectivity to see Lia's bacterial infection due to their lengthy experiences with her epileptic seizures.
(8) Fadiman does place herself on the side of her Hmong subjects in her structuring of her narrative, incorporating "myths, beliefs, ceremonial practices ... [and] the sidelong insights of storytelling" (Coles 1998, 18). It is significant that Fadiman chooses to end her work with "an ancient healing ceremony" where the shaman sacrifices a pig and calls Lia's spirit home (Dajer 1998, 97). As Hmong specialist Jo Ann Koltyk notes, Fadiman "skillfully uses the style of a Hmong oral narrative" (1999, 194) which, in describing one task, such as how to make fish soup, acknowledges the interrelations of the world by speaking of "all kinds of things," such as how to fish, what hooks to use, and how to clean a fish (Fadiman 1997, 12-13). In giving us the story of Lia Lee, Fadiman also finds it necessary to recount the history, mythology, beliefs, and experiences of the Hmong. As Lia's health reaches a crisis state, Fadiman draws analogies between family and community struggles by juxtaposing chapters on Lia's ordeal with chapters recounting the hardships faced by the Hmong during and after the Vietnam War.
(9) Of the eight reviews I examined, only one reviewer shared my criticism of The Spirit, Jo Ann Koltyk.
(10) Trails Through the Mists is available through the co-author, Houa Vue Moua, 3349 Fear Street, Eau Claire, WI 54701.
(11) Legend has it that the Hmong had had a writing system, but that this was lost as they dispersed and fled from Chinese persecution. A writing system, currently in use, was created by French and American linguists in the 1950s (Conquergood 1992, 207).
(12) According to Joanne Cubbs, such "persistent reshaping of tradition by Hmong in the United States testifies not only to the creativity of one people but to the resiliency of all culture" (1986, 2).
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______. 2002b. "The True Tale of Yer." In Bamboo Among the Oaks, ed. Mai Neng Moua. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
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Jeannie Chiu is assistant professor of English at Pace University. She is working on a book project, Uncanny Americas: Twentieth-Century Narratives of Gender, Race, and Nation.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2004|
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