This chapter focuses on Lia’s birth and all the Hmong customs that went along with the birth of any child. If Lia had been born in Laos, her mother would have squatted on the floor and pulled the baby out of her womb with her own hands. Even though she had a dirt floor, she would have been very careful to never allow her to touch the floor. She would also have labored in silence, so silent that her sleeping children lying on the floor around her would never have stirred until they heard the cries of their little sister. Lia’s father, Nao Kao, would have cut the umbilical cord and tied it with string. When they still lived in Laos, Lia’s mother, Foua Yang, had conceived, carried, and bore twelve children with ease. However, if she had had any problems, she had recourse to a variety of remedies commonly used by the Hmong. There was a shaman who was believed to have the ability to enter a trance, summon familiars, ride a winged horse, cross an ocean inhabited by dragons, and negotiate for his patient’s health with spirits that lived in the realm of the unseen. There were also all kinds of precautions the Hmong took to avoid the dab, a malevolent spirit. Once a Hmong woman became pregnant, she knew she could assure the health of her baby by paying close attention to her food cravings.
After the baby was born, the father would bury the placenta in the dirt floor of their house under the parents’ bed for a girl and a more honorable place for a boy - near the base of the central wooden pillar of the house where a male spirit held up the roof of the house and watched over its residents. The Hmong word for placenta is the same word for “jacket,” because it is considered one’s first and finest garment. They believe that after death, one’s soul travels back place to place, retracing the life’s geography, to the house where its placenta is buried. It then puts on this first garment and continues on dangerous journeys until it is reunited with its ancestors and from where it can be reborn as a new baby. If it can’t find its placenta, it is condemned to an eternity of wandering, naked and alone. Because the Lees are among 150,000 Hmong who fled Laos when the communists arrived, they have no idea if their house is still standing and whether the jackets of their children are still there. They believe that the souls of all their family will have a tremendous journey to undertake to find their jackets.
Although Mai, their thirteenth child was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and her placenta was buried under their hut there, Lia was born in the Merced Community Medical Center and her placenta was incinerated. Foua never thought to ask for it as some Hmong women did and even if she had, they were living in an apartment with wooden floors and carpet. There would have been no way to bury it. Foua gave birth just like American women on a metal table with sterile drapes and no anesthetic. She also couldn’t tell them her exact birth date, because the Hmong people never kept such records. She only knew that it was during the season when the opium plants were weeded for the second time and the harvested rice stalks were stacked - October. She had to invent the precise day in order to accommodate the American custom of recording every detail of a human life, and she willing signed her name - the only American writing characters that she knew when she left the hospital. Foua found Lia’s birth a peculiar experience, but she had few criticisms of how the hospital handled it. She was impressed with all the people there to help her, and how gentle and kind the doctor was. Her doubts about MCMC in particular and American medicine in general would not begin to gather force until Lia had visited the hospital several times. She was surprised to be offered ice water afterwards, because in Laos, she would have drunk warm water to make the blood in the womb flow freely. She also refused the food, preferring the steamed rice and chicken boiled in water with five post-partum herbs that Nao Kao brought her.
Lia’s name was officially conferred on her in a ceremony called hu plig or soul calling, three days after her birth. The Hmong believed that the most common cause of illness was soul loss. The life-soul was the necessary for health and happiness and that life souls of babies were especially prone to disappearance. As a result, their mothers dress them in intricately embroidered hats which when viewed by a dab seeking their souls from above will appear to be flowers and protect them from the evil spirits. Foua made numerous hats for Lia. The little girl’s hu plig took place in the family apartment. A pig was sacrificed and roasted, and two chickens were killed and then retrieved from the cooking pot to see if their skulls were translucent and their tongues curled upward, both signs that her soul was pleased to take up residence in her body and that the name chosen for her was a good one. The guests would later eat both the chickens and the pig. Before the meal, the soul-caller would brush Lia’s little hands with a bundle of short, white strings; each elder would then tie one of the strings around her wrist to bind her soul to her body. Foua and Nao Kao would promise to love her and the ceremony would end with the elders blessing her and praying that she would have a long life and that she would never become sick.
This chapter serves to show the reader the beginning of the cultural clash between the Hmong and American doctors by showing all the many symbolic aspects of birth among the Hmong people. The emphasis placed on the jacket or placenta of a Hmong baby makes the fact that Lia’s was incinerated significant. It is also significant that the elders make such a point of blessing the child at her name-giving ceremony and praying that she never becomes sick when the basis of this book is all about her illness.