In an intermediate French class at Merced College, the students were asked to give a five-minute oral report in French. The second student was a Hmong, who proceeded to speak about a recipe for fish soup. Although the assignment called for a five-minute speech, he spoke for forty-five minutes by starting from the very beginning - to prepare fish soup, you must have a fish - and continuing through the concepts of needing a hook, choosing the right one, knowing whether it is a fresh water or salt water fish and on and on and on. The professor who had told this story said that fish soup was the essence of the Hmong. The Hmong have a phrase - hais cuaj txub kaum txub - which means “to speak of all kind of things.” It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem connected but are. So the storyteller may be longwinded. To the author, this trait of the Hmong people helps her feel that what happened to Lia Lee and her family when they encountered the American medical system could only be understood by beginning with the first beginning of the world, like the Hmong would begin a story.
The history of the Hmong could also be longwinded, but the author only goes back to the time when the Hmong were living in the river plains of north-central China. The history of these people had been a marathon series of bloody scrimmages to which they responded by either fighting or migrating. They accepted no persecution or pressure to assimilate. They were mostly of Eurasian heritage with some stopover time in Siberia. The Chinese hated them and called them Miao or Meo which meant “barbarians, bumpkins, people who sound like cats, or wild, uncultivated grasses.” The name Hmong, which they prefer, means “free men, or like the Inuit, the people.” They called the Chinese the sons of dogs. The conflict between the Chinese and the Hmong was all about ruling over the Hmong on the part of the Chinese, but asking only to be left alone on the part of the Hmong. To assure this outcome, the Hmong would constantly migrate to more southerly latitudes and higher altitudes. The Chinese finally managed to crush the Hmong, but not without continuous migrations and rebellions. The Chinese even built the Hmong Wall, a smaller version of the Great Wall. They were contained for a time, but never controlled. They paid no tribute nor showed any obedience to the emperor.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Hmong had had enough of the Chinese and migrated to Indochina. About five million remained behind, but most left. They built their villages in places where no one else wanted to live, but still fought back if local tribes objected or demanded tribute. After the French established control over Indochina in the 1890s, the Hmong rebelled against their extortionate tax system with a series of rebellions. Only when the French finally granted them special administrative status in 1920 to avoid being driven crazy by leaving them alone, did the Hmong settle down to several peaceful decades.
The history of the Hmong provides several lessons to anyone who deals
with them: they do not like to take orders; they do not like to lose;
they would rather flee, fight, or die rather than surrender; they are
not intimidated by being outnumbered; they are rarely persuaded that the
customs of other cultures are superior; and they are capable of getting
very angry. Those who have tried to defeat or control them come to hate
them, but historians, anthropologists, and missionaries develop a great
fondness for them. One anthropologist, Robert Cooper, described them as
polite without fawning; proud but arrogant
. . . respecters of personal liberties; those who do not steal or lie . . . without jealousy of outsiders. In his History of the Hmong, Father Mottinb says they have passed through the ages remaining what they have always wished to be: free men with the right to live in this world as Hmong. Who would not admire that?
One of the most recurring characters of Hmong folktales is the Orphan, a young man whose parents have died, leaving him alone to live by his wits. He is usually clever, energetic, brave, persistent, and a virtuoso player of the Hmong musical instrument called the qeej. Though he lives by himself on the margins of society, reviled by almost everyone, he knows in his heart that he is actually superior to all his detractors. This character is a symbol of the Hmong people.
Although this chapter may seem to be filled with unimportant details from the history of the Hmong people, it is important in understanding the conflict that will develop later between the Lees and the medical system at MCMC.