Inside Grandpa's Shack
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Hear true tales from where East meets West as Living on Earth presents its holiday special featuring Asian-American storytellers. Artist Brenda Wong Aoki tells the story of how she bonded with her Chinese grandfather-- a Monterey seaweed gatherer-- over pickled chickens feet and tide pools. (12:00)
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During World War II, some 120,000 Japanese and Americans were forcibly interned in camps. Storyteller Megumi tells the tale of how one man's life and artwork in a Japanese-American internment camp gave voice to an imprisoned community. We also hear toilet tales from Megumi and Tou Ger Xiong. (19:00)
Go Hmong Boy!
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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. (19:00)
Host: Steve Curwood
Guests: Megumi, Brenda Wong Aoki, Tou Ger Xiong
[MUSIC: "Issei Crossing," Mark Izu, www.markizu.com]
CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood.
This winter week, we hear Asian-American stories about juggling multiple identities.
XIONG: (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 about what I’m all about. Yes my name is Tou and I come to say, I’m the refugee talented in many ways.”
CURWOOD: Tales of refugee camps, Japanese-American internment camps, and Grandpa’s tin-roof shack.
WONG AOKI: That summer I found myself wearing men’s galoshes, Grandpa’s overalls and this big coolie hat. I looked totally F-O-B, man, fresh off the boat!
CURWOOD: Those stories, and more stories, right here on Living on Earth this week. Stick around!
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
[MUSIC: "Stick Song," Mark Izu: www.markizu.com]
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
The days have grown short and cold, the nights long and dark. In the northern hemisphere, we’re not so far from that shortest day of the year. It’s time to put our daily duties aside to gather with family and friends. And here at Living on Earth, it's time for us to put our coverage of environmental news on the back burner to fire up some fresh storytelling.
This year for our winter storytelling special, we turn to the East. Three Asian-American artists bring us their true tales of tough times, triumph, and cultural tightrope walking.
So first, we'd like to welcome Tou Ger Xiong, a Hmong-American storyteller, hip-hop artist, and comedian. He tells us the tale of his journey from the hot jungles of Laos to the cold winters of Minnesota. Welcome, Tou Ger.
XIONG: Hi Steve, thanks for having me.
CURWOOD: Also with us is stage artist and writer Brenda Wong Aoki. She brings us a story of how she bonded with her grandfather—over pickled chicken’s feet and blankets of seaweed. Hello, Brenda.
WONG AOKI: Hi, thanks for having me here.
CURWOOD: And storyteller Megumi tells us about one man’s life growing up in a Japanese-American internment camp in World War Two, and how his cartoons gave voice to an imprisoned community. Megumi, thanks for joining us.
MEGUMI: Thank you for having me here.
CURWOOD: So Brenda, let’s start with you. What kind of memories does this time of year bring up for you?
WONG AOKI: Well, it reminds me of when I was a girl. I have four sisters and a brother and my mom and my dad. And it reminds me of wearing matching dresses. My mom used to make all of her own clothes. And she’d make ’em out of the same bolt. And she really liked polka dots. So she’d make five little polka dotted dresses for me and my sisters.
WONG AOKI: And my brother and my dad would have shirts to match and every time we’d go out, like, you know, to a busy place like downtown or something we’d be wearing these matching polka dot clothes so in case any of us got lost somebody would find us and bring ‘em back.
WONG AOKI: …that was our holiday attire.
CURWOOD: A holiday attire! Of course, this time of year, what kind of food would your family make?
WONG AOKI: Tomato beef chow mein with crispy noodles, and it was our favorite thing at Christmas time, and we always make jook after a big holiday. If your mom’s Chinese, that’s what you have.
CURWOOD: Jook? What’s jook?
WONG AOKI: Jook is this rice gruel soup. It’s like a gumbo.
CURWOOD: A gumbo.
WONG AOKI: Because you keep – yeah – it’s just plain and then you just keep adding stuff to it. You just throw stuff in.
CURWOOD: Sounds good. I’m getting hungry already.
WONG AOKI: It’s good.
CURWOOD: Now your mom was raised in an orphanage in the San Francisco area as I understand it, but your mom has always had a relationship with her father despite not growing up with him. Could you tell us a story about your relationship with your grandfather?
Inside his shack there were these frogs, big as your head, ribbit-ing in the sink. Ribbit. Ribbit. Ribbit. I handed my grandpa a bunch of flowers my mother has given me. (Laughs) “Momma, he won’t take it.” (Laughs) As it turns out, that to some old fashioned Chinese, cut flowers, they’re an omen of death. Grandpa thought I wanted to kill him or something. (Speaking in angry Chinese) … “Stupid Bamboo Head!” (Crying sounds) That night we all laid down on blankets of seaweed. Seaweed – because that’s what my grandpa did, he gathered seaweed off the rocks and he sold them to people in Chinatown, marked “fresh from Hong Kong.” So we slept on that seaweed as it was drying. It was so dark in there, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. And I remember, “Momma? I gotta go to the bathroom.” Mom handed me this metal pail. “What’s this for?” “You know.” “You mean…?” “Uh huh, We call it a thunder bucket.” (Nervous laughter)
[MUSIC: "Longing For Home" Mark Izu: www.markizu.com]
WONG AOKI: And that’s what I remember from my first trip to Grandpa’s. We returned to Grandpa’s when I was about eleven. That summer I found myself wearing men’s galoshes, Grandpa’s overalls and this big Coolie hat. I looked totally F-O-B. man, fresh off the boat. This was not my idea of a nice summer. I was gonna be home in L.A. in a bikini, body surfing with my friends, listening to my transistor radio, and here I was looking like an F-O-B. in this big old silly hat, helping Grandpa.
At three or four in the morning, whatever time the time the tide was low, his little green flashlight leading the way, we’d climb down the cliffs on these little teeny steps my grandpa had hewn from the rock. I was slipping and sliding, trying my best to keep up with Grandpa’s short stocky legs. When we got down there, all around us were tide pools. Tide pools like you can’t see anymore. Tide pools with pink and green sea anemones, orange starfish, little baby octopus, shells, golden light. They’re just beautiful. But Grandpa would say “(speaking Chinese) … Hurry up!” Twist and pull and throw in the basket. We gathered seaweed. Twist and pull and throw in the basket. The barnacles were really bad on your nails. Twist and pull and throw in the basket. Twist and pull and throw in the basket. I do not want to be here. Twist and pull and throw in the basket. Twist and pull and … watch wave? What do you mean, Grandpa. watch-- waaaaave! Whoa! This was dangerous work. One false step and Mother Ocean ate you up.
At sunset, Grandpa would gather those wet baskets of seaweed, put ’em on this long bamboo pole. You know he had this groove in his shoulder that that pole fit perfectly in, sort of like a puzzle piece. We get back to his shack. He’d light a fire in the stove, shoo the frogs out of the sink - 'Go now, go. Gooooo.' Take a great big wok and make dinner. Ssshhhhhhh. Sometimes on special occasions, Grandpa would bring out a Chinese delicacy – pickled chicken feet. Little toe nails clicking, he’d walk them across the table towards me. [Shrieks.] He loved to do that. (Laughing) 'Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh.'
After supper, Grandpa would take 180 proof Chinese whiskey, pour it in a tea cup, and in another he’d pour me tea. He’d say 'This for me. This for company.' He’d light a big stogie…[Sound of lighting and inhaling]…look me in the eye and say…[Sound of exhaling] …'Blenda. Blenda. Blenda, how’s skoo.' Brenda, how's school-- that was Grandpa’s favorite American line. Brenda, how’s school? ’Cause you see in Chinese words take on different meanings if you change the intonation. So Grandpa would change his tones and thing he was saying a whole bunch of American words. Our conversation use to go something like this:
'Blenda, how’s skoo?'
'Grandpa, tide pools are cool.'
(different intonation) 'A Blenda, how’s skoo?'
'Tomorrow, can we take a day off?'
(different intonation) 'Blenda, how’s skoo?'
We used to talk like that for hours. At the end of the summer, Grandpa poured gasoline on the rocks and torched them. He said you had to do that so that the new seaweed could grow. All night we watched the flames on the waves. The next day when my parents picked me up, I gave Grandpa a big kiss on his bald head right between those two floppy ears. And he said to me 'You go now. Go. Goooo' And he stood there with that little green flashlight, and I swear that beam never wavered until he got all the way up the mountain and dropped over the crest.
[MUSIC: "Processional From Kuan Yin, The One Who Sees The Cries Of The Universe," Mark Izu: www.markizu.com]
CURWOOD: Now, your mom has roots in China and your dad has roots in Japan?
WONG AOKI: Yeah, we’re [foreign phrase].
WONG AOKI: Chinese, Japanese, Spanish actually and Scots Irish.
CURWOOD: Okay. So what was it like growing up with such a unique background?
WONG AOKI: It was great. I just thought the whole world was like that.
WONG AOKI: I grew up on a naval base. I thought we were all like this.
CURWOOD: Naval base where?
WONG AOKI: Long Beach.
CURWOOD: And then I understand, what you moved to the Bay Area?
WONG AOKI: Uh huh.
CURWOOD: And there – and there you learned a lot more about your family I imagine.
WONG AOKI: It was a big surprised to me, but my grand uncle was probably the first Japanese to marry a Caucasian person. He ran away with the daughter of the archdeacon of Grace Cathedral in 1909. Right next to Chinatown, there in San Francisco.
WONG AOKI: Yeah. And that was our literal fall from grace, because after that our family was looked down miscegeny laws any things.
CURWOOD: What happened to this white woman?
WONG AOKI: Well, gosh, she was amazing. She fled with her children into the Sierra foothills during the internment. Her daughter said 'Momma knew those camps' - you know, talking about the internment camps - 'Momma knew those camps weren’t gonna be no picnic.' So they went up into the Sierra foothills and passed the kids off as Indians.
[MUSIC: "Into The Valley," Mark Izu: www.markizu.com]
CURWOOD: We’re dishing up Asian-American stories for our holiday season program today, and there’s plenty more to come. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
This week we’re breaking from the news grind to bring you our winter storytelling special, this time featuring three Asian-American artists. We just heard Brenda Wong Aoki tell her tale about her special relationship with her grandfather, and in just a moment we’ll hear from storytellers Tou Ger Xiong and Megumi.
But first, Brenda I have to ask you. Why do you think you were so reluctant to hang out with your grandfather? I suppose I would have been a little shy too if someone had been walking chicken feet toward me.
WONG AOKI: You know it was just, I was a city girl. I wasn’t used to – oh, his outhouse! Now that I’m older it was just magnificent.
WONG AOKI: It stuck out over the cliff, and you had to go over this like little rickety suspension bridge he’d built. And then, you know, you’d get out on this little outhouse and there was no door. It just faced the ocean and was the most incredible view. But you know, back then when I was a young teenage girl-- that was just too funky for me.
XIONG: Where I grew up in the refugee camps and also in Laos, my mother used to say 'Boys … [speaking Hmong] … boys, if you have to pee, go outside and pee by the tree; girls, they go into the woods.' So ever since as young as I could remember, I remember 'pee by the tree, the tree is where you pee.' We come to this country…
XIONG: …and the first day in America, me and my brother had to pee. What do we do? We went out to the closest tree by our neighbors yard. My sister who had lived here a few years before us who did sponsor us to come here, my older sister, she looked out the window and she saw what we were about to do, she said 'No! You can not pee outside! This is America!'
XIONG: She took us inside the house and she says to us, [speaks Hmong], which means, 'come with me. I’ll take you to the special peeing place.' We follow her upstairs to the bathroom. 'This is where you pee.' We looked in, 'Where’s the tree?!'
XIONG: And she said 'No, no. It’s America. You pee in here.' She pointed to, of course, you call it the toilet. Well, in Laos, in the refugee camps also I remember as a kid, we didn’t have shoes, you play outside barefoot all the time. And mom and dad always said 'Wash your dirty feet, before you go to bed.' So the first time I saw the toilet, I said 'Hey,' I looked at my brother, 'American people have a special machine just for washing feet!'
XIONG: 'You don’t even use your hands, you just rub – stick you feet in the toilet and stir it around like this.'
XIONG: And so my sister 'No, no – that’s where you pee!'
XIONG: So we – sure enough, we peed. We ran down stairs and she yells at us, right before we leave. She said, 'No, you cannot just pee, but you have to flush the toilet.' In the Hmong language it translated to mean something like, 'You boys must drain all of the pee away.' Somehow!
XIONG: We had no concept of plumbing. So, I’m thinking, 'what- you want us to grab something literally and scoop up the pee out of the toilet and take it outside? No, we should just pee by the tree. What’s the point?!'
XIONG: We had no concept of plumbing. She said, 'No, it’s very easy. Come here, come here.' So she grabbed us closer and she says, 'Now, this is how you flush the toilet.' And then, she actually had a sense of humor she said 'come a little closer so you see better.' She grabs a few sheets of toilet paper and throws them in the toilet and says, 'Now count to three and watch what happens. One, two, three. [counting in Hmong]' She pushes a switch and we hear this noise – ssshhhhhh - and it starts to get louder. Ssshhhhhhh. She yells, 'Step back or the toilet will suck you in!'
XOING: So, I remember we ran real fast and when all the noise calmed down we looked in the toilet and she was right: everything had disappeared into a little hole. And she said 'You be careful, [speaking in Hmong]. You be careful, next time you pee, you stand too close, you flush toilet, ssshhhh...'
XOING: “…and you go bye bye.”
XOING: Well for about two weeks the joke was on us.
CURWOOD: That’s a great story.
CURWOOD: I wonder how this story strikes you.
MEGUMI: So when I was growing up in Japan we didn’t speak English, and when these two white old people came, my father told us that this was my grandfather and grandmother. But when they came because we had the squat toilet….
MEGUMI: …my father had to buy a special little stand so they could sit on this ring. It wasn’t just a squat toilet that didn’t flush. It was the drop toilet.
MEGUMI: And the drop toilet was really scary for me because even though I was old enough to know better, when you looked in you can really imagine all those mummies down there ready to come out. Right? Even though I knew logically there weren’t mummies, they were toilet paper, I kept thinking, they were mummies …
MEGUMI: …and when I was I think about nine, I thought Okay, I’m nine, I’m not scared these are toilet paper. Nothing. So I try not to look down there when I was squatting. And one night, I think it was about this time of the year, I squatted, telling myself I was okay. My mom didn’t have to stand right next to me. And …chrrr! … Something touched me, and I thought…
MEGUMI: …Aahaaahhh! I screamed and I asked my mom to come – ahhhhhh! And when she came, she said, 'There’s no mummies.' I said, 'Yeah, one touched me!'
MEGUMI: 'There are mummies down there and they can reach up!' You know?
MEGUMI: And she said, 'No, no, no, no, there can’t be.' And we found a little praying mantis. It had just come in through the window. And had just flown up and touched my behind. So…
MEGUMI: My grandpa, my Caucasian grandpa, he was a career military man, so there was only a few times before he died when I knew enough English to actually make conversation. And one time he sat there and started talking about war stories. I knew that both my Japanese grandfather and Caucasian grandfather had served in World War II. My Japanese grandfather never came back. Never came back. He was missing in action for years and years. I always had this imagination that my Caucasian grandfather had killed my Japanese grandfather. So I had to get over that to just sort of sit down comfortably while he chatted away about going to Asia. You know somewhere in Asia, he said, 'Oh, we were so hungry, we caught some chickens in the field and we plucked the feathers and we cooked them.' And I thought, but couldn’t actually say to him, didn’t the chickens belong to some starving farmer? You know, so, I have those kinds of memories.
CURWOOD: Megumi, you’ve spoken with a lot of older west coast Japanese Americans who lived through that time of losing their homes and being forced to move inland in defense camps, the internment camps, where more that, what, 100,000 Japanese nationals as well as Japanese American citizens were forced to live after the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II.
And I suppose I should disclose a little something from my family here. My mother worked with a Japanese woman teaching nursery school in 1941, and when word in 1942 began to come of the internment camps out West, this woman moved into our family home for a while, and then she disappeared. A couple of months down the line, I’m told, they gave her some papers with Chinese names and she moved to live with friends in New York City for the duration of the war. They hid her out. I guess she had a brother who did wind up in one of the camps. She’d gotten word of this and she was very worried.
And this was what the women at this early childhood education center, otherwise known as a nursery school, decided to do. As a kid growing up, I always knew about this Japanese woman. There was correspondence exchange, but I never knew the story until actually fairly recently, of why we had this relationship with her.
So tell me a story that you have, about a teenager named Jack, I think.
MEGUMI: Yeah. Okay, Jack’s sketches.
During World War II, the U.S. government uprooted from their homes 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, without trial. And imprisoned them. Most were American citizens. The rest were legal American residents. Well, this was back when most Americans believed that their president, the FBI, the U.S. army knew what they were doing. So, they did not protest this mass arrest and imprisonment.
And in the Japanese community there was this concept of Gaman. And Gaman means to be strong, to be patient and no whining. No whining, so it was almost a taboo to question authority. In fact, there were probably just four Japanese Americans who formally protested. Four out of 120,000. There was one boy, a sixteen-year-old boy named Jack who decided to stand up to this injustice. And what could he do? Well he took scraps of paper and a pencil and cartooned. And he was able to tell the story of what happened without disgusting us. [Laughs] Jack drew a sketch of moving into their barrack apartment.
You know Parker, Arizona, there were three camps, Poston, one, two and three, and he was in Poston two. 20-by-24 cell. And of course the father is still absent. He’s in some penitentiary somewhere and he draws himself, his little sister, and his mother. And of course he’s the man of the house, so he has the broom and he’s sweeping up this humongous scorpion, bigger than him…
MEGUMI: …into this dustpan. And the caption reads, 'Before we could move in, we had to evict the former tenants, the scorpions.'
School was very, very important. Education was very, very important, so the parents demanded to arrange for schools, even if they didn’t have qualified teachers, even if the didn’t have equipment. So some of the early photos show teachers sitting on rocks, kids sitting in the shade, in the dust, with paper and pencil and trying to do work. Those are the kind of things that he drew.
One of my favorites, too, is the graduation picture. He’s in a cap and gown, by the time he graduated they had those. And he’s looking at a teacher sort of apologetically accepting the diploma, and the caption reads: 'I didn’t think you’d make it, either.' He didn’t think the teacher would make it. And the teacher didn’t think Jack would make it. But he did graduate.
And I have a feeling he did all he could to insert humor in the hardships of camp, but there came a point where he couldn’t do that anymore, and he was distracted. And he was able to attend art school for part of a semester because they had a special program that the Christians in the government had put together for promising young students to attend colleges in the Midwest. And he was there for almost part of a semester working as a janitor and taking classes, but he was called away to the draft. He became an intelligence officer for postwar Japan interrogating prisoners of war and translating sensitive documents and investigating important events.
You know, all he did as a little teenager was to just draw what he saw. And he didn’t really have lofty plans, just to, just to sketch what he saw. Just to express his feelings, but later on when there was no more fear of government censorship, his mother talked him into publishing them. And he was able to publish his first edition of these cartoons, which he redrew as a professional cartoonist in 1974. And I personally believe that he did a lot to help those who were there who wanted to say that the camps never happened. He was able to help those who were there to laugh and cry and talk about it. And for the rest of us who weren’t there he, I know he inspires me to stand up to injustice, in whatever form I can. So that’s what Jack’s sketches have done for me, and that’s the story as I’m telling it to you.
[MUSIC: “Happy Theme,” Mark Izu: www.markizu.com]
CURWOOD: What a story to tell of those times. And Brenda, Tou Ger, does that concept of Gaman, of grinning and bearing it, sound at all familiar?
WONG AOKI: Oh yeah. Yeah, that’s just you know, your mantra. Gaman. Oldest sister must be the good role model for everyone.
MEGUMI: Suck it up.
CURWOOD: Tou Ger?
XIONG: Well, I have a big family. Six brothers and four sisters.
XIONG: Eleven. Yeah. The ladies say 'Oooooh, your poor mother.' My friends in college say, 'Hey, your daddy had it going on.' So I had to tell them well, in an agrarian society you big families to survive. Plus we lived in the jungles in Laos. Most kids didn’t see their fifth birthday due to malnutrition or diseases, so if you have a few kids, chances are some of them won’t survive. So that’s why Hmong people have big families. That’s why I have lots of brothers and sisters. And besides my father did have it going on.
MEGUMI: Maybe your mother did.
XIONG: Maybe my mother did, you’re right.
CURWOOD: You know the part of that story that really grabbed me is first they lock up this guy. And then, when they let him out to do work on his art, he gets drafted into the army. Now if he was so dangerous, why did they lock him up, and then why do they have him go to work in this army. I mean, the absurdity of it, seems…
WONG AOKI: The Peruvians.
MEGUMI: Yeah, I mean, when they kidnapped the Peruvian-Japanese, they were Peruvian citizens and locked them up and then later on they weren’t entitled to the reparations because they were illegal immigrants.
WONG AOKI: Are you following this? They took Peruvian Japanese from Peru, brought them to America, put them inside Japanese internment camps. My husband’s mom said 'oh, Mrs. Ichiguchi, she never could speak Japanese or English, she only spoke Spanish.' And then the Peruvian government wouldn’t allow them to go back and they couldn’t get American citizenship. They sent them to – some of them to Japan, right? And they couldn’t …
MEGUMI: For prisoner of war exchange.
WONG AOKI: Right, these poor people, they couldn’t speak Japanese.
CURWOOD: You know, I tell you, Franz Kafka wrote some novels, but he didn’t have themes like this in them.
MEGUMI: It’s hard to imagine.
CURWOOD: Tou Ger, I’m guessing that most Americans don’t know a whole lot about the Hmong people. And growing up in the Midwest, I bet you’ve gotten pretty used to educating others about your roots. What do you tell them?
XOING: Yeah, I get that a lot. I came here when I was six, so a lot of kids come up to me 'Hey, Tou, are you Japanese?' 'No.' 'What are you? Are you Chinese?' 'No.' 'What are you?' 'I’m Hmong,' I tell ’em. And they say “well, Chinese are people from China and Japanese people from Japan. Hmong people - Hmongland? Where’s that?'
So I went home and I remember asking my mom. My mom spoke very limited English. She knows stuff like 'Hello. How you do? I do fine, thank you. What do you do? I do my work, thank you. Where you come from? I come from Laos, thank you.' So she knew the basics. So I came home and I remember asking, 'Mom, mom, mom. What is Hmong?' She thought about it. She recognized it was a question. 'What is Hmong. I is Hmong.' I said 'no, mom. You can’t say that. You gotta say Hmong is something.' She thought about it, she says, 'Okay, Hmong is I.'
XOING: 'I is Hmong and Hmong is I,' And I thought, wow, that was weird. And it wasn’t until later on when I went to college and got older I realized why my mother couldn’t really articulate what Hmong was, because we don’t have a written history. We’re not documented. We don’t have a sense of nationhood. So we originated from the country of China several thousand years ago, but as a people, as an ethnic hill tribe, we eventually went south to avoid persecution and genocide to the countries of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and Southeast Asia, known as French Indochina and settled there. So even when we’re in Southeast Asia, we couldn’t really blend in with the natives there too, the Laos or the Burmese or the Vietnamese. So I often tell people, Steve, that we are the hillbillies of Asia. And no, no we don’t say 'Yee haw' but we Hmong people do say “[Hmong language],” same thing.
[MUSIC: Nouthong Phimvilayphone : Lam Pheong from Vision Of The Orient: Music Of Laos (Amiata Records 1995)]
CURWOOD: More from Tou Ger Xiong when our storytelling special continues in just a moment. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER: Support for the Environmental Health Desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
For more of Megumi's storytelling, click here.
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!
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