Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Primitive Bonding

In the late 1970s, after the end of the Vietnam War, over 35,000 Hmong tribesmen and women with their children entered the U.S. They had been interned in refugee camps in Thailand, some for the last 20 years, while trying to escape the War and the Pol Pot communist regime who, having discovered that the Hmong in the mountains of Laos had secretly been helping downed American pilots, first wiped out over 30,000 of them causing the remaining population to flee, most via the Mekong River. Many were shot while crossing, many drowned.


The Hmong had lived in the mountains, the Lao people in the lowlands and towns. The Hmong in general did not learn to speak Lao, use their money or intermarry during the 500 years of their sojourn in Laos. They had been transplanted there earlier by Hun Warriors in Upper Mongolia who took it into their heads one day to oust the darker, clannish Hmong from their territories. They call themselves Miao or Meo, the free people. There are three clans within their overall population: Blue Hmong, White Hmong and Green Hmong. There are only eighteen Hmong surnames, the clans often represented by only a few names, for example, Lor, Her, Vang, Yang, Kong, Xiong, Cha, Chue, Vue, Moua, and Thao.
Their language is one of 24 distinct Chinese languages also shared by the Dao peoples. There are no plurals and no past, present or future tense. Unlike English, they don’t have a different word, for example, for ‘woman’ when it becomes plural: ‘women.’ They will just say ‘two woman’ or ‘many woman,’ or ‘foot’ becomes ‘two foot.’ They weren’t warriors but preferred to peacefully herd their horses. They are also known for their exquisite Oriental embroidery, called Paj Ntaub (pronounced pan-DOW,) and silver jewelry. They lived communally in long houses in the jungles of Laos, raising their own meat and growing their food, harvesting the seeds for the next planting season, carrying their babies on their backs wherever they went.
In the late ‘70s I was working to put my husband through college before any children came along. I would go back to school ten years later for my midwifery license, after 5 children, but with David studying full time, I had time and energy back then – we were young – to find something else to do when I wasn’t working. One evening I came across an article in the local newspaper about a program that Macalester College was initiating matching refugee families with people in Minnesota who would be willing to visit once a week and teach them English. I asked my husband to listen to this while I read it to him.
“But you don’t have a degree in English!” was his response. He does -- have a degree in English.
“I can teach the alphabet and colors and food and stuff!” I retorted.
“You don’t have a curriculum.”
“I don’t need one!”
“Poor people.”
Thus began a decades-long love affair with some of our closest friends. I called the telephone number listed in the paper and left my name and phone number with the receptionist. The next day I had My Family!
I was terribly nervous and excited. I had gone out and bought crayons, pencils, ruled paper and a bag of tangerines as a gift. And I did my homework. I learned that the Hmong people are believed to have come from the Yangtze River basin area in southern China. Chinese scholars have recorded contact with the Miao as early as the 3rd century BCE, and wrote of them that they were a proud and independent people. The history of the Hmong people is difficult to trace; they have an oral tradition, but there are no written records except where other people have encountered them. Hmong history has been passed down through legends and ritual ceremonies from one generation to another. However, throughout the recorded history, the Hmong have remained identifiable as Hmong because they have maintained their own language, customs, and ways of life while adopting the ways of the country in which they live. In the 1960s and 1970s many Hmong were secretly recruited by the American CIA to fight against communism during the Vietnam War. After American armed forces pulled out of Vietnam, a communist regime took over in Laos, and ordered the prosecution and re-education of all those who had fought against its cause during the war. Whilst many Hmong are still left in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and China (which houses one of the biggest Hmong populations in the world, 5 million), since 1975 many Hmong have fled Laos in fear of persecution.They have come to be known as very resistant to assimilation, but their way of life is all they ever knew and they take great pride in it.
The University of Berkley in California, upon learning of the vast exodus of the Hmong from Southeast Asia to the U.S. proposed a brilliant plan by which rural communities throughout the United States would absorb Hmong families and thus enable them to continue their agricultural lives far from the urban centers in America. Sadly, our government vetoed this proposal and the Hmong were moved into cities throughout the continental U.S. Having been a fiercely tribal people with a central elder, they became paralyzed with the thought that they would have to live apart from his direction in their daily affairs. Within months of resettlement, the majority left their new homes in various states and settled in Minnesota where their elder, General Vang Pao lived, cramming sometimes 4 families into a one-bedroom apartment and pooling money, food and cars to care for one another. Thus I found the Hmong as I set out in 1977 to teach English.

The Yang family might have known about the program, but I couldn’t ask and they didn’t tell me. We sized each other up as I made myself at home and spread out my teaching materials. The alphabet would be enough for day one. I visited once a week, but by week 4 I realized we weren’t getting anywhere. Everything was being forgotten in the interim. Thanks to (then) President Regan, the number of social workers being laid off reached epidemic proportions that same year. No one was taking these families on the bus, or to a restaurant or to the health department for screening. I found a box of Ivory Baby laundry detergent with its big, happy white baby on the box next to the bathtub. They were using it to wash their children, including a newborn! The big joke one day was that they had ventured into a grocery store on their own, and spying a lovely large tin can with fried chicken pictured on the label had bought it and were very surprised upon opening it that it contained a white paste of some kind and not one piece of chicken! (It was Crisco shortening).

That night I announced to David that I had decided to move in with my Hmong family. The only way they were going to learn English – really learn it – was through emersion. It was a Saturday night and by now they understood that I would be there by suppertime every 7 days. Though they had never used a Western calendar, they had dinner ready and were waiting for me. I had learned a bit about cultural etiquette while living in Japan a few years earlier, so I made sure to tell them (effusively) how much I enjoyed the meal – though I have no idea what I ate that night -- and I always brought something as a gift, usually fruit or flowers. I knew of no other specifically Asian customs, but figured that perhaps I would be forgiven any bloopers in this situation. I figured if I watched a lot, and listened a lot, I would learn how things worked.

Sai Zor Yang was the dad whom I guessed to be around 35 or so; Po Yee Vang his wife. She did not adopt his last name at marriage, but the children did. There was Sai’s mother, Mee Thao, a happy old lady without teeth and electrified jet black hair who perpetually had a baby tied onto her back. Then there were 4 more sweet, very shy children. There were just too many people in this new country that looked very different from themselves for comfort, me for one with curly brown hair and slate blue eyes and then there were the neighbors, the “messy cans” as Sai referred to them. It was not meant to be derogatory. He simply could not pronounce ‘Mexican.’ Hmong has no sound like our X. The surname Xiong is pronounced Shong. Either way you say it, the Yangs were terrified of their neighbors, especially their loud drinking parties that often spilled out into the back and front yards every weekend. They would bar their doors and lock all of the windows in their sweltering apartment during the hottest part of the summer. Temperatures in Minnesota easily reach into the high 90s from June through August. Housing projects do not come with air conditioners.

That first night after I moved in, I couldn’t communicate what this crazy white lady was up to. I spread out the bedroll I had brought with me on the sofa in the living room and sliding under the top sheet, smiled, waved and said slowly, Good. Night. I closed my eyes. The children had literally dropped where they were when sleep overtook them and were gently transported to the main bedroom. Grandma had been nodding off during our English lesson after supper, but jerked to attention at my escapade. Sai and Po Yee looked at each other, completely befuddled. Grandma decided to take control of this unexpected situation. She ordered Sai and Po Yee into the bedroom where I soon heard an animated discussion going on. A few minutes later, Grandma marched back out into the living room where I was dozing off and grabbed one of my writs, hauling me up to a sitting position. 

Then she pulled me – the surprised one now – into the communal bedroom and pointed to the far end of the row of tidy mattresses lined up next to each other against one end of the room. Sai and Po Yee were settling themselves at the other end with the baby next to his mother. Mee Thao pointed to a space they had made for me at the opposite side by the youngest toddler. So the order in bed was: new baby, Po Yee, Sai, 3 older children, Grandma, toddler and me. It was only years later when they could speak English and by the time I had become comfortable with Hmong that they could explain their predicament: according to their time-honored customs. The Hmong had an elaborate system of hospitality: You must welcome any traveler who came to you after dusk, even someone from a foreign clan, into the common sleeping area where the head of the household could protect them. The heavens forbid you left anyone out by the cooking fire where wild animals could harm them! That was absolutely out of the question, but the conundrum here was that this was a new country and they had never been faced with a situation like this one before. Did the old rules apply here as well? What if one of the ‘messy cans’ broke in and attacked her at night? Better err on the side of the caution and not incur the wrath of those bad sprites should we be overstepping our bounds here. So I had to sleep in my ‘spot’ in the correct order for the rest of my stay with the Yangs. After some weeks Jou Zhe, one of Sai’s brothers complained to me through one of his children who had a bit of English under his belt by then, “You always sleep with Sai and you never sleep with me!” Eventually I agreed to their code of hospitality and visited more homes than I could count.

I realized that this could turn into a full-time occupation. I didn’t want to give David the impression that he wasn’t my favorite bedfellow anymore, nor that I didn’t miss his nightly attentions, so I quickly enlisted all of my friends, coworkers and even a few acquaintances,  assigning each to one of Sai’s brothers’ or cousins’ families to host. This freed me to stay with the Yangs while my friends were getting to know and teach English to their new families. After doing this for 3 years we founded Abraham’s House, later called the Mustard Seed in an abandoned storefront in St. Paul out of which we distributed donated food and clothes, held English classes (we had real teachers volunteering by this time) and 24-hour liaison services. I haggled with the phone company when they sold designer phone sets to unwitting families for hundreds of dollars, threatened landlords who refused to fix broken furnaces in the middle of Minnesota winters, and began speaking at churches throughout the Twin Cities and on radio, exhorting my fellow Minnesotans to reach out to these truly beautiful people. I felt like we were gaining far more than we were giving by getting to know them. As my Hmong got better I was called to help at funeral homes, courts, and local hospitals, but that would be another book which you didn’t sign up for when you started reading this one.

Like Jean Leidloff (The Continuum Concept, 1971) whom I didn’t read until many years later, I was not seeing babies who resembled our American babies. These babies hardly fussed, never seemed to cry, were carried most of the day only being put down on straw mats on the floor when they were sleeping, but were otherwise scooped up at the first peep and tied onto whomever was the first adult on the scene. Babies were nursed on demand until the next newborn came along. Then that toddler became the charge of Grandma or an Aunt who would carry, feed, sleep with, entertain and care for him so that the little person would not feel left out for one minute by the tiny intruder. Children were constantly milling around the grownups wherever they were congregating. The men would gather before and after a meal, often sharing a bamboo hookah, babies or toddlers on their knees or in their laps, older children quietly playing and listening to the conversations while their moms and sisters cooked, cleaned and took care of the household.

During the first years I was with the Hmong, I never saw a baby crying uncontrollably, or left to cry behind a closed door. I never saw a tantrum when a parent said no. I didn’t see whiny or clingy children in stores demanding this or that dry cereal or toy. I also didn’t see parents entertaining their little charges, rather, they were simply brought along throughout the day wherever their parents or aunt or grandma needed to be engaged. Toddlers were looked after by the whole extended family. It did take a village to raise each child. Everyone, even the oldest grandpa’s lap wasn’t off limits to a grazing toddler. Grandpa just kept talking or telling a story to whomever was listening (or no one.) Spoken Hmong is a preliterate (unwritten) language, so there is a very rich oral tradition of story-telling. Stories are told and retold. Stories are sung over and over. Stories are even sewn into intricate, elaborate quilts and wall hangings.
You can find story quilts telling the story of a particular family’s exodus from Laos (right) or the layout of the clan’s farm and animal herds before the war. I also saw toddlers wielding knives and machetes. Adults didn’t admonish the children, or grab the tools away but quietly hovered nearby, letting this be an educational moment. Children hardly more than toddlers themselves would comfort a smaller child if he fell down. There were no toys as such in those early days, but children would share or patiently wait for a turn with an empty juice bottle ‘doll’ wrapped in a rag that another child was playing with.

This was continuum bonding. After 9 months in utero, being totally surrounded by everything he needs a baby’s care isn’t suddenly completed, like an assembly line product, popped out at birth. The complete circle of touch, smell, sounds, taste and comfort must be continued 24 hours a day. ‘In arms’ he will continue to be held, fed, jostled, rocked and hear and see everything around him that he will slowly learn from. That is stimulation enough. We don’t have to constantly entertain, provide educational toys, teach, hang mobiles, come up with unique experiences, run through flashcards, schedule play dates, put on classical music, or play CDs of foreign languages, ad infinite. Our babies will process as much as they are able at each appropriate stage without our perpetually thinking that they won’t learn or be smart if we do not personally fill each teaching moment by offering them multiple options. Our daily lives already provide the social and physical requirements for our brain development.

After the second year with the Yang family, and David was nearing the end of his studies, I became pregnant. I was elated as this had not come easily; months of grueling tests, charts, surgeries and buckets of tears finally paid off. One interesting aside here is that as soon as Po Yee noticed I was showing, she tried to let me know I must now come in the back door. The spirits wouldn’t like it if I came in the front door! One day when Sai drove up to our apartment to pick up a car-load of donated rice, he found me in our little patch of garden. He looked at me, then at the plump cucumbers. He knelt down and picking one up carefully examined it. According to him, they shouldn’t be growing. I asked ‘why not?’ He said, for one I am a woman and two, a pregnant one at that. I told him I have been growing cucumbers for years and they don’t seem to know there is a difference. He shook his head, incredulous. This was indeed a strange new land!

Finally it was November. After a quick birth, we left the hospital 6 hours later and were happily snuggled in bed by supper time with our very clever, very amazing baby boy. We started calling relatives and friends, Sai’s family among them.

Within an hour his family came over to check out what an American newborn looked like. Grandma was the first to speak. While pinching Avi’s nose and cackling she said the equivalent of “Look at the shnozz on this kid!” She gave it a few gentle pushes, hoping to reshape it, perhaps. Definitely too big for a baby! I could hear the kitchen cupboards opening and closing from my bed. I wasn’t sure what they were looking for. Sai came back into our bedroom and said, “Where are the grandmas?” I explained that David’s mother was elderly and sick, and mine had a career on the West Coast. He looked horrified. They all packed up and left then, only to return two and a half hours later, laden with bags of groceries, filled the refrigerator and put a beautiful bowl of fragrant chicken and rice soup on a tray for me. We were flabbergasted! Such generosity! Then, to top it off, they explained that they were giving Grandma to us! The old lady was smiling from ear to ear. Then she opened her mouth and pointed inside. “See” she said, glaring at me. “No teeth. Don’t even try to teach me English.” We agreed and we had our very own experienced postpartum doula for two weeks!

I was anxious to try some of the Hmong parenting styles I had come to respect on Avi. He nursed on demand, and slept with us, much to the chagrin of our relatives. We had decided before his birth not to even have a crib or bottles in the apartment. Po Yee gave her babies a quick bath each and every time they pooped. None had ever had a diaper rash. Neither did my babies. I knew we wanted to nurse longer than the then popular token 3 – 6 months, but were afraid of being constantly questioned by relatives if we were still doing that after 2 or 3 years. I got around this one by switching to my now-semi-fluent Hmong with Avi whenever we nursed. By the time he was one he was asking for ‘milk’ or ‘breast’ only in Hmong. Years later our 4th baby, Rachel when they were both 3 asked a little friend she was playing with  if she also still got “naw mee” when she wanted it. She told me later that night that “poor Emily doesn’t even know what naw mee is!”

David and I took turns tying Avi on with a colorful Hmong carrier whenever he was awake. He was very easy to care for, and happy just to see what we were doing all day. His first words were in Hmong. I was visiting Mee Thao who snatched him up as soon as we arrived and I found him in the kitchen later with her feeding him rice and soup. At one point she howled with laughter. I asked her what was going on. She said, “He talk Hmong!” I was not surprised, I told her; she talks to him all the time. I tried to explain that if I took one of their babies home and it seldom heard Hmong that it would speak English. She violently disagreed. Hmong babies are born knowing Hmong. Then I asked her what he had said. She said, “Naw maw!” (Eat more rice!) Then when he was done, he turned to her and said, “moe oo-wash-ee:” Go play (now).

I was honored to have spent so many years watching and learning from our Hmong friends. I think they really got this one right. I am just so sorry that the next generations feel the need to look and act truly American, complete with strollers, Nuks, formula and cribs - the whole shebang. They have lost more than a homeland. They have lost the wisdom of their elders. 

STAY TUNED... This and other stories will be appearing the book, Stone Age Babies in a Space Age World:§ Babies and Bonding in the 21st Century,© or "Call the Doula! a diary"© both pending by Stephanie Sorensen

§This phrase was first coined by Dr. James McKenna, used here with permission and gratitude for his work. A world-renowned expert on infant sleep – in particular the practice of bed sharing, he is studying SIDS and co-sleeping at his mother-infant sleep lab at Notre Dame University. He is the author of “Sleeping With Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-sleeping,” 2007, Platypus Media, Washington, D.C.









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