Thursday, June 16, 2011

America and Laos

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America and Laos

Who are the Hmong? To the Chinese, they are “the Miao or Meo, which means barbarians, bumpkins, people who sound like cats, or wild cultivated grasses”. To Merced doctors and staff, they are the hardest, the most exasperating, the most stubborn, and the most non-compliant patients and parents they have ever dealt with. But, to anthropologists and historians, they are an ethnic group that lives on the highlands of Laos whom possess the characteristics of being brave, courageous, and hardworking. The Hmong moved to the United States, from Laos, because they wanted to keep their culture and traditions. Little did they know that everything would be different and unfamiliar. It is safe to say that Hmong living in Laos have different experiences and hardships than those who live in the U.S.

There are several differences in the experiences and hardships between Hmong living in Laos compared to those living in the U.S. The first of such differences is the use of shamans and the use of doctors. Back in Laos, whenever there is a complication in heath or in birth, a txiv neeb is summoned to cure the problem. For example, “If a Hmong couple failed to produce children, they could call a txiv neeb, a shaman who… might be able to cure infertility by asking the couple to sacrifice a dog, a cat, a chicken, or a sheep… The txiv neeb [would] then string a rope bridge from the doorpost to the marriage bed…”  to set free the baby’s soul from the hands of a dab. When illness enters a Hmong body, a txiv neeb would collect herbs to treat the illness and perform a ritual to summon the soul to return. Hmong believe that illness is due to soul lost. In Lia’s case, “The txiv neeb tied spirit-strings around Lia’s wrist and gave her some green medicine from roots and things like that. Some of it was boiled and you drink the juice and after it dries you eat it.” ’ The shaman tried to heal Lia’s epilepsy.

In America, unlike Laos, the Hmong cannot always find, use, or afford a txiv neeb. They have to depend on local doctors and Western medicine for the most part. Instead of spending “$1000 on amulets filled with sacred healing herbs from Thailand” or using “a thick, stringy, gooey, gross, green liquid”, the Hmong have to rely on modern Western medicine. For Lia’s epilepsy, Peggy Philp gave her “…Dilantin, which is commonly used to control grand mal seizures. Three weeks after her first MCMC admission, after Lia had a seizure…Peggy changed the prescription to phenobarbital, which controls febrile seizures better than Dilantin.” And because “…lung and ear infections frequently accompanied Lia’s seizures, antibiotics, antihistamines, and bronchodilating drugs were also prescribed from time to time.”

The Lee’s dependence on traditional medicine is very understandable because my family too practices traditional medicine. Instead of going to the doctors and paying for prescribed drugs, we often use herbs to cure our illness. My parents would go to a Chinese supermarket and buy a variety of dried herbs such as mushrooms and other exotic plants. The herbs are placed in a pot of boiling water to create a stew or better yet, a “magical elixir.” The taste and smell of the elixir is awful but it has proven effective nonetheless.

Between the two methods of medicine, the Hmong prefer traditional herbs and txiv neeb. The Hmong dislike Western medicine and doctors for several reasons, one of which is that American doctors do not understand the concept of soul. Txiv neebs heal both the illness and the soul but American doctors can only prescribe medicine. In addition, they think that some of doctors’ procedures actually seemed more likely to threaten the patients’ health than to restore it. For example, most Hmong believe that “the body contains a finite amount of blood that it is unable to replenish, so repeated blood sampling, especially from small children, may be fatal.”

In addition to the difference in medicine, some of the cultural beliefs that the Hmong held in Laos differ from those that are held in the U.S. For instance, the hierarchy of the family in Laos goes from male to female, and old people to young ones; however, the newly arrived Hmong, like the Lees, have an inverted one. The Lee family depend on their eldest daughter May to translate for them. “When doctors conferred with a Hmong family, it was tempting to address the reassuringly Americanized teenaged girl who wore lipstick and spoke English rather than the old man who squatted silently in the corner.” It is an insult to the elders to ask crucial questions to the young, who do not have the power to make decisions. Sometimes it even makes them lower their self-esteem. “Nao Kao once said, “I am very stupid…Because I don’t know anything here. I don’t know your language. American is so hard, you can watch TV all day and you still don’t know it. I can’t dial the telephone…”

The Hmong elders are frustrated and insulted whenever doctors or other authoritative figures address the Americanized children first; however, little do they know that their children are often frustrated too. The children get frustrated because sometimes they are unable or incapable of translating English sentences into their native language. I, for example, at times have the same difficulty. I came to America when I was only eight, so my Chinese vocabulary is limited. Sometimes, the English language gets so complicated that I do not have any idea of how to translate it. Furthermore, being an interpreter is very time consuming. Before my parents learned how to speak English, I had to accompany them wherever they went. As soon as I got home from school, they would run to me with a pile of mail for me to translate; and at times, I had to miss school just so I could escort them to the doctors. It is easy to overlook the frustration of the interpreter because, as an intermediate, no one knows how difficult it is to translate from one language to another.

Another cultural belief that differs between American Hmong and Laos Hmong is the idea of having large families. In Lao, Hmong families are relatively large, consisting of two adults and ten or more children. The Hmong have such large quantity of children because they need them to help farm. A plethora of worker is required to plant opium and to maintain livestock. After the women cut away the forest underbrush and the men felled the trees, fire is set on the land. When the fire extinguishes, the whole family must work together to clear the debris. Contrary to Laos Hmong, American Hmong have smaller families. This is because the children, who will grow up to have families, have been assimilated by American culture. Only three percent of America is farmland thus, the necessity for a large family is non-existent. In addition, sex education in schools teaches children about the benefits of delayed pregnancies thus, further decreasing the family size.

Similar to the contrariety of medicine and cultural beliefs between Laos Hmong and American Hmong, the mode of telling time is also deviant. For example, when the Lees had lived in Laos, like other Hmong, they “had subdivided the year not by the months of the Gregorian calendar but by lunar cycles designated by their primary agricultural activities. The first cycle…was the one during which rice and corn were hauled home…The fifth cycle was the one during which corn was planted.”  “Because the Lees were now unemployed welfare recipients rather than farmers, and each month’s activities (or their lack) were nearly identical to every other month’s, they no longer oriented themselves by the Hmong calendar and consequently often had trouble had trouble remembering when- even in what season an event had occurred.” In addition, the Lees kept Lia’s medical records “not by number but by salient event. For instance, 18 was ‘the year the spirit first caught Lia and she fell down’; 1985 was ‘the year Lia became government property….’”

Hmong living in Laos have different experiences and hardships than those who live in the U.S. Laos Hmong use herbal medication and txiv neeb to cure their pains and illnesses while American Hmong take pills and antibiotics. Back in Laos, the Hmong subdivides their calendar by lunar cycles but in America, they must adapt to use the twelve-month calendar. In addition, the hierarchy in a Laos family goes from parents to children but because of the language barrier, the hierarchy is inverted, placing the children higher than the parents. Living in a new place and a new world is very difficult especially when you do not know the language or the cultural; it is like learning how to walk again. But eventually, everyone learns how to walk so one day, the Hmong will learn the American culture and become an integral part of the “melting pot”.

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