I was born into a storied universe—into a demon cosmology of sound and ether that passed from mouth to ear for generations—and the walls of my father’s house were raised by the excavated bones of ancestors whose names lacked shape or form, save for the pursing lips of the old storytellers. My ancestors died never having held a pen, only shovels and sticks. And, then, guns. We did not have an alphabet until the Christian missionaries arrived. Before then, all words were sacred and committed to memory. My ancestors’ stories traveled by breath alone, like the seeds of future forests carried upon unseen wind. This is how we survived chaos: by speaking the names of our fathers from time immemorial.
Today I struggle with how to tell my family’s story right, because the elders are already gone. Their memories haunt me, but their faint shadows will not turn to ink. Their words blur and flee my mind faster than my hands can transgress and write them down. This is how it began: the world hatched from a single butterfly’s egg. This is how we arrived in Laos: we climbed over Frozen Death Mountain—tsoob tuag no—from China many grandfathers ago.
The Hmong people’s path to independence has always been paved with blood: we rebelled against the mythic Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, before the founding of imperial China; against the Shang, Chou, Han, Tang, Sung, Ming, and Manchu dynasties; against all empires, including the British, the French, and the Japanese. We were called barbarians and savages; rebels and dissidents. We are not that word 苗, or Miao. We are Hmong; to be Hmong means to be free. Qing-dynasty soldiers guillotined our men and boys and posted their heads on our city walls—like grotesque gargoyles—while mounting our women and girls as their Hmong wives. This is why we fled to the mountains: to hide our newborn sons. They chased us to the southernmost reaches of the known kingdom, toward Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar; and the Ming built the Miaojiang Great Wall in Fenghuang, Hunan Province, to keep us out once and for all.
There, in the rarefied air of the remotest mountain peaks, we found our freedom. Kings have always hated us. Only the forest loves us.
We brought with us only the essentials: our words, our ancestors, our hands, and our hunger. We nourished ourselves with stories, soil, rituals, and hunting. We learned to fear Tiger, who is the Demon King of Illusions, and to love Squirrel, who—like us—is chased by his enemies from all directions but never caught: because Squirrel knows how to hide in plain sight. Only the best Hmong hunters tasted Squirrel. We remembered that all things were spirits, even the rocks and the wind, and that the forest always reclaims what you take without gratitude. Never brag or boast about sweet fruits you have found or fresh meat you have snared. The Lord of Nature will trip you, rip out your throat, and eat your three souls. We gave the Lord of Nature an annual offering so that he would bless our villages with fat pigs, chickens, cows, and a bounty of sweet rice and rainbow maize. We grew hemp to coax into cloth, bleached the fibers with ash, and kept our hands busy spinning yarn. Good Hmong daughters are never still. We gathered in front of the fire after meals to spin tales, because stories nourished the ancestors living within us. Remember, and your ancestors will catch you when you fall down.
Eventually the world found us again. America turned our hunters into soldiers. The mountains were set ablaze. The wild animals fled the bombs, even Tiger. The forest filled with demons and suicides. There were no more birds, monkeys, or insects singing the hours of the day. Squirrel disappeared, or went extinct. Our mouths grew hollow, like our faces, and our dead sons were wrapped in white sheets and dropped from the sky by metal eagles. Where do you run when you are already on top of the highest mountain? And then we fell.
No one caught us.
If you had asked me when I was a child growing up in California, “Where are you from?” I would have answered “Oregon,” because that is where my own story began. If you had pressed on and asked, “No, where are your parents from?” I would have told you that my mother went to high school in Hawai‘i and my father graduated from college in Oregon; therefore, we were Americans, like you.
“No, I mean, where did your ancestors come from, before America?”
I had no idea.
My father’s parents were my only surviving grandparents, and they lived next door to us in an avocado-green house in Merced. When I was ten years old, I was often left in their care while my parents worked in the fields on weekends, picking strawberries and cherry tomatoes for extra grocery money. By then there were six in our immediate family: my parents, me, two younger sisters, and a brother. Our neighborhood was situated on the outskirts of town by Fahrens Park, an enchanted place filled with swimming snakes, topaz-eyed coyotes, squirrels, and owls. The balmy San Joaquin Valley breeze warmed the eucalyptus groves, releasing wave after wave of mentholated incense year-round.
We were all wild then, staying out until sundown; feral as wolves. In the summers, Fahrens Creek dried up, and every neighborhood kid waded through clouds of biting gnats and shin-sucking mud to pluck crawdads from the fetid ooze, the little crustaceans’ vermilion pinchers waving futilely. There was a railroad track suspended high above the creek, and the bravest—or most foolish—of us leaped from it into the waist-high muck below. When we pulled these heroes out with an old rope lassoed around the trunk of the crooked willow tree, they emerged with dozens of crawdads clinging to the seams of their pants like ornaments on a Christmas tree. This was how we filled my plastic kiddie pool with hundreds of crawdads one evening; by the next morning half of them had escaped and died in the grass the next morning, to the delight of crows and scavengers. The survivors were boiled alive inside my grandmother’s tallest pot with chilies, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, cilantro, and fish sauce. My grandfather spooned several helpings of this citrusy, peppery stew over steamed white rice, savoring the tiny fists of pink meat coiled within the tails, and regarded me with a slight smirk. Peculiar girl, not like her mother at all.
Here, at my grandparents’ house, is where the old magic came back to life in small mouthfuls.
My family rarely spoke of the war, or of Laos. Instead I pieced together incomplete and seemingly conflicting clues about our origins from the houses of my parents and grandparents.
My grandparents hung golden-framed photos of King Rama IX and his Queen Sirikit in their hallway. Posters of graceful Thai Khon dancers, hands bent back in the shapes of peacocks and golden deer, retold the epic Ramayana on their kitchen walls, next to a tattered map of Thailand and Laos marked with ballpoint pen. A panoramic poster featuring the sun-starched Dome of the Rock declared their Christian faith.
Their house was damp with the floral-vanilla steam of just-cooked jasmine rice, stewed pork, sticky rice parcels with candied banana centers steamed in banana leaves, herbaceous pandan rice cakes, clarifying ginger broth, and sharp and bitter mustard greens. The tok-tok-tok of my grandmother at her mud-colored ceramic mortar and pestle kept time as she smashed Thai bird chilies with cloves of raw white garlic, the oils atomizing with the unexpected brightness of ripe raspberries and fresh hay before fish sauce rounded the sharp edges with tangy, amber umami and salt. Unlike my parents, my grandparents believed that children should do as they pleased and that adults should always tell the truth. My grandparents raised us to fear nothing, and this is how I learned to string a crossbow, how to shrug the pelt off an animal like a jacket, and how to oil a gun. Still, there were topics I hesitated to ask about, because I intuited that the pain was too sharp.
At my parents’ house, my father kept a private library filled with literature on the Vietnam War inside the home office. The door was often locked, and we were not to disturb him unless dinner was ready. Aiyoh! We haven’t lived in Tonkin since Great-Great-Grandfather cut off his own braid and fled his Chinese masters. My mother proudly displayed our baby photos on the wall, but none of herself or her parents and siblings as children. It was as if she had emerged fully formed: womanly and utterly alone in the world. Did your mother tell you how she became an orphan? Too sad, too sad.
We never spoke of her past, until one day, I came home from school with a magazine—the October 1988 issue of National Geographic—and opened it where the school librarian had cracked the spine. The face of my mother’s father, recently dead, gazed back solemnly from the magazine. It was a photo of his tombstone in Tollhouse Cemetery, located just a little over an hour’s drive away, and my grandfather’s unsmiling face was framed by a small oval embedded into the stone above his name. The photo accompanied a 25-page article chronicling Hmong Americans’ progress in America since the first wave of refugees arrived ten years before. It had not occurred to me, until then, that we had come from a particular place or people. Hmong, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, American: weren’t we all those things? My confusion and my parents’ silence were linked.
None of the history textbooks at school mentioned the Hmong or why we were here. It was as if we had sprouted from the earth overnight, like weeds pushing through cracks in the sidewalk. Yet, inexplicable as our sudden arrival was, here we were, a makeshift Hmong village centered on the local Evangelical Christian church in Merced—a quaint Main Street USA kind of picture-postcard town in California’s agricultural heartland, flanked on both sides by the ridges of the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Range. This is where we landed as seeds from the wind and where we embedded our roots.
Our community’s regular attendance at the Hmong Evangelical church was a socially convenient excuse to maintain the old customs without arousing suspicion. We met twice a week to discuss clan disputes; learned to read and speak Hmong on Saturdays; brokered marriages between families; celebrated births; organized funerals and butchered animals; and planned the New Year festival, noj peb caug, which means “to eat for 30 days.” We shared organic produce from backyard gardens in the church courtyard, and swapped herbal medicines and home-brewed tinctures in the parking lot. As long as we celebrated Jesus Christ every Christmas, nobody interrupted us. The church was also where Hmong men could plan fishing and hunting trips, and this is possibly the only reason why my grandfather had a perfect attendance record.
Christians have been instrumental in the Hmong’s connection to the modern world. Catholic missionaries began arriving in mountaintop villages in the 19th century, and eventually they created an alphabet for us so that we could study their holy literature. Many Christian families and churches sponsored Hmong refugees after 1975, dispersing them on every continent except Antarctica and Africa. The Christians had noble intentions, even though many of them considered their foreign guests exotic and childlike. Perhaps many Hmong converted to Christianity merely as a matter of convenience—a polite gesture of simple gratitude for the Americans who opened their cramped houses to entire families, sometimes up to three generations in one room. Many of their host families fed them sandwiches and instant ramen noodles, while Hmong refugees were quickly learning that, in America, there were strict rules and regulations against catching your own dinner from forests and city parks.
Now that Grandfather had his own home—a cozy little house with moss-green carpet and gold-flecked linoleum floors erected on the soft bend of a tree-lined avenue—he caught and ate whatever he pleased. I spent many afternoons watching Grandmother shredding herbs from her garden—scallions, cilantro, dill, culantro, and spearmint—and snapping fat toes of ginger into her boiling cauldron. Grandmother knotted thin blades of lemongrass and they disappeared into the soup. Meanwhile, Grandfather dissected the beast of the day at the dining room table with his machete, an albatross wing of hand-polished steel, which smeared rose petals of blood and gore into the tablecloth. This was their natural rhythm: preparing meals in separate rooms, a luxury compared with the crowded single-room, dirt-floor hut they’d all shared in the Ban Vinai refugee camp—which my father helped build—back in Thailand. Today’s menu was his childhood favorite: squirrel, naas, cooked in spicy Hmong hunter’s stew.
Without their gloriously full and bushy tails, squirrels look exactly like giant sewer rats. Grandfather bit his lower lip delightedly, chuckling how American squirrels were positively fat compared with their Laotian cousins. “Same for you,” he said, laughing, pinching the fleshy back of my arm. “American girls. So chubby, so tall. Big bones. Too much milk and peanut butter.”
I watched him carefully peel the black, charred skin off the small body and guillotine the head. He held up the strips for me to see: the burned hair had powdered to ash. “This is the most delicious part,” he said. “This we slice thin, like noodles.”
“Squirrel is very smart for a small animal,” Grandfather continued, tapping the sooty, walnut-sized skull with the butt of his machete handle. “You must outsmart him. When he is thinking, his tail gets very excited, like this,” he said, fluttering his fingers in the air.
Grandfather said that in Laos the squirrels were very beautiful, with many colors and stripes, and that they sang to one another at dawn. Some squirrels were enormous, like the cream-colored giant squirrel (Ratufa affinis) and the black giant squirrel (Ratufa bicolor), and they were like ghosts leaping through the trees. The Hmong called them maab, because they were as big as foxes. The species that both Lao and Hmong loved to eat most was the Pallas’s squirrel (Calloscius erythraeus), whose belly glowed bright red like a split ripe papaya.
Only skilled hunters successfully hunted squirrel in Laos. They used wooden crossbows and never flintlock rifles or other guns. When a Hmong hunter had a successful kill, he first dipped the tip of the wooden tiller into the bleeding carcass, then repeatedly coated the weapon with tufts of hand-pulled fur or soft covert feathers until each layer formed a filthy burl. In time, a scab of trophy souvenirs hardened over the tiller, proving that this weapon was blessed by the spirits to always aim true. Young boys learned how to hunt squirrels by shooting Indochinese ground squirrels (Menetes berdmorei), first because they were pests that ate the rice and corn. These tiny squirrels had black stripes along their ribs and were unafraid of people, so young hunters could practice hunting using lightweight bamboo crossbows and arrows thin as reeds.
Once, my father told me that he and his oldest brother shot an arrow that pinned the hind legs of a red-cheeked squirrel together so tightly that it couldn’t run away. It was beginner’s luck. The squirrel tumbled to the ground and rolled onto its side, whimpering chic-chic-chic while its white belly heaved and sighed. I asked my father what he did next.
“I did what you’re supposed to do,” he said matter-of-factly. “I took my own arrow, inserted the sharp tip inside the squirrel’s ear, and pushed it all the way in. That’s what the Hmong do if the animal is still alive. We pierce its brain to kill it quickly, then mark the ground around it with its blood to show others where it died.” This is the rule of the forest: everything is spirit, and death must be honorable.
“Your grandfather was a very dedicated hunter,” my father told me, “so we always had meat even though we were very poor. Many people only got to eat chicken once or twice a year, but we ate monkeys, deer, pheasants, partridges, fish, and especially squirrels all year long.”
I remembered my grandfather’s sly smirk as he ate the crawdads I’d plucked from Fahrens Creek.
“Hunting Squirrel is a game—who will win?” Grandfather continued. “Who is smarter? Me?” He tapped his forehead with his callused index finger. “Or him?”
“Squirrel is a ghost: you think you hear his feet scratch-scratch-scratching the tree in front of you, when he is already above your head, watching you closely with eyes so round that he sees everything. He is like people: he makes plans and plays pretend. That is why, if you can kill Squirrel, you must eat every part. If you waste the meat, you dishonor his surrender.”
My grandmother yelled from the kitchen. The pot was boiling over, and so was she. Unlike Grandfather, she hated the smell of stewed squirrel. I remember it, too: its musky, sweaty stink of old leather, rancid cooking grease, pine-tree sap, wet fungus, and muddy putrefaction.
“I only cook this stew because your grandfather craved it all the time in Ban Vinai,” she complained. “‘When we get out of here,’ he’d say, ‘when we return to the village, I’m going to eat squirrel every day!’ I told him, ‘Idiot! You will have to savor it in the afterlife, because we are all dying here.’ Little did I know that your father would help us all escape to America, and now I must cook with every window open, because your grandfather brings too much meat home. I’ve been cooking squirrels so long that I’m afraid the smell will be on my ghost, but I do it because I know it reminds your grandfather of when he was a young man, and life before the war, when your father and uncles were just boys.”
Sometimes when Grandfather ranted about returning to Laos and finding the ancestral village on Phou Bia, Grandmother would point out the window and say, “Look! This is our home now: America. Stop dreaming of impossible things.”
In Laos, Grandfather said, you didn’t need a license to hunt or fish, because Hmong lived so high up in the mountains that the governments did not care, and the forest was unclaimed except by the Lord of Nature and the cosmology of demons. This was why Grandfather said that hunting seasons and permits were useless rules, because the only true trespass was not honoring the proper rites; the worst offense was killing for pleasure, rather than for hunger or self-defense. If you crossed a boundary where evil spirits, wild animals, and bad men could attack you, then you had to call upon your ancestors to protect you.
While my parents pretended to remember nothing, Grandfather told me stories at the dining room table of how families fled barefoot toward Sayaboury, sprinting to the edge of the Laos-Thailand border, after the Americans suddenly evacuated their own personnel from Long Cheng air base and left everyone else on the mountain. He told me how the mud sucked at his heels while bullets zipped like heat-maddened flies, how mothers pressed babies to their breasts to muffle cries that would have given them away to the snipers in the trees. Desperate parents rubbed sticky black opium tar on their children’s gums to dull their senses. The most merciful parents rubbed too much and laid their children down at the foot of a sacred tree to slip from dreams into eternal slumber, and kept running. There was no time for burial rites. The children’s disembodied spirits would always be orphaned from their ancestors. This is why, Grandfather said, if you are hunting alone in the forest and hear a child laughing behind you, you must quickly roll a ball of sweet grass and leave this offering on the ground for the ghost child to suckle, then leave without looking back, not even from the corner of your eye.
Grandfather continued to hunt because he was convinced that American foods were poisonous.
“Why do people in this country get so sick even though food is overflowing?” he asked. “In Laos, we did not even have soap to wash our hands, but the animals drank water and ate food that was so clean, you could drink their blood if you were starving.”
The Hmong who were born here, Grandfather said, smelled American, like milk that had soured. He refused to drink the stuff, saying that he could never forget watching the family ox’s drooping teats dragging through the muddy rice paddy, year after year, barbed with mosquitoes and seeping with infection.
He refused to buy fruits and vegetables from the grocery store, saying that the produce was either flavorless or nearly rotten. He boiled tap water and chilled it in the fridge for drinking. He tore out the backyard, planted a vegetable-and-herb garden for my grandmother, then built a wooden hutch for rabbits and wove a wire dome for chickens. I remember those chickens boiled in lemongrass soup, their goose-bumped flesh rich and savory from eating fat, green caterpillars all summer. The rabbits were much loved; then they, too, ended up in the pot with lemongrass and ginger. At my grandparents’ house, we ate with our hands, which were the same hands we used to tear the animals apart: an intimate act that reminded us of the thin line between horror and beauty. This is why Grandfather disliked eating hamburgers, calling it unclean to swallow so many animals ground into a paste at a factory with all their shit, piss, and fear.
Never forget that the world is alive. Even mountains may move.
In America, Grandfather said, everything is upside down: He is the child now, and we do not respect him because he cannot speak the words correctly. In America, you can lose everything because you have debts, even after you die. In America, he said, the squirrels don’t sing. They are drab and eat out of garbage cans. It is too quiet here, except for the constant roar of traffic—airplanes above you, subways below, and the people always pointing at you, laughing in your face. He was afraid that, because he had left his village so suddenly in the night, his ancestors would not be able to find his spirit if he died in America. If the ancestors could not find him, he said, his spirit would always be a hungry ghost. And if we forget who we are, who will protect us then? The forest is desecrated. No one loves us here.
“Your face is Hmong,” my grandfather said, “but your mouth is American. When you forget me, I will have lost your heart, too. You will no longer be Hmong. This is why you must eat the squirrel stew. It’s all that we have left to give to you.”
At first I sat obediently at the head of the dining table and watched Grandmother ladle the bright-red stew over a mound of white rice in my bowl; but my stomach flexed and I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. The meat was dark purple, floating beside orange globules of smoky fat that smelled of old blood and singed fur. It smelled like violence, and it frightened me. I excused myself, and opening the refrigerator door, I pretended to look for a drink as I reached into the vegetable drawer, past a head of lettuce, for my aunt’s secret Halloween-candy stash. My hand squeezed down on something cold and gelatinous: a plastic-wrapped bullfrog with sunken eyes, cold and clammy, like mummified gelatin. I recoiled in disgust, but I was determined to find something else to eat and avoid that squirrel stew. I raised myself up on tiptoe and opened the freezer door, and a frozen squirrel—eyes pulled back into slits, teeth bared and grinning—slid down a sheet of ice and hammered me right between the eyes.
It knocked me out, and I hit the floor.
In The Mong Oral Tradition: Cultural Memory in the Absence of Written Language, Yer J. Thao writes that if a Hmong person no longer values Hmong traditions, he or she no longer values spirits as protectors. Feeling ashamed of one’s traditions means dishonor to the ancestors. The souls and spirits from outside the family are considered evil; they will not protect you—they will haunt you. This is the Hmong cosmology.
Remember, and we will catch you when you fall down.
An excerpt from the essay, titled, “We Learned to Fear Tiger and Love Squirrel” by Lisa Lee Herrick first appeared in Emergence Magazine Issue No 6, Food. All rights reserved. Header image Credit: Illustration by Maria Nguyen.