Chapter 15: Gold and Dross
Over two years after Lia's big seizure, she was still alive. Foua carried her in a large, embroidered nyias, or baby carrier, preferring it to the wheelchair provided by the Merced County Health Department. She was in a "persistent vegetative state," able to breath, sleep, and cry, but showing no signs of self-aware mental activity. When she had arrived home from the MCMC, she had a fever of 104 and was expected to die at any moment. Within days, her temperature was normal, she was breathing regularly, and she was able to swallow again. Her parents attributed the change to a herbal remedy with which they had bathed their daughter every day.
Jeanine visited the Lees every day for the first few days and persuaded them to use the nasogastric tube to give formula to Lia. Her parents disliked it, however: after a week, they took it out and started squeezing formula into Lia's mouth using a baby bottle. Contrary to the doctors' predictions, this method worked perfectly. Since the tube was no longer being used, however, Medi-Cal refused to continue to pay for formula, so Neil and Peggy started giving the family cases of free samples.
Medi-Cal did provide a wheelchair and a suction machine, but they refused to pay for a pediatric hospital bed. Their refusal enraged Jeanine, who managed to find a medical supply company willing to provide one for free. She never found out that Lia never used the bed, as she always slept with her parents.
Foua did not blame Neil for Lia's condition, placing it instead on the doctors in Fresno who had given her too much medicine. In her mind, his and Peggy's sin was only that of going on vacation and leaving Lia with the wrong people. Nao Kao, on the other hand, was angry at everyone who worked at MCMC.
Lia no longer had epilepsy, and as she grew, she was no longer obese as well. The clinic staff now saw Foua and Nao Kao as model caregivers, as they dressed and groomed Lia immaculately. Since compliance with a medical regimen was no longer needed, their probationary status as Lia's guardians was lifted, although the parents still feared Lia would be taken again and for several years Foua stayed with her for twenty-four hours a day. The entire family showered her with affection, soothing her with a dance when she was in a nyias, attending her in her wheelchair, and throwing birthday parties in her honor. Foua cuddled her, bounced her, nuzzled her neck, and in other ways treated her like a baby. She also bathed her every day, flexed her limbs, and fed her with a spoon or from a bottle food she had ground or pre-chewed. Amidst this rosy picture, however, Lia's parents also experienced frequent bouts of rage or grief.
Foua and Nao Kao treated Lia with Hmong medicine such as teas made from powdered roots and herbs they grew in their garden. A tvix neeb had placed a bowl of sacred water in the bedroom to lure Lia's soul, and one came about twice a year to perform a pig sacrifice. They also brought Lia to the MCMC clinic about once a year. A public health nurse named Martin Kilgore made house calls for checkups as well, at first weekly, then monthly, and finally several times a year. Martin was very partial to the Hmong and often wrote letters to the editor castigating readers for their intolerance. He had strongly objected to Neil's decision to place Lia in foster care. Nonetheless, when he made his house calls, the family said very little to him, viewing him as an authority figure. He offered advice, such as taking Lia's pulse with the help of a watch or giving Lia Metamucil in prune juice, without realizing that the family had very little idea what he was talking about.
Chapter 16: Why Did They Pick Merced?
Fadiman came to Merced because her friend Bill Selvidge had told her that one out of every six residents was Hmong. When she first arrived, however, she didn't see any, as they all lived in the part of town across the railroad tracks. The agricultural community in Merced often told "Dumb Hmong" stories about characters such as Hmong tenants who punched holes in their walls to communicate with their relatives next door or a family who converted their living room into a garden by covering the floor with dirt, planting vegetables, and watering them. Nobody knows whether the stories are true, but in a sense, it didn't matter. The region had absorbed immigrants from many regions for the last hundred and fifty years, with each wave accompanied by its own form of xenophobia.
On the other side of the tracks, everyone was Hmong. Children kicked balls and played txwv, a form of jacks using pebbles. The parking lots contained more potted plants than cars, and there were two lush community gardens. A local grocery store stocked a variety of Hmong items, such as quail eggs, shredded squid, and herbal medicines. The region turned out to be the most Hmong place in the US, with the Hmong constituting the largest percentage of the population anywhere in the country. (At the time of Fadiman's first visit, it was one sixth; at the time of the book's publication, it was one fifth.) It was easy to find a tvix neeb to negotiate with a dab, an herbalist to concoct a balm, an elder to mediate a dispute, or a qeej player to guide a person's soul back through the heavens. An anthropologist raved about the area, noting that the Hmong were one of the best-organized groups in the world and the one most committed to preserving their culture.
Why did the Hmong come to Merced? It turns out they had followed a man named Dang Moua, a former clerk at the American Embassy in Vientiane who used to live in Richmond, VA. There he worked eighteen hours a day earning $2.90 an hour folding newspapers, a job that took little advantage of his five languages and bored him terribly. In his spare time, he went to the library and read about agricultural conditions in other states. His brother mentioned that the Central Valley of California had a good climate and many ethnic groups, and he heard that General Vang Pao was planning to buy a fruit ranch near Merced. Therefore, he bought a car and drove out west. There he found miles and miles of peaches and figs, which he got a job picking, and there were small animals he could trap for dinner. The town was clean and quiet, with no beggars. The favorable reports of the area spread, and soon a flood of other Hmong began arriving from the east.
Unfortunately, there was little work for the new refugees. The Hmong could not get high-end agricultural jobs because they didn't speak English, and they couldn't get low-end jobs because Mexican migrants had already filled them. The influx of Hmong coincided with a nationwide economic recession and cutbacks in both state and federal social programs. Seventy-nine percent of the Hmong in Merced County were on welfare; although the county was responsible for funding just 2 1/2 percent, this financial obligation put a burden on the county which led it to close libraries and parks, reduce staff and road maintenance, and cut the budgets for the arts, recreation, senior citizens' programs, and veterans' services. The Hmong were not the only ones responsible for the fiscal crisis; many whites and Hispanics also received welfare. Other problems have also added to the county's burden, such as high unemployment rates, the shift of agricultural work from people to machines, the 1995 closing of an air force base which had provided over a thousand jobs, and a 1992 tax restructuring which gave more money to the state and less to the county. However, the Hmong were the most visible strain on the county's resources.
Some Merced residents treated the Hmong kindly and appreciated the culture they brought to the region. The newspaper now features a Cultural Diversity page, and the Chamber of Commerce tourist brochure features a photo of a smiling Hmong woman. They received a particularly warm welcome at a Naturalization Ceremony, where the judge extolled the virtues of their new country and concluded, "Congratulations! You're one of us!" (235.)
However, a large segment of the population resented the presence of the Hmong. They arrived over a brief period and cost the county a lot of money. Many Hmong were treated with hostility and had to explain that they fought for the United States, not against it. In 1994, there was a demonstration in Fresno by Hmong welfare recipients protesting a new requirement that they work sixteen hours a week in public service jobs, as they felt that receiving welfare was their due after all they had done for the US. Americans, on the other hand, resented the Hmong for not being more grateful for the money.
From one point of view, the welfare statistics in Merced were appalling. From another, it was possible to see signs of progress: public assistance rates were declining, over 300 graduates of government-funded training programs were now working in local industries, and dozens of Hmong women had started taking English classes after a change in welfare regulations required both parents to either study or work.
Schooling could also be viewed in two ways. On the one hand, the massive influx of Hmong children required Merced to bus nearly 2000 students, build five new schools, teach classes in over seventy trailers and in other makeshift spaces, and switch seven schools to a staggered all-year calendar. On the other hands, Hmong children were generally well behaved and often made the honor rolls. Families were supportive of their children's education and respectful of teachers.
While many Hmong teenagers were hard-working and deferential, there were few who joined local gangs. Residents were also obsessed with smaller, stranger crimes, and claimed that they kidnapped underage brides, smuggled drugs, and violated fishing and hunting regulations. The stories were not false, but they also left out a lot of information. The Hmong have a tradition in which the man flirts with a woman, she gives him a token signifying her acceptance of his courtship, and he takes her to his family's house to consummate the union while she protests loudly; there have been cases, however, in which the woman was truly objecting. Opium smuggling was uncommon and normally intended for medicinal purposes by the elderly, and the Hmong were used to hunting and fishing without rules in Laos.
The most frequent accusation was that the Hmong were terrible drivers. Apparently, some of them cheated on their written test by using crib sheets made by sewing tiny X's onto articles of clothing or an eyeglass case to signify the position of the correct answer.
It seemed to Fadiman that the Hmong were acting in accordance with their own system of ethics. Their folktales are full of virtuous characters who lie to authority figures to protect family or friends. Thus it made sense that the Hmong would claim their children were younger than they were so they could stay in school for longer, lie to doctors to get disability benefits, say they had separated from a spouse to increase their welfare allowance, and so on. Nao Kao had passed his driving test by memorizing where to place the marks on the sheet; he considered passing the test a necessity so he could visit his relatives, as his family, clan, and people all ranked as far more important than anything else. This group ethic allowed Nao Kao to operate within the Hmong community rather than within the larger and harsher world of America.
For Hmong who had high status in both the Hmong and American communities, however, the obligation to put the group before the self could cause a lot of stress, loss of privacy, and responsibility. One woman who had worked as a Hmong liaison in Minnesota became so exhausted that she moved to Merced without telling her clan and got a job that let her deal only with Americans. Another turned down a lucrative job that would have required him to leave his family.
There were only thirty-four Hmong in the early seventies who were studying at overseas universities, two of whom resettled in Merced. One was Blia Yao Moua, who taught Fadiman about Hmong customs and beliefs. He was the executive director of Lao Family Community, an organization that helped refugees receive public assistance, apply for job training, resolve conflicts, and receive news from Laos and Thailand. Seventeen district leaders carried news to 6,000 members, who might chip in a few cents each when money was needed to help a member. Blia was exhausted by his work in the office, which often kept him up nights trying to deal with issues. He lit up only when talking of his idea of creating a Hmongtown, where the Hmong could have their own homes and shopping center. A year later, no one had heard of Hmongtown and he had resigned from his job, completely burnt-out.
The other was Jonas Vangey, who worked as a bilingual education specialist for the Merced public schools and as a Hmong language teacher at Merced College. He lived with his wife, his three children, his two brothers and their wives, and his brothers' ten children. He shared his knowledge of Hmong history and linguistics with Fadiman, and she wanted to thank him by taking him out to eat. However, the dinner was not a success: he was late as he had been detained by a student, he had difficulty understanding the waitress, he ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, and the conversation was halting. He explained that although he could survive in any place, he didn't really belong anywhere.
Lia's story did not end with the loss of her normal consciousness. Two years after her major seizure, she was still alive, her family still showering her with affection. It is ironic that medical staff now considered Foua and Nao Kao to be model caregivers, whereas several years earlier they had been labeled as child abusers. Their behavior now conformed to American ideals, and there was no longer any medication about which to have disagreements.
In fact, the Lees succeeded where medical science had failed, as doctors never expected Lia to survive her ordeal. Even the doctors' recommendations for care turned out to be unnecessary. Whereas medical staff wanted the family to feed Lia formula using a nasogastric tube, Foua and Nao Kao instead used a baby bottle to squirt the formula into Lia's mouth, a method that turned out to be more effective. Again, we may wonder if medical knowledge is necessarily superior.
It is revealing that even caretakers who deeply cared for and even loved the Lees, such as Jeanine Hilt and Martin Kilgore, still had trouble understanding the Hmong point of view, steeped as they were in the Western medical tradition. Jeanine worked incredibly hard to obtain a free hospital bed for Lia, not realizing that the girl would never use it as her parents preferred to have her sleep in their bed with them. Similarly, Martin Kilgore, a public health nurse who made house calls, did not realize that his recommendations to the family made little sense. Although it would have helped for the Lees to share more of their views, both caregivers were still blinded by their own cultural biases.
In Chapter 16, Fadiman utilizes detailed visual imagery to help us to "see" Merced the way that she and Dang Moua did. In this way she draws the reader into the chapter, turning what could be dry ethnographic information into an engaging story.
It is clear that Fadiman values the Hmong culture and wishes to present it in a positive light, rationalizing practices such as cheating on drivers' tests and kidnapping young women for brides. However, it is important to remember that every culture has both positive and negative aspects, and also that individuals have agency to make their own choices despite their cultural background.