|Special Section: Lantern Essay Competition Winners
Satya is pleased to publish the winners of the 2005 Lantern Books Essay Contest.
First Place went to Kao Kalia Yang, a Hmong activist from Minnesota who poignantly
describes the plight of her father and uncle during the Vietnam War and the
chickens they befriended. Second place was awarded to Elena Conte and her essay
about greening the South Bronx. Tied for third place were Lisa Kemmerer of
Montana and Philip Armstrong of New Zealand, who both rescue chickens and explore
the lives of these special birds.
We are happy to share these new voices with you.
To the Men in My
Family who Love Chickens
By Kao Kalia Yang
In 1975, the Vietnam War had ended for the Americans, but for the Hmong
in the hills of Laos a new war was only beginning. For the families
who did no dt fight on the American payroll, for those who did not
know that the Communist Laotian government had issued genocide against
the Hmong—“to terminate the root of the tribe”—death
was coming uncensored. Already a third of the Hmong had died in the
war. When the Pathet Lao soldiers entered their villages, when families
started disappearing, the Hmong, like so many other creatures fearing
death, sought life in the jungle.
My father’s first memory of leaving the country, the land of his buried
father, the thatched-roof house where he had been born:
It was night time. I could see the roofs of houses in flames. I heard the voices
of men and women yelling. My mother, an old woman already, urged me to run faster.
The pack was too heavy. There was rice, a cooking pot, a blanket and a change
of clothes. I had an old AK-47 in my right hand. In my left, I held my prized
rooster close to my heart, underneath my shirt. It was only a baby then. Its
soft feathers shook against my chest. I did not know if it was the chicken shaking
or if it was me.
My father carried the chicken for five months in the Laotian jungle where his
family had fled. The rice dwindled and then there was no more. My father fed
the chicken for as long as he could on his share of the rice. When my father
lost strength because there was nothing to eat and the chicken got tired, he
knew he could no longer carry his chicken. He couldn’t eat his friend.
He chose to let it die. My father buried the chicken in a small dirt hole he
dug with his fingers, beside a tall tree so that the spirit of his chicken could
climb up high and know where to look for him if he too should enter the journey
to the world of the ancestors.
Thousands of Hmong families ran into the jungle. In the beginning, there was
the food they had carried, but as time went by, first one year and then another,
scavenging for food became difficult. Starvation and disease fought on the side
of the Pathet Lao soldiers. Hunted by all three, another third of the Hmong population
would never emerge from the Laotian jungle—bodies strewn on the ground
amidst the green moss and the dying leaves. The remains of little spirits in
tattered blankets clinging to the breasts of their fallen mothers.
My family was in the jungle for nearly five years. In the shadows of large trees
and behind the shelter of leaves, my father grew to become a man. He met my mother
and married her, and my older sister was born. In the jungle, my family tried
very hard to make a life. They found pets.
My uncle Eng caught a wild rooster in a snare he had made. It was beautiful,
the size of a grown man’s fist, with feathers as long as the distance from
the tips of his fingers to his elbow. The little rooster was the most colorful
thing he had seen since the family had left the flowering trees in their village
for the green jungle. He was hungry and it was meant to be food. He had starving
nieces and nephews waiting for food. He looked at the rooster and all the color
it carried so proudly, and he could not kill the bird.
They had seen so many deaths. The hunger gnawed and death gnawed, but beauty
kept it at bay. He decided the rooster would become his pet. He fashioned a small
bamboo case for the rooster, and he attached it to the top of his pack.
A young man with big bones in his face and his ribs hitting against his elbow,
a young man with dirty fingers and ripped hands that held onto a gun, he was
gentle to the rooster. My grandma carried a memory for many years of how my uncle
would crouch in the jungle trail and play with his rooster. My uncle carries
the memory of how he did not leave his rooster in Laos:
We were on the bank of the Mekong River. It was the raining season and the river
was high. The river was loud; it drowned out the wailing of Hmong mothers. So
many children were dying in the river. They couldn’t swim. Few Hmong people
could—we came from the mountains. I was scared and I knew that I was a
weak swimmer; we didn’t have any money to trade for life jackets. We had
heard that we could cut bamboo trunks and tie ourselves to them, and that way
we wouldn’t drown. Everybody was trying to run into the water. There was
no more time. I couldn’t leave my little rooster. Who was going to give
it food? He liked people. What if he walked up to a man with a gun? I decided
that if I lived, he would live with me. I tied myself to the bamboo trunks and
I stepped into the water and there was the sound of guns ringing behind us and
I asked my father’s spirit to protect us, my rooster and me. I used one
of my hands to hold the rooster’s cage on top of my head and one to move
the water. I remember the cold of the water. I remember how silent the rooster
was. I remember how halfway across the Mekong, my hands were both numb but my
legs were still kicking the water. The river fought with us. It pushed water
into our faces. I closed my eyes but I held on. I swallowed water but I kept
the hand with the rooster as high as I could. I didn’t let go. I saw the
sun rise on the side of Thailand. I saw the still body at the bottom of the cage.
I will never forget how I let the water carry my rooster away from me.
When he felt the sand of the river’s bottom with his feet, my uncle did
not know if he was dreaming or if it was real.
I knew that many Hmong people had died in the Vietnam War and many more had died
after it. The adults in my family whispered of the deaths, recounted names and
images, holding onto the tragedy of their past in lonely voices. A child that
would be born in the safety of the refugee camps of Thailand, I would not know
those they speak of. But in each chicken I see, my father and my uncle point
to this feather or that beak and speak of how it is just like the ones they had
lost in the war, and in my heart I feel I know. I know that they had protected
for as long as they could, lives that were small, that were more helpless than
Kao Kalia Yang is a writer from Andover, Minnesota. Her family came to America
in 1987 as Hmong refugees from the Vietnam War. In rural Minnesota, Kao Kalia
works hard to finish her first book, tentatively titled The Latehomecomer.
is the story she was born into, the people whose memories she carries inside
of her, and the lives she’s looking to cherish. Kao Kalia Yang is on a
mission: to give stories the power to change lives.
© STEALTH TECHNOLOGIES INC.