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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.

June/July 2006
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 their own.

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. It 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.

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