On September 24, NPR show Radiolab aired a 25-minute segment on Yellow Rain. In the 1960s, most Hmong had sided with America in a secret war against the Pathet Lao and its allies. More than 100,000 Hmong died in this conflict, and when American troops pulled out, the rest were left to face brutal repercussions. Those who survived the perilous journey to Thailand carried horrific stories of an ongoing genocide, among them accounts of chemical warfare. Their stories provoked a scientific controversy that still hasn’t been resolved. In its podcast, Radiolab set out to find the “fact of the matter”. Yet its relentless badgering of Hmong refugee Eng Yang and his niece, award-winning author and activist Kao Kalia Yang, provoked an outcry among its listeners, and its ongoing callous, racist handling of the issue has since been criticized in several places, including Hyphen. When Hyphen’s R.J. Lozada reached out to Kao Kalia Yang, she graciously agreed to share her side of the story for the first time. What follows are her words, and those of her uncle.
On the date of the interview, Wednesday May 16th, 2012 at 10 in the morning, Marisa Helms (a Minnesota-based sound producer sent by Radiolab), my husband, and I met with Uncle Eng’s family at their house in Brooklyn Center. In customary Hmong tradition, my uncle had laid out a feast of fruits and fruit drinks from the local Asian grocery store. He had risen early, went through old notebooks where he’d documented in Lao, Thai, Hmong, and a smattering of French and English, recollections of Hmong history, gathered thoughts, and written down facts of the time. The phone lines were connected to WNYC studios.
Pat and Robert introduced themselves and asked us for our introductions. The questions began. They wanted to know where my uncle was during the war, what happened after the Americans left, why the Hmong ran into the jungles, what happened in the jungles, what was his experience of Yellow Rain. Uncle Eng responded to each question. The questions took a turn. The interview became an interrogation. A Harvard scientist said the Yellow Rain Hmong people experienced was nothing more than bee defecation.
My uncle explained Hmong knowledge of the bees in the mountains of Laos, said we had harvested honey for centuries, and explained that the chemical attacks were strategic; they happened far away from established bee colonies, they happened where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong. Robert grew increasingly harsh, “Did you, with your own eyes, see the yellow powder fall from the airplanes?” My uncle said that there were planes flying all the time and bombs being dropped, day and night. Hmong people did not wait around to look up as bombs fell. We came out in the aftermath to survey the damage. He said what he saw, “Animals dying, yellow that could eat through leaves, grass, yellow that could kill people — the likes of which bee poop has never done.”
My uncle explained that he was serving as documenter of the Hmong experience for the Thai government, a country that helped us during the genocide. With his radio and notebooks, he journeyed to the sites where the attacks had happened, watched with his eyes what had happened to the Hmong, knew that what was happening to the Hmong were not the result of dysentery, lack of food, the environment we had been living in or its natural conditions. Robert crossed the line. He said that what my uncle was saying was “hearsay.”
I had been trying valiantly to interpret everything my uncle was saying, carry meaning across the chasm of English and Hmong, but I could no longer listen to Robert’s harsh dismissal of my uncle’s experience. After two hours, I cried,
“My uncle says for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anyone was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. What happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the last twenty years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken and our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him, or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game, we can, but I’m not interested, my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process. I, I think the interview is done.”
Before we hung up the phone, I asked for copies of the full interview. Robert told me that I would need a court order. I offered resources I have on Yellow Rain, news articles and medical texts that a doctor from Columbia University had sent my way, resources that would offer Radiolab a fuller perspective of the situation in Laos and the conditions of the Hmong exposed to the chemicals. My uncle gave Marisa a copy of a DVD he had recorded of a Hmong woman named Pa Ma, speaking of her experiences in the jungles of Laos after the Americans left, so that the Radiolab team would understand the fullness of what happened to the Hmong. After we hung up the phone, there was silence from the Radiolab team.