Credit: Tou Yia Xiong | Sahan Journal

Editor’s Note: Kao Kalia Yang began working on her new book, Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir almost four years ago. She first pitched the book to her editor at Metropolitan Books as a chronicle of lives on University Avenue in St. Paul, a street that bustles with businesses built by immigrants and refugees.

Yang had already written a pair of more personal memoirs, The Latehomecomer (2008) and The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father (2016). For this project, Yang met with each of her collaborators in a single, hours-long session. One meeting took place at a Culver’s, another at Starbucks. She didn’t tape and transcribe the conversations. Instead, she wrote what she was told by hand.

“My feelings are reflected in my writing,” she says. “When I’m crying, you can see it.”

Yang’s first interview involved her uncle Fong Lee. He was getting older and didn’t want to die without telling the truth about his experience during the war. As a Hmong soldier, he’d been trained by the CIA to interrogate prisoners. When the Americans left Laos in 1975, his life fell into constant danger. In 1978, he and his young family seized their only chance at survival and made the perilous journey across the Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand.

The story he told Yang appears below.

It’s excerpted from Yang’s book, Somewhere in the Unknown World, published last week.

Finally, a note about the art. We’ve been following the illustration work of artist Tou Yia Xiong for a couple of years now. Xiong works as a toy designer, while creating original art, such as a set of flash cards with animal names in English and Hmong. He recently produced a 2020 campaign poster depicting heroic Hmong voters.

When we called Xiong to talk about Yang’s book and Uncle Fong’s journey, he expressed excitement about creating the first illustration assigned by Sahan Journal. After hearing about Yang’s “collective refugee memoir,” he mentioned that he’d been born in Thailand, before immigrating as a child to Appleton, Wisconsin.

Xiong said, “That sounds like my family’s story.”

Sisters on the Other Side of the River

My wife, my three boys, and our baby girl were about to cross the Mekong River, from Laos to Thailand. It was 1978. I had traded all our belongings for a small raft. I would not be able to get on the raft, but I could squeeze on my children and my wife, tie myself to it, and swim with the current. It was two or three in the morning when we made it to the river’s edge.

I had been a Hmong soldier trained by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States. We were told we had to fight communism. I was a young man from a family of farmers. I knew little about the different political groups of the world and nothing of the Cold War that was playing out in Laos. I had always thought that perhaps I could become a teacher as I had been a good student. Unfortunately, at sixteen years old I was drafted into the war by our village head. My father, a simple man, did not have the arguments or the means to keep me, his oldest son, by his side. While my mother and father cried the day I left for training, my own eyes were clear. I understood that my future would depend on my ability to learn how to be a good soldier. The alternative was death.

Once the training began, I quickly rose to the top of my class—if you could call us that, a ragtag group of farm boys. Unlike some of the young men I was with, I was literate. I had gone to school, so I was fluent in Lao and had a foundation of French. English was not impossible to learn. I could understand the commands from the CIA officers working with us and follow the protocol of the Hmong men whose job it was to prepare us for war. While I could handle a gun, the men in charge saw that my best asset was my mind. They trained me in wartime interrogation tactics.

From 1960 until 1975, I interrogated prisoners of war for the CIA in a camp they’d set up in the Phou Bia mountains.  I earned a regular salary, one that was enough to attract and secure the hand of a young woman I adored. Together, we started a family, uncertain of the outcome of the war. But by then the war had gone on for so long that we could not see an end to it, and we knew that if we didn’t live, we’d die having never had a life at all.

Suddenly, in 1975, the CIA and the American soldiers just left. Their planes took them away as we watched from the ground, thinking until the very end that they would come back. The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into years, and our lives were nothing more than running away from the communists who had come into power and hunted us down like animals. By 1978, most of the boys I had trained with had been killed. I knew that if I were ever captured, my whole family would die with me. Our only chance of survival was to cross the Mekong River and head for the refugee camps in Thailand.

There was a full moon the night of our crossing. All along the river, families were preparing to enter the water. I had seen two little girls going from family to family. In the moonlight, I could see the people shaking their heads at the girls. I prayed they would not come to us.

The older one was six or seven years old. Her scraggly hair fell about her face. She carried the little girl on her back with a length of cloth—the child was three or four but too weak to walk. In the older girl’s arms she carried a small pot. The little one whimpered occasionally, raising her head weakly, turning it from one side to the other, seeking comfort. Her sister was quiet as she walked along the line of families. It was impossible to ignore them.

I had just blown up the raft and was tying my children together when the girl walked toward us. In light of the moon, reflected off the surface of the river, I saw her eyes, big and round in her sunken face. She offered what was in her pot to me before her words came out.

She said, “This is all I have left in the world, this little bit of rice and the little sister on my back. Our mother and father, our aunts and uncles and grandparents were killed in the jungle. We are alone. We’ve traveled for the last five days on our own to get here.”

I said, “I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

She persisted, “I will give you this rice if you carry my baby sister with your family to the other side. I know it is not much rice but it is all I have left.”

I said again, this time with more roughness in my voice, because my children could hear her, “I’m sorry but there’s no room on the raft.”

The girl’s thin arms shook with the proffered rice in the near-empty pot. Her little sister turned her head at the rough- ness of my voice to look at me. Those eyes, too, were large and dark like a little monkey’s. They glistened at me, wet with tears.

The older girl fell to her knees. It looked as if her thin legs had given out from under her. Her head was bowed, and she begged, “Please, uncle. You don’t have to take me. I’m willing to die here, on this side of the river. I would die happy knowing my sister is safe. Please, uncle.”

I shook my head at her, my own words now wet and sticky in my throat.

The girl turned to my wife, who had our baby girl strapped to her front, and said, “Please, auntie, please.”

She started to cry. We were the last family at the river’s edge. Her cries turned into sobs.

My wife’s arms tightened around our little baby’s body.

We had had a three-year-old daughter. A year after the Americans left, in an abandoned village by a rushing river, she died in a drowning accident after a night of heavy rainfall. It was my wife who’d found her body, floating away from our house, her shirt tangled up with a fallen tree. After our daughter’s death, we thought we would never have another little girl in our life. What spirit would choose parents like us? A man and a woman who could not protect their children? Our daughter had laughter like the songs of the birds and dark hair that blossomed about her face like a flower in bloom. Her tiny hands and feet had danced in the air when she ran, recalling the flight of butterflies. Her scent was fresh as the citrus blooms that fell about the orchard or the long grass after a night of light rain. Her soft touch was full of warmth. Her words contained vistas of possibility. All these were gone when she died. Still, some- how, in this horrible war, in the wet heat of the jungle, with the hunger and the fear, from up high in the sky, in her chase after the clouds, a baby girl’s spirit had seen us and chosen us. Our new one entered our life healthy and strong. She gave us faith and strength to continue our long trek through the jungle, to this riverbank, with our boys.

I stood in front of the girl on her knees and my shaking wife. I said, “Little girl, we have to go into the river now. The soldiers are surely coming. You take your sister and you go hide in the jungle. When other families come, you ask them. Someone will help you. We can’t.”

Her shoulders shook with her cries. She had no more words for us. The rice in the pot was in danger of spilling. I took hold of it with my hands. I put it down beside her. I said to my boys and my wife, “Hurry up.”

I turned from the girls and I pushed the raft into the river. I picked up my boys one by one and dropped them onto the raft. I helped my wife and our baby daughter, strapped to her front, onto the raft. The flimsy thing nearly toppled. I could hear the other men hurrying their families into the current. A voice called out, “The soldiers are coming.”

I felt a tug on my shirt. I had hoped the girl would have walked away, taken my words to heart, found a place to hide. I had hoped hopelessly. She’d stepped into the river after me.

I did not have the heart to pry those fingers loose, so I said, “I’ll come back for you both. I promise. As soon as I get my children and my wife to the other side, I will turn back for you. Just wait here.”

Her fingers fell from my shirt. My wife echoed my words to the girls. My children, too. I turned to the girls one last time and placed my hands on each of their heads, a sign of love. I looked into their eyes and I believed myself. I would come back for them.

The water was cold against my legs. The cold climbed higher as I walked farther into the river. My feet lost touch with the river’s bottom. I treaded water. I kicked water.

Somewhere at the halfway point of the crossing, floating in the Mekong River, I clung to the raft and looked back at the girls. I could see they were still standing in the river, both staring straight ahead, toward me. Their small pot of rice sat on the bank. Every few minutes, I looked back at them until they disappeared from view, until they were nothing more than lines of shadow in the moonlit night.

There was the cracking of guns from the tree line. The soldiers had arrived. I called out to the ancestors, the spirits of the earth and the water, to please keep the girls safe, to please let a better man than me come their way. I kicked at the water with everything I had and pushed toward the other shore.

On Thailand’s side, we lay down on the soft bank of the Mekong River. My chest heaving, I looked up at the sky. The night was fading. The earliest hint of the morning sun was chasing the darkness from the horizon; slivers of pink, orange, yellow, and blue bled into the canvas of the heavens. My family was huddled on the soft dirt beside me. When I could, I pushed myself up. There was barely anything visible on the other bank, just shadows moving like men yelling into the distance, their guns in their hands. There was no sign of the girls anywhere, no little pot of rice to be seen.

In Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, two years after we crossed the river, my wife gave birth to another daughter. Her arrival was the impetus for our departure from the camp. It gave me the courage to cross the wide ocean to find a better life in a foreign land. My family applied for resettlement and when the option was presented, we chose to go to France. I was more fluent in French. My wife and I never talked about the sisters on the other side of the river. We just held fast to our girls, promising ourselves that we would never leave them on a forsaken shore. We departed for France in 1981, our youngest secured to my wife’s chest.

We lived in southern France for nearly twenty years. We joined the other Hmong refugees in Nice and Nîmes, where many of us made our living tending to the fields of lettuce, cabbage, and other vegetables. In France, one more little boy entered our lives. We raised our children, and they grew tall and strong like the carrots we planted in the fertile soil. We thought that we would live out the rest of our years in France, but in 2000 my wife decided that we had to leave France for the United States, where her elderly mother, her only sister, and her seven brothers had resettled.

The Twin Cities has the largest concentration of Hmong refugees in the world, and we joined them, to claim the extended family that we thought we had lost. Here in Minnesota, we opened a grocery store with our children, who all fell in love and married and had children of their own. It is a successful enterprise. People from the community come in and they say, “You are doing well for yourself and your family. You are a good man.”

They don’t know the truth. They don’t know that nearly forty years ago, on the banks of the Mekong River, on my way to freedom, I condemned two sisters to war. They don’t know that I cannot forget those two girls, their eyes that night, round like the moon in the high sky, looking at me. The lie I told. The lie I carry. They don’t know that one day soon, when my time comes, I will look into those eyes again, and see the knowledge that I was not the man the sisters had been waiting for, that I could not be him. I pray and I hope that in another life, beneath a different moon, I will be the man to turn that raft around.

—Fong Lee

Excerpted from SOMEWHERE IN THE UNKNOWN WORLD: A Collective Refugee Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang. Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company.  Copyright © 2020 by Kao Kalia Yang. All rights reserved.

Kao Kalia Yang is the author of "The Song Poet," which received the 2017 Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA Literary Award,...