In the series “The Land We Come From”, we ask writers to reflect on the environment in which they grew up and how it shaped their lives. Here, the author Kao Kalia Yang recalled the river of “tears and sorrow” she grew up in Ban Vi Nai refugee camp in Thailand. After the Americans withdrew from Laos, thousands of Hmong people fled there. What penalty was imposed. The survivors described the incoming Communist government in 1975 as a genocide.
There is a smell of growth in the water. The tiny rocks beneath its surface are turbid and gray. The little tadpoles swimming up and down the river bank, shaped like the surface of my fingernails, are in groups, with their little black tails moving quickly behind them. Every night, my job is to call my sister Dob by the river, have dinner and take a bath.
Dawb and his middle-sized cousins gathered by the river. It winds around the lower part of the compound on our side, beside the bathing well with a broken concrete base. The children spent a long time barefoot in the water, near the banks of the river catching tadpoles, looking for snails and other creatures. When it’s hottest, the water smells particularly bad, but they have long been used to it.
In the Hmong language, adults call this river Dej Kua Quav. It means: the river of feces. Our child did not ask the adult’s name. That is the only river in our lives.
There are no other rivers in the Benwe Nai refugee camp, only wells with black round mirrored sky occasionally. We are contained in that dry land, surrounded by grassy hills. With wars across Southeast Asia: the secret American war in Laos, the American war in Vietnam, and the catastrophic consequences of Pol Pot in Cambodia, the borders of the camp continue to expand. For the tens of thousands of us who were born in captive places under the blazing sun in Thailand, that river is a source of flow, a source of life, and a waiting life.
Every night, looking up from the smoke of the ring of fire, my mother said, “Kalia, go to Dej Kua Quav to pick up your sister. That’s disgusting. I don’t know why she insists on getting lost in it.”
Every night, I follow my mother’s instructions. Realizing that her words might not be enough in my mouth, I found myself walking towards the river with a few thin branches in my hand.
My naive goal is simple. I have no plan to use branches. I bring them just to wave in the air to emphasize and strengthen my words.
One special night, I stood on the bare river bank, calling my sister again and again. She is one of many heads bent over the dirty water, busy with work. A cool breeze moved the dry dust around me. I turned to it and accidentally took a breath. I started to cough.
The cough is uncontrollable. I took a breath. I tried to clear my throat. I feel my desire. I tried to swallow it, but the cough persisted. In fact, it became stronger and stronger until my face became hot and my back folded towards the ground. No one looked up or asked me if I was okay.
Once I can I straight. As the night darkened, in the corpse staring at the river, my sister’s figure became indistinguishable. I walked along the river bank and couldn’t wait to return to my mother, waiting for dinner with rice and fried fish, and my favorite part of the day: taking a shower at night.
I stopped before a small head with thick hair was tied into a messy ponytail and checked the narrow shoulders. I called, “Dawb”. She did not answer, did not look up, did not admit me. In an astonishing sense of frustration, the branch in my hand cut through the air, not hard, but hard enough.
My cousin raised her head as she climbed up the sloping river bank with fast feet. Before I realized it, I was lying on my back. Her face is in front of me. Her hand is on my shoulder. She pulled up my torso and pushed it down. I try not to let my head hit the ground. She screamed: “Why are you hitting me? Do you think you will run away?”
I can only shook my head in fear, balancing between the hard ground and my cousin’s slanted eyebrows, her face bursting with anger.
It was Daub who saved me. She took my cousin away and apologized on behalf of both of us. It was she who dragged my tearful face home to our mother. When she realized that I was fine, she was disappointed in me. “Why do you bring a stick? Why do you want to beat your cousin?” Mom shook her head at me again and again.
Although I have never drunk water from that river (I heard stories about children in the camp who drank water from the river, fell ill and died), I knew that it tasted like tears and sadness. It brought tears and sadness to my life.
After I was born, my mother had six miscarriages in the Banvinai refugee camp. There is not much food in our camp. Every time she has something to eat, a bowl of rice or a bit of meat, she will first give it to my sister and me, but for her, the miscarriage begins because of something lurking in the river.
One year after I was born, there was a terrible monsoon storm. The trees on the side of our camp fell on the building. When running to safety at night, my father took me and Dawb in his arms. My mother followed behind with the family’s meager belongings. The river grew up in the rain. It surged around them. Halfway through the river, my mother tripped. She couldn’t see my father’s shoulder in the rain. A vortex of debris rose up around her. She felt a tugging, and she made sure to put her hand on one of her ankles. Her head was buried under the water. My father walked to the other side, then stopped to call her, look for her. Through the darkness, he saw a hint of white. My father left my sister and me on the shore. He jumped up and grabbed the bit of white. It was our mother’s shirt, and her body was struggling to breathe air. The family managed to get rid of the influence of the monsoon storm, but it lingered in the mother’s dream for many years.
Somewhere between all miscarriages, a shaman is called. He inferred that my mother’s soul flew away sometime after my successful birth. The spirit of fear cannot save the lives of other people, all the babies who came to Ban Vinai refugee camp after me.
Every time my mother had a miscarriage, I thought she would die. Always lose too much blood. Her body is very soft and there is no life in the waterwheel that adults use to transport her to the camp hospital. Every time she came back to me, I became more vigilant about what was lurking in the river.
When we left the Benvinai refugee camp in 1987, I was only 6 years old. I quickly forgot about this river. It was not until ten and a half years later, when I was studying to become a writer at Columbia University, and when a friend of mine met an American doctor who had been to the Ban Vinai refugee camp, I learned that my youth is nothing but an openness. Sewers. When I told my mother and my sister Dawb about the reality of the river, they all said, “Of course”—they are more connected to the river than I have ever been.