Lia Lee was not born in the highlands of northwest Laos, where twelve of her older siblings were born. If she had been, her mother Foua would have carried out the delivery herself while squatting over the dirt floor of the house her father Nao Kao had made with planks of wood and thatched bamboo. Fadiman writes that Foua is still proud of the fact that she gave birth alone to her Laos-born children; Nao Kao only brought cups of hot water if her mouth was parched. Otherwise, she labored in solitude and silence, sometimes praying to her ancestors while her older children slept nearby. If she had ever encountered any birthing difficulties, she could have called upon a txiv neeb—a shamanistic healer—who the Hmong believe has the power to “enter a trance” and “negotiate for his patients’ health with the spirits who lived in the realm of the unseen.”
These birthing rituals make clear the difference between the Hmong and American approaches to health and medical treatment. Whereas Americans fuss over childbirth in sterile hospital rooms, the Hmong bravely embrace natural childbirth. By relating how Lia would have been born if she lived in Laos, Fadiman provides a glimpse of the Hmongs’ impressive and stoic strength while also demonstrating the cultural and utilitarian importance of shamanistic healers in Hmong society.
Fadiman explains various Hmong beliefs surrounding health and spirituality, including the idea that humans must be weary of dabs, or evil spirits who can steal or otherwise afflict the soul. She also explains the Hmong ritual of burying a baby’s placenta, an important endeavor due to their belief that a person’s spirit must upon death retrace their steps until reaching the placenta and putting it on like a jacket. Only once the soul is donned as such can it embark on its journey to the sky (past dabs and other dangerous obstacles) and join its ancestors before one day being reborn. Without the placenta, the soul is doomed to “an eternity of wandering, naked and alone.”
Once more, Fadiman underlines the drastically different beliefs surrounding childbirth in Hmong and American culture. Perhaps the starkest delineation between these two belief systems can be seen in the differing attitudes toward the placenta: the Hmong covet it as valuable to their spiritual journeys, whereas Americans quickly discard it for sanitary reasons.
Because the Lees fled Laos along with 150,000 other Hmong when the country was toppled by communist forces in 1975, they have no idea whether or not the placentas they buried in their home are still safely in the ground. Fadiman points out that, since the Lees fled first to one Thai refugee camp, then to Portland, Oregon, and finally to Merced, their souls will have a long way to travel in order to recover their placental “jackets.”
The fact that the Lees’ souls will have to travel such a long way to retrieve the placenta calls attention to the difficulties they face as refugees—it seems that even after death they will face complications related to their immigration.
Lia was the first Lee child born in America. Foua gave birth to her in Merced Community Medical Center (MCMC) on July 19, 1982. Unaware that the Lees wanted to keep their daughter’s placenta, the doctors incinerated it. It’s quite likely that they wouldn’t have even allowed Nao Kao and Foua to take it home anyway, since many Merced doctors were troubled by the Hmong’s desire to keep the placenta, believing that these unknown and unassimilated foreigners wanted to eat it. Despite this oversight, though, Lia’s birth went well, and she was deemed a “healthy infant.” Three days later, she was released from the hospital, at which point her mother signed a release paper, despite the fact that she could not read and didn’t speak any English.
The burning of Lia’s placenta by ignorant doctors foreshadows the intense struggle the Lees must face later in life when the American medical system fails to accommodate or understand their spiritual beliefs. Furthermore, the fact that doctors in Merced assumed that the Hmong ate placentas is a testament to the naïve bigotry these immigrants and refugees were up against when dealing with Americans who had no interest in actually learning about their culture.
Although Hmong custom dictates that the soul-calling ceremony—when the child’s name is decided upon—should take place on the third day of the child’s life, the Lees had to wait an entire month to save money from their welfare checks. Fadiman briefly outlines the many ways in which the Hmong believe illness can manifest, eventually maintaining that the most common of them all is “soul loss.” She writes that “the life-souls of newborn babies are especially prone to disappearance, since they are so small, so vulnerable, and so precariously poised between the realm of the unseen, from which they have just traveled, and the realm of the living.”
In this section, Fadiman further establishes the importance of the soul in the Hmong’s spiritual conception. That the Lees had to wait to perform this important ceremony underlines the extent to which they were subject to the various economic strains related to immigration.