By Gary Yia Lee
She was alone in the study of the Hmong Center at Concord College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the faint light of the room, she was one of the most beautiful Hmong women I had seen in my entire life. A yellow sun flower that lit up this dim place by the mere spanning of its bright petals. Black shoulder-length hair framing a smooth pale oval face, and a small nose running between two large gleaming eyes.
Sitting behind a big mahogany table in the middle of the room, she was typing away on her black university-issued IBM laptop. As I entered with unsteady steps, she looked in my direction. I felt like a nervous blundering intruder. Yes, her eyes were her most striking feature – making her round face sparkle with life. When she looked at me, it was like she was trying to pierce my thumping heart to get to the bottom of all the guilty secrets of my soul. What mystery they seemed to hold, those eyes!
Awe-struck, I stared at her, forcing a weak smile on my lips. She stared back as if to say that I had invaded her personal space on my innocuous way to look for a book on Hmong history. My heart was racing as I looked at her slim frame hidden in a cream denim jacket and a pair of matching jeans.
Be a fool for once and do something heroic, I said to myself. She is so young and beautiful – just what your lecherous heart was yearning for. Yes, but what if she was only looking beyond the room at something more enticing behind my back, and not me? OK. But why was my heart beating so fast… like it was love at first sight? Yeah, right. Every woman you looked at was love at first sight – a hundred times a day. Alright, but why did I feel like I was writhing from a bolt of lighting from her? Maybe I was having a heart attack. Why so soon in my short life? I was only 42, for God’s sake!
I managed to say “Hi” and asked her where I could find the book I needed. A perfect ploy to get to talk to her. She told me where all the publications were kept – in the next room. Giving her my best smile, I thanked her, desperately trying to delay my departure to the room next door and wishing my heart would beat faster so I would collapse on the floor and she might give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Wouldn’t that be just like paradise!
After finding the big book by Joanne Hammel, I went to the table where she was sitting. I took a chair in one corner and was leafing slowly through the pages of Traumatized Hills, pretending hard to read but unable to concentrate. My eyes kept wandering in her direction. Oh, what beautiful slender fingers typing away on the laptop keyboard! How would they feel encased in my big wrinkled hands? I wish she would look my way just for one tiny second. That would make my day. Yes, at least for today. God, I am having a real rough time here. I feel like a wandering old fool suffering from the effects of whiskey on the rocks, intoxicating and biting at the same time.
Hammel, where are you? I need your help. Oh, yes, you were telling me how the Hmong in Phu Dou, Xieng Khouang, Laos were hiding two French military officers on the run from Japanese soldiers during World War II. Gee, I wish I could go into hiding with them deep in some thick jungle so I could steal glances at her as much as I wanted and she would never see me do it. No, I have changed my mind… maybe I would abduct her and take her into the thick jungle – like Tarzan did with Jane in Africa. There would be few policemen there and they would not try to find us. Except there might not be too many big elephants and chimpanzees around our hut in Laos.
I am pretty sure the Hmong have killed off all the chimps to make food. Especially after they joined the Chao Fa armed resistance in 1975 against the Lao communist government. And the big trees, maybe they have all been cut down to make rice fields with only grass left in their place now. If that’s the case, where would we hide from Japanese soldiers? Or build our Tarzan and Jane hut? What a pity! We could have had lots of fun. You nasty, nasty Hmong. Just couldn’t keep your hands off any trees or wild animals, could you? Still, what a wonderful life we could have lived, just me and her on some lush-green, grass-covered mountain! What fresh air! What calming surroundings! Simply thinking about it makes me drool already. Make sure your spit does not drip on Joanne’s book! Ok? Ok…
And what about having some kids? Definitely! Oh, no, stop thinking about having kids. But what would happen if we had more than just one kid like lots of Hmong couples? That would not be like Tarzan and Jane. Oh, no, definitely not. How did they manage to have only one kid in the jungle when there is no protection? Maybe he was too busy riding elephants and rescuing strayed travellers from evil native witch doctors…. Yes, that was probably the secret. Pity, there were hardly any witch doctors or elephants left in the old kingdom of a million elephants (Lan Xang) of Laos.
Still if we could not go back to live in the jungles in Laos, maybe I could help her with her student assignments on Hmong history right here at Concord College. If I wrote everything out for her and all she had to do was to hand in the assignments to her professor, wouldn’t she fall for me! I am good at Hmong history and got very good marks for my papers when I was a college student. Well, that was long ago, though. When was it that I went to college? Twenty three years ago? Already! It certainly did not feel that long to me. It was only like yesterday. Am I that old already? I don’t have much to show for myself. Gee, I must do something better with my life before it is too late…like maybe have a last big fling with her that will quench this thirst in my heart.
I wish I had the guts to talk to her again and ask for her name. I will call her Sylvia – that sensual mysterious heroine in the movie by the same name that Carroll Baker played in. I like these old black and white movies. That was some dame, this Carroll Baker. Or, maybe, I will call her Carroll. No, that does not sound very Hmong. Doesn’t matter, probably better if she stays nameless, more entrancing that way.
Where are you again, Hammel? I sort of lost track of what you were saying in your beefy book. Oh, yes. Touby Lyfoung and Tiao Saykham took the town of Xieng Khouang from the Lao Issara with the help of Hmong villagers, some carrying only their flintlocks using gun powder from a buffalo horn they slung over their back. Well, that must have been exciting – walking triumphantly into town with a line of armed Hmong men wearing their black clothes and red sashes, carrying flintlocks on their shoulders, with their heads held high.. What glory! What pride! How I wish I was there with them!
She would have been so proud of me and would have agreed to marry me right then after we finished the victory parade! We would be one of the very few Hmong couples living in town and sending our children to school. Maybe they would even be among the first Hmong kids to have gone to school in the entire country at that time in the late 1940's. How many kids would we have? Kids, again? Yes, … sorry. Maybe eight? No, probably ten or even fifteen. We Hmong like to have big families. Anyway, look at her now (glance, glance)! She is so good-looking and we would have many kids as I wouldn’t be able to get my hands off her. No, maybe not. Too many kids would ruin her good looks and I would have to find a second wife - like many of my Hmong-American male friends had been doing in Laos the last few years!
I was startled by a soft, gentle voice – oh, so soft like an autumn breeze - from her direction. I was brought crashing back to reality. Was it all only just a dream? Oh, my God. I must be getting old. I had started to daydream too much lately. I mustn’t let my mind go like this. Yeah, but it was nice, though.
Oh, look! She was getting up and gathering her things. She was about to walk towards the door. Already going? Oh, no! I have not even had a conversation with her. Do something, for God’s sake! She was going to disappear any second! Look, she was giving me a last look and a nice smile. God, my heart was breaking into a million pieces. Nothing heroic happened. I never managed to get to know her, but at least I had that wonderful smile from her to take with me. She must have found me attractive or something.
I went back to Hammel and her book. Where was I now? Touby Lyfoung was made the district governor for the Hmong in Xieng Khouang province by the French. Well done, Uncle. You truly deserved it.
“There you are, honey! I finished my shopping and spent the last half hour looking for you. This place is so hard to find!,” a thunderous voice interrupted my quiet meeting with Uncle Touby.
Goodbye, Joanne. Good-bye, Uncle. Farewell Sylvia. See you all next time.
My wife, fleshed out by all the years of giving birth to nine babies and consuming too much grilled pork, was walking towards me. I looked up at her and smiled, awestruck by a different kind of feeling, the feeling of despair.
“Honey, you forgot to put on your false teeth again. Your two missing front teeth are showing. It’s so embarrassing! ,” she continued as she sat down next to me. “Where did you put your set of false teeth this time?”
“In a very secure place I forgot,” we both said, echoing each other, as we have so often done in the past.
As there was no one else in the room, she added, “I told you so many times. Before you go out, you mustn’t forget to check in the mirror to make sure you have them on. It’s no good for your dignity being seen with your missing teeth.”
I went into the bathroom next to the kitchen at the Hmong Center and looked in the mirror. There they were, two gaps in the front of my teeth. Now I knew why SHE was smiling at me on her way out of the Hmong Center. I must have looked ridiculous without my two front teeth while stealing glances at her. I started to feel really embarrassed, goose bumps rising all over my dark skin. But then I realised that she was gone. What’s the point of being ashamed now?
“Anything wrong?,” my wife asked when I joined her in the foyer of the Center – with a sly smile on my face. “What are you smiling about? Don’t tell me you have gone soft in the brain all of a sudden just because you forgot your false teeth.”
“No, it’s nothing. I just thought about something funny.”
“Yes, me and a certain young….,” I started, then caught myself.
“What is it?”
“It’s my secret,” I replied, touching back my receding hair line.
“Don’t rub too hard, honey. You’re going to make all your hair fall off. There is not enough left as it is,” my wife said, pushing some more salt into the wound that was my pride.
“Yes, my hair seems to have fallen off an awful lot lately. Maybe I won’t have anything by next summer. You don’t mind, do you?,” I said meekly.
“Why, no? You will look like those nude mountains around Hmong villages in Laos. With just a few clumps of trees here and there. But, that will keep you straight and out of trouble with Hmong women around here,” she said with an air of satisfaction.
My balding head, like a mountain top cleared for crop growing in Laos, only the odd trees here and there. What an apt metaphor! Very funny looking and tragic mountain, indeed ... especially with the gap in the front teeth.