Time cannot erase my memories of fear and shame. It has been over a quarter of a century since we left Ban Vinai Refugee Camp and there are things that I still cannot speak of. I am not afraid of Dawb and Kalia asking me whether I carried illegal drugs to make money or to avoid death. I am afraid of them seeing the shame on my face, shame on a face they know as good, a person they know as true, a man who teaches them scruples and honor, decency of heart, and fearlessness of mind. They have never asked me and I have never said. When we see reminders on television about the dangers of a life caught in crime and corruption, I know my face crumples in compassion. I, their father, who speaks of the world in terms of right and wrong, who tells them that each heart, no matter the circumstance, must do what is right, disappears, and in his place is a man they’ve only seen through the shadows of memory, of nightmares past, a man who has nothing to say.

 

*

 

Still, none of the work I did in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp has prepared me for what America would bring. My life in America has been a series of days spent within the confines of factories. For the last twenty-two years, I have worked with machines. Since we came to this country I have worked for three different companies. I was an assembler in a company that made coolant systems for cars. I was a general machinist for a second company that made wooden plaques and metal awards. With the most recent company, I was a second-shift polisher for different components that are used in industries such as canning and oil drilling. There have been moments in each of these jobs when my supervisors said in different ways, ‘Bee, you are not here to talk to me. You are here to talk to machines.’

In America, my voice is only powerful within our home. The moment I exit our front door and enter the paved roads, my deep voice loses its volume and its strength. When I speak English, I become like a leaf in the wind. I cannot control the direction my words will fly in the ear of the other person. I try to soften my landing in the language by leaving pauses between each word. I wrestle with my accent until it is a line of breath in the tightness of my throat. I greet people. I ask for directions. I say thank you. I say goodbye. I only speak English at work when it is necessary. I don’t like the weakness of my voice in English, but what I struggle with most is the weakness of my words.

In Hmong, my children hear so much of my words that sometimes I know they become heavy with the meaning I want to impart. I tell my children that my work in America is not important, but I work hard so that one day their work will be. I tell them that my big dream is for one of them to become an international human rights lawyer and bring justice to stories and lives like ours. I want one son or daughter to cross over the petty barriers erected by nations and states and stand firm for those who do not belong to these definitions. I try to prepare them in the ways I know how. I tell them to watch CNN and MSNBC with me. I turn on Fox News sometimes so they know that life is full of difference in opinions and ideas. I tell them to look at the world around them, but always to hear it first. I tell them so much that they grow tired of hearing my words, my dreams for their future lives and their future jobs, their future selves.

Sometimes, I see the exhaustion on their young faces. I find myself wanting to fast-forward to the future to see where they will one day be. I think that seeing them happy and safe and successful will give me energy to get through one more day and that that day will turn into years. Except I know that the price for the future is the present, and I am much weaker than they believe me to be: as I was in Thailand before the men with guns, I am in America before the men in suits.

I am not proud of the jobs I have done. I have never invited my children to visit on ‘Bring Your Children to Work Day.’ My children ask if they can come to work with me. I tell them no. I tell them that the jobs I do are not in spaces that are safe for children. I tell them that they are not the kind of workplaces that I want them to ever know. They say that I cannot hide my world from them. They are right.

 

*

 

Kalia drove into the parking lot of the big gray building I worked in. She tried my cell phone but I didn’t pick up. I had told her many times that I was not allowed to use my phone while working. Kalia left me a message. She had brought me lunch, spring rolls and an aloe drink; she wanted to put it inside my car, but she didn’t have the key. She said she would hide the food under a bush or beside a tree except there was no greenery in sight. I worked in a concrete lot. Even the buildings were cement, painted gray. A six-foot-tall chain-link fence separated this parking lot and building from the others. Kalia said that she would figure out what to do.

Kalia must have noticed that the entry door to the company was open. She had never been inside a factory before. She must have been curious.

Kalia opened the front entry to find herself in a small space with two glass doors opposite each other. She saw that the door to the left led to an office area with a reception desk, the place where management worked. The door to the right led directly to a space the size of an elementary school gymnasium. The ceilings were high, the walls were bare, and the area was well lit. Large machines the size of Dumpsters, dining tables, and large furnaces were stationed throughout the space.

I had been working at this place for nearly a decade. It was the largest manufacturer of hard materials in the world. I was one of forty-one thousand global employees. I had been working for a small Minneapolis tooling company but in 2004 the bosses sold it to the international corporation. When the ownership changed, there were new rules for us to follow and new people were flown in to oversee us. The company sent men from Europe and South America. The new management asked no questions about us, the fifteen Hmong men on the second shift, a small percentage of their large workforce.

The hardest rule for me was the introduction of work uniforms. I could no longer go to work in my jeans, safety toe boots, and button-up shirts. When the big company took over, I had to wear blue-lined shirts that said whom I worked for. The company name was stenciled into the shirt and underneath it in small black letters was my name, Bee, followed by the word ‘Polisher.’ The uniforms differentiated the factory workers from the office workers. The office workers could wear suits and ties. The secretaries continued wearing their turtlenecks and sweaters. Only my friends and I, the factory workers, had to wear the uniforms.

The big company sent a photographer to take a picture of the second-shift workers. When I showed Chue the photograph, she placed it on the refrigerator, next to the children’s school pictures. In the photo, I am standing slightly apart from the group of men. My hands are on either side of my body. I am almost smiling because I had to rush from my station to get outside for the photograph, and the energy of the run and the fresh air had made me happy that day. It was a reprise from the continual hum of the machines. In the photograph, my shoulders are straight and I am raising my head at a high angle. There are about thirty to forty people in the photo, but I and my Hmong friends get to stand in front because we are shorter than the rest. All of us are wearing the blue-lined shirts and the dark blue cotton-and-polyester-blended pants. Our pants are bunched up at our ankles because they are too long for us. In the sun, most of our balding heads are gleaming. It is our favorite part of the photo.

My friends and I know each other well. We have a thirty-minute meal break every evening (our shift runs from 4:00 p.m. until midnight). We gather in the company’s break room, a sterile cement and glass enclosure in the middle of the high-ceilinged factory. In this room, the company has set up a few tables. We sit close to each other over coolers full of Tupperware dishes. All the men, except for me because I have asked Chue not to pack me a meal, bring dishes of steamed rice and an entrée, usually greens with pork, beef, or chicken. Some of them, the hunters, bring more delicate dishes of carefully seasoned squirrel, bear, venison, or duck meat. The aroma of lemongrass and hot chili with caramelized onions and garlic heating in the microwave makes each of the men hungry, particularly me and the conscientiously healthy ones who look upon bowls of clear broth and blanched greens. Mealtime is the moment in our work shifts when we get to bring pieces of our homes to work. Through the food we bring, we show how well we are treated by our wives and children and how much we are loved.

I rarely have anything to show from my home. I tell Chue that I don’t need an evening meal because I have to lose weight. I have type 2 diabetes. [1] The truth is that I don’t want Chue to pack me any food because she no longer cooks the more delicate and time-consuming Hmong food we both enjoyed. She suffers from carpal tunnel in both hands and is in a long recovery from shoulder surgery after years of working in a bank vault pushing heavy carts, carrying banker’s boxes, and shelving and pulling mortgage loan files; Chue can no longer stir, cut, or use both her hands without feeling pain. There is also the fact of Chue’s personality. She has never been the type of woman to invest time in the kind of battles that my coworkers wage against each other using food from home. She says the search for leverage in the world using Tupperware containers is futile and pathetic. Other than the rare meals my daughters drop off, usually a few items from an Asian deli, I usually go to work with fruit if there is any in the house.

Although most nights I have no food to eat with the men, I sit with them at the tables. The men make jokes and laugh at each other. They compare pickup lines from long ago. (One of my coworkers won the affection of his wife by saying to her, ‘I think you are so beautiful that when we die, I want to be buried underneath you so that your life juices can drip down on me.’) They also talk more seriously about all the things that are happening in the world. Many of them listen to the local news. A few of them know how to use the Internet to find international radio programs in languages they can speak well, Thai or Lao. There is always a great deal to talk about. We reminisce about the past, nostalgically recalling the lives we lived in Laos. Many of us carry memories of fleeing from our homes, dodging bullets and bombs, and growing hungry and thin in the jungles. Sometimes, when things aren’t going well at home, we counsel each other on the best options for going forward. Many of the men come to me for my advice. I love many of the men I work with; they make the hours beneath the bright lights of the factory and the fall of carbide particles bearable.

Each night, we are careful to take off our uniforms, get into the factory showers, and scrub with lava soap before going home to the wives and children who wait for us. We all know that we work with carbide particles. We know that carbide particles cause hard-metal lung disease. Each of us is aware that the glittering particles in the air of the factory are dangerous. The whirling fans that spread the shine do not help our odds. We are confined by the knowledge: every job kills you eventually. Some jobs kill you with a single carefully weighted bullet, while others kill you slowly by floating the pieces and particles of metal over time.

I don’t talk with my children about the dangers of the flecks of metal that float around me – just as I don’t talk about the dangers of the job I did in Thailand.

The only reason the children know about the carbide particles is that several years ago, I was asked to report to work early every day. I came home with a cough that wouldn’t go away. It lasted for months, a dry cough that caused my body to spasm, both during the day and through the night. I drank different cough syrups from the store, but nothing was helping. Chue made me herbal teas but they didn’t work. Finally, we decided it was time for one of the kids to take me to the doctor.

At the doctor’s office, he wanted to know if there were any factors in my life that could be causing the cough. Through Kalia, I told the doctor that I had been going to work early, and at work, because the first-shift workers were still in their positions, I had to polish metal on a table without a vent or a fan. I explained that I had been breathing in the carbide particles directly. The doctor was surprised by my work conditions.

He started to ask a question, but instead he said, ‘There’s nothing I can do for the cough. You have to have your children write the company and request the installation of a vent.’

I told Kalia to explain to him that I had spoken to my supervisor about the situation. The first time the man had waved me off, saying, ‘Bee, just work.’ When the cough would not stop and the family grew concerned, I tried to speak to the supervisor again. The supervisor walked away as if he had not heard a thing.

I coughed so much telling the story that I grew embarrassed before the doctor. I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. I used my hands to cover my mouth, but I noticed how the deep lines in the cracks of my hands looked as if they had been dipped in chalk powder against my skin. It was not only that I was embarrassed; I didn’t want my daughter to be embarrassed by me.

The doctor shook his head at my story, suggested we get a humidifier for the house, and said that there was no medicine for the problem we were dealing with. He said it was beyond the reach of medicine.

At home, Chue told me to take better care of myself at work. She suggested I turn away from any carbide particles I saw in the air. She told me to try to breathe through my nose only, to remember to close my mouth the whole time I was polishing. She offered to go buy me a mask like the ones the people in Asia were wearing on television during the bird flu epidemic. I told her I would be careful. I told her that a mask would interfere with my vision and that would be even more dangerous than the coughing. Chue patted me on the shoulder like a sympathetic friend.

After the doctor’s visit, Kalia did not say much to me. She went down to the basement to the little closet room that the children used as an office. The room was big enough for a bookshelf and a desk. We had the old Sony desktop in the room, the first computer we ever bought for the kids. Ten years old and it was still working. Surrounded by peeling wallpaper, old blue flowers that bubbled in odd places, sagged, and drooped, Kalia did research on carbide particles.

When Kalia came upstairs, Chue and I were sitting on the back patio, looking over the prairie grass and catching the evening breeze. She interrupted us and told us what she had found out about carbide particles and hard-metal lung disease. She talked about the increased rates of lung cancer for workers around the world who worked in the metal industry. I could see Chue get more and more agitated as Kalia went on. I tried to interrupt my daughter, but to no avail. Finally, I said, ‘Enough.’

She said, ‘You have been working with metal for the last twenty-two years in America, Daddy.’

Kalia handed me a letter and told me it was for the company’s human resource team. I asked her what it said. She explained that it was a letter outlining the situation and a request for the company not to ask me to go to work without the proper vents and safety precautions. I didn’t know if the letter would work but I took it with me and gave it to the supervisor and told him it was for HR.

The company responded quickly and swiftly the next day. A fan was brought in to help direct the flow of carbide particles away from me. The supervisor came with a sheet of paper and asked me to sign on the line saying they had solved the problem. I signed it.

I brought the company’s letter of response back to show Kalia. I was happy that my daughter had helped me. I was hopeful that perhaps now that the company knew that I had daughters who could write letters like that, they might be more careful in how they treated me. Kalia’s eyes scanned over the letter, but she did not look pleased by it.

In Kalia’s silence, I told her about how my coworkers and I were initiating a program to potentially get lucky in life.

Each week, most of us Hmong men pooled our dollars to buy communal lottery tickets. We do Mega Millions for fun but we prefer Powerball. The numbers are always automatically generated. The men who buy the tickets make copies of the lottery tickets so that we each know exactly how many tickets have been purchased and what the numbers are.

Each week, I came home with pockets full of lottery tickets and asked my children to check the winning numbers online. I always began by saying, ‘Just in case our lives are going to change.’

The children accepted the black-and-white printout of lottery tickets from my hands. The full-size sheets of paper were folded and crumpled from being in my pockets. They smoothed them on the dining table. They went on the Internet and checked. Sometimes I could tell they didn’t want to. Sometimes they told me that the lottery system is a ruse to win money from the poor and the hopeful. They were not willing to see that poor and hopeful is exactly what their father was.

Kalia stood on the outside of the glass door to the company where I worked. She knew I didn’t want her there. I guess she wanted to breathe the air that I breathed. She wanted to know the place. Perhaps she was tired of imagining the space. Kalia turned the handle, and the door opened.

Kalia walked into the big room. She saw the dark hair of familiar men, men like her uncles, men like her father, standing beside tall machines. Each was in his uniform, performing the duties specified for his position. Kalia walked into the room and a few of my coworkers recognized her. I had shown them the photographs of my children I carried in my wallet. The men greeted her with quick hand raises, quick smiles, and quick motions of the shoulder toward my station. None of them were in a position where they could stop the machines and show her where I was. They helped her helplessly.

How Kalia must have seen me: an aging, bald man standing beside a machine the size of a small SUV, staring intently at a laser beam. The man was positioning light on metal. He was concentrating so hard that he didn’t notice her until she was about ten feet away, standing still, watching. The machines were loud. She could hear gears running, pistons working, pressure being released. From somewhere behind her a piece of metal fell to the ground. The man did not look up. He finished his task. She could feel the air in his chest, the heat of his focus. The man straightened, he looked up and around. When he saw her, he put up his hand, protected his eyes, adjusted something inside, and then walked toward her. He stopped on his way. The machines hummed around them.

For the first time, she saw me the way I see myself: much older than she wanted her young father to be. My eyes looked blurry, the milky growth that covered the brown of my pupils seemed bigger, and the red veins that fanned across the white of my eyes were thick.

I saw the wash of liquid in Kalia’s gaze. I had not wanted her to see how I worked and what I worked with. I had not wanted her to see me this way.

My right hand went to my nose, an unconscious gesture for Kalia not to breathe in the air.

 

Photograph © Matt Stocker

Excerpted from Kao Kalia Yang’s forthcoming memoir, The Song Poet.


[1] On November 9, 2000, Acting Secretary Hershel Gober announced that the US government would pay for the treatment of type 2 diabetes for US veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Research has shown that exposure to Agent Orange and type 2 diabetes is linked. My father and many of the Hmong men who currently live with type 2 diabetes are not considered veterans of war, so they manage the diseases as best they can on their own despite the fact that many of them were exposed to Agent Orange during the war as children and as US soldiers.