An Exchange

By Bao Lee

At the end of my last winter break, my mom and sister dropped me off on campus and I started crying. Fall has always been a lonely period for me, and this past one was especially difficult. While I was home during break, I yearned for the space and privacy I got at school, yet knowing the family car would soon be pulling out of St. Cloud never failed to make me feel ten years old again. I surprised even myself Crying wasn’t going to help. It would just prove to my mom that I was a kid pretending to be an adult when I had no idea what I was doing. Immediately, I felt my mom stroke my head, her voiced hushed.

“Don’t be scared,” she said.

I nodded but my eyes kept leaking. I didn’t know how she knew I was scared. I never talked to her about my fears of my future, my mistakes, or of disappointing her.

“Don’t be scared. When you get scared, call for grandma and grandpa.”

I nodded again. This isn’t the first time Mom’s told me this even though my grandparents have passed away and I’ve never met them. They’re around though, all of them, the ones that only my soul can hear.

The soul holds a lot of power over the health and happiness of an individual. A soul is the source of life and if not bound securely to the body, one does not exist as a full human being. A newborn’s soul is especially vulnerable, having just crossed into the world of the living. Because a child arrives on earth separately from their soul, the Hmong have a tradition called hu plig, or soul-calling ceremony, for newborns.

An elder shaman stands at an open door with a few important items — two live chickens and an egg. The elder offers the egg as a gift for the baby’s soul while the chickens are a gift of gratitude for the couple who took care of the soul in the spirit world and sent it safely to us. One of the last steps of the hu plig is khi tes, the wrist-tying. An elder takes a bundle of white string or yarn and brushes it over the baby’s hands as an act of sweeping away illness and misfortune. The family and guests receive the yarn and tie it around the baby’s wrists to bind the soul to the baby’s body. Souls are fragile, capable of leaving the body if frightened, curious, or if a person is physically or psychologically ill. I wonder if, when my soul settled inside me during my hu plig, it knew what it was in for.

During my single-digit years, I wasn’t allowed off the block that we lived on. I wasn’t allowed to cross the street and play with the blonde children on the other side, though I wouldn’t have wanted to because they were mean and one girl tried to steal my bike. Once I got my training wheels off that bike, I rode round and round our block, always making left turns. Mom and Dad warned us that people would snatch us off the streets and sell us. Parents who worry about their children are nothing new. They eventually allowed my sisters and me to walk to the little park nearby on our own. We played tag and Midnight Ghost on the playground. When we got back, Mom would stand at the door and call our souls home with simple prayers.

No sleepovers or playdates were allowed. There were seven of us kids, so it wasn’t like I lacked companionship. We spent little time away from home. This protection plan was soon thwarted by school. My first few years of school were a world of songs, colors, and friends who drank chocolate milk with me. I loved receiving the duty of running downstairs to the giant cooler with one other student to carry our morning milk cartons to our class. My ambition to succeed with my academics was still a distant chapter in the book I hadn’t learned to read yet.

My favorite activities included recess and field trips. Schools typically encouraged their students to explore and they were an authority my parents trusted. When my first grade class went to the Milwaukee Museum, I didn’t adequately appreciate the wealth of history and natural beauty preserved there. After an hour and a half of staring out the bus window at hills and cows, I felt a whole world away from home. We reached the museum and home fell away as I imagined playing house in the re-creations of Native American huts and farming with their tools. In the warm dewy butterfly house, I imagined myself as a fairy princess. When a monarch landed on my hand, I counted silently to see how long I could keep it there, as if it was my pet, a loyal subject in my fairy kingdom. I could have stayed in the butterfly house forever but I didn’t want to get lost, so I followed everyone into the insect zoo where we got to hold walking sticks. That night, tucked into my bed, I imagined myself flying away in a dress covered with live butterflies.

Hu plig is not reserved only for newborns. When my uncle had a stroke, we prepared a hu plig for him. When I was nine, I tried making noodles and spilled boiling water on myself so I had a hu plig. We hu plig for newly-weds as well, sacrificing a pig, a chicken, or sometimes a cow. To some people who are not Hmong, our animal “sacrifices” probably sound pagan and violent. Since animals have souls too, the animal soul goes to the spirit world in exchange for the safety of the human soul. I used to fish around for a different word but none really fits the act like “sacrifice” since there is an exchange happening.

We also hu plig for every family member when we celebrate our New Year, so that our souls remain near us. My parents can complete this without the help of a shaman, since they are versed in the less formal hu plig prayers. They pray to our ancestors to bring all of us good health. They call for the house spirits to keep our home protected. And yes, to thank these spirits and ancestors, we sacrifice more chickens.

In fourth grade, we started learning about life science. We moved away from bees, pollination, and planting little yellow flowers, to naming plants and big animals. I remember writing my first essay in this class, an intense examination on cucumber and pumpkin seeds. I misspelled ‘disappoint’ but I was still the only one who got to turn in my rough draft without editing. I enjoyed our unit on birds the most because Mrs. Wandschneider let us color pictures. I shaded blue jays and robins, geese and eagles, with colored pencils, trying my best to stay inside the lines. I liked adding a house in the background, or a tree branch for the bird to alight on.

Our biology lessons took us on a nature field trip. Before school, my mom had packed me a sub sandwich and a can of soda while telling me not to roam on my own, an easy enough order since being scared of ghosts and specters was popular at the time. We were told to wear long socks and have our pant legs tucked into our socks to keep bugs and ticks from crawling in. When we got to Sullivan’s Woods, I had mine done just so, but after seeing none of the other kids comply, I decided I looked ridiculous and tick bites couldn’t be worse than being the only one with her pant legs tucked in her socks. I un-tucked them after a quick survey of the teachers.

During our walk, we spotted a fawn curled up right next to the wooden walkways through the woods. I wanted to stop and get a closer look but after hearing a teacher say, “Poor little guy’s probably waiting for his mom,” I kept walking with the rest of our group. I would’ve hated people staring at me too. It had hidden its face and was so still I thought it had stopped breathing. I hoped its mom came back to it soon so it wouldn’t get lost and die by itself. I trekked on, ate half my sub sandwich, and continued giving my ankles a snap now and then so I wouldn’t bring back any diseases that would have my youth ending in tragedy.

The number of souls a person has varies according to different people. Some believe we have only one soul. Others believe we have a soul near our head that is reborn, a soul in our body that stays buried with us until our remains crumble away, and a third soul that moves on to the spirit world. Whatever the number, the Hmong agree that after death, one soul must be led back to a person’s birthplace before moving on to the next realm.

My mom says it’s best if a body has all its organs intact when buried, otherwise it will be reborn with missing parts or the spirit will haunt its family. That’s why organ donation is a risky move for those in the reincarnation cycle. I’d hate to be stuck in one place forever, angry at my family for a decision they may or may not have made. But we also know that a person’s actions influence the quality of their next life. I wonder which one outweighs the other. Perhaps the gatekeeper of the spirit world will have a manual ready when I get there. Let’s say I donated a kidney. When I reach the other world, the gatekeeper opens the manual, notes one of my self-less acts which earns me back my kidney, flips through a few pages, asks my soul a question, finds the crime I committed while alive and marks down a limb I get to keep but won’t function fully. The gatekeeper continues calculating all my deeds until everything I deserve is accounted for. Then I move on.

In high school, biology became more complicated than just understanding taxonomy. I spent one summer collecting insects in jars and zip lock bags for a fall semester project. Good thing I got a head start because grasshoppers are in great abundance while the more visually pleasing buckeyes and dragonflies eluded even the swiftest of nets. I must have caught a hundred, but only had to laboriously classify fifty. I enjoyed frog dissections much more. Part of it might have been my fantasies of becoming a surgeon.

Arriving at human anatomy, our class went on the only field trip I could recall from high school. My best friend, Choua, and I bragged to our sisters about this field trip, as they had never experienced it before. Our excitement was also tinted with fear. We weren’t going anywhere scary, just down to Marquette University—nothing that would typically be considered life-threatening. In fact, the bodies we were going to examine were dead. That’s right, we were going to see and touch real cadavers. Choua’s mom had joked that they might have to hu plig for us upon returning from this trip. Hmong don’t encourage keeping company with the dead, and hold the superstition that a soul can linger after death and latch onto the living.

Once we were in the Science building and fitted gloves over our hands though, I didn’t hesitate to probe at the dead body’s leg and arm muscles, and hold my hand open to receive a heart, gently lifting one flap to view the chamber within. The cadavers’ heads, hands and feet were wrapped in cloths. An undergraduate student said seeing hands, or painted finger and toenails, sometimes made students feel like the bodies were too alive. They hid calluses and arthritic knuckles, and memories of holding pens or braiding hair. I could accuse the scientists of erasing individuality, but they prevented me from imagining my class had been casted in a bad zombie movie.

We learned that the bodies used to be people who, before dying of natural causes, decided to donate their bodies to science. I held these donors in high esteem. To me, they were a kind of soldier, shielding future generations from invisible bullets. They made a conscious decision to leave their remains behind after living a full life. I also remembered how blasphemous that would be to my mom, offering one’s body for others to cut into, plucking organs out.

For the rest of the visit, I couldn’t help admiring the striation of each body’s calf and arm muscles. I couldn’t believe underneath my skin, I looked like that too. When I got home, my sister asked if I had been scared while on the trip.

I shrugged. “No, it wasn’t scary.” I wondered if the Hmong had gotten it wrong. Maybe we were reborn with a better body if we sacrificed ours, well- and travel-worn, for thousands of others.

At my uncle’s funeral, I learned that a soul is guided by a drum, a wind instrument called qeej, and the song of a male elder who is known as the txiv xaiv. My parents’ homelands are far away, crossing oceans in whichever direction one takes. I wonder how much their souls wandered in the last half of their lives. I wonder if they neglected their souls in calling for mine.

When I started college, I was a mix of impulsive and wariness, but every day still felt like a field trip since I was out of Wisconsin and on my own. My mom had told me to call for my grandparents when I get scared. I knew I wouldn’t. Not because I didn’t believe it would help but because I didn’t know how. I left them in peace, thinking fears just die away too. I’m still waiting for all of mine to, but I wouldn’t want my fears to latch onto my ancestors – they’ve had their fair share, so I guess it’s my turn. Besides, like the way parents can’t unlearn how to be afraid for their children, I don’t think fear will ever be absent from my life. When I do, I’ll call for my grandparents’ blessings. I’ll still be afraid but at least I won’t be alone.

Bao Lee is a Wisconsin native who loves summer and chocolate ice cream. She is currently working on her graduate studies in the program of College Counseling and Student Development.

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