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Hmong Contemporary Issues
Hmoob cov Xwm Txheej rau Tiam no
Les Problématiques contemporaines des Hmong

The Man Who Talked to the Banana Trees
by Kao-Ly Yang

This story is not ordinary. It tells the life of a man who unceasingly wished to find sincere and lasting love. When full of languishment, Tongcheung sat under the porch of his house, quietly despaired, his mind yearning for something special to happen in his life. He often daydreamed.

- "At my age, --he was at that time 51 years old-- I am not young anymore. I would like to have a young wife who will flourish my days". It was his deepest wish that he often shared with the banana trees of his farm in North Carolina. He had a beautiful plot of banana trees that gave delicious fruits, and joy to his heart. When sitting under them, he felt like they were talking to him, so he answered back. Their leaves were like wings under the blue clear sky. When he was a little boy, his mother often took him to cut some banana bunches and trunks to feed the pigs. It was his happier time before their exile to the West. His parents were still alive.

- "I've never really understood my women', Tongcheung thought. "I have been working hard for them since we arrived in the US. I gave them all money I earned. I was a good husband. But why did they leave me for other men? I did everything perfectly."

He kept wondering, intuitively feeling that he surely did something wrong to his former wives. He did not meet their expectations. He now worried. He would not be able to take care of a new wife. But he needed a wife. Life was so lonely. Being alone in his mobile house, on the top of a hill in the heartland of pessimism, he floated between solitude, angst and hope.

Married twice, he then divorced twice. Not an ordinary man. Born in the 60's in Laos, he grew up as a Southeast Asian refugee adolescent in the 70's. His wives left him, secretely. They all took the children with them. He then wanted to die. Fortunately, convinced by his siblings that life was still worthly to live, he invested all his saving into a farm in North Carolina.

- "Well, at least, all these years to pull a handbrake in a factory kept alive", he mocked himself in his happy days, with his paddy-shaped eyes. Tongcheung was handsome when he was young. But it was long ago.

The monotony of a farmer's life near Morgantown had nothing exciting. Tongcheung cultivated his farm, relentlessly, hoping to save enough money to travel to Laos where he could find a young wife. Bent days long, before his tomatoes, while picking the fruits of his hope, one bunch after another, he became emotional when thinking of the coming days of happiness.

- "All the girls want to come to America", people told him.

- "I have to have a life", he said. "No matter what people say. I am only 51". 

His brothers and sisters -- they were ten, and Tongcheung was the oldest -- did not like his idea to go back to Laos. The majority of them advised him:

-"Don't waste your money. Laotian Hmong girls will eat you like a sticky rice pancake. Forget about this stupid idea. Just find some young divorced women in the US. Don't spoil your life. You don't have so many good years left to live."

However, the youngest siblings uttured, supporting this project to marry abroad.

- "Let's him do. At his age, nothing worse could happen. He had raised us when our parents passed away. He has the right to be happy too. We shoud not judge him".

Tongcheung, glibly smiling, replied: "Yes, I have a few years to waste, and I want to waste them on whomever I want. A young wife is all what I want. She might abandon me after a year of marriage, take my savings, make me pay childcare, I don't care. I just want some real happy years.

One of his brothers then yelled at him with anger: "Why don't you just marry one of the Hmong divorcees, they are numbered in the US?!"

- "I have enough of these modern women, too complicated, with so many needs of freedom, of independence, ... incapable to think about their husband's needs and family. The ugly ones are not in my taste, the pretty ones have too much mouths to feed; I have enough childcare on my own to pay. The well-educated ones won't ever accept me. I just need a woman, young enough and easy to train to be a good wife", Tongcheung lucidly concluded, ready to accept any possible outcomes.

Some of his sisters reminded him:
- "You know, Tongcheung, these Laotian Hmong women are not like our moms. They have changed. They grew in a communist regim. Don't believe what you see. Listen to the unfortunate stories. They will leave you afther they get their green cards."

Because of an uncle's funeral in Fresno, CA, all siblings were together. And they wanted to convince Tongcheung to not go to Laos. It was like a role play where each member had a part to act out. TongCheung said nothing. He listened to them like a father. No one understood his loneliness. Standing, the back slightly bent by the years of hardwork, he took all, advice, insults or inquisitive and sarcastive glances. His heart was heavy. He did feel sorry for him. He did raise them. He was uttering non stop when going the airport.

- "It's my life! It's fated. No one can help me. And I don't care about what they said, say or will say." Indeed, the conversation between Tongcheung and his family was a dead-end; both sides were half-deaf. The man thought his family could not understand him whereas the family thought Tongcheung was desperately crazy. 

But he made up his mind. He asked one of his disable cousins to take care of his house and farm. He harvested his crops, cleared the bad grass around the sugar canes -- that he secretely planted for his new wife if he succeeded to find one and obtain a visa for her during his trip. He also cut all dead leaves of his beloved banana trees. Once his bags packed, and before flying to the promising land, he went back to see his banana trees. With hope, he talked to them while their leaves were waving to the call of the wind. Finally, on the tenth of November 2004, Tongcheung departed to Southeast Asia with $15.000 hidden in his hat, coat, shirt, bell, socks and shoes.

During the New Year celebration, his friends were looking for him everywhere in America. His brothers and sisters, ashamed, whispered no word of his trip. Indeed, the whole family wanted to preserve some face in case things would not go well.

After two months of absence, he came back home, but with no wife. The sugar canes had grown into five feet tall, and the banana trees turned into a yellow-brown forest.

Months quickly passed. No one saw Tongcheung outside of his house. He did not visit any of his neighbors. No crops planted at his farm.

When people drove nearby his fields, they only saw bad grasses everywhere. No tomatoes, no squashes and no green mustards. The thin sugar canes, fell down on each other, were abandoned. The banana trees swung with their giant leaves, spreading the rotten odor of their fruits all over the farm and on the adjacent roads. The soil was so dry; the crackes and clefts in the field, seen from the sky, looked like an afflicting, painful and grieving face.

Wild flowers bloomed around the house, on the walls, but there was no noise of fan inside the house. The chickens, ducks, and pigeons played freely and joyfully in the courtyard. The sceneary gave a profound feeling of misery and despair.

The family even worried, though hesitating, had called Tongcheug a few times. He did not take the calls.  Some of the sisters were thinking to fly to North Carolina. But their husband had opposed to this foolish idea. It was the duties of the brothers.

Throughout the summer, the mobile house was now hidden by the weed; the farm has become an abandoned place, an end to the road. The neighbors, at the same time curious and worried, sometimes saw the postman drop letters, surely some bills.

Finally, Mia, the youngest sister and her Vietnamese boyfriend flew to North Carolina in September.

The disable cousin had vanished with the Toyota truck. The door of the main entrance was closed, but not locked. The living-room was empty, there was nothing, not even a spoon or plate in the cupboard of the kitchen.

The couple were standing in the dusty living room, clueless and anxious, staring at one another, before moving to the main bedroom. The door was locked. They broke it, but no-one was in.  There was a bed, a tape reader, some pictures, some letters and tapes, and empty sachets of Thai noodles.  No sign of her brother. Mia shook her head with fallen tears.

- "Let's go outside, he must be somewhere in the farm", the boyfriend comforted her.

No sign of him in the small farming shelter near the river, in the sugar cane plot or among the banana trees. They did not find him.

They went to the neighbours, but no-one had seen him for months.

Mia, tired and anguished, did not want to give up. She wanted to wait for a moment. She knew her brother well. He could not give up his life. She was the last one to live with him when his wives left him, one after the other.

The boy-friend now searched grove after grove in the sugar cane parcel while Mia sat on the stairs, trying to remember her brother's habits.

Tongcheung became her father and mother when they lost their parents some twenty years ago in the Ban Vinai Refugees camp in Thailand.  She was three years old. He was just seventeen. His brother was a good man, but did not have good communication skills. She knew that, but never felt enough comfortable to tell him. So she didn't. After she divorced her husband who often abused her, she should have shared her suffering with her older brother. She now regretted bitterly not to have done so. She would be closer to him, and could help him to cope with his sorrowful life.

Suddenly, her eyes were caught by the dancing movement of the banana leaves that seemed smiling to the sun. She stood up, hesitating for a second, then ran at full speed toward the banana trees, and promptly moved the fallen leaves from the alleys to the sides, then saw, not far, a mass.

-"Is it a trunk?! No banana tree has fallen. What is it?", she thought.

Mia got closer, and quickly removed the few remaining leaves.  His brother, asleep, was lying on the ground, holding in his arms some bananas.

She called her boy-friend.

-" Van, he is here, my brother is here. Run over here. Quickly!

She called 911 while checking his pulse. Tongcheung woke up and found Mia stare at him with surprise and joy. He finally smiled at his little sister, half crying half laughing nervously.

- "He is alive, don't cry, he's okay, sweetheart", Van comforted her, his hand holding her left shoulder.

The two lovers sat down on the edge of the bed, and casted a glance at the letters and tapes. Mia took some and started to read. They were from Maysee, Tongcheung's new bride.

-"Yesterday, my brother took me to the American Embassy. We asked them again about the visa. ... I hope to see you very soon, my love Tongcheung. Don't forget to send me some money. I need some new clothes. I miss you."

- "I have morning sickness. We went to see the nurse. She told me I am pregnant. ... We returned to the American Embassy, but no good news. We need to bring some more paperwork. We have to wait for a month ot two before getting an answer. I miss you. ... Send me some money because my mother is sick."

- "... Send me some money. Because of the baby, I keep craving for all kinds of food."

- "... Send me some money, I need to buy some new clothes for me and the baby. I cannot wear my old clothes anymore."

- "Tongcheung, I gave birth to your daughter last week. My mom named her "Maitong". ... I hope you are happy. ... Send me some money as soon as possible. I need chicken for my meals."

- "Tongcheung, ... I don't want to come to America anymore. I am going to get married to somebody else in Laos. I just want to let you. I am sorry. But please, send me some money for your daughter. I need money to raise her."

It was the last letter found on the floor.

Mia stared at her boyfriend, angry, saddened, and distressed. No word came out of her heart. She knew.

Tongcheung's heart was like a banana tree, too soft inside in order to harden through difficult experiences, too fruity to not tempt the greediness of some young women in Laos when he only sought a generous and good soulmate, but too straight to impose on others his vulnerability and loneliness and to accept help.

Tongcheung might have died of love, alone in the darkness of his bedroom or buried under the banana leaves, after reading these letters and listening to the tapes sent by that young woman he married traditionally in paying a bride price of $10.000.

Luckily, the banana trees that he dearly loved saved his life.

All characters are fictional. Kao-Ly Yang invented this story.

Copyrights © 2006 Kao-Ly Yang
All Rights Reserved.


Banana tree
Decision Making
Family authority
Interracial dating
Mail bride
Sugar cane