photo courtesy of author
On September 24, NPR show Radiolab aired a 25-minute segment on Yellow Rain. In the 1960s, most Hmong had sided with America in a secret war against the Pathet Lao and its allies. More than 100,000 Hmong died in this conflict, and when American troops pulled out, the rest were left to face brutal repercussions. Those who survived the perilous journey to Thailand carried horrific stories of an ongoing genocide, among them accounts of chemical warfare.
Their stories provoked a scientific controversy that still hasn't been resolved. In its podcast, Radiolab set out to find the "fact of the matter." Yet its relentless badgering of Hmong refugee Eng Yang and his niece, award-winning author and activist Kao Kalia Yang, provoked an outcry among its listeners, and its ongoing callous, racist handling of the issue has since been criticized in several places, including Hyphen.
When Hyphen's R.J. Lozada reached out to Kao Kalia Yang, she graciously agreed to share her side of the story for the first time. What follows are her words, and those of her uncle.
I was pregnant.
In early spring, a dear friend of mine,
noted Hmong scholar and historian Paul Hillmer, contacted me to see if I knew anyone
who would be willing to speak to Radiolab, an NPR show with 1.8 million
listeners worldwide. On April 26, 2012, I
received an email from Pat Walters, a producer at Radiolab, saying the show was
looking for the Hmong perspective on Yellow Rain for a podcast. Pat wrote, “I’d love to speak with your
uncle. And no, I don’t have a single specific question; I’d be delighted to hear
him speak at length.” There were two New Yorker stories on Yellow Rain, and
neither of them contained a Hmong voice, so Radiolab wanted to do better, to
include Hmong experience. This seemed
like an important opportunity to give the adults in my life a voice to share
stories of what happened to them after the Americans left the jungles of Laos
in 1975. I asked Uncle Eng to see if he
would be interested. He was. I agreed to serve as interpreter. Before the date of the interview with Pat and
Robert Krulwich, one of the show’s main hosts, I wrote Pat to ensure that the
Radiolab team would respect my uncle’s story, his perspective, and the Hmong
experience. I asked for questions. Pat submitted questions about Yellow Rain.
On the date of
the interview, Wednesday May 16, 2012, at 10 in the morning,
Marisa Helms (a Minnesota-based sound producer sent by Radiolab), my husband,
and I met with Uncle Eng’s family at their house in Brooklyn Center. In customary Hmong tradition, my uncle had
laid out a feast of fruits and fruit drinks from the local Asian grocery
store. He had risen early, went through
old notebooks where he’d documented in Lao, Thai, Hmong, and a smattering of
French and English, recollections of Hmong history, gathered thoughts, and
written down facts of the time. The
phone lines were connected to WNYC studios.
Pat and Robert introduced themselves and asked
us for our introductions. The questions
began. They wanted to know where my
uncle was during the war, what happened after the Americans left, why the Hmong
ran into the jungles, what happened in the jungles, what was his experience of
Yellow Rain. Uncle Eng responded to each
question. The questions took a
turn. The interview became an
interrogation. A Harvard scientist said
the Yellow Rain Hmong people experienced was nothing more than bee
My uncle explained Hmong
knowledge of the bees in the mountains of Laos, said we had harvested honey for
centuries, and explained that the chemical attacks were strategic; they
happened far away from established bee colonies, they happened where there were
heavy concentrations of Hmong. Robert
grew increasingly harsh, “Did you, with your own eyes, see the yellow powder
fall from the airplanes?” My uncle said
that there were planes flying all the time and bombs being dropped, day and
night. Hmong people did not wait around
to look up as bombs fell. We came out in
the aftermath to survey the damage. He
said what he saw, “Animals dying, yellow that could eat through leaves, grass, yellow
that could kill people -- the likes of which bee poop has never done.”
uncle explained that he was serving as documenter of the Hmong experience for
the Thai government, a country that helped us during the genocide. With his radio and notebooks, he journeyed to
the sites where the attacks had happened, watched with his eyes what had
happened to the Hmong, knew that what was happening to the Hmong were not the
result of dysentery, lack of food, the environment we had been living in or its
natural conditions. Robert crossed the
line. He said that what my uncle was
saying was “hearsay.”
I had been trying valiantly to interpret
everything my uncle was saying, carry meaning across the chasm of English and
Hmong, but I could no longer listen to Robert’s harsh dismissal of my uncle’s
experience. After two hours, I cried,
"My uncle says for the last twenty years
he didn’t know that anyone was interested in the deaths of the Hmong
people. He agreed to do this interview
because you were interested. What
happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the
last twenty years. He agreed because you
were interested. That the story would be
heard and the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that
the Hmong heart is broken and our leaders have been silenced, and what we know
has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him, or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same
reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were
interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was
being used. How do you create bombs if
not with chemicals? We can play the
semantics game, we can, but I’m not interested, my uncle is not interested. We
have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process. I, I think the interview is done.”
Before we hung up the phone, I asked for
copies of the full interview. Robert
told me that I would need a court order. I offered resources I have on Yellow Rain, news articles and medical
texts that a doctor from Columbia University had sent my way, resources that
would offer Radiolab a fuller perspective of the situation in Laos and the
conditions of the Hmong exposed to the chemicals. My uncle gave Marisa a copy of a DVD he had
recorded of a Hmong woman named Pa Ma, speaking of her experiences in the
jungles of Laos after the Americans left, so that the Radiolab team would understand
the fullness of what happened to the Hmong.
After we hung up the phone, there was silence from the Radiolab
On May 18, I emailed Pat:
"I can't say that the experience of the interview was
pleasant, but it is over now. I've had a day and some hours into the night to
think about the content of the interview. My heart hurts for what transpired.
Our dead will not rise into life. The bombs fell. The yellow powder covered the
leaves and the grass, and the people suffered and died. We can only speak to
what we experienced, what we saw.” I
followed up on my offer of resources, “I said that I had old newspaper
clippings that a doctor from Columbia sent me. I do not want it aired that I
offered material I did not follow up on. If you want them, let me know. I will
make photocopies and send. If you've no time to look through them before the
completion of your show, then please also let me know so I don't waste more
heart in the effort."
May 21, Pat wrote back, “I’m editing our piece now and I will
certainly send it to you when it’s finished. Unfortunately, I don’t think time
will allow me to review the articles you mentioned.” He ended the email with a request for me to
listen to an attached song to identify whether it was Hmong or not.
On August 3, 2012, my husband
and I went in for our first ultrasound. Our baby was 19 weeks old. The
black screen flickered to life. I saw a
baby huddled in a ball, feet planted on either side, face turned away. The room was very silent. I prodded my baby to move. I thought the volume hadn’t been turned
on. The technician was quiet. She did her measurements. She left the room. The monitor was on. I tapped my belly, asked my baby to move, so
I could see if it was a boy or a girl. Two doctors came into the room. The younger one held onto my feet. The older one said, “I’m sorry to tell you. Your baby is dead.” On August 4, after 26 hours of
induced labor, listening to the cries of mothers in pain and then the cries of
babies being born, I gave birth to a little boy, six inches long, head swollen
with liquid, eyes closed, and his mouth open like a little bird.
On August 6 my cell phone
rang. It was Pat, and he wanted me to
call in to an automated line at Radiolab reading the credits for the segment in
Hmong. I told him I had just lost my
baby. I told him I didn’t want to. He said, “If you feel better, you can call
in.” I didn’t feel better.
On September 24, 2012, Radiolab aired
their Yellow Rain segment in an episode titled “The Fact of the Matter.” Everybody in the show had a name, a
profession, institutional affiliation except Eng Yang, who was identified as “Hmong
guy,” and me, “his niece.” The fact that
I am an award-winning writer was ignored. The fact that my uncle was an official radio man and documenter of the
Hmong experience to the Thai government during the war was absent. In the interview, the Hmong knowledge of bees
or the mountains of Laos were completely edited out.
The aired story goes something like
this: Hmong people say they were exposed
to Yellow Rain, one Harvard scientist and ex-CIA American man believe that’s
hogwash; Ronald Reagan used Yellow Rain and Hmong testimony to blame the
Soviets for chemical warfare and thus justified America's own production of chemical
warfare. Uncle Eng and I were featured
as the Hmong people who were unwilling to accept the “Truth.” My cry at the end was interpreted by Robert
as an effort to “monopolize” the story. They leave a moment of silence.
Then the team talks about how we may have shown them how war causes
pain, how Reagan’s justification for chemical warfare was a hugely important
issue to the world -- if not for “the woman” -- because clearly she doesn’t care. There was no acknowledgement that Agent
Orange and other chemicals had long been produced by the US government and used
in Southeast Asia. The team left no room
for science that questioned their own aims. Instead, they chose to end the show with hushed laughter.
The day after the show aired, critical feedback
began streaming in on the Radiolab website. People from around the world began questioning the segment, particularly
Robert’s interrogation of a man who survived a genocidal regime. My cry had awakened something that was
“painful,” and made people “uncomfortable.” Pat wrote me to ask me to write a public response to the show so
Radiolab could publish it in the wake of the critical response and the concern
of its audience. I wrote one. My response was,
There is a great imbalance
of power at play. From the get-go you got to ask the questions. I sent an email
inquiring about the direction the interview would go, where you were headed -- expressing
to you my concern about the treatment of my uncle and the respect with which
his story deserves. You never responded to the email. I have it and I can
forward it to you if you'd like. During the course of the interview, my uncle
spent a long time explaining Hmong knowledge of bees in the mountains of Laos,
not the hills of Thailand, but the mountains of Laos. You all edited it out.
Robert Krulwich has the gall to say that I "monopolize" -- he who
gets to ask the questions, has control over editing, and in the end: the final
word. Only an imperialist white man can say that to a woman of color and call
it objectivity or science. I am not lost on the fact that I am the only female
voice in that story, and in the end, that it is my uncle and I who cry...as you
all laugh on.
Pat did not publish my response.
Instead, on September 26, Jad Abumrad,
the other main host of Radiolab, wrote a public letter offering more “context”
to the Yellow Rain segment. There was no
mention of the fact that they did not take up my offer to look at additional
resources that would complicate their assumptions. My friend Paul Hillmer had offered academic
research by another Ivy-league scientist that called into question the Harvard
professor’s conclusions, which the team had refused to look at. Jad wrote about journalism and integrity and
how Radiolab stands by Robert’s “robust” approach to Truth, the “science” of
Radiolab went into the original podcast
and altered it. In Jad’s words, he “inserted a line
in the story that puts our ending conversation in a bit more context.”
Many Radiolab listeners used the Jad
response as a platform to dialogue and critique the show further.
On September 30, Robert wrote a
response to address concerns about the Yellow Rain segment. He wrote, "My
intent is to question, listen, and explore.” He apologized for the “harshness” of his tone. He stated,
In this segment, our subject was
President Reagan's 1982 announcement that he believed the Soviets had
manufactured chemical weapons and were using them on Hmong people in Laos --
and a subsequent announcement by scientists at Harvard and Yale that the
President was wrong, that the so-called ‘weapons’ were not weapons at all, but
bees relieving themselves in the forest. While there had been previous accounts of this
controversy, very few journalists had asked the Hmong refugees hiding in that
forest what happened, what they'd seen. That's why we wanted to speak with Mr.
Yang and his niece, Ms. Yang.
did not mention the research they did not look at. He did not mention the Hmong knowledge of
bees. He did not mention the racism at
work, the privileging of Western education over indigenous knowledge, or the
fact that he is a white man in power calling from the safety of Time, his
class, and popular position -- to brand the Hmong experience of chemical warfare
one founded on ignorance.
tides of audience response shifted. Whereas the majority of listeners were “uncomfortable” with what
transpired, and had called fervently for apologies to be issued to Uncle Eng
and the Hmong community, some of them were beginning to say, “Robert is a
journalist in search of truth.” Others
wrote, “At least the Hmong story was heard.” Few questioned the fullness of what had transpired; many took the
“research” of Radiolab to be thorough and comprehensive, despite the fact that
sound research by respected scholars and scientists believing that Yellow Rain
was a chemical agent used against the Hmong was not discussed or
investigated. Dr. C.J. Mirocha, the
scientist who conducted the first tests on Yellow Rain samples and found
toxins, and whose work has never been scientifically refuted, was not interviewed. The work of researchers who argued against
Meselson’s bee dung theory was also never mentioned.
On October 3, my
husband and I had a spirit releasing ceremony for Baby Jules. The day was cold. The wind bit hard. The ground was dry without the autumn
rains. We buried the memory box from the
hospital beneath a tall tree, much older than us, an old tree on a small island. We wrote letters to Baby Jules on pink
balloons and released them into the sky. I wrote, “Baby Jules, there is no need to be scared. You have been so brave already.”
On October 7, I
received an email from Dean Cappello, the Chief Content Officer at WNYC,
notifying me that Radiolab had once more “amended” the Yellow Rain podcast so that Robert could apologize at the end, specifically to Uncle Eng for
the harshness of his tone and to me for saying that I was trying to
“monopolize” the conversation. I
listened to the doctored version. In
addition to Robert’s apologies -- which completely failed to acknowledge the
dismissal of our voices and the racism that transpired/s -- Radiolab had simply
re-contextualized their position, taken out the laughter at the end, and
“cleaned” away incriminating evidence.
On October 8, I wrote Mr.
Dear Mr. Cappello,
Thank you for writing me directly. I
appreciate the gesture. When I lived in New York for several years, I became a
fan of your radio station, and grew to believe in the work you all do there in
I just listened to the amended
podcast this morning. I am struck by how many times a podcast on truth can (be)
doctored, to protect itself. I don't know how much you are aware of in regards
to this matter, but I believe there are certain things you should know very
directly from me:
My uncle and I were contacted by
Radiolab because they said they wanted to know the Hmong experience of Yellow
Rain. Ronald Reagan and American politics were not at all mentioned in any of
the correspondences between me and Radiolab. For the show to say that we were
not "ambushed" and that they have been completely honest with us from
the beginning is a falsehood.
Before the interview, I wrote Pat
specifically to tell him that I wanted to make sure Radiolab would respect what
my uncle had to share about the Hmong experience of Yellow Rain.
During the course of the entire,
unedited interview -- which I really hope that you have listened to -- Pat and
Robert dismissed my uncle's experiences again and again for two hours, thus in
the edited version: you hear me cry. Robert argues this was because my uncle
and I got angry and couldn't buy the "truth" of what the scientists
were saying, but that is not what happened.
During the interview, I told Pat and
Robert that I had additional resources about what happened in Laos, that
complicate the "bee crap" theory, and that I would be happy to share
them. After the interview, despite the fact that it left us feeling horribly, I
honored my words and wrote Pat offering the additional resources. Pat wrote
back saying that Radiolab didn't have enough time.
When the show aired, I was
distraught to hear all that had been edited out: particularly, my uncle's deep
knowledge of bees and the mountains of Laos, as well as his official role as
documenter for the Thai government on with the Hmong during this time. As well,
I was shocked to hear my uncle reduced to "Hmong guy" and me to
"his niece" while everyone else on the show was introduced with their
titles and official affiliations. This, amongst other aspects of this show,
showed a side of Radiolab and a clear privileging of Western knowledge that was
far from the truth.
After the show aired, as criticism
appeared on their site, Pat wrote me asking me for a public statement of how I
received the show. I did so and he refused to publish it, instead Jad's further
"contextualization" was put up. Not only was this disrespectful but
it was a complete dismissal of my voice on the matter. *I reiterate what I
wrote to Pat, only a white man can say a woman of color is trying to
"monopolize" a conversation he has full power of in the asking of
questions, the editing, and the contextualizing and dares to call it
"objectivity" and science.
My uncle and I agreed to an
interview on the Hmong experience of Yellow Rain. We spoke honestly and
authentically from where we were positioned. We did not try to convince anybody
of what we lived through, merely, we wanted to share it. Our treatment by
Radiolab has been humiliating and hurtful not only during the interview, the
editing process, and the airing of the original podcast, but in the continued
public letters by Jad and Robert to their audience, and revisions to the
original segment -- that continue to dismiss the validity of our voices and
perspectives, and in fact, silences them.
While I will not presume to know the
intentions of the hosts, I am responding to you very directly about what
transpired, and what they continue to do. While I respect the work of
journalism, I believe that journalistic integrity was lost in the ways Radiolab
handled my uncle and the Hmong story.
I appreciate what you have to say
about the role of journalism and the fact that many of your colleagues are now
interested in pursuing more of the Hmong story. I have a proposition for you:
that one of your colleagues do a story on the Hmong experience of what happened
in Laos after the Americans left, a story that will respect the Hmong voices,
and redeem all of our faith in good journalism that transcends cultures and
revives history so that our shared realities become more whole. I am happy to
help in any way I can. I cannot afford to give in to cynicism.
For Radiolab specifically, my uncle
has put together a small message in English for the many listeners who have
responded to him compassionately and kindly. I want Radiolab to air his message
to their audiences, so that his voice can be heard and his message of love and
human rights can be delivered. It is short, and it is a clear reflection of
where he is positioned in all of this...as he has said to me throughout this
whole travesty, "Me Naib, bullets didn't kill me, so how can words uttered
on airwaves I cannot see hurt me?" -- even as he suffers before me.
I await your response to this email.
There has yet to be a response.
I am no longer pregnant. I am no longer scared. I, like my baby, have been so brave already.
Introduction by Hyphen columnist Kirti Kamboj
[10/30/2012 UPDATE: Please join us at 18 Million Rising, to tell NPR that what happened is unacceptable, and Radiolab's dismissal of the Hmong experience must be addressed.]