Hmong People and the Propensity for Navigating Tragedy Towards Large Bodies of Water

Published in
8 min readApr 13, 2019


Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago, a Hmong man by the name of Moua Lo had disappeared into the murky depths of the San Joaquin river. He was only 41 and a father, husband, brother, and friend. He jumped in after his one year old son who had fallen overboard their tiny boat. Moua’s 10 year old daughter was also in the boat along with her sister who hastily called 911 for help.

The coast guard boats came quickly and found Moua’s daughters, frightened and alone in the boat which floated aimlessly towards a waterway without a captain to steer it. When more help arrived, there were still no signs of Moua Lo and his son anywhere, and rescue crews knew they were running out of time.

About 2 years ago, a bright and hopeful high schooler by the name of Neng Thao was found lifeless—floating 20 feet underwater in the same river. Reports said that he was swept away by the current and later drowned. Hmong folks like my grandfather attributed drownings and water disappearances to giant water dragons call “Zaj” that navigated below the calm surface of the rivers we frequented — often gobbling up naughty Hmong boys whole for lunch. The more likely scenario are the strong undercurrents that have claimed the lives of so many Hmong people. Despite the rise in news articles, drownings of Hmong people are becoming more and more common and tragic.

Hmong people have always been wary of large bodies of water. We’re one of the various hill tribes that inhabit the hillsides and mountains of southeast Asia, far from the raging rivers across Asia. We like our foot on the ground, heads tilted to the sky with the sun on our backs. This would be unfortunate as many Hmong families had to flee Laos, heading to Thailand to escape war and persecution. In their journey, they were met with one of the fiercest rivers in the world: The Mekong — Which spanned as wide as two miles at certain points, a grave danger because many Hmong never learned how to swim.

Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

But for them, it was the only way to escape. On one side of the river was Laos, and on the other side was Thailand—and safety. There are many stories of Hmong crossing the Mekong to Thailand to flee the Lao communists, most of them tragic. In the night, many used rubber tubes, ropes, and rickety bamboo rafts. Still, many Hmong died in that river. Some were shot, some were abandoned, and many drowned.

My mother’s connection to the river includes being on a makeshift raft as they silently moved across the Mekong river under the cover of night in their escape to Thailand. My then five-year-old mother slipped and fell into the river. My grandmother, in her infinite wisdom, immediately reached into the dark river and fished for my mother’s ankle, pulling her out of the wet darkness and back onto the raft, which left my mother soaking and sobbing. She didn’t realize it at the time but she had been baptized by the Mekong and born again — no longer free, but instead starting her new life as a refugee in a holding camp.

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Like my mother, I too, have a connection to the river. Years later, my mother was now pregnant with me (her first child), but due to complications was not yet married to my father. It was common for pregnant Hmong women of wedlock to give birth outside of the home as not to upset the spirits of the home. So as her contractions became increasingly unbearable, my mother ventured deep into the jungle, away from the refugee camp alone. As she braced herself against a tall palm tree and finally gave birth to me, my mother encountered the worse scenario a pregnant woman could ever have: I came out black and blue with no no sign of breathing. In a panic, she rushed me to a nearby river and found a bucket to wash me in, frantically wiping my nose and mouth for signs of life.

Aerial view of the Mekong River

It was there by the muddy river shore, as she cradled her stillborn child and wept and prayed, that my little body began to stir. Most people come into this world alive, kicking and screaming, but I died at birth before I could live. And for Hmong people, when we die, our spirits return to the land where our placentas were buried.

Yet I have no idea where mine resides — Maybe its buried near a beautiful field in Thailand somewhere, filled with blossoms. Or maybe it was washed away in the stream while my mother was trying to resuscitate me. Or maybe she bartered it with river spirits for my soul. Whatever my mother did, it didn’t matter. She saved me. And I have been fearful of large waterways ever since.

Even to this day I am still unable to swim. I’ve tried many times but it always makes me panic when my head goes below the water line. My Hmong shaman friend instilled that fear in me by saying that I was born on the year of the rooster and that roosters can’t swim. I didn’t want to believe him but he may be right.

We eventually made it to America like many other Hmong families, and on one sunday afternoon, my mother took me and my brothers to William Land Park in Sacramento when I was Seven. The park had large ponds and water fountains that were sometimes stocked with fish and attracted local birds. My mother had fashioned me a cucumber boat during a picnic (The inside was hollowed out for her cucumber dish and only the half-shell remained).

I ran along the sides of the large pond, my long thin tree branch in hand, happily pushing my boat as it glided upon the water’s surface. As I outpaced my veggie boat, it spun out and was just a bit out of reach of my branch. Without thinking, I leaned in with my branch to try to pull the side of the boat towards me and fell into the pond. It all happened so fast yet seemed like forever.

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As my head bobbed in and out of the green water, it felt like my mind was in two places. The flashes of my mother’s muted screaming on the surface and the darkness of the water below me, clouding my vision, seemingly pulling me down as my clothing became heavy. It felt like a dream. I had seen this before. I know I have.

I’ve had this recurring dream all my life. It’s me standing at the beach shore on a starless night. The slow waves slowly kissing my toes before receding back into the dark sea. The water feels unusually warm. I intuitively know this ocean is deep — deeper than I could ever imagine and filled with beasts of uncertainty. Sometimes, I’ll walk in only ankle deep and reach around the water by my feet. If I’m lucky, the dark sea will produce a shining pearl for me. As I take the pearl into my palm and marvel at its beauty, I am blessed with a new bright idea upon waking. But most times, this dream is not so giving. Sometimes I dream I am suddenly in the middle of that black ocean, miles down, floating, sleeping, unable to move or escape as tiny bubbles emerge from the sides of my lips. When I wake from that dream, the wetness from my forehead reminds me I was just there.

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As you can tell, I survived that pond experience that day. My upset mother pulled me out of the pond and scolded me for being too close. Minutes later, she handed me a plate of food. The following Sunday, I stayed home because I had become ill (I was more than sure I swallowed a bunch of duck shit flavored algae water) while my mother returned to the pond, by herself. She brought incense, a small bowl of rice, and a whole boiled chicken and prayed to the spirits of the pond. She told me afterwards that my spirit was still trapped in the murky water of the pond and kindly asked the pond spirits to return it to my sick body so I could heal. I never knew a pond could have a “spirit”.

According to shamans, spirits inhabit everything in this world. They are referred to as “dab teb dab chaw”, spiritual guardians of places like mountains and rivers. It’s customary to appease these spirits with offerings of food when journeying through their land for safe passage, or incur their wrath when disrespecting their dwelling place. When I was younger I scoffed at the idea of spirits in inanimate things, but as I got older, I became more accepting of my religious spirituality and how it shaped my identity and belief.

On March 29th 2019, A little more downstream on the San Joaquin River, Moua’s son was later found floating along the river surface, face-up and still strapped to his tiny life vest but unconscious. Paramedics rushed to him but didn’t find a pulse on the young boy and flew him to the nearest hospital. He survived but was in critical condition.

I imagine Moua deep in the water, being pulled by “Zaj” water undercurrents, and in the fleeting moments that seemed like forever, had made a deal with the river spirits: to spare his son’s life for his. The spirits of the river must have considered his offer, possibly rejecting it at first but eventually agreeing to his request for the exchange. That now among the various river guardian spirits that reside in the San Joaquin river, that Moua is now among them.

In the events where Hmong people have come across unexplainable tragedy, we use superstition, religion, and tales of caution to help us come to terms with the grief. These stories give ourselves a reason as to why things happen, and help us resolve our emotions when there are no other ways to resolve them. In a way, constructing a narrative around our own experiences gives us control in a seemingly uncontrollable and unfair world. And as I have shared my stories with you reader, you too, have been a journey with me to find meaning in tragedy.

I also imagine when the time comes, it’ll be my turn to return to the water. Yet, there’s just so much left for me to do before then. More stories to tell.

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