Book excerpt

Above: Vang Pao with his youngest wife, May Song, in California, the year before his death

       In early February 2011, tens of thousands of Asian tribespeople converged on the city of Fresno, in California’s central valley. They drove their cars down Highway 99 from Sacramento, Stockton, Merced, and other tribal strongholds. They arrived at the Fresno airport on flights from the big enclaves in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and from smaller population clusters scattered across the rest of the U.S. They even flew in from overseas – from Thailand, Australia, France, and from a small, improbable colony in French Guiana, next to Brazil in South America.

       All in all, that is to say, the Asian tribespeople travelled toward Fresno from five of the world’s seven continents. But nobody came to General Vang Pao’s funeral from his home country of Laos, in the remote, mountainous interior of Southeast Asia. This was a farewell gathering for exiles, for a diaspora that the general himself had created, with the help of an old friend from the Central Intelligence Agency, Bill Lair. Though “friend” may be an exaggeration, given the tumultuous relationship between the two men through years of war, exile, feuds, a federal arrest for terrorism, and intervention by shamans. Perhaps it is simpler to say that Vang Pao and Bill Lair had changed each other’s lives and brought the Hmong tribe to America. They were connected to each other, whether they liked it or not.

       In downtown Fresno, preparations for Vang Pao’s six-day, around-the-clock funeral ceremony went smoothly. The suppliers and volunteers were Hmong-Americans themselves. They went about their tasks efficiently, without making a fuss. It scarcely seemed possible that back in Laos, their parents and grandparents hadn’t known how to read and write, and hadn’t even used the wheel. At the Fresno Convention Center, Hmong-owned delivery trucks backed into the loading docks with food for the mourners – fifty-pound sacks of rice, bushels of vegetables, freshly slaughtered beef and chicken. A convoy of Hmong-owned florists’ vans drove up, one after the next, unloading boxes of white carnations for making memorial wreaths. In the lobby of the convention center men from the Vang clan, Vang Pao’s own, hung an eight-foot high photograph of the general in his C.I.A. years – a moonfaced man in a white dress military uniform, holding a ceremonial sword.

       And yet forty-eight hours before the funeral began, an uneasy feeling hovered over the Hmong community in Fresno. Due to misunderstandings between the general’s supporters and U.S. government bureaucrats, a petition to bury the general with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery was in limbo. Nobody, not even the funeral organizers, knew where Gen. Vang Pao was going to be buried once the funeral ceremony was over. But the gnawing uncertainty gave tribal traditionalists a chance to intervene – and the Hmong have been intervening for as long as they can remember, in both the human and the spiritual realms.

       So, there was a probe. An attempt to get results through entirely different channels. A few blocks from the convention center, on the edge of downtown Fresno, in a room at the Super 8 motel, a cell phone rang. One of Gen. Vang Pao’s widows, an elegant, golden-skinned woman in her fifties, answered it.  She found herself talking with a shaman, or spirit healer, she had never met before.

       Mrs. Vang Pao – known as May Song, to her friends – was the youngest of Gen. Vang Pao’s six wives. Through her late husband, the former Hmong military commander, she already knew the most eminent shamans in California. Most of them were elderly men – and in May Song’s private opinion, a little too full of themselves and rigid in their ways. So, she was pleased when the shaman who called her turned out to be a polite young woman; and she went on high alert when this shaman told her about meeting Gen. Vang Pao’s soul in a dream.

       May Song didn’t believe in coincidences. She believed in destiny, and destiny had come calling on her mobile phone. Her husband had told her many times that female shamans had a special gift for connecting him to the Otherworld, the parallel universe where spirits reside. So, May Song thought, why not? Maybe this shaman could help find a burial place.

       The widow asked for a séance. If her husband – who had been dead for a month, his body kept near freezing temperatures in a funeral home – wanted to speak his burial wishes from the Otherworld, the shaman could be the go-between. The two women agreed to meet at a Hmong-owned ranch house in the nearby suburb of Clovis, California.

       As the time of their appointment grew near, May Song checked her hair and makeup in the mirror, left her room at the Super 8 motel, got in a white Ford minivan with one of her tribal ladies-in-waiting, and headed out on the freeway …