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Hmong shaman inhabits 2 worlds

STEPHEN MAGAGNINI - September 11, 2000, Monday DATELINE: SACRAMENTO, Calif.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Xong Lao Vang sees his first client: a man who has lost his wallet. When exactly did you lose it? Vang asks, then plots the information on an ivory calendar etched with X's and dots in domino patterns.

According to the calendar, a Hmong fortune-telling device, Vang figures the man lost his wallet at home, somewhere low to the ground.

Lost wallets, sick babies, sore-backed grandmas, accident victims, funerals, weddings, marital discord ... Vang, 73, works them all.

For half a century, he's been a Hmong shaman and flute player, making him an indispensable part of Hmong culture.

America, for many Hmong, has been "a puzzle of 1,000 pieces," says Vang's contemporary Choua Thao, one of the few Hmong women educated in Laos. Only now, after 25 years, are Vang and other Hmong solving that puzzle.

Vang's secret is that he never let America defeat him. He has balanced ancient traditions with a pragmatic approach to the vastly different world of Sacramento.

He realizes arranged marriages don't work here, that girls who marry in their early teens are often destined to a life of poverty, misery and divorce. He understands that Hmong without an education will lose the respect of their children.

Traditional Hmong believe every person's soul is like a passport with an expiration date - the day you're scheduled to die - and Vang helps Hmong over age 50 renew their spiritual passports.

He's also trying to extend the expiration date on Hmong culture in America. In the past few years, he has cut back his practice to become a one-man cultural preservation society. He's training a new generation of Hmong shamans and flute players to carry on centuries-old traditions.

The shaman Xong (pronounced Tzong) Lao Vang was born in 1927 in the village of Phatong in northern Laos. At 21, he fell deathly ill - a prerequisite for becoming a shaman. The shaman who healed him taught him the tools of the trade.

Vang's close-cropped hair is still coal black - "the same color it was in my 20s," he says. Though he chain-smokes cigarettes from an aluminum bong, he manages to keep up with his four small grandchildren. And he still can jump and gyrate nonstop for hours during his frequent journeys into the spirit world.

Until recently, he performed more than 100 ceremonies a year, and claims a 50-60 percent success rate.

Surrounded by his grandchildren, Vang displays his shaman's tools. "The tools are most important," he says.

He lovingly handles his big steel ring with the nine copper coins. "The very first shaman from the beginning of the world had a ring," he says. "You use it when you're chasing a spirit to a certain level of heaven."

He takes out his ivory fortune-telling calendar. With it he can tell you the best time to go to Reno, whether your cough will get worse or what time of day you'll have the most energy.

Advancing age has restricted Vang's practice to those whom Western doctors can't heal, and he plays the Hmong flute only at funerals of prominent people.

But he's always ready to give flute lessons to the procession of Hmong boys who drop by.

From the time he was eight, Vang has played the Hmong flute, or keng, a unique six-pipe instrument that looks and sounds a little like bagpipes. You often can find him strolling through his house, playing happy love songs on one of his two bamboo flutes.

Keng is believed to be the language of the spirit world, and Hmong over the centuries have relied on keng masters to guide the souls of dead loved ones to heaven. A keng player is a eulogist, priest, performance artist, musician and medium.

Vang and 10 of his students recently played at the funeral of a Hmong elder. So revered was the deceased that his clan sacrificed eight cows to ensure his soul a safe journey.

In exchange for Vang's services, clients place cash donations on his altar and give him bags of sacrificial beef or pork, which he stores in two freezers and a refrigerator. "Ever since we moved to California in 1983, we've hardly ever had to buy meat," says his son Chue.

Vang, who comes from the largest of 18 Hmong clans, is one of the most respected Hmong leaders in Northern California. He also has earned the respect of his children, never showing favoritism and never using force.

"When you did something wrong ... he let things cool down," Chue says. "Then he'd take you into a room alone. Quietly, softly, nicely, he'd say, 'A good person wouldn't do what you did today ... a smart person learns from his mistakes.'"

Vang and his wife, Pa Cha, taught their children that life is too precious to waste.

On Saturday nights, his children gather to hear him tell ghost stories and offer advice - some old, some surprisingly modern.

He tells them he has mediated at least 10 divorces of women who were forced into arranged marriages. "Find your soul mate and marry for love," he advises. Twenty is the best age to get married, and four children is a good number - especially for working parents stretched too thin to give eight or 10 children the love and attention they deserve.

For all the obstacles that have tested his people in America, Vang is happy to be here. "If we'd stayed in Laos, there's an 80 percent chance we'd be dead," he says. "Here, it's 50-50."

(Contact Stephen Magagnini of the Sacramento Bee in California at http://www.sacbee.com.)