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Old Land Under the Old Sky

Ya Mee Xiong is the soft-spoken, great-aunt of Sitha Thor. She lives comfortably with her family in Appleton, Wis. In her charming home full of family portraits and lively grandchildren, she reminisced on the longest journey of her life. Ya Mee was born in 1924 in Xab Maj Phwv Tees, a quiet mountainside village in Laos, located in Southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam. She was the third youngest of four brothers and four sisters. In this rural area, she did not go to school. Instead, she became accustomed to her family’s traditions and practices—gardening. Her entire family practiced gardening and found it to be essential to sustaining their lives.

as told to Lori Ligocki

Ya Mee Xiong 
Ya Mee Xiong, Sitha Thor's great-aunt.

My mother taught me to grow herbs, and I also saw my mother giving it to other people. I saw and I learned. It was passed on from one generation to the next, and then to the next generation, to the next, and that’s how we know.

I married my husband when I was 15 years old. He was probably 20 years old at the time. We agreed to marry. We did not have any parents. They all died. I was married for 12 years, and then my husband was a part of the war. My husband was scared, and he did not want to join it at all, but he said it was for the Americans. That’s why he went.

While my husband was away being a soldier, I was at home, holding the little children, finding food. At that time, I had six children. They were very small. There wasn’t anything to eat, and it was hard to find food. We were begging for food. It was a very poor, unpleasant living state.

I like to think about living Laos. When I think of the old land under the old sky, I would think about the rats, squirrels and birds. There isn’t anything else there. Laos is my real home, but war ruined it, so America is my homeland. I still grow the plants. I can use it whenever there’s any illness. When I got to this country, I brought a little bit with me. I wrapped some plants in banana leaves. I planted them. I have to take good care of them.

They are Tsov (‘tiger’), for when one cannot talk or breath, and the leaves touch the inside throat; Tshuaj kua txob (‘medicine pepper’), where you drink the red liquid, and it’s good for coughs; Mi nyuam taub teg (‘child squash’) for the person’s face that looks very yellow and is used to refresh the face’s looks; Nkaj ntsuab (‘stem green’) for ‘tu leeg,’ meaning cramps, which is good when prepared with chicken; Txoob liab (‘red’) for if one cannot urinate or sometimes with blood, and it can be good to get the ‘stone’ urinate out; and Qos ntsuab (‘potato green’), which is good for coughs.

Another plant is the one that is smelly and wards off evil spirits and watches the house, and another is the one that is used to prepare with chicken, and it prevents all dental diseases. It causes one to never lose their teeth from taking it. I make it every year for my children and grandchildren to eat.

I think that the American or western medicine is important and works well. I have a doctor. The Hmong plants, they have their own way of treating, and the doctors, or the American way, they also have another way of treating.

It’s a good person to be able to go do research, continue learning but also come back to our own history. That’s a very good person. I don’t fully understand Sitha’s research, but I understand he is working with the plants. If it’s related to medicine, it’ll always be a good thing.