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 team.
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.”
On 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.