A Hmong Replays the Wisconsin Death Trip
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN -- Lee Cheng,
a Hmong immigrant in Rochester, has replayed in his mind a hundred
times what went so terribly wrong in the north
Wisconsin woods two weeks ago – and he believes he knows what could
have prevented it.
“The American hunter could have gone to the deer stand and said ‘Hi,
how are you? How is the family? Got any deer today?’ And then after
a little while he could mention to the Hmong guy that he was on private
land but if he wanted to stay a while he could.
“The Hmong guy would figure it out. He would say to himself ‘the
guy wants me to go, so I go,” and he’d leave immediately.
And that’s it.”
A mental health worker specializing in Hmong immigrant cases at the New
Hope Counseling Center, Cheng said he was saddened and upset by the tragic
deaths of six hunters, all apparently shot in cold blood by Chai Vang,
a Hmong immigrant who became enraged after being told to leave a deer
stand on private property near Dobie, Wisconsin on November 21.
But Cheng wasn’t surprised. “Hmong men usually keep everything
inside,” he said. “They will keep all their frustrations
inside until they explode. Probably this guy had been harassed many times
in his life, which is common for Hmong living in America. If he had sought
help for his anger, maybe all of this wouldn’t have happened.”
"Two Cultures Collide” has been the basic headline on innumerable
articles attempting to explain the Wisconsin hunting death trip. Usually
the articles focus on how northern Wisconsin’s citizens of European
descent and Hmong immigrants have traditionally enjoyed hunting as an
annual bonding ritual, while differing in their understanding of private
and public property.
Yet cultures may have collided on a much simpler level than hunting rituals
and land rights. The simple matter of how to communicate about a disagreement
may have been the main cultural culprit in this case.
A little something called “saving face” is usually the first
lesson taught in multi-cultural seminars for travelers heading to Asia.
I was skeptical of all the fuss made over “saving face” before
I went to live in Japan and China. Boy, was I wrong. What I discovered
during the eight years I lived in Asia in the 1990s is that saving face
is far more subtle, more important, and more pervasive than I could ever
In most Asian countries, saving face is not just about preventing public
embarrassment in big situations such as closing a business deal or giving
a speech, or in important family situations like weddings and dinners.
It’s essentially about signaling one’s respect for others – that
one doesn’t ever put one’s own needs ahead those of others – in
virtually all situations at all times, in public and private. It’s
a constant, ingrained behavior.
Round after Round
A small example is that while I was interviewing Cheng, he was cradling
his infant daughter on his lap. At one point he wrinkled his nose and
said “Oh, she has made a smell.” I thought to myself, “the
baby is due for a diaper change.” But it wasn’t until a few
minutes later, when I remembered my Asian manners and said, “would
you like to go change her diapers?” that Cheng, looking grateful
and relieved, got up and sprinted for the bathroom.
When he returned, I checked with him to make sure I’d read the
“Yes, you are right,” he said. “In
America, when parents need to change diapers, they just announce this
to the guest and get up in the middle of a conversation and go. That
seems rude to a Hmong. Our way is first to say something indirect, and
then say ‘of course, our conversation takes priority,’ and
then wait for the guest to give permission to go.”
It seems almost impossible that a small episode over diapers could have
relevance to the Wisconsin shootings, but Cheng, after he had explained
about the diapers, said “that’s what I think happened in
The two sides simply didn’t know how to talk to each other.
What exactly happened in the North Woods may never be clear. But to Lee
Cheng it is already clear enough. An absurdly small sleight, which in
Western terms was possibly no slight at all, triggered the pent-up frustrations
of many years to lethally escape – round after round after round
after round after round after round after round after round.
Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report