"What are you?" was a question frequently posed to Kao Kalia Yang when she was learning to talk. The answer, she quickly learned, wasn't "a name or a gender, it was a people."
"I am Hmong," she would reply.
Born in a Thai refugee camp, a child of two people who had met after fleeing to the Laos jungle when the Pathet Lao had deposed that country's monarchy, Kao and her family are in search of a home, as Hmong people have throughout history. From China to Laos, from fighting with Americans in Laos' "secret war" that accompanied the war in Vietnam to becoming the hunted prey of the victors that they had opposed, the Hmong once again found themselves on the move, carrying their history and culture within the minds of their people to a new country that would hold them and their shared identity.
For Kao and her family, the repository of history and culture is their grandmother, who is a shaman and a traditional healer. While in the refugee camps, Thai soldiers who guard the Hmong recognize her powers and come to her to cure their ailments, allowing her to go away from the confines of the camps and gather the plants that she uses in her remedies. She knows how to approach unseen worlds to call home the wandering spirits of living people who have been jarred too harshly by life. She is the one who holds ancient stories of the Hmong in her memory and teaches them to Kao and her sister.
After the family is sent to America, power within it shifts to those who are quickest to master English--except for the grandmother, who keeps her influence and her position as matriarch. In a strange country surrounded by a foreign language that she will never learn, she carries the knowledge of who her family is, and where they have come from.
When Kao becomes mysteriously ill, it is her grandmother's gift that saves her. "Grow beautiful in America," her grandmother tells her, and Kao obeys. As a student at the University of Minnesota, she begins to collect her grandmother's stories, while realizing that she will be the one who will carry the story of her grandmother's life--and death--to tell Hmong children who are born and grow up in America. She will be the one to carry her grandmother's own story, as well as the ones of people Kao never knew who lived and died in Asia, within her blood and bones.
It is not only Hmong children who benefit from this memoir. "I wanted the world to know how it was to be Hmong long ago, how it was to be Hmong in America, and how it was to die Hmong in America, because I knew our lives would not happen again." Through showing the world the life of her grandmother, Kao has revealed the life and history of a people, and all who read this book are richer for having received the gift of what she has written.