Calling in the Soul: Gender and the Cycle of Life in a Hmong Village

Article excerpt

Hmong Americans are a diaspora group that came from Laos after leaving southern China in the early 1800s. The U.S. C.I.A. recruited a Hmong army during the 1960s to assist with the American military campaign against communism in Southeast Asia. Hmong refugees began arriving in the United States in 1975 following the collapse of the pro-American Laotian government. There are now about 200,000 Hmong Americans.

One of the biggest challenges in understanding the adaptation of Hmong Americans is the dearth of knowledge about their traditional way of life. Since the Lao People's Democratic Republic remains inaccessible to social scientists, one avenue for investigating the pre-migration culture of Hmong Americans has been to examine contemporary Hmong settlements in Thailand. Patricia V. Symonds' Calling in the Soul is a welcome addition to this line of inquiry. The book is an anthropological study of traditional Hmong gender roles as they are manifested in birth and death rituals.

Symonds is superbly qualified to write about the Hmong. She spent over a year living in a remote Hmong village in Thailand and became fluent in Hmong. The book is further enhanced by photographs and drawings of Hmong families, homes, ceremonies, and alters. Another unique feature is the inclusion of long ritual songs and chants in both English and Hmong.

Symonds directly addresses one of the most salient aspects of Hmong social life: it is "a very strictly gender-stratified culture" (173). She skillfully explains how in Hmong culture "women's role is to be private and silent, men's is to be public and vocal" (163). Yet she also notes the ways in which Hmong culture acknowledges women's power. …