Though a rather regular Radiolab listener, I missed this one back in 2012. And it was a big one to miss.
In a nutshell, Radiolab was trying to get to the bottom of the old yellow rain mystery. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, was the yellow stuff that fell on the Hmong people of Laos chemical bombs that had been supplied to the Pathet Lao by the Soviets or was it simply a cloud of bee poop? Accordingly, were the mass deaths among the Hmong people a direct result of these chemicals or was yellow rain merely a natural event occurring alongside a genocide being waged in other, perhaps less chemical ways?
This is an excerpt of the program that I’ve transcribed that involves the following players:
Radiolab Producer Pat Walters
Documentarian Eng Yang
Writer and Activist Kao Kalia Yang
Geneticist and Molecular Biologist Matt Meselson
Radiolab Host Robert Krulwich
I start the transcription from around 19:20 in the video and end around 24:20.
I’ve marked the post-interview narration that the program dubbed over the interview with using Radiolab’s yellow rain illustration:
Pat Walters (post-interview narration): At a certain point in our conversation with Eng, the Hmong guy Robert and I talked to earlier with his niece Kahlia translating for him, we explained that the evidence they’d been attacked by chemical weapons seems a little shaky. Eng’s response was “if this was just bee feces”…
(excerpt from interview):
Kao Kalia Yang: How do you explain the kids dying, the people and the animals dying? That where there is this yellow thing, where there are no bees, whole villages die?
Walters (post-interview narration): We asked Kalia to tell Eng what the scientists had told us, that the Hmong were definitely dying.
Matt Meselson (soundbyte): The Hmong were under real attack. They were being fired at from airplanes and by soldiers and…
Walters (post-interview narration): But more importantly, even if they weren’t killed by those direct attacks, they were on the run through the jungle. They were malnourished and drinking from contaminated streams. Diseases like dysentery and cholera were rampant. And the way a lot of people see it is that they may have misattributed some of those mysterious deaths to this cloud of bee poop that looked like it could have been a chemical weapon, but Eng says no, not a chance.
(excerpt from interview):
Yang: I speak to what I’ve seen, and there is no inkling in my mind that those deaths were not caused by starvation, dysentery. It was chemicals that were killing my people.
Walters (post-interview narration): So we wanted to know, and this was an honest question, did he see something that would contradict the science’s story?
(excerpt from interview):
Radiolab Host Robert Krulwich: Did the source of the rain, was there always a plane and then rain, a plane and then rain? Or did sometimes the rain happen without a plane?
Yang: We never saw, what they said, is that it was always just being dropped on them. And it was always being dropped where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong people. That’s what we knew.
Krulwich: But we don’t know whether there was a plane causing it. You just see the dust.
Yang: You know, you have to understand that the planes are shooting bullets and bombs every day all the time. And so whether it was a bombing plane or a yellow plane, it was incredibly hard to distinguish. Everybody runs when you hear the plane. So Hmong people don’t watch bombs coming down. You came out, you sneak your head out, and you watched what happened in the aftermath. You saw broken trees. You saw yellow in the aftermath of what had been bombed. I saw with my own eyes the bee pollen on the leaves eating through holes. With my own eyes, I saw pollen that could kill grass, could kill leaves, could kill trees.
Krulwich: But he himself is not clear whether it’s the bee stuff or whether it’s other stuff because there was so much stuff coming down from the sky.
Yang: You know that there were chemicals being used against the Hmong in the mountains of Laos. Whether this is the chemicals from the bomb or yellow rain, chemicals were being used. It feels to him like this is a semantic debate. And it feels like there is a sad lack of justice that the word of a man who survived this thing must be pitted against a professor from Harvard who’s read these accounts.
Krulwich: But as far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall. Your uncle didn’t see a plane. All of this is hearsay.
Yang: My uncle says for the last twenty years, he didn’t know that anybody was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know, what happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the last twenty years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and that the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken, that our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game. We can, but I am not interested and my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart and too many people in the process. I think that, I think the interview is done.
After the show was aired, Radiolab was vehemently criticized by listeners for focusing so much on getting the truth about yellow rain, that they undermined Yang’s account of what he and his fellow Hmong community members witnessed and experienced. Though Radiolab could not be faulted for wanting to better understand where the yellow rain was coming from, they could be held at fault for not sensitively handling the interview, for not adequately listening, and for being so single-mindedly driven by “the truth” on this yellow stuff that they weren’t paying proper respect to what was so obviously the bigger issue for the interlocutor: a genocide that has been largely overlooked by outsiders.
Krulwich and the Radiolab team duly apologized and added more post-production edits to the initial Yellow Rain broadcast. Yang, the Hmong interpreter in the piece, has written her own account of what happened before, during, and after the interview. Basically she’s unhappy with the way in which she, her uncle, and the Hmong community were portrayed by the show.
This, like a lot of things, was a really complex situation, and every actor was doing what he or she thought was best for the causes he or she was pursuing. Nonetheless, there are some lessons to be learned from this, I believe:
1. The pursuit of “truth” can and should be done in a balanced way, a way that doesn’t minimize life and the weight of people’s experiences. Interlocutors are not to be manipulated or used, nor should their time be wasted, in order to satisfy the researcher’s aims. As we well know, blind, compassionless science is not only offensive, it’s dangerous. Even if researchers or scientists aim to better serve humanity by arriving at the truth they’re digging for, they risk making innocent people a means to an end. This is intricately intertwined with power positions, related to the next item:
2. It should never be underestimated just how much the scientific community is dominated by male, white, western, English-speaking society and how much that “colors” our experiences:
That Mr. Eng Yang’s story could not be told by him directly to the interviewers and the larger public because he speaks Hmong is not insignificant. That he was just referred to as “Eng,” his first name, by the show’s producer is not insignificant. That Yang was not referred to by a title or affiliation at all in this piece, while all of the other western players were, is not insignificant. That he was referred to as “the Hmong guy” by Walters is not insignificant. All of this serves to belittle Yang and his narrative.
Similarly, that Kao Kalia Yang was merely referred to as “his niece” is not insignificant. That she, while also possessing impressive institutional affiliations and accolades, was not accorded the same respect as the other scholars is not insignificant. All of this serves to belittle Kao Kalia Yang.
Her frustration and tears at the end of the interview came about not just because of the recollection of the genocide but because she knew that she and her uncle’s iteration of it was going to be white-washed and hegemonized, and there was perhaps little she could do to set the record straight considering the power of Radiolab and the size of its audience.
3. It should never be underestimated how much people will try to explain this cultural and ethnic marginalization away. This is evident in the comment thread that follows the broadcast where some listeners claimed that the hosts were just doing their jobs, accusing others of reading into things too much or seeing racism where there was no racism at play.
That’s like Obama declaring the U.S. a “post-racial society.” Nonsense.
Though I don’t believe it’s fair to call anyone involved in this debacle racist, it cannot be denied that their individual positions feed into the social hierarchy of the American status quo. Merely because it’s the status quo doesn’t mean there are no real consequences for each individual to have to feel and embody.
I’m going to frame this in a different context than race for the purposes of getting my point across: sex.
When I was in grad school, I took a course on social inequality. Our class was discussing Leslie Salzinger’s article “Manufacturing sexual subjects; ‘Harassment’, desire and discipline on a Maquiladora shopfloor.” The article was written by Salzinger after 18 months of participant observation at a maquila on Mexico’s border. Salzinger explains that every person involved in the factory, from the female factory workers to their male bosses, are participants in the blatantly sexualized atmosphere of the place. “Flirtation and sexual competition become the currency through which shopfloor power relations are struggled over and fixed,” she claims, as “Even the most cursory tour of the shopfloor reveals an intensely sexualized atmosphere, and conversations with workers only add to this impression.” She continues, “women workers are at the center of attention” in the factory “fish bowl” and the men, who are the “managers and supervisors are situated as voyeurs.” In the conclusion, Salzinger argues that “sexual harassment,” while present at this factory, is not the only way to describe the overwhelmingly sexual vibe of the place, rather, it is sexual objectification. And that sexual objectification is both imposed upon people and willingly entered into by participants. This leaves outsiders with questions like, “How much agency do these women have?” or “While the women think they’re free to act on their sexual proclivities, how much has the scene been shaped by men?”
Interestingly, while debating this issue in class, some of the men (and women) thought the article was bollocks and said so. Like some of the commenters on the Yellow Rain Radiolab program, they thought that the scholar was reading into things too much, that in the context of this article, Salinger was over-analyzing individual relations between factory workers, seeing sexual objectification where it didn’t necessarily exist. Some people probably didn’t even want to talk about it. I took issue with this then and still do now.
Firstly, over-analyzing something shouldn’t be frowned upon by anyone, even if just dabbling in the social sciences. We analyze because a lot of other people don’t feel like it, but the key is to analyze with curiosity and an open mind to different types of knowledge.
Secondly, simply because society’s status quo justifies ethnic marginalization and sexual objectification does not mean that that those things don’t exist and that the status quo is ok. In fact, sometimes status quo really sucks. And it’s up to us to point to interactions that seem to be natural and ask if they’re actually good for people. Sometimes that “Hey. This is kind of weird,” or that “This is actually pretty unfair” comment is meaningful and needed.
Yellow Rain is an interesting piece for consideration from multiple angles. In order to not commit the same error twice, let’s acknowledge that the most important part of the whole broadcast is preventing terrible stuff like this genocide from happening again. Sometimes, when science tells us to surge ahead in the name of progress, we need to pause and listen. There may be a voice, even if it’s in a minority community’s language, even if it’s soft, Asian, and female telling us that grievances haven’t been sufficiently acknowledged, and victims haven’t been properly mourned. We must listen patiently, support, and advocate even if it’s inconvenient.
And that’s why anthropology is a recursive process. Because we’re open to the gray areas, not just dead-set on defining the yellow.
I hope all of us, from the Radiolab peeps, to the Yang family, to the listeners like me, are better, more open-minded, and ultimately more sensitive and balanced people after the program. We can’t afford to harden ourselves.
Kao Kalia Yang’s commentary on Yellow Rain can be found here.