Dec. 6, 2004

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.”  

Saving Face

"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 have imagined.  

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 situation correctly.

“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 Wisconsin.”  

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