Health Theatre in aHmong Refugee Camp: Performance, Communication, and Culture
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127  III Praxis Health Theatre in a Hmong Refugee Camp Performance, Communication, and Culture A Hmong widow walks to a crossroad in Camp Ban Vinai, surveys the scene, and then settles herself on a bench outside the corner hut. Bracing her back against the split-­ bamboo wall, she begins to sing. At first softly, as if to herself, she sings a Hmong khy txhiaj (folksong). Aware of a gathering audience, she raises her voice to fill the space around her. She sings a lamentation, carving her personal anguish into a traditional expressive form. With exquisitely timed gestures, she strips and peels with one hand the branch of firewood she holds in the other. Tears stream down her face as she sings about the loss of her husband, her children, her house, her farm, her animals, and her country. She sings of war, and flight, and breaking, and of a time when she was a wife and mother in the Laotian village where silver neck-­ rings were worn. She punctuates each refrain by tossing away a sliver that her strong fingers have torn from the wood she holds across her lap as if it were a child. The sad beauty of her singing attracts a crowd. She never makes eye contact but acknowledges the crowd’s presence in her spontaneously composed verses, subtly at first, and then more confidently. She is both lamenting and entertaining. With nothing left to tear away, she makes the final toss of the last splinter, rises, and begins to sway with the rhythm of her song. People set out food for her. I give her the few baht I have in my pocket. Her face still wet, she breaks into a broad smile. Strange laughter interrupts her otherwise balanced verses. She thanks us for listening to her sadness and tells us how happy it makes her to sing for us. Then she crosses the road to where I am standing and gives me a blue sticker the size of a nickel, with a crescent moon on it. It is one of the stickers the camp hospital puts on medicine bottles to indicate when the medicine should be taken, morning or night. With her thumb she presses it onto the page of my journal in which I am writing field notes on her performance. I notice that she has blue moons and golden suns stuck to her cheeks and forehead. 128  cultural struggles I came across this performance on my first day of fieldwork in Refugee Camp Ban Vinai in Thailand, where I had been assigned by the International Rescue Committee as a consultant for their environmental health education program. In many ways this opening image cathects the themes that would become salient in my fieldwork: performance, health, and intercultural exchange between refugees and expatriate health professionals. I arrived in Thailand in February 1985 having just completed, with Taggart Siegel, a documentary on Hmong shamanism and the Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome that has reached epidemic proportions among the Hmong resettled in the United States (Siegel and Conquergood 1985).1 My intention was to do straightforward field research on cultural performance in refugee camps, particularly shamanism, but the refugee situation had become so politically sensitive in Thailand that all camps were closed to outsiders, particularly researchers. Therefore, I sought employment with the international aid voluntary agencies that administer health care and services to the camps. Fortunately I was hired by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as a health worker in Ban Vinai, a hilltribe camp not far from the Mekong River that divides Thailand from Laos, and the oldest and largest refugee camp in Thailand (figure 1). During the time of my fieldwork the official population of the camp was 45,231 with an additional 2–­ 3,000 undocumented “illegals ” living in the camp without rice rations. I offered my services as an ethnographic consultant in exchange for the official papers that would legitimize my presence in the camp. My major assignment was to help design and direct an environmental health education program for this camp which was represented in many agency reports as the “filthiest,” most “primitive,” and “difficult” in Thailand. Working with the refugees and a local Thai IRC employee, I helped design and direct a health education campaign based on native beliefs and values and communicated in culturally appropriate forms. Specifically , we started a refugee performance company that produced skits and scenarios drawing on Hmong folklore and traditional communicative forms, such as proverbs, storytelling, and...