Behind Laos's yellow rain and tears

A controversial Radiolab episode opens old wounds and raises countless questions for Minnesota's Hmong

On the morning of May 16, Eng Yang rose early. He read notes he had taken 30 years earlier in books that had survived the trek out of the mountains of Laos, across the Mekong River, through the refugee camps of Thailand, and beyond the Pacific, all the way to his Brooklyn Park home.

He put on a white button-up and a sweater and set out fruits and juices. Just before 10 a.m., his niece, the author Kao Kalia Yang, arrived with a sound engineer. The three connected their phone to a studio at WNYC, New York City's public radio station, and got on the line with a producer and co-host of Radiolab, a popular science show that boasts more than four million monthly listeners via downloads or streaming, and even more who catch broadcasts on over 300 radio stations nationwide.

For the next two hours, Eng, with Kalia translating, told the producer, Pat Walters, and the host, Robert Krulwich, what he remembered. He talked about where he was born, about the Laotian village where he grew up. He talked about how his people, the Hmong, had fought along with the Americans during the Vietnam War and the Secret War in Laos, and how, after the U.S. pulled out of the region, the Vietnamese and the Lao retaliated.

Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, at St. Paul's Hmongtown Marketplace
Mark N. Kartarik
Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, at St. Paul's Hmongtown Marketplace
This Hmong boy reported that his stomach rash was a result of yellow rain
courtesy of Fred
This Hmong boy reported that his stomach rash was a result of yellow rain

He talked about how their Communist militias used bombs and guns, and something else. There were planes, he remembered, that sprayed some kind of substance, a gas or a powder. The Hmong who had seen it described it as pink, blue, and green, but most often as yellow. Like a yellow rain.

Months later, on Monday, September 24, Radiolab released a podcast of its segment on yellow rain. The episode, titled "The Fact of the Matter," was supposed to be about the nature of truth.

The middle segment of the hour-long show explored the story of yellow rain. As Radiolab described it, with the help of a former CIA agent and two leading scientists, the belief that yellow rain was a chemical weapon almost single-handedly re-escalated the Cold War.

After walking through what the stuff was, how the government came to believe it was toxic (and to blame the Soviets), and how it led to the U.S. producing its own chemical weapons for the first time in 20 years, the show threw listeners a curveball.

The two scientists explained how their work led them to hypothesize that yellow rain wasn't a manufactured chemical at all. It was honeybee droppings.

Earlier in the segment, Radiolab had introduced the Yangs, and after unpacking the honeybee theory, the show returned to them.

"At a certain point in our conversation," related Walters, the producer, "we explained that the evidence they'd been attacked by chemical weapons seems a little shaky."

Eng disagreed. "How do you explain the kids dying?" he asked. "That where there is this yellow thing, where there are no bees, whole villages die?"

Walters conceded that the Hmong had definitely died. "They were malnourished and drinking from contaminated streams; diseases like dysentery and cholera were rampant," he said in the podcast. "And the way a lot of people see it is that they may have misattributed some of these mysterious deaths to this cloud of bee poop that looked like it could have been a chemical weapon."

Kalia began to feel that the inquiry had become an inquisition. "There's a sad lack of justice," she said, "that the word of a man who survived this thing must be pitted against a professor from Harvard."

Krulwich didn't let up. "But as far as I can tell, your uncle didn't see the bee pollen fall," he argued. "Your uncle didn't see a plane. All of this is hearsay."

When Kalia answered, her voice cracked and she started to sob through her words. "We have lost too much heart and too many people," she finally concluded. "I think the interview is done."

Once the podcast hit, listeners started commenting in swarms. Radiolab has since amended the episode. One of the show's hosts, Abumrad, issued a response. The other, Krulwich, apologized both in writing and at the end of the altered podcast.

But as the hosts tried to mitigate the damage, audience comments continued to spiral into the hundreds. For David Shih, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, it was a textbook example of media bullying.

"This was a racialized event," Shih says. "This was members of an advantaged group speaking for members of a targeted group and saying, 'You don't know what really happened to you. We do.'"

Eng Yang has a wide, friendly face, flecked with sun spots and laugh lines. But when he remembers his life in Laos in the 1970s, that face becomes serious, concentrated. He wants to tell the story carefully.

In the aftermath of the American wars, when the Vietnamese and the Lao started attacking his people, Yang became a leader of the Hmong resistance. By the mid-1970s, he had fled his village and gone to live in a rebel hideout in the caves of Phu Bia mountain.

The Thai government supplied the outmatched Hmong fighters with some supplies, Yang remembers, like medicine. They also sent a radio.

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