Yellow Rain, Bee Poop and the Hmong



I recently started listening to RadioLab podcasts again. And one of their most recent podcasts was an emotionally charged one for me. The theme of the podcast is described as this:


“Getting a firm hold on the truth is never as simple as nailing down the facts of a situation. This hour, we go after a series of seemingly simple facts — facts that offer surprising insight, facts that inspire deeply different stories, and facts that, in the end might not matter at all.”


Truths that aren’t gleaned right away. Truths that don’t correspond with what is “obvious.” All that good stuff.


One of the stories the podcasts hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad touch on is one about the Hmong’s experience of “Yellow Rain” in Laos after the Vietnam War. Radiolab interviewed two Hmongs: Eng Yang and his niece/translator, Kao Kalia Yang.


Eng Yang lived in Laos during the mysterious bouts of “Yellow Rain” and the vicious attacks by the VietCong. The Rain are these yellow droplets which seem to cause intense stomach pain or symptoms like coughing, headaches or diarrhea. Mr. Yang remembers seeing the Rain burn at leaves and kill grass. Either way, people touched by the Rain died.


The first investigation by the U.S. turned up high amounts of T2, a poisonous chemical, within the yellow drops. It was determined that this was chemical warfare – a whole new danger. After more investigation, it was further discovered that this “Yellow Rain” was actually the feces of hordes of bees …


It turns out that when bees hibernate they refuse to defecate within their hive, and as a result defecate en mass once their hibernation is done causing this yellow mass. You can learn more about this process by listening to the podcast.


Here’s the emotional part:


Radiolab Yellow Rain sound clip


Robert Krulwich relayed to the Yangs the discovery that the “Yellow Rain” was harmless. As soon as I heard this go over, I knew right away that Eng Yang was not going to recognize that.


Why? Because of pride. Hurt. Here he is telling them about “Yellow Rain” and how it terrorized his village along with the VietCong attacks, and Krulwich tells him he was wrong. Krulwich also becomes insensitive here by asking:


“But he himself is not clear whether it’s the bee stuff or if it’s other stuff because there was so much stuff coming down from the sky.”


At this point already, Ms. Yang is getting emotional on having her uncle doubted like this, having the Hmongs doubted. That’s what it was, these interviewers were doubting the suffering and pain the Hmong had gone through. To the Yangs, how could these people do that? How could you break it down like that?


And this is Krulwich’s further response:


“But far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the pollen fall, didn’t see a plane, that all of this is hearsay.”


Ms. Yang starts crying, citing the broken heart of the Hmong and the lack of justice. And how there was so much untold and the many people lost.


My heart absolutely wrenches over this. It isn’t a huge injustice. Simply lack of realizing the whole picture here. Lacking the sense that touching on “Yellow Rain” doesn’t just touch on “Yellow Rain.” It’s a chapter in a story, a chapter in the history of the Hmong.


Eventually, Krulwich and Abumrad published respective responses to the many complaints about the treatment of the Yangs. They apologized for the “ambush,” as described in the complaints. Krulwich apologized for his harshness and Abumrad recognized the painful encounter.


In the end, I can understand that the two took their journalist approach too seriously at the moment and forgot  momentarily about the Yangs’ side of the story. And I’m posting this not because I wanted to complain about the two, but because really felt the need to share the Yangs’ story, the one that has sadly been ignored and barely told.


I believe this one comment on Krulwich’s statement makes a fitting point:



I encourage you to listen to the rest of the podcast. You can find it here. I also discovered that Ms. Yang has a novel about Hmongs.


I’ve always been interested in the many ethnic groups of China and wonder if I possess the DNA of a specific ethnic group other than a large one like the Hans. And ones like the Hmong are especially interesting, but I think that’s a post for another time.


And of course, the sound clip above is from Radiolab and by all means their property, not mine.



One thought on “Yellow Rain, Bee Poop and the Hmong

  1. Pingback: Kao Kalia Yang’s Response to Radiolab « Good Intent

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