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The Shaman's Apprentice 

Kao Saephanh says he is a typical teenager. But most 15-year-olds aren't learning how to talk to the spirit world and perform animal sacrifices

Wednesday, Sep 5 2001
It was only 8 a.m. on a blue-skied Saturday morning in early August when Kao Kae Saephanh rolled out of bed. Though his younger brothers and sisters were still asleep, Kao pretended it was a regular school day, taking a shower and changing into his standard uniform of baggy pants, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes.

Thirty minutes later, Kao was ready to help out around the house, even though he normally likes to sleep in on weekends. But today was an important day, because his family was going to perform a five-hour shamanic ceremony for his stepfather's "flower spirit," or guardian spirit.

Kao is Iu-Mien, an ethnic minority from China, and since the early '80s, tens of thousands of Iu-Mien have come to the Bay Area as refugees, bringing a traditional shamanic religion that involves ancestor and spirit worship.

The ceremony was being held that day to placate the flower spirit so that it would continue to ward off illness and bad luck for Kao's stepfather. "Usually something leads to ceremonies," Kao explains. "My father dreamt his father was disappointed in him. After the dream, he consulted a shaman. The shaman looked up the date he had the dream, his astrological signs, and what ceremonies my dad had done in the past. We believe that what has been done in the past has a profound effect on the future. So maybe if we do this ceremony, it would solve [the problem]."

Because it was going to be a busy morning, Kao didn't have time for breakfast. His stepfather and uncle had left at 5:30 a.m. to drive to a farm in Stockton, and it wasn't long before they pulled up to the curb in a truck with a sacrificed pig in the back. When they arrived, Kao helped carry in the freshly slaughtered animal, which had been cut into smaller pieces for easier handling.

They carried the pig in piece by piece -- up the stoop and into the living room, where the pig was arranged like a puzzle into its original shape on a folding-table altar. The pig would serve as the main offering to the spirits summoned during the ceremony, and afterward the meat would be used for a feast.

Though most of Kao's Iu-Mien-American friends aren't interested in participating in ceremonies, Kao says he willingly helps with even the most unglamorous parts of ceremonies -- like handling the pig -- because he wants to be a shaman priest one day.

On the exterior, with his tall, thin build, spiky hair, and a cell phone ringing in his pocket, it is not easy to guess that he is a Iu-Mien shaman-in-training. But Kao, who possesses an air of quiet wisdom, has already dedicated hours to studying ancient ceremonial texts, and serves as an apprentice at certain family ceremonies. If he continues to study seriously, his family says he will enter a mystical priesthood that will allow him to converse with spirits in an unseen realm. As a shaman priest, he will also be able to perform elaborate ceremonies involving animal sacrifices, which he believes have the power to cure illnesses, bring financial success, and secure good fortune.

Coming from an immigrant family, Kao has a mature reverence for Iu-Mien culture, and he studies shamanism because he believes it will bring him closer to his roots. But as a kid who has grown up in the East Bay, Kao also knows how to operate as a typical American teen on the streets of Oakland, or in the halls of Fremont High School. He listens to trance music when he's not learning about the shamanistic trance state; he studies break dancing videos to learn new moves when he's not studying ancient ceremonial texts.

But there are not many kids in the East Bay Iu-Mien community like Kao, who will turn 16 in October. Some Iu-Mien-American kids have gotten involved with community organizations, or are preoccupied with blockbuster movies and rap music, but Kao is one of the few in his generation studying the traditional religion, which community leaders say is an important link to the culture.

And those leaders worry that the culture will lose its vibrancy if more young men don't learn shamanism.

"A lot of people are not paying attention to the culture," says Kao's stepfather. "People worry about the future. The kids are more Americanized, they forget the culture. Maybe one day, nobody can do the ceremonies."

That's why Kao says he spends time at ceremonies when he could be out with his friends or at the video arcade. "A lot of people forget or by accident try to blend in," he says of his peers. "I'm interested in preserving culture and tradition. I started to see culture as a very big part of me, and it benefits me and the people around me. It's my roots. It's where I came from, and I see it lost so easily."

Kao was born on Oct. 13, 1985, in a Thai refugee camp that he has no memory of. His family had been living there for several years because the Vietnam War had destroyed their home in Laos, the country where many Iu-Mien lived after they were forced to leave China for political and economic reasons.

Like many Southeast Asian families, Kao and his relatives had to wait in the camps until they could be relocated; for the Iu-Mien, that didn't begin happening until around 1978, when some Iu-Mien were allowed into countries like France and Canada. It was not until 1980, with the broadening of the U.S. Refugee Act, that the Iu-Mien -- many of whom had fought alongside the U.S. military during the war -- were permitted to enter the United States for the first time.

In 1987, Kao, his mother, grandmother, and uncle immigrated to America. (Kao's father had "left the family" soon after Kao's birth.) In Laos, Kao's family had been subsistence farmers -- as most of the Iu-Mien in Laos had been. But when they relocated to the U.S., they looked for affordable housing in places where there were other Iu-Mien people, and found themselves in urban areas like Oakland or Richmond. For these early refugees, the contrast in living environments intensified the culture shock and the financial and language difficulties -- not to mention the lingering trauma of war.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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