in an intermediate french class at merced college a few years ago, the students were assigned a five-minute oral report, to be delivered in french. the second student to stand up in front of the class was a young hmong man. his chosen topic was a recipe for la soupe de poisson: fish soup. to prepare fish soup, he said, you must have a fish, an in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. in order to go fishing, you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook, you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is. continuing in this vein for forty-five minutes, the student filled the blackboard with a complexly branching tree of factors and options, a sort of piscatory flowchart, written in french with an overlay of hmong. he also told several anecdotes about his own fishing experiences. he concluded with a description of how to clean various kinds of fish, how to cut them up, and, finally, how to cook them in broths flavored with various herbs. when the class period ended, he told the other students that he hoped he had provided enough information, and he wished them good luck in preparing fish soup in the hmong manner.

the professor of french who told me this story said, "fish soup. that's the essence of the hmong." the hmong have a phrase, hais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means "to speak of all kinds of things." it is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point; and that the storyteller is likely to be rather long-winded.

anne fadiman, the spirit catches you and you fall down