There's a saying in Hmong that, when roughly translated, means: When you get a bad shock, your soul gets dislodged, and you have to make a sacrifice in order to bring it back to your body.
Many people at the Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul say that's the first thing that came to mind when, on a sleepy weekday morning last month, officers executing a warrant flooded a market building and announced a search.
Ramsey County sheriff's deputies, St. Paul police officers, and federal agents confiscated hundreds of pounds of unmarked or mis-marked prescription medication, including steroids, penicillin, and opiates. Authorities say there's a chance some vendors will be arrested. But many of those vendors say they still don't understand why what they did was wrong -- and they're worried that, after the raid, Minnesotans will think the market is unsafe place to visit.
"What I know is the products came to me with instructions or info in Thai," said Yer Lee Chang, who escaped from Laos, lived in Thai refugee camp for three years, and came to US in 1980. She's sold medication for stomach pain and headaches for seven years. "We just go based off of what is in those documents and our knowledge from living in Thailand, what these meds are for."
Chang and other vendors' comments were translated by Sia Her, executive director of the state Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. Her said many Hmong may come to the market for basic healthcare because they don't have insurance. Others may come because of tradition.
"The community has adapted to a great extent and yet there are generations that are still practicing some of the practices they did in Laos and Thailand," she said. "Maybe we think this is appropriate but it isn't allowed by law here in this country, and this is home now."
A woman at another booth, Kia Lee, also said she sells over the counter pain medication. Some of it was confiscated. Lee said she was surprised law enforcement made such a big deal about the raid.
"It was a very scary experience for us," she said. "It gave me the impression--the way the raid was carried out -- it gave me the impression that someone had killed someone. It was of that level of a crisis."
Officials say they got reports of drugs sold at the market being tied to poisonings and a suicide. Undercover officers were able to buy drugs in baggies. One officer saw someone getting treatment through an IV behind a curtain.
But Lee said none of the vendors were selling anything intended to kill. She said it would have been nice if, ahead of time, officials gave sellers a clear list of what's allowed and what isn't. She buys many items online, and the law doesn't make sense to her: If I can buy something, she asks, why can't I sell it?
Her said the Hmong community was shamed by the drug bust, and now they're going to change the way they do things. Marketplace owner Toua Xiong said he didn't supervise vendors closely before, but he will now. Xiong has owned or managed the market -- built on an abandoned lumber yard -- for 10 years. The raid, he said, was traumatizing and invasive.
"I never thought it would happen like this at all. Some people got searched and really touched -- even like that," Xiong said, gesturing toward his lower body. "And they said it should not be that much."
Ramsey County Sheriff's office spokesman Randy Gustafson said, unfortunately, that's just part of serving a search warrant. He said the sellers were putting their customers' lives at risk. And, despite the vendors' protests, Gustafson says officials did warn sellers they were selling things they shouldn't.
"We'd like to see this stop -- and it would be best to see it stop on their own," he said. "Nobody wants to put people in jail for things they're 'confused' about, even though they've been told that its not the way to do that."
Even selling individual tablets of Advil is a misdemeanor if they're not sold with the right labeling, according to St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing. Her office is one of a handful of agencies that could bring charges against the sellers at the market. Grewing said investigators are still in the process of identifying the confiscated substances. Meanwhile a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health said his agency has started a series of public meetings in the Hmong community to explain the problem.
“It gave me the impression that someone had killed someone. It was of that level of a crisis.”Kia Lee
Hmongtown Marketplace owner Xiong said foot traffic hasn't gone down since the raid, and he still hopes the market can become a tourist destination. Xiong, who gives tours of the marketplace to senior citizen classes at the University of Minnesota, said the local Hmong community has a high rate of unemployment. The market, he said, provides hundreds of jobs.
"Whatever happened, happened," Xiong said. "Everybody makes mistakes--whether those mistakes are intentional or unintentional. For those who unintentionally make the mistakes, hopefully they will learn. These people are self-sustaining, and that should be a good thing."
Xiong said he hopes people understand the market is an important gathering spot for the Hmong community and a safe, inviting place for everyone else.