I grew up in St. Bonifacius, a small rural town an hour outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The only non-white people were my family and a Korean adopted girl. One time, in elementary school, I nearly got into a fist fight with a girl on the bus because she told my sister and I, “Go back to your own country.” We promptly yelled back, “You go back to your own country!” She was in high school and I was in elementary school...but trust me, she would have gone down!
My family was poor.
I often wore the same outfit multiple days in a row and I only ever wore long sleeve shirts and wind breaker pants because I was embarrassed. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I was embarrassed of, but looking back, I never felt like I belonged. At school, I didn't look like my peers or teachers. At home, I felt like my parents didn't understand me.
I was an outsider everywhere.
By wearing sweatshirts and pants, I felt like I could hide. Silly, little Mykou.
Growing up Hmong American was hard and often times confusing.
Throughout my entire childhood and teenage years, I felt less intelligent and less valuable than my non-Hmong peers. I was an excellent student, even taking Advanced Placement classes in high school and doing extracurricular activities. But even then, I was too afraid to speak up. I was afraid I’d be found out as a fraud if I said something stupid.
I never felt “American” enough.
But I also never felt Hmong enough either. I couldn’t speak the best Hmong. I had strong opinions and the elders didn’t like it when I expressed them. I didn’t grow up in a super traditional Hmong home, so I didn’t understand the traditions and I didn't always do what was expected of a Hmong girl.
After college I got married to my amazing husband, Touger, and we moved to North Carolina where he studied at Duke University.
This was the first time that we had lived in a place with no Hmong community, meaning, we had to be friends with non-Hmong people!
Our friends came from all over the globe. In addition to making American friends, we also made friends from Mexico, Taiwan, Korea, and the United Kingdom.
Most people had no idea who the Hmong people were, so we got really good at sharing the story of the Hmong people. And for the most part, they were fascinated.
When we first started hanging out with our non-Hmong friends, I remember feeling so awkward and out of place. On a number of occasions, I'd come home and say to my husband, “Ah! Why did I say that? It was so stupid!” or “I have no idea what they were talking about.”
The movies they watched, the music they listened to, and the expressions they used at times were unfamiliar to me. It was extremely hard (like grinding gears and feeling like I just wasn’t connecting with people). This went on for...probably a WHOLE YEAR!
One day, after landing my new job at Duke Law School, I went to have lunch with a Caucasian friend. I was telling her about the history of the Hmong people and about my family and the dinners we’d have together and the clothing I so loved.
She looked at me wide eyed and said, “I’m so jealous. I wish that I had as rich of a tradition and that I was as connected to my roots as you. Even eating as a family is so uncommon.”
I feel odd writing this but I have to be honest: I never thought that there’d be a white person who’d be jealous of what I had.
For much of my life, unconsciously, I felt inferior to my Caucasian peers, so to hear that she wished she had what I had, that blew my mind. This conversation helped me to realized something significant:
My culture and my experience is just as valuable as any other culture and experience.
That realization was a huge turning point for me.
As our 2nd and 3rd year at Duke came, and as I continued to engage and connect with people who looked completely different from me, I became much more comfortable in my own skin. We regularly invited others to have dinner in our home, where we could share our culture and food with our new friends who came from extraordinarily different backgrounds than us. I learned that many of them loved nqaj qab hau (a traditional Hmong soup with chicken and herbs)!
It helped me not only appreciate my Hmong identity and roots, but it helped me to celebrate it. I started to see the importance of loving who I was as a Hmong American woman.
I realized that when I saw the beauty in my culture and when I shared it and celebrate it with others, they not only value it, but they're able to connect with me on a deeper and more authentic level.
Since having kids, embracing my Hmong identity has become even more important.
I don’t want my children to grow up believing in the lie that they have to look like everyone else to be beautiful or to have value. I don’t want them to sit in class, silent, because they don’t have the confidence to speak up, thinking they aren’t smart because they look and think differently.
I don’t want them to be afraid to stand up for themselves if others make fun of them because of the shape of their eyes or the way they talk. I want them to have the courage to stand up for what they believe and to say no when they need to.
However, on the flip side, I don’t want them to become entitled, mean, and lazy. I don’t want them to think that they can get whatever they want, do whatever they want, and treat others poorly because they never had to struggle, because they never knew the history of their people: that the Hmong people came from struggle and everything that they now have, is a result of hard work and tears.
I believe it's when we forget that we too came from a place of hardship and struggle, that we get this attitude of entitlement.
So what I want instead is for my kids to be confident in who they are, knowing that their rich history and culture makes them stronger, giving them more depth, and making them even more interesting as a human being. I want them to see that they have a unique perspective because of their experiences, and that perspective needs to be heard because it will enrich those around them and shed light on what was missing in the conversation.
I want them to be able connect with and relate to other people who have struggled: the immigrant, the single parent, the kid being bullied. I want them to be courageous enough to love those who are in difficult circumstances.
I want them to be humble and see other groups of people and to sit down and listen to their stories, because, they know what it’s like to be categorized as other, because they know that, even though they look different, they have so much in common.
It is essential for me to embrace the beautiful aspects of Hmong culture so that I can show my children that they are beautiful and that they have value.
It's ok if they don't to look and talk like everyone around them. In fact, it's a good thing.
I want them to know that being Hmong means they are a part of something bigger.
It means they have deep roots.
It means that they are resilient, that they love their families deeply, and that they work hard as heck!
It means that they love the earth and enjoy life and good food fully.
So, to that Caucasian girl who told me to go back to my own country, essentially telling me that I don't belong here, that I'm not "American" enough, I get it.
I'm cool with not being American enough. I don't need to be American enough ... whatever that means.
I'm Hmong American (and so much more). That means I do belong here.
I now see that being stuck between two worlds, was actually a blessing instead of a burden.
I can teach my children how beautiful they truly are because I see myself more clearly. I am more whole.
And by embracing my hybrid identity and blending these two worlds, I get to create a new and beautiful world where I can thrive and help others thrive.
I started HmongBaby because I know how important it is to teach my children the Hmong language, but it’s not simply a language. Language is culture, and this is my way of letting them know that being Hmong is beautiful. It is valuable.
And the cool thing is, I get to share the story of the Hmong people with folks from all walks of life.
The hard work of learning about myself as a Hmong American woman has led me to become stronger, more confident, more courageous, and more whole. I am a better wife, mother, daughter, friend, and even a better American because of it.
If you got this far, thank you for reading.
On another note: If you live in Minnesota, I invite you to my Book Release Party on Sat, June 2nd! Click HERE for more information :)