Retelling our Legacy
Retelling our Legacy
My mother was a child when war broke out in Laos. She explains to me that her first memory is remembering being dragged by her older sisters through the streets of towns and through the jungle to seek safety. She does not remember how they found safety, but she remembers that when they finally stopped running, she looked at her feet and recalls seeing that the tips and tops of her toes were bloodied and dirtied from being dragged through different terrains. My mother also remembers bombs dropping like rain overhead. Hunger was hard to forget too. She tells me a terrifying story of being separated from her family and having to stay with two soldiers her father paid to retrieve her. My mother lost track of how long they stayed hidden in the caves before reconnecting with her family and refuses to tell me what happened in the caves. My mother’s story is slightly different from my father. My father started training for the war at the mere age of a child. He never talked about what happened. The only words I ever got out of him was his account of the nighttime attacks. My dad said the enemy bullets light the skies like sparklers and fireworks. They shot into the darkness and had no idea who was on the other side.
It has been 41 years since we as a group of people have started the refugee process to the United States. It has been 41 years since the Vietnam War, and Secret War in Laos ended, and we are still collecting and grasping for remnants of the life we once had. Many of us (the younger generation) have no recollection of the war - our war is the one we face every day in America. However, massive changes like war, migration, and exile give room for significant changes. Now is the best time. To reimagine Hmong womanhood, we need to imagine how we can retell our collective legacy. In retelling our shared history, it is important that we unearth stories that fit the missing pieces of our identities and experiences. Retelling our legacy also means to interject ourselves into history and fill or rewrite current history if necessary. This section is closely related to the other two sections, and perhaps all the pieces in the other two sections could be included in this section.
There is room for everyone’s story in the retelling of our legacy, but here I offer five pieces that all propose something different. First, I looked at Ka Vang’s poem, where in the spirit of Maya Angelou she celebrates how great it is to be Hmong. Second, I explored the illustrations in Duachaka Her's story about reimagining home, love, and labor. Third, I included a short poem written by Khathy Xiong as she recounts the love she has for her mother. Next, Chia Vang’s essay on the wartime sacrifices of Hmong women is added to offer accounts into how Hmong women played a part in a history that substantially shifted our way of life. Furthermore, I present Magnolia Yang Sai Yia’s video on Hmong dance explaining our legacy with displacement and the knowledge we have borrowed from other culture. Lastly, I conclude with A Hmong Woman blog post on her mother as an amazing example of a woman taking of control of her life and the legacy she will leave behind for her children. I have a varied collection of sources here, and the question I ask is, how do we use different ways of knowing and understanding to retell our legacy and reimagine Hmong womanhood?
Ka Vang writes a moving piece about displacement and reclaiming her identity as a Hmong American. Her poem Extraordinary Hmong weaves in and out of her own experiences and Asian Americans stereotypes that does not include her. She makes references to her history, ancestors, cultural knowledge, lost, popular culture, and education. Vang’s poem claims her identity and history as significant and extraordinary.
Vang starts the poem as an ode to her cultural history and ancestors which are fairly common as a sense of respect and longing for connection with the past. Vang does not dwell on the past and instead explains that she intends to carry her ancestors with her on her back. Vang distances herself from other Asian American population and White culture in a joking manner while still including her lived experiences. For example, she states she is not sushi or take-out, and that she is carrying more knowledge in her pockets than Plato’s Philosopher Kings. Vang also transitions in and out of a fluid gender identity. I do not believe this is a reference to her actual gender or sexual orientation but rather claiming that she has rights to activities that were once just male-associated. This poem is clearly her tending to her past and remembering why it is extraordinary to be Hmong.
Vang’s writing is raw, unapologetic, and rings with much conviction. In the video clip of her reading this poem, she reads the poem as if to say “be proud of who you are”. Retelling our legacy, we need to not only understand connecting histories with America and other Asian American communities but also be able to have claims to our Hmong American experiences. There are many things that make our lived experiences amazing and we have the celebrate being alive and having the ability retell stories. Reimagining Hmong womanhood calls for us to celebrate who we are as Vang have model.
Then and Now
Then and Now is a 32-page comic-book story about a young girl named Yia. The comic document’s Yia’s childhood in Thailand and her transition to adult life in America. The comic also depicts imageries of Hmong folklore, wisdom, and the longing and reimagination of homeland. The folklore imagery of the Pob Tsoog (a female ghost) adds to the concept of home and displacement. A Pob Tsoog is a wandering spirit without a home and is presumed to take or be a female form. Yia runs into a Pob Tsoog on her way to and back from the farm with her parents. The imagery foreshadows Yia's life in America. Furthermore, the narrative documents knowledge passed down from mother to daughters through the love for gardening, specifically using gardening as a tool to conceptualize home. Yia’s mother explains to her that she gardens so their family can have enough to eat. This, I can relate to. My mother always explains that she gardens so we can have enough to eat. Coming from a history where generations of families live off the land and live secluded from major governments or large groups of civilization, agriculture is necessary for survival. On the concept of home, Yia's mother explains that that cucumbers hide under the leaves in their house. Later in the narrative, Yia reminiscences on missing home and her mother’s story about cucumbers helps her reconceptualizes home as “home is where the heart is”.
The story depicts changes in generations of Hmong women and also explicitly illustrates joy and knowledge through gardening as the thread that connects two generation of women. Yia’s mom also mentions that she does gardening because the activity reminds her of the home before America. My mother echoes similar claims and perhaps this is why gardening is still something she practice til this day. My mother is sad that I do not share her love for gardening because I have traded dirt and sunshine for books and rolls of desks. Regardless, appreciation for the earth and food is something I will never take for granted. Her’s story is a reminder that Hmong women are responsible for feeding generations of children and the hard work and labor is something a mother shares with their daughters. The daughters in my generation are no longer gardening but this does not mean we have not learned anything from our mother’s legacy. Reimagining Hmong womanhood means to emulate our mother's’ legacy of hard word through our own actions. Hence, we need to explore how love and labor is illustrated from one generation to another. There is variety and diversity in the labor of Hmong women today and we should cultivate, celebrate, and have conversations around how to tell our legacy of hard work going forward.
Pork Rinds, Water Rice
Khathy Xiong’s short poem called Pork Rinds, Water Rice is probably one of the most beautiful pieces I have read this month. In the poem she paints her mother’s image as a powerful chili picker who ate pork rinds and watered rice to support a day’s work. Xiong’s mother works on a farm where she gets paid directly by cash. Xiong documents her mother’s ritual of counting money and takes a moment to reflect on how her life is different from her mother.
“In late evenings, she’d remove from underneath
the carpet flap of the bedroom floor, a thick white envelope
(not so mysterious), my little self waiting for her
to count, to look over, eyes instructing. I had never thought
her lonely for the act—perhaps when it seemed her body was
her only friend, the way she spoke to those hands unlike with me.“ (Xiong, 2013)
Then Xiong explains her mother’s nightly ritual of cleaning herself at night. This seemingly mundane act captures the imagery of a daughter’s love for her mother. I thought to include this piece because I believe the way we talk and write about people we care about says a lot about that person and what they mean to us. Xiong’s illustrating her love for her mother in a moment of a mundane act is a beautiful way of capturing the hardworking image of her mother and the love she has for her mother. This simple poem has a breathtaking way of retelling the story and relationship between the writer and her mother. I truly believe, it does not take earth-shattering stories cement our legacy in history.
Chia Vang explores the employment of Hmong women during the Secret War in Laos in this article and unveils how Hmong women contributed to wartime efforts. Vang also offers insight into how Hmong women used employment to liberate the gender, social, and power structure and constraints of traditional Hmong women roles. Vang documents that this is also the first time where women held a different class due to earnings. Additionally, Vang offers examples of heroic narratives in the roles Hmong women played in wartime sacrifice. This essay is important to give evidence to Hmong women’s involvement in the war. Vang’s interview or first person accounts also provide perspectives into three different women’s influence and wartime efforts.
I remember Vang talking about this project a while back. She was absolutely fascinated by what Hmong women were doing during these two wars and why there almost seems to be a void of information available. Vang cites how other women aided in wars across the world. She adds these narratives to give examples on women being more than chess pieces in wars. What I most enjoyed about this essay is the careful curation of the three Hmong women stories. Vang pulls out their stories to give an example of what agency women had in the war due to their involvement and status. She further complicates these women’s role by layering systems of power and the timing of events. To retell our legacy is to give legitimacy to the actions of our mothers and grandmothers. It is important to remember that most Hmong men were off to war so structure of the community was upheld at this time by Hmong women.
Rethinking Hmong Women’s Wartime Sacrifices
Magnolia Yang Sao Yia is a female dance- artist and an activist. In her own words, Yang Sao Yia “creates to awaken, address, critically engage, strategize, mobilize, to re-imagine, transform, connect and heal” (Yang Sao Yia, n.d.). In Yang Sao Yia video What is Hmong Dance, she opens with Yang Sao Yia questioning what is Hmong and what is Hmong dance. Yang explains her intimate and historical history with dance as she continues to define and problematize the practice of Hmong dance. She cites that Hmong dance comes from many parts of the world, is both home, and homeless. Yang Sao Yia insists “Hmong dance belongs to no one. Hmong dance belongs to everyone.” (2016). As the video continues, it is apparent that Yang Sao Yia has been thinking about Hmong dance for a while but yet the answer is known and also unknown at the same time. At the end of the clip, Yang Sao Yia explains that she is Hmong dance. Here Yang Sao Yia takes exclusive claim to Hmong dance.
In the short five minutes, Yang Sao Yia brought many complex topics in the Hmong culture. Her direct mention of the female body and Hmong dance’s relationship with the male gaze and patriarchy is only the tip of the iceberg. Yang Sao Yia also adds to the definition of Hmong dance by reminding us that the practice is taken from all sorts of culture but the practice is also very American. Yang Sao Yia’s video on Hmong dance draws many parallels to the complexity of the Hmong women identity. In retelling our legacy to reimagine Hmong womanhood, we need to explore the nuances of our identity not only through stories but also different aspect of the culture. Hmong dance is a reflection of diasporic history, our history to the United States, and our way of contextualizing life today.
Magnolia Yang Sao Yia
What is Hmong Dance
A Hmong Woman writes a story of her mother to add to the festivities of March’s Women History Month in the United States. The day she wrote the blog also commemorates the 100th anniversary of International Women’s day, a global holiday that celebrates appreciation for women around the world and their achievements. A Hmong Woman starts her blog with explaining her positionality in the Hmong patriarchal culture. She described how she was sheltered growing up but her world changed when her father left their family to start another family. Even though she was only 12 at that time, she recounts being able to tell how different she was treated when her father left. It was as if anyone could make fun of her and disregard her future. It was also at this time that her mom planted the seed of being a feminist in her mind. Of course, she did not know this at the time but looking back at her life, her mother was the first feminist she knew. She learned how to be a feminist by watching the way her mother modeled her life.
An example she cites is her mom not willing to conform to social standards by remarrying. Though her mother received a lot of heat from society to remarry, her actions to not to do so proved to their family that they did not need a father to survive. A Hmong Woman also believes her mother not remarrying greatly impacted her life. Although it took many years for her mom to gain people’s respect as an unmarried woman, her actions showed A Hmong Woman that her life does not need to be governed by social rules from thousands of years ago. I am perhaps drawn to this story because it reminds me of my mother. When my father passed away, my mother never remarried but this does not come as a shock to me. My mother was radical most of her life, and she said, her not remarrying, she did it for us. Having remarried once before, she did not want us to go through fighting for a new father’s love. Retelling our legacy means to unearth stories that are often not told about women resilience and radical love for their children. Reimagining Hmong womanhood will ask us to bring these stories into the light to showcase our not so predictive and binary culture.