Sheila Cohen began her teaching career in the area of Speech and Language Therapy. When she took a hiatus from work to raise her two children, she began volunteering to teach English to an influx of immigrants who were settling in Madison in the late 1960s. She enjoyed that work so much that she returned to the University of Wisconsin to become certified in English as a Second Language.
Cohen resumed work in the schools as an ESL teacher in the late 1970s, just as a group of Hmong families began to arrive in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. For the next 20 years, she worked closely with Hmong families as well as Hmong Bilingual Resource personnel in the schools who provided invaluable help with translations and information. She has been on the Board of Directors of the United Refugee Services of Wisconsin, and works as a freelance writer. She has two grown children and twin grandsons, and lives with her husband in Madison. Her other book in the Badger Biography series is "Gaylord Nelson: Champion for Our Earth."
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why do you think this is such an important story to tell?
Sheila Cohen: When the first Hmong students began to appear in our classrooms 25 years ago, little was known about their culture or why they had immigrated to the United States. At that time, there was no literature for young people to help them understand their new Hmong classmates. As important, the Hmong students had no place to turn to find their experiences in print. Fortunately, today there are more books about the Hmong for young readers but most of them are based on folktales or are fictional stories. The actual Hmong experiences of secretly aiding the United States military during the Vietnam War; of having to escape their hillside homes in Laos in order to save their lives; and of needing to resettle in a totally unfamiliar society, are rarely touched upon. It is important to tell the story. It is my hope that "Mai Ya's Long Journey" will enlighten Hmong children and instill a sense of pride in who they are while enabling all young readers to develop a better understanding of their Hmong classmates and neighbors.
WHS Press: You were an English as a Second Language teacher in Madison for many years. What about Mai Ya made you interested in creating a biography of her?
SC: As I worked with Mai Ya and met her family, I realized that they were a prototype of many Hmong families who were struggling to make a life for themselves in the face of adversity. With family and clan support, they were succeeding and coping. I felt that their story would be an uplifting model for anyone faced with difficult times.
In addition to the fact that Mai Ya and her family represented a prototype of the Hmong story — dreadful war experiences, life in the camps, and the struggle to resettle in a fast paced techno culture — they were making it. Their family was in tact and strong, which was reflected in the smiles and upbeat attitudes of their children.
Mai Ya's mother, Xai Thao, was an active participant at school, serving as trip chaperone and teacher of Hmong traditions, such as the preparation of egg rolls. I can still remember the wonderful aroma wafting out of the ESL classroom the day she came to school to be our chief chef.
In spite of all their trials and losses, the Xiong family was able to participate in their new life and retain their Hmong traditions. For that reason, I thought that Mai Ya and her family could serve as role models for others who were having a more difficult time coping — feeling invisible, lost, and grief stricken as a result of their experiences.
Loss of pride and a sense of helplessness was a large factor in being unable to cope. Fathers lost their status in a patriarchal society, parents needed to have their young children serve as their translators when dealing with the outside world, and many kids had no idea where they fit in. Their experiences were unrecognized, they were not part of the American culture, and before long, many could no longer identify with their parents' Hmong ways. In some instances, gangs were their only means of feeling a sense of belonging. I wrote about Mai Ya as an example of how strength and community support could help to overcome the sense of helplessness. It is my hope that her example will help to rekindle the sense of pride that the young generation needs to survive.
WHS Press: In what ways did Mai Ya's Long Journey become a journey for you as well?
SC: I have known the Xiong family for the past 20 years and in that time I have been fortunate to witness the support of family and clan through good times and bad. In many ways, the Hmong culture has shown me the importance of gaining strength through community.
WHS Press: What part did the Hmong community play in the research and writing of this book?
SC: In addition to reading many historical accounts of the Hmong experience, I was fortunate to have the help of the Hmong community in writing "Mai Ya's Long Journey." I was graciously invited to enjoy holiday celebrations, partake in meals, and participate in ceremonial funerals. In addition I had able bilingual translators who helped me with many interviews. For all of their generous help, I am grateful.
WHS Press: What was the most challenging aspect of telling Mai Ya's story?
SC: It was sometimes difficult to get a single interpretation of a ceremony or tradition. As with any society in a state of transition, some of the customs are viewed differently from one generation to the next.
WHS Press: What was most surprising?
SC: I was pleasantly surprised that, although many traditions have been changed or eliminated as assimilation has taken place, many of the customs of the Animist culture remain in tact. Through the generations the culture will undoubtedly continue to be altered in this country, but it is my hope that the values of family that have kept the Hmong strong throughout their history will be passed on from one generation to the next.
WHS Press: What do you want young readers to take away from this story?
SC: I would hope that the Hmong readers will derive a sense of pride in themselves and in their culture as they gain understanding of the courage it took to survive the difficult times that their families have endured. In addition, I hope that all readers will gain a better understanding of their Hmong classmates. Whether American, Asian, African American or Hispanic, many young people are struggling to find where they fit in to the greater society — just as Mai Ya did as she traversed between her Hmong and American worlds. Perhaps her story will give hope to any young person wanting to find a sense of his or her own identity.
WHS Press: What would you like to hear from young readers and their parents and teachers?
SC: I would like to hear from young readers, parents and teachers about the effect Mai Ya's story has on them. I would like to know whether or not the book met its goals of promoting better understanding on the part of all readers and instilling a greater pride in the Hmong readers who can now find their experiences on the library shelves.