"The Capital Times" Book Feature
This book feature by Debra Carr-Elsing appeared in "The Capital Times" on Thursday, October 13, 2005
One Girl's Story
New Biography Series Features Local Hmong Immigrant
Adjusting to life in Madison was a big leap for Mai Ya Xiong, who was born in a Thailand refugee camp.
She didn't speak English, and she had never seen snow before. Nor had she ever felt cold weather.
"Everything was very different here, and I remember being afraid to go out of the house," recalls Xiong, who was 7 when her Hmong family came to the United States in 1987.
Hers is a contemporary refugee story, and it's told in a new children's book by Madison author Sheila Cohen. It's titled "Mai Ya's Long Journey" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $12.95) and it launches a new Badger Biographies Series on Wisconsin people.
"I met Mai Ya when she was quite young, and I was very impressed by members of her family and their sense of resilience and hopefulness, and yet they had gone through so much," Cohen says.
"I felt they could be a good role model for anyone faced with difficult times."
In 1979, Cohen was teaching English as a second language in Madison when the first group of Hmong families began to arrive here in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
"Twelve years later - after all these Southeast Asian students came here - I was frustrated that there were still no books on the library shelf for them to relate to and to relate to their own experiences," Cohen recalls.
That's when she started writing "Mai Ya's Long Journey," which could be typical of the stories of more than 200,000 Hmong people who now live in the United States and who struggle to adjust to American society while maintaining their own culture as a free people.
In Wisconsin, the Hmong population is more than 47,000. It is the third largest Hmong settlement in the country, topped only by those in California and Minnesota.
"I really learned what close connections they have as families and as clans," Cohen says. "A strong thread in Hmong culture is the fact that they're always there for one another. They have a great sense of community."
Early in the book, young readers learn how the Hmong secretly aided the United States military during the Vietnam War and how they had to escape their hillside homes in Laos to save their lives.
It's a journey that finds them resettling in an unfamiliar society.
"Being a Hmong American, I wasn't quite sure who I was when I was growing up," Xiong says. "It was very hard to balance the traditions of my heritage with American culture."
With the support of her family, however, Xiong faced each challenge as it came her way and found success. She graduated from East High School in 1998, and served as Miss Lao-Hmong Wisconsin from 2000 to 2001.
"The pageant was about discovering yourself and being committed to giving back to the Hmong community," Xiong says.
She started a Girl Scout troop for middle school Hmong girls, and, as a college student, became involved in the Hmong American Student Organization and the Asian American Student Union.
Last year she received a bachelor's degree in finance and marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is now a merchandise analyst for Kohl's department store.
"I'm very proud of this book because I want other immigrants to know that they're not alone in their struggles to fit in here," she says.
"It's OK to feel different, and, eventually, feelings of self-doubt can be overcome. It's very important, however, to know yourself and to trust your own instincts."
In elementary school, Xiong struggled to speak English well because she wanted to be just like her American classmates.
"I wanted to be someone else and part of the mainstream, but I've learned to really appreciate my Hmong heritage," she says. "It's great to have that culture, too."
Xiong says she hopes that the new book will give young American readers a glimpse into Hmong culture "so they can better understand immigrants and respect us.
"I'm here in America, but I still want to embrace my own history," she adds.
Cohen is a freelance writer and serves on the board of directors for United Refugee Services of Wisconsin.
"Madison has done a very good job of letting people be who they are and appreciating their uniqueness," she says.
She has goals for her book, too.
"I want Hmong children to be able to take pride reading about the journey of their ancestors and the courage it took to survive troubled times," Cohen says.
"Besides that, I would hope that all readers 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 their own identity."
Sheila Cohen, author of "Mai Ya's Long Journey" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, October 2005; paperback, $12.95), will talk to children, parents and educators about her book and do signings at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble, 7433 Mineral Point Road.
She also will give a presentation as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
This is the first book in the Wisconsin Historical Society Press's new Badger Biographies Series. The series is designed to help upper elementary and middle school readers explore the stories of Wisconsin people.