"Asian Wisconzine" Book Feature
This feature by Ka Bao Lee appeared in "Asian Wisconzine" in July 2006
Mai Ya Xiong: "We're here for a purpose."
"Oh my gosh, I'd probably be married with lots of kids and no education." Twenty-six-year-old Mai Ya Xiong laughed as she talked about how different her life would have been if her family had not come to the United States. Today, Mai Ya is not yet married, has no children, and is quickly climbing up the success ladder. She was recently promoted to assistant manager for Market Solutions at Kohl's. In addition, Mai Ya's face graces the cover of a book titled "Mai Ya's Long Journey", published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
Mai Ya's journey began like most Hmong refugees. Her experiences mirror the experiences of children caught between two cultures. Yet her story is still very unique and is worth telling over and over again.
Born in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand, Mai Ya only vaguely remembers life in the refugee camp. "I do remember being very tight and compact. I remember waiting in line in the heat, waiting for food and water. I remember working hard." Although life seemed difficult back then, Mai Ya admits that things almost seemed normal at the time. It is hard for her, even today, to grasp the idea of a refugee camp.
In 1987, the Xiong family's struggle within the camp came to an end when they were sponsored to come to the United States by an uncle, who was already in America. Seven-year-old Mai Ya, her four younger siblings, and her mother and father boarded a plane and headed to the United States. Little did the Xiong family know that more challenges awaited them in the "Land of the Free."
Coming to a new country, they faced the usual language barrier, new foods, and a completely alien way of life. But what was most difficult was the lack of acceptance from Americans. "People lacked the knowledge of why we're here and who we are as a group." Mai Ya said. This lack of knowledge and acceptance led to many altercations. Besides being picked on and having rocks thrown at them, Mai Ya recalled one situation that went so far that her father had to chase the perpetrators away with a gun. Mai Ya said that at times like this, language became a very big problem because they couldn't explain to a police officer their side of the story. Getting the law involved seemed to create only more problems. Despite the tension, Mai Ya said that her family continued their quest for the American dream. "We know that we are here for a purpose and we can't go back and we may as well make the best of it."
"Making the best of it was how Mai Ya balanced her two very different roles at home and at school—the role of a proper Hmong girl and the role of a Hmong American girl. "There's just so much more to being a Hmong girl," Mai Ya said. She went on to explain that a "proper" Hmong girl has to: demonstrate maturity, cook, clean and take care of the family, while a Hmong American girl can still be a child and does not have as many responsibilities. Mai Ya's role as a "proper" Hmong girl became even more necessary when Mai Ya's mother passed away in a tragic car accident after Mai Ya's seventh grade. As the oldest child in the family, Mai Ya had to grow up fast and take on even more responsibilities.
"Although at times, it was hard to balance two different lifestyles and measure up to the expectations of both worlds, Mai Ya said, "I may live two separate lives, but I have the same goal and that goal is to succeed in whatever I do." Mai Ya also added that she knew she was different from other American kids, but was great at adjusting to any situation she was in. This allowed her to easily fit into both worlds.
Being the oldest, Mai Ya was able to help her younger siblings deal with the problems they encountered, but Mai Ya understood that their situations were not always the same as the ones she had to deal with. "I just share my stories with them and ask them, how can I help you?" Mai Ya said. Although Mai Ya was able to understand her siblings' difficulties when it came to her parents, Mai Ya admitted, "I'm sure my parents went through a lot that I don't know about." She also knows that sometimes her parents didn't understand what she was going through either; but she tried to keep communication open between her and her parents. Certain things that Mai Ya did, such as volunteering or being involved in after-school activities, her parents didn't understand. But Mai Ya made sure she shared and explained to them what she was doing and why she was doing it. Through open communication, her father eventually saw her struggles and understood that she needed to do certain things in order to succeed. Mai Ya's drive and determination allowed her to finish college and get to where she is today.
Her common but unique experience inspired Sheila Cohen, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, to write a book about Mai Ya. "Mai Ya's Long Journey" is a book for young readers that documents Mai Ya's journey from Ban Vinai Refugee Camp to her success in America. "When the first Hmong students began to appear in our classroom 25 years ago, little was known about their culture or why they had immigrated to the United States," Cohen explained in an interview posted on the Wisconsin Historical Society Press Web site. Within Mai Ya's story, information about the Hmong culture, their beliefs and their history help readers better understand the Hmong people. Cohen said, "It is my hope that "Mai Ya' 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."
Cohen's book is especially important now since a new wave of Hmong refugees have settled here in Wisconsin in the last two years. Although Hmong people have already established a community here, the new refugees face the same misunderstandings, language barrier, and strange new life that those like Mai Ya's family experienced in 1987. It is important to educate those outside the Hmong culture about the Hmong people, but it is also equally important to share this knowledge with Hmong Americans who have forgotten—or do not know—their history.
Mai Ya offers a piece of advice for new refugee youths saying, "Be open minded and stand up for what you believe in." She also encourages everyone to share their story and develop conversations with others so that there is understanding and acceptance not only with the Hmong culture, but also with every culture.
"Mai Ya's Long Journey" has educated and inspired many young people. When asked if Mai Ya would ever consider writing her own book, Mai Ya said that she would like to write a book but not about herself. She would like to focus more on taboo topics such gays and lesbians in the Hmong community. Right now, Mai Ya is concentrating on her career and on starting a chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP) for the Madison and Milwaukee areas.
Mai Ya's journey began as a grim life in the poverty of a refugee camp and moving to an unwelcoming new home in America. But through it all, she managed to achieve the American dream.