"Wisconsin State Journal" Book Feature
This book feature by Peter Cameron appeared in the "Wisconsin State Journal" on Monday, November 21, 2005
Biography Traces Young Hmong's Culture Clash
In a lot of ways, Mai Ya Xiong was a pretty typical American teenager. She stayed late after school when she needed extra help, held a part-time job in a T-shirt shop and fought with her parents while struggling to establish her own identity. Yet Xiong, the first-born daughter of Hmong immigrants, wasn't just rebelling against mom and dad, but an entire culture.
"I wanted to blend in with everyone else, and have American friends," she said.
Her story is chronicled in the new book "Mai Ya's Long Journey" by Sheila Cohen (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $12.95), the first of the Badger Biographies Series on Wisconsin people. It follows Xiong, now 25, as she learned to balance her place in the Hmong community with her status as an American. Her family left the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand and arrived in Madison when she was 8 years old.
Author Cohen, the teacher of Xiong's seventh-grade ESL class, noticed the resiliency of the girl and also of her mother, who would frequently come in to chaperone and make egg rolls for the class despite speaking very little English.
"They just struck me as a family that had a hopeful attitude even though they were going through a lot," she said.
Following the Vietnam War, the influx of South East Asian children into her classrooms and a lack of literature depicting the culture convinced Cohen to write her own book on the Hmong people.
"I knew very little about them at that time, and their classmates knew even less," she said. "I want people to have an understanding of what the Hmong people have gone through in order to get to this country."
Though she initially rejected her heritage, Xiong (pronounced "shong") began to take an interest in high school. She volunteered for both United Way and the United Refugee Service, and formed an Asian club at her school. But she and her siblings continued to assert themselves, which didn't always harmonize with the expectations of the Hmong community.
"My father had to bend a lot of rules for his kids," she said. "We had to take a stand and educate our parents to what is important in this culture."
For example, Xiong, who attended UW-Milwaukee and now works at Kohl's as a merchandise analyst, is single. The Hmong tradition usually expects young women to marry by 18.
"A girl with a good reputation would have been married already," she said, being half-serious. "I want to live my dream and not fall into that trap."
"She's sort of a frontrunner in that area," said Cohen.
Xiong hopes the book will serve as a historical document, as well as a resource to students and teachers. And maybe even help others reach a conclusion it took her years to discover.
"I want immigrants to understand that it's OK to be different," she said.