Praise for "Mai Ya's Long Journey"
2013 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards
Best Book Series - Nonfiction, Silver Medal Winner
Praise for Mai Ya
"As an ESL teacher, I find 'Mai Ya's Long Journey' to be fascinating reading. From her birth in a refugee camp in Thailand to her graduation from UW-Milwaukee, Mai Ya's life is reminiscent of so many Hmong students I've known. Ms. Cohen's book would be great for teachers who want to lead a study of life in America from an immigrant's perspective. The glossary, discussion questions, and activities and projects provided make 'Mai Ya's Long Journey' an excellent addition to any ESL or mainstream teacher's collection." —Ruthann Lewis, Program Support Teacher, ESL and Bilingual Education Division, Madison Metropolitan School District
"Mai Ya's story and the convergence of Hmong and U.S. interests during the Vietnam era is relevant to every American and Sheila Cohen deserves praise for bringing it to light in such a detailed and culturally sensitive manner. Touching on everything from traditional Hmong cultural practices to the challenges of growing up in 'two worlds,' 'Mai Ya's Long Journey' is accessible, informative and moving." —John Robinson, Manager of Exhibits and Community Relations Madison Children's Museum
"'Mai Ya's Long Journey' is an inspirational and compelling read, in the finest Hmong traditions of story telling. Mai Ya's experiences as a young girl in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand who suddenly is transplanted half a world away are interwoven with recollections of her family about their life before and after war forced them to leave their home in Laos and Mai Ya's struggles to grow up American while staying true to her Hmong culture. 'Mai Ya's Long Journey' is the story of her life and, at the same time, the story of the incredible challenges that the new Hmong immigrants are facing today as they come to the United States and Wisconsin. 'Mai Ya's Long Journey' guarantees that her experiences and the contributions of the Hmong people to our county and our community will not be forgotten or taken for granted." —Kathleen M. Falk, Dane County Executive
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."
Praise for Badger Biography Series
This feature article by Karyn Saemann appeared in "The Capital Times" in 2008
BIG LIFE STORIES FOR LITTLE READERS
BIOS FOR KIDS HONOR PEOPLE WHO MADE WISCONSIN SPECIAL
They changed the face of Wisconsin. Now, their faces are becoming familiar to children around the state.
Since 2005, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press has tapped a diverse well of authors to write children's biographies of notable state figures.
Notable doesn't have to mean famous. Some "Badger Biographies Series" subjects, like Green Bay Packers founder Curly Lambeau, are household names. But others, like immigrant Swiss cheese maker Casper Jaggi, are little known yet accomplished extraordinary things.
"We want to have a balance of well-known and not," said Bobbie Malone, director of the society's Office of School Services, whose job is to cultivate potential titles and authors. So far, eight books are out, and more are coming.
"I do love what I do," said Malone, a former first-grade teacher who, when not editing the latest biography or some other society publication, travels around the state showing teachers how to bring Wisconsin history alive.
SO MANY STORIES
"What's not to fall in love with? There are so many interesting stories," mused Malone from her tiny office overlooking UW-Madison's Library Mall.
The authors, too, say they've found inspiration in the stories that, in addition to Lambeau and Jaggi, have so far included Hmong refugee Mai Ya Xiong; escaped African-American slave and Underground Railroad user Caroline Quarlls; the founders of Harley-Davidson motorcycles; Mountain Wolf Woman, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation; the Ringling Brothers of circus fame; and Milwaukee Jew Lizzie Kander, whose "Settlement Cook Book" taught American homemaking to immigrant women and raised money for social causes.
"I think it's fascinating to see how people lived their lives," said Diane Young Holliday, an archaeologist who authored "Mountain Wolf Woman: A Ho-Chunk Girlhood."
Ultimately, "we want people to fall in love with the past so they value it and connect it to their own lives," Malone said.
Bob Kann, who inked Lizzie Kander's story and is himself a Jew whose mother owned a "Settlement Cook Book," said readers will relate to the tales of hard work and determination.
"It's important to expose kids to people who are exemplary, to show how people accomplished what they accomplished, how they dealt with defeat and to show their resilience in how they bounced back," Kann said.
Of Milwaukee's Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th Century, Kann said he hoped to show "how difficult their lives were, and how courageous it was for them to come to this country with very few resources."
"There weren't any social service agencies," Kann said. "They were very fortunate to have people like Lizzie Kander who were filling that gap."
FOR YOUNG READERS
Writing for children isn't easy.
Jerry Apps, a veteran writer who with the exception of two titles has spent 35 years crafting adult books, called writing for children "extremely difficult."
Apps adapted both of his Badger Biographies titles, on the Ringling family and Jaggi, from adult books he previously wrote on the same subjects.
"It's boiling down the material in such a way that you get to the essence of it, in a way that communicates to young readers yet doesn't compromise the history," Apps said.
"I wasn't sure if I could explain things at a fourth-grade level," admitted Young Holliday, recalling reservations she had when collaborating with Malone on a publication previous to "Mountain Wolf Woman."
In some cases, it's weighing how to appropriately present the tainted personal lives of memorable people to a target audience of fourth- through eighth-graders, without whitewashing too much truth.
For all his legendary professional success, Curly Lambeau treated people badly and had serious character flaws that included infidelity, said Stuart Stotts, a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan and author of "Curly Lambeau: Building the Green Bay Packers."
"Curly was a philanderer, but that is not really dealt with in the book," Stotts said. "We didn't feel that was appropriate for 10-year-olds. You say a little bit about how he was divorced three times, and something about his inability to get along with people, but don't go into the details of extramarital affairs."
However, "I think 7- to 10-year-olds are quite capable of understanding that people are complex," Stotts said. "I think at this age they are quite able to recognize that people may have good qualities and bad qualities at the same time. The subtleties of behavior are not at all beyond what they are dealing with in their own social situations."
"I think as a biographer it's our job to make people's character flaws clear if we are aware of them, but not to dwell on them. The purpose of the book is not to bring down Curly Lambeau, but we have to be realistic about who he was."
Similarly tricky adult situations led to Mountain Wolf Woman's story focusing not on her grown-up years, but on her childhood, Malone said.
"You want to make it real but you can't overwhelm young readers with details or information they can't handle," Malone said.
MORE TO COME
The series is not done. In fact, it's just getting started.
In the pipeline are potential books on "Fighting Bob" and Belle Case La Follette, Govs. Lucius Fairchild and Gaylord Nelson, rural doctor Kate Newcomb, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Cindy Bentley, a disabled Special Olympics athlete.
In addition to representing subjects of divergent backgrounds, Malone said she hopes to focus on people from various geographical corners of the state.
All of the books include an abundance of illustrations and break-out boxes that help readers further explore the topic and historical era. All also have a glossary, supplemental reading list and group discussion questions.
If she could find an interested author, Malone said she would love to produce a biography on naturalist and engineer Increase Lapham. Fur trader Soloman Juneau is also on her list.
And she would like to do a bilingual biography about migrant workers from Mexico. "We haven't gotten there yet, but that's definitely a direction I would like to go. There definitely are stories" about such workers and the people who brought them here, Malone said.
Malone said going back beyond the 19th century, to those who first populated the state, would be challenging in a biography format.
In historical fiction you can set a made-up person in a chosen era. But with biography you need factual details about an actual being. The difficulty, Malone said, is unearthing the documents that chronicle a particular life.
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.
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.