Vlai Ly

Vlai Ly

Hmong American photographer and writer. Owner of Letters to the Mountain and editor-in-chief for maivmai. Tell your story.

  • Discovering What it Means to be Hmong American

    In honor and dedication to my Grandmother, See Vang, (May 2nd, 1921 — July 13th 2021)This is an excerpt from an article originally published in Txhawb MagazineMy grandmother never talked about herself when I ask about her life back in Laos. Instead, her stories always revolved around the people she loved. Sitting alongside her in my uncle’s house in Fresno, she tells me of the time my father was almost left behind in Laos during the evacuation.“We all got in the car but there wasn’t any room for your dad. He was just a little younger than you, just standing up there on the road while we were all about to leave. Your grandfather called his name one time, called two times, but he didn’t hear. He called a third time, then finally your father came down very quickly right when a soldier’s truck came. He was able to get in that truck with them. That’s how he got to come. If that wasn’t the case, your father would’ve been left behind.”My grandmother amounted it to luck, and as I sit here writing this, I have to consider that maybe she was right. There were so many loved ones who didn’t make it out Laos, like the parents whose children my grandmother took in while going to Thailand.“Wherever the kids go, I go also. We came this far, why would we let children go become orphans? I won’t let.” My grandmother recollected.No one gets left behind — these were her sentiments towards everyone around her as a war waged on. Her struggle was their struggle. Her triumph was their triumph. Her life was their life.Photo taken by Henry VangIn listening to her stories, I came to understand the seed that existed inside our hearts, a seed that I have inherited within this new generation as a Hmong American. This seed is the idea that our lives are not our own — that we create community and community creates us.As gunfire exploded around them and airplanes ripped through the sky, Hmong people drew their strength from that sense of community. When they had to flee from their villages, it was other Hmong people that provided them a new home to travel with.You can see this within the United States today. From California to Massachusetts, we congregated together because Hmong people provided that familiarity and comfort as we started to build a new life in a new land. Home is often thought of as a place or a location, but to Hmong people, home is the people themselves.Photo taken by Henry VangMy life is a continuation of my grandmother’s story— of the Hmong story. To know her story is to know of the seed of community that exists inside me. Regardless of whether they are family or strangers, I remind myself to be there for everyone, to struggle and succeed together like my grandmother did with those around her when they came to this country. For me, to be Hmong American means to uplift the people around me so we can see the value in our story, as individuals and as a community.Photo taken by Henry Vang

  • Khi Tes: The Strings That Bind Us All Together

    There is an idea that there is no real concept of “self” within the Hmong culture — that we live our lives as a collective whole. And when I stand in a room with my wrists raised for all my relatives to tie a string to, I feel that collective nature at its strongest.Strings were tied around my wrist when I was born. It was part of the hu plig ceremony to welcome me into life, where a shaman stood at my doorway and recited a chant to call forth my soul into my body.The smell of incense filled our duplex, its trail of smoke rising from a bowl of uncooked rice that held the sticks in place. Next to the door was a chicken that was bound by its feet, its life soon to be sacrificed in exchange for the safe arrival of my soul.When the shaman finished, my parents carried me to a table where all of my relatives then crowded around us, tying a string around my wrist as they recited a blessing.My whole life has been a process of holding up my wrists to have these strings tied around them. Sometimes they were decorative — thin red, black, and white strings twisted together to become one, and it would just be that single string upon my wrist. Sometimes they were just a plain white cotton yarn but with dozens running up each wrist, like the strings I received as a newborn.The strings are meant to bless me and to place good fortune upon my life, but as I’ve gotten older—and when I really pay attention to what’s happening in that room—I begin to see the real meaning in the beauty of the strings.The meaning stands in juxtaposition to who I am as an individual. I grew up always searching for this need to be free, and this freedom came through a process of self-discovery. But the irony of my self-discovery was that—it was not a matter of selfhood—but instead a matter of realizing just how many things outside of myself I was truly rooted into.The strings have come to represent that sense of rootedness. A rootedness to things beyond myself, things bigger than myself—more important than myself: My family, my friends, my community, my culture, my people. Our history, our heritage, our beliefs, our story.And when my inner nature makes me feel alone within my journey, the strings remind me of all the things that I am rooted into. The strings are more than my relative’s blessings over my life. They are my relatives themselves. They are my family, my community, my culture, and they remind me that I am part of a story that is so much bigger than myself.There is an idea that there is no real concept of “self” within the Hmong culture — that we live our lives as a collective whole. And when I stand in a room with my wrists raised for all my relatives to tie a string to, I feel that collective nature at its strongest.It is a powerful feeling to know so intimately the collective story of everyone in that room, of how not even 50 years ago we had lost our homes to war, but somehow came together and found a sense of home amongst each other.It is a home that cannot be revoked, a home that we cannot be exiled from, a home where there is no displacement because it exists everywhere. This home is our collective story, where my story is a continuation of my parent’s story, and their story is a continuation of their parent’s story. And a beautiful web develops within the community because we understand one another’s story without ever needing to state it.The strings around my wrist are tied into an infinite loop. They are a never-ending reminder that my story is not my own, but instead one that is shared between all the people inside of that room. The strings I receive possess the same meaning and blessing found within my relative’s own strings—the same meaning and blessing found within your’s, the very string tied around your own wrist that binds you and me together.Khi Tes: The Strings That Bind Us All Together was originally published in maivmai on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

  • Kuv Twb Tuag Lawm. I’m Already Dead.

    The only sense of clarity was found at the end of empty liquor bottles and beer cans that pushed his memories away. But even their effectiveness was no longer working.She found his loaded handgun discarded on their bed with the safety switched off. The window was wide open and a draft flowed in through the night, filling the room with dread as her mind tried to figure out where her husband went.Just an hour prior she had poked her head into the room and noticed him tossing and turning on the bed like he always did. But now he was no longer there as the blanket and bedsheets hung disheveled across the floor. She looked out towards the driveway to see if his car was still there but now that was gone also.Days began to go by — and then weeks — but she didn’t bother to call the cops about his disappearance. There were no photos posted onto milk cartons or grocery store bulletin boards asking for his whereabouts. There was barely any commotion at all, except for the clinking and clacking of empty liquor bottles as his family cleared the house of his belongings.The way the man became a memory was rather quick. The recycling bin stopped filling up with liquor bottles and beer cans. His unopened bills went directly into the trash along with his work boots by the door. The only thing that lingered was the feint smell of cigarettes on the couch cushions — but even that became barely noticeable.It took only three months until his wife and children stopped crying altogether, and another three until his absence felt somewhat normal.When he was still around, he was loved by those around him, all the aunts and uncles who never wavered in their support. The alcohol did enough to keep his childhood memories at bay, instead replacing them with a roaring laughter that dominated the family gatherings.It was a different story at home though. He was more withdrawn — his past always too close to him — always pulling him away from being there for his wife and kids in the way he would’ve liked.He would come home after a twelve-hour shift, numb and barely stable from the pack of cigarettes he smoked throughout the day to keep his nerves at bay. His kids had already gone to school when he got home — his wife was already at work.He spent the next hour on the couch drinking beer and smoking cigarettes while Jerry Springer played on the TV. He would drink enough beer to get drunk, for that was only way he could fall asleep without dreading the dreams that were to come.The dreams always approached him slowly from the darkness of his closed eyes, materializing like illusions right inside his eyelids. A silhouette of trees would first appear, feint and ghostlike, just swaying in the darkness. And then the figure of a lady would appear, her back turned to him, her strands of white hair made barely discernible by the moonlight. This lady had the warmth and presence of his grandmother from when she was still alive.He slowly made his way towards her, noticing that she was quietly humming. It was the same lullaby that his grandmother used to sing to him when he couldn’t fall asleep — when his mind was too fixated on the poj ntxoog (female ghost) in the forests.He finally reached his grandmother and called out to her but she didn’t turn around. Nor did she stop her humming. She just continued, but he now saw that her body was convulsing, and he could hear a feint giggle underneath the humming.Her convulsions became more intense and erratic until she was jumping off of the ground. Her white hair now falling off of her scalp.He stood there frozen in fear, watching her strange behavior. His grandmother’s visage becoming clearer and clearer as her hair fell off, until he realized he wasn’t staring at his grandmother’s back at all. He was looking directly into this figure’s eyes now. Her head was completely twisted around, her body convulsing erratically while contorted in the opposite direction.It was the poj ntxoog and she started chanting like she was performing an ua neeg, leaping closer and closer to him. He attempted to back away but only tripped onto the ground in terror, unable to break away from her gaze.But right before she reached him, this nightmare would always dissolve into his memories back in Laos.And it was never this childish nightmare that he dreaded, but rather the constant reliving of his past that made falling asleep so unbearable. Inside his dreams, the wall between his memories and the dream-world would disappear and he was forced to be his younger self again.Every night was spent lying on the forest floor whenever soldiers were nearby, to avoid detection and any warning shots that they might fire. His parents and siblings would lie right next to him, clinging onto one another in hopes that they wouldn’t be discovered.The morning provided no sense of ease. The thick fog that laid across the land provided coverage but also blinded them to their surroundings. They would sometimes walk right into bodies strewn across the path, enough so that they became familiar with the task of searching it for any goods: silver, food, opium, weapons — anything to give them a fighting chance of reaching Thailand.He learned to hold the rifles that they found, the weight bearing down on his back and bending his spine crooked over the countless miles that they walked. He grew accustomed to the weight. He grew accustomed to the strength required in his little fingers to pull the trigger, and he grew accustomed to the memory of the man he killed — gasping for his last few breaths as blood poured out from his stomach.The man looked just like his father inside these memories, another Hmong man who simply feared for his life, but ended up fighting for the other side in a war that wasn’t his to fight. And in his dream it was always his father lying there on the ground, staring right into his eyes before he died — his father’s blood becoming a river flowing down his arms as he held him one last time.The smell of blood would stain the air. The land he grew up on would become a burial ground as he watched one relative be buried after another, mourning the end to their journey.In his own journey, his eyes were always perched up towards the sky, as though he was searching for some God to save him. But his mind had no space for God. There was only space to observe the planes very closely to see where the bombs were going to fall.And when the bombs did fall towards their direction, they covered their ears and clung onto one another, mourning what seemed like their final moments. The impact of the bomb would send shockwaves and debris flying at them; the Earth seemed to crumble underneath their feet and pull them into their graves. But they found themselves still breathing when they opened up their clenched eyes.The explosions occurred so often — every day at every hour — but they never got used to them. The fear remained so visceral and always erupted from the pits of their stomach.Even in his first few waking moments, when he realized that he was back inside his house, the fear would always be there — the explosions fresh in his head. They came from the loud television set as his son watched his shows. They were there in the sound of the blender turning on and off to pulverize the food being prepared for dinner.It took him a moment to discern between his past and his present life, attempting to work through the fog of memories that overcame him inside his dreams. It was this inescapable fog that followed him everywhere. At every moment he was on edge, attempting to keep his temper at bay whenever his children annoyed him, or whenever he’d misplace his pack of cigarettes and blame it on his wife.The only sense of clarity was found at the end of empty liquor bottles and beer cans that pushed his memories away. But even their effectiveness was no longer working.When he awoke he saw his grandmother standing there from across the room with her back turned to him again. Then there was the smell of blood that filled the air. His eyes were fixated on the darkness of the room as the ringing in his ear grew louder and louder until he couldn’t take it anymore. Every time he woke up he was greeted with the same pounding headache and nightmares that followed him from his dreams.He reached over and unlocked his safe and held the gun onto his head, the thought of pulling the trigger pushing him on. But as his finger began to twitch in anticipation, he spotted his children’s drawings strewn across the floor.He realized that he didn’t know his children at all; he didn’t know his wife anymore either. He didn’t even know who he was. All of them were nameless apparitions inside his mind, ghosts he just lived with — ghosts like himself. The fog of memory and make-believe was no longer escapable. He was no longer escapable. He lowered the gun and placed it on his bedside.Kuv twb tuag lawm, He thought to himself. I’m already dead.He listened for a moment outside his room as his family went about their night — a feeling of repentance coming over him. He then slowly cracked open his window and climbed on through to the lawn, heading towards his car. He sat in his car and watched his family for one last time before driving away, further and further into the night until he became a memory himself—gone from their lives and then gone from his own.Kuv Twb Tuag Lawm. I’m Already Dead. was originally published in maivmai on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

  • Find Yourself Through Dance

    - To dance is to free ourselves from the trauma of everyday life.It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to dance, or dance well. There’s a rhythm inside of you waiting to be discovered. This isn’t a rhythm to be found during a song, but rather the rhythm that is inherent between your mind, body, and spirit that you’ve lost a hold of while moving through life.It wasn’t until about a year ago that I started liking to dance. I was a very rigid and reserved kid growing up, always afraid of being judged or placed in the spotlight. The dance floor wasn’t really a place for me.But for some reason there was this new urge inside of me that wanted to dance. This wasn’t any formal type of dancing, à la choreography or breakdancing, but rather just the freeform dancing that you’d see on the dance floor.It was an urge for me to find the mental space and courage to be myself without being so self-conscious. This does require a bit of alcohol on my part to get the ball rolling, but now I love having the opportunity to just dance, and thus re-center myself into myself — freely, expressively, and without worry about what other people may think.https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/daft-punk-playing-grammy-awards-2014-242901/In 2013, Daft Punk released their song Lose Yourself to Dance, with Pharrell singing the lyrics of:I know you don’t get a chance to take a break this often / I know your life is speeding and it isn’t stopping / here take my shirt and just go ahead and wipe up all the sweat, sweat, sweatwith a final ode tolose yourself to dance.This idea of losing yourself to dance, of taking a break from the speed of life, is not an act of running away from yourself and the challenges that arise in your daily life.No, to lose yourself to dance is to find yourself through dance. It’s the necessary process of shedding yourself from the mask that forms through society’s expectations of who you should be or how you should live your life.All of these expectations are a strange anomaly from our nature as human beings. But so few of us actually take the time to pause and simply ask “Does any of this even make sense?” The majority of our time, energy, and efforts poured into the work week but there is still this constant burden of always feeling behind in life. We work to stay afloat — work to barely getting by in life — as the ideals of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come neatly packaged as our next purchase.When our lives are consumed by such an egregious routine that deprives us of any sense of balance, dancing allows us to re-center ourselves. Endorphins are released into our mind whenever we dance. These endorphins reduce the pain, the trauma, and the stress that builds up from everyday life. And when these unnecessary stressors are separated from your being, there is a moment of clarity that arrives.Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash“Dance allows people to experience themselves in ways they didn’t know they could. — You can change your internal state through external movements.” (Miriam berger, psychologytoday.com: https://bit.ly/2ms8TUD)This clarity reveals to us a truth that always exists inside of us. The truth of who we are, removed from the mask we have to wear in order to be accepted into society, a truth removed from the worry that comes from self-consciousness. This clarity reveals to us the truth existing inside our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, teaching us to care for things that the world around us cares so little of.I found so much of my confidence and true self through dancing. It is a process of centering myself mentally and spiritually. And whenever I experience that clarity of thought that brings forth insights to my daily life, I see parallels with the shaman’s experience as they perform their healing rituals upon the bench.Their act of jumping, combined with their chanting and instruments, allows them to isolate themselves from the external world so they can enter the spiritual realm. This is a trance, from Latin trans- meaning “beyond, on the other side of”.Today, dancing is perceived as a mere activity that we partake in whenever there’s a party. But to truly dance towards freedom, where we reach a point of mental clarity, is to approach that state of spiritual trance that a shaman experiences. To dance towards freedom is to move beyond the spiritually deprived routines of daily life that we so willingly partake in.Springfield New Years 2016, traditional Hmong dance performanceThe legacy of dance can be traced back 30,000 years ago through the paintings preserved on the walls of the Bhimbetka Rock Shelter in India. It is an act that has continued to free us from the bondage of trauma throughout the millennia, from our descent away from China to Southeast Asia, to our arrival here in America. The traumas placed upon our body, the traumas of our memories, they are eased away by the flow we find through dancing.Find Yourself Through Dance was originally published in maivmai on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

  • Xijiang Woman Cleaning the Village

    We have to figure out what kind of stories we want to tell, and whose stories we want to tell. I often draw parallels between my trip to China and Laos with Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In The Alchemist, the main character — a shepherd boy — embarks on a journey far away from home in search of a treasure that appears within his dreams. However, when he reaches the supposed spot of the treasure, he learns that the treasure was buried in a church in his village all along.It took me a trip across the world to realize that my artistic muse within photography and writing are the people back at home. But not only those close to me, but everyone who I cross paths with; everyone who I’ve had the pleasure of observing in their daily lives. This epiphany came to me when my presumption of being connected to these almost-mythical lands was debunked. I thought I would find a home in China and in Laos through a spiritual connection from my Hmong heritage, but what I found instead was a home in people’s untold stories that they lived out right in front of me.I saw this Xijiang resident on my way to get breakfast and I took a photo as she was picking up trash from the sidewalk. All throughout the village are these ladies wearing these blue raincoats who are picking up trash that the countless tourists drop as they explore the village. While their language almost sounds so similar to the Hmong language, there was no way to actually communicate with her. But I wanted to know her story. I wanted to know what her life was like here. I wanted to know her struggles and what she loved most in life.But the tragedy is that, for her and for a lot of people I know, including myself, we think of our story as insignificant. We think of our story as something not worth telling or speaking about. I struggled with this for my whole life as I compared myself to the glamours of our celebrity culture, not realizing the beautiful poetry of our everyday lives.While I am slowly crawling out of this psychological deficit that I’ve placed over my life, I still have to remind myself that I do have a story worth telling and so does everyone else around me.

  • Anathemas, Atrocities
  • January Prompt: Resolutions, Metamorphosis

    Photo by José Ignacio García Zajaczkowski on Unsplash“Near the end of its growth cycle, the caterpillar consumes many times its own weight in a single day. Then, the caterpillar finds a branch from which to hang, and its skin molts off, leaving a glistening chrysalis. Inside this hard-shelled pupa, the old caterpillar identity starts breaking down. ‘Imaginal-cells’ of the ‘butterfly-to-be’ emerges and struggles with the caterpillar’s immune system. By clustering together, the imaginal cells overwhelm the collapsing caterpillar and feed on its remains as nutrition.An original creation forms from inside the chrysalis with an entirely new nervous system, digestive system, heart, legs, and wings. The butterfly must squeeze out from its protective shell in order to force fluids from its thorax into its wings. Without this final struggle the butterfly cannot survive. The butterfly’s miraculous metamorphosis and powerful will to emerge into the light has come to symbolize the journey of the soul.”- Alex Grey, Net of BeingThe start of a new year presents us with an opportunity to become better than we were last year. This evolutionary process from our old self to a new self is symbolized through the caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly.For this month’s prompt, tell us of a metamorphosis that you or someone has taken that changed them for the better. This can be a resolution that you’ve committed yourself to for 2019, a metamorphosis you’ve tackled in the past, or the story of a journey filled with struggle, triumph, or tragedy that befalls a character.All submissions should be in before January 25th. Your stories will be shared on the publication and Facebook page shortly after the editors have reviewed and published your story.January Prompt: Resolutions, Metamorphosis was originally published in maivmai on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

  • Becoming a Better Version of Ourselves

    -Thoughtful decision making during difficult times.Photo by Jens Lelie on UnsplashIn my final year of college I found out that the girl I was dating at the time had cheated on me. It happened towards the end of the fall semester right when finals were coming up. The stress from the upcoming finals combined with the emotional toll of being cheated on for the first time was almost unbearable.I would sit in class and my attention would just fade away from the lecture as I fell into a mental and physical daze as my emotions clashed together. When I was out of class I would be on the phone with her, one moment angry and yelling at her about what she did, and the next moment wanting for us to just love one another again. On some conversations she would tell me how sorry she was and that she still wanted us to work out, and then on other calls she would tell me how she just wanted to move on from the relationship.The both of us were in limbo as we went back and forth between a spectrum of emotions that made it difficult to figure out what we actually wanted to happen.I finally went to go visit her in person at her school which was a two hour bus ride away. Our conversation in person was no better. We both were unsure with what we wanted. I was still hurt and confused as to why she would cheat on me. She was unsure if she wanted to stay with me or move on to the guy she had cheated with.We spent the morning deliberating about our relationship, thinking about the good times that we had and also all of the reasons why things were unfolding the way that they were. The emotional pain from the past few weeks had created an emptiness inside of me that latched onto wanting to still be with her. But, as her classes drew near and a decision had to be made, she ultimately decided to break away from the relationship and move onto another person.Photo by Tara Evans on UnsplashWe went our separate ways as she headed to class and I went to the bus station to return back to campus. Over the next few days, the pain and the sadness slowly began boiling into anger. I started thinking about how I could seek my revenge on her in order to get rid of the pain from being cheated on and then left for.I found myself at the library one night to work on my final papers when I began messaging a friend about how I would get my revenge. I was venting to her about all of the wrongdoing that my ex-girlfriend had committed and what I was going to do as payback. I told my friend that my ex and I shared a large social circle. So, what I was going to do was reveal all of the dirt and secrets that I had about her in order to slander her reputation amongst her family and friends. And the pressure to act on that revenge was eminent as my emotions continued to overtake me day after day.However, despite my friend empathizing with my pain, she said something so simple that changed the course of how I approached these immense struggles that would continue to pop up in my life.As I kept telling her about all of the terrible things I would do, she simply said, “Vlai, that’s not you.”I paused for a second to think about what she just said to me.“It’s not you.”She was telling me that seeking revenge and hurting my ex-girlfriend was not being true to the person I was. But my friend was wrong in a sense, because I could’ve been that kind of person. I could’ve chosen to act out my revenge. If I never messaged my friend and she never said those words to me, I would’ve been someone who let my emotional pain take control of me and make a terrible decision that spoke lowly of my ex-girlfriend while also revealing just how low of a person I was willing to be as well.My conversation with my friend derailed my plans to seek out revenge. I was given a reality check for the first time since being cheated on as I finally took a step back from my intense emotions.In my emotional fog and turmoil, I became an angry person who wanted to hurt another person in return. I didn’t think beyond my actions besides for the instant and extremely temporary gratification of seeing my ex-girlfriend embarrassed, hurt, and denigrated. If I had committed to slandering her name, I would’ve put myself on that path towards accepting those kinds of actions and I would’ve became the kind of person my friend said that I wasn’t.Instead, my friend revealed to me that I could become a better version of myself if I just thought for a second about the consequences of my decisions. I realized that although I didn’t have control over my ex’s actions and the circumstances that occurred, I did have control over my own actions and perspective about the situation.Photo by Lou Levit on UnsplashThe emotional pain from being cheated on was gone a few months later, as though it never happened at all. I came to forgive my ex for what she did and I moved on altogether with a desire to be a better partner in a healthier relationship whenever it would come knocking on my door again.Reflecting on my own role within the relationship, I wasn’t the best boyfriend to my ex. I was often neglectful and too busy with my own college life to provide her the support that she needed. I was impatient with her in person and never really accepted her for who she was.I learned to take responsibility of myself and my faults, and my friend taught me the responsibility of making better decisions in difficult times. I could’ve chosen to submit myself to the monster inside of me that always lingers there. I could’ve chosen to act out the vitriol and hurt not only my ex, but also the people we both knew who would be affected by our actions. But, that night at the library, with my friend’s wisdom, I chose a decision that would teach me how to become a better version of myself.

  • A Mother’s Work: My Mother’s Life at 50

    Our first home was a tiny duplex right on the outskirts of Six Corners, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Springfield, Massachusetts. Squeezed into the tiny apartment was me, my four older sisters, and my parents who were still very young — if not in age then in knowing how to navigate a then-unfamiliar country that they called America.My mother married my father at a young age and then had my siblings and I shortly thereafter. Her life as young refugee mother was difficult in a low-income community with limited opportunities. She wasn’t able to finish high school and faced an English language barrier as a Hmong refugee.Her best option early in our lives was to work a rotating schedule with my father so she could both make money and take care of us at home. As my siblings and I grew older, the duplex grew too small to hold a family of seven and my parents knew that it was time to find a larger place to live in. After their tireless effort of working a job and taking care of us, we eventually moved into our current home located in a safer part of Springfield.Over the years, the duplex was eventually demolished and replaced by a community center, but to this day it still serves as a reminder of my mother’s tireless work that she put into forging a better life for us.Despite her struggle with the English language and the never-ending work of being a young mother of five, she eventually attained her associates degree and began working as a Nurse’s Assistant. However, her income combined with my father’s income was still a struggle for the family in our early years.So, my mother, on top of raising five children and being a Nurse’s Assistant, began working from home as a textile worker late into the night until it was time for her to sleep for work the next day.Every night I would watch my mother pull at the long pieces of fabric yard by yard, meticulously scanning the surface for tiny knots to be pulled out with a needle in hand. After she reached the end of a load, I would help her fold the fabric for what seemed like a hundred folds and then help her carry it onto the carts in the garage. We would then carry in a new load for her to restart the whole process for the rest of the night.On the weekends, an 18-wheeler would squeeze its way through the neighborhood and pick up the carts of fabric, leaving her with a whole new batch of fabric to go through for the following week.During the school week, my mother would wake up me and my sisters as we dragged our feet out of bed to get ready for school. She constantly rushed us along so we wouldn’t miss the bus, all the while getting ready for work herself and making sure that we had something to eat before stepping out of the door.After she was done with work, she would then rush across the city to pick us up from sports practice or our after-school activity. Sometimes we got frustrated whenever she was late, not realizing just how much of an effort it was to pick us up right after a long day of work.And then when we got home from school, my mother would always make dinner for us to eat, afterwards trying her best to help us with our homework all while juggling her textile work.This was my mother’s life.Through all of this backbreaking work from daytime until night time, the one thing that continued to radiate from her was an immense sense of love for my siblings and everyone around her.There was never a moment where she wanted to call it quits. There was never a moment where anything was just too difficult for her to handle. She didn’t blame other people when things went wrong. She took full responsibility for the new sets of struggles that kept coming and found a way through.It is this sense of love, patience, and kindness that guides my mother’s life. She accepted every moment, struggle, and person as they are. I knew that her life was a constant struggle filled with work and stress, but I never saw it on her because she handled everything so effortlessly.I remember coming home from middle school one day when my mother asked me and my siblings to go downstairs for a little while. Confused at the random request, we obliged and waited in the room where my mother did her textile work. After a little while, my mother opened the basement door and told us that we could come upstairs now.My sisters and I made our way upstairs and into the kitchen area. Once we were all upstairs, we saw that the kitchen table was decorated with candles, cookies, and food for us to eat as a Valentines surprise that my mother threw for us.That immense sense of love that my mother showed to us that night only continues to grow for her family and the communities around her. Every weekend she is out with my father at community events, driving hours away to support the Hmong organizations across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The smile and joy that she possesses on her face at these gatherings is genuine. It is a smile that I see at community celebrations and also a smile that I see at home when she is just with the family.I still have so much to learn and cultivate from my mother’s life. From her resilience as a young refugee mother of five living in a tiny duplex, to the compassion that she gives to the larger community around her.My mother is a shining example of living a life beyond herself and one that is led by her heart.She is all at once a lover and a fighter, qualities that my siblings and I have inherited in our own journeys through life. Beyond any of our accolades or accomplishments, the biggest gift that my mother has provided for my siblings and I is the inheritance of her spirit and heart. She has taught us that the biggest priority in life is to become a good person first, and then any external pursuit of greatness can follow thereafter.Yesterday, my mother turned 50 years old and we filled up an entire room at a restaurant to repay her for all the love she’s given us over her lifetime. During her thank-you speech to everyone, she mentioned the importance of cultivating an unconditional love towards the world. To simply speak about the idea of unconditional love is easy to do, but to actually accomplish it through the way you live your life is extremely difficult. But for my mother, who has forged a beautiful life from our days at the duplex to each new morning that arrives, she accomplishes this virtue so effortlessly.These words will always fail to capture the immensity of the person that you are, but you have always been a beacon of unconditional love to everyone around you. Thank you for all the work you’ve put into providing this beautiful life for us, happy birthday mom!A Mother’s Work: My Mother’s Life at 50 was originally published in maivmai on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

  • The Possibilities of Who We Will Become

    The Possibilities of Who We Can BecomeBut here I was, holding a beautiful anthology of work written by my own people whose words revealed to me the possibilities of who I can become, beyond all of the limitations and fears that were placed on me growing up.I remember walking through the cluttered roads of the Fresno New Years when a wall of books stopped me in my tracks. Intrigued, I started thumbing through the various books, both written by and about Hmong people.Some books confounded me with their endless paragraphs of Hmong sentences touching upon various cultural subjects. Other books I knew about, such as The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which had become the cornerstone of America’s understanding of the Hmong people.I continued up and down the row of books, skimming quickly through them, until I landed upon a book that posed a question on it’s cover:How Do I Begin?It was 2014 and I was 4 months away from graduating from college with an English degree. I was in the tail end of finally healing from a terrible break up, and I was ready to move towards all of the new beginnings that presented themselves to me.How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary AnthologyI held the book in my hand and began reading through the poetry and prose that filled all of its pages.“Once, American poets were bornin the factories of Detroit,” began Soul Vang’s poem Here I am.I continued reading further into the anthology, slowly becoming engulfed in the stories that unraveled themselves before me.“Tomorrow, I will smear blueacross the skies from mountain to mountainand scrape the rivers from their bellies,cup my hands to your mouth,so you can drink the love I beg.” ends another poem, Dear Father, written by Khaty Xiong.In all of the stories and poems that I read, I saw a sliver of myself in a way that I never had before in my English literature courses.I never knew the possibility of becoming a Hmong American writer until that fateful day. But here I was, holding a beautiful anthology of work written by my own people whose words revealed to me the possibilities of who I can become, beyond all of the limitations and fears that were placed on me growing up.I pulled out a twenty dollar bill and handed it over to the vendor and brought the book home, keeping it close to me ever since, reading it whenever I needed ground myself amongst the chaos of this American life.In starting maivmai alongside Chelsey See Xiong and Lilian Thaoxaochay, I wanted to continue the impact that the Hmong American Writers Circle has had on my own life. Growing up, I never knew that I had a story to tell. I always believed that my life was unimportant But the Hmong American Writers Circle paved a path for me to discover the importance of my own story. maivmai wants you, all the readers and writers, to honor your story as well by writing it into existence—so how will you begin?The Possibilities of Who We Will Become was originally published in maivmai on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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