From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
The Wide World of Belonging
by Kao Kalia Yang
I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in December of 1980. I was the runt of the babies born that year in that hungry place, in that uncertain time. Few thought I would survive.
The Hmong, my people, had just escaped from the genocide of the aftermath of America’s secret war in Laos. The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States had commissioned thirty-two thousand Hmong men and boys to fight and die on America’s behalf. Most of the soldiers were killed during the war. Many more civilians were slaughtered after the Americans left. I was born to a people who had fled from death and despair in the hopes of a chance at life.
I was born on four hundred borrowed acres, funded by the United Nations, surrounded by Thai men with guns, in a place where Hmong people got food three days a week and little girls like me often disappeared in the dark of night.
My playground was the stretch of my mother’s sarong, the reach of my father’s arm. My playmates were hungry cousins with dirty faces and stomachs round and hard. Together, we laughed and we cried in that place where we jostled for this thing that meant more to our parents than anything else: a chance at life.
The life that the adults were running toward was a life that began for many of us in America: a life where we could go to school, have food in our bellies, reach far beyond our meager heights. A life that has not been easy but has been possible.
In America, I grew up in the cold of Minnesota. My family and many other Hmong families lived in the housing projects, strong rectangles of concrete rising out of the earth, buildings meant to house soldiers returning from World War II. We went to school on the yellow buses beneath the moody, gray skies, stood in long lines waiting for our free and then reduced-price school lunches, walked in a fine line from the big classrooms to the little ones where we learned that a is the beginning of apple and b can build a word called boy.
In America, I became a young person who held promise, a shy girl who got good grades at school, took care of her younger brothers and sisters at night when their parents worked the night shift at the factories, and sensed something growing inside of her.
It began as a small lump in the back of my throat as I sat by the window carefully maneuvering sharp nail clippers around the thick edges of my grandmother’s toenails and she talked to me of a past on the other side of the world, a once-upon-a-time orphan girl who became a healer, a shaman, a medicine woman; of a girl not so different from myself, a girl who would become an old woman, become she who loved me. The lump grew bigger and sank deeper on the late nights when I sat on the carpet with my mother’s throbbing feet in my hands, massaging and massaging away the heated knots I felt beneath my fingers, and listened as she talked of her work in the factories, of the quotas, the supervisors in their white hats, and the cement underneath her feet that grew harder by the hour. It settled in my heart when my grandmother died, with no room of her own, all of her life gathered into thirteen tattered suitcases as she journeyed from the house of one child to the next.
We were the working poor in America. We lived in neighborhoods with old houses whose rotting steps led to hollowed doors, paint cracking on either side. We drove used cars that smelled like cigarettes. We wore clothes from the church basements, sizes all wrong. Christmas was Toys for Tots. Thanksgiving was Meals on Wheels. Our mothers and fathers struggled to balance budgets that never worked. Our grandmothers died illiterate, their stories told but not recorded. On paper, mine had nothing behind it but a lifetime of poverty and war, despair and death. Yet year by year, as we grew older, we grew stronger.
I graduated from college, an expensive private education made possible by scholarships and student loans with interest rates that didn’t kick in until after graduation. For us, Carleton College was only forty minutes away from St. Paul, but it was as far away as our grandmother’s stories about life on the other side of the world.
I graduated from graduate school, one of the fine Ivy Leagues that children like me did not know how to dream of but somehow a hard life in America had made possible thanks to fellowships and loans. My mother and father sat together at my graduation, in that sea of parents, their first time in New York City, hands twisting the graduation program, sweat dripping down their faces along with their tears. The ghost of my grandmother wandered close by on the fine brick-lined walks of the university, her hands behind her back.
I became a writer to write that lump inside my heart out into the world, to dress it up in sunshine, cover it in flowers, and send it far into the eastern skies, so that the sun that rises, day in and day out, will see us for who we are: the outcomes of hard lives, the beautiful ending they have been waiting for.
They — those who have died so we could be here, those who have brought us here and drenched us in their tears so we would not dry up and wither away, those who have worked here so we could imagine possibilities beyond ticking clocks, a world free from the ever-moving assembly lines. They, the people of our past, and they, the people of our futures. In us, our ancestors and our descendants meet. Each of us is more than just he, she, or me.
I became a writer to push the edges of what we mean to ourselves and to each other, to the wide world of belonging.
I will take action because when the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America came to the high mountains of Laos and commissioned the death of the Hmong men and boys, the women and children, those high-ranking men never envisioned a life like mine taking root on American soil. I will take action because despite the odds, I am here doing work I love and living a life I am committed to, and those odds and this life are made possible by the goodwill of a bigger world, a world that believes little girls deserve a chance to grow up and become women, and that women are far stronger than any intelligence agency, machine of state and death, on earth.
Take action today:
Read books about people you don’t know, whose worlds exist far away from your own, whose lives are lived in the same place and time, across spaces and times. Expand your understanding of yourself and the world you inhabit. Grow. Our communities and our countries will grow with us. Start by reading writers you don’t know. Here’s three: Mai Der Vang, Shannon Gibney, and Heid Erdrich. Discover them where you are by reading locally, starting at your local independent bookstore.
Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong-American author, activist, teacher, and public speaker. Her third book, A Map into the World, will be published in 2019.