Nowhere on the map of the world

Kao Kalia Yang standing next to her family photos at her home
Kao Kalia Yang standing next to her family photos at her home
Photo By: Dymanh Chhoun
Kalia told me that instead of kissing to show affection, the Hmong sniff to get a piece of each other inside; kissing is just a touching of surfaces. My mind was blown. I thought kissing was pretty much the only option. Often, we're so trapped in our own cultures that we forget that there are other ways to look at things, possibly better ways. In order to see those, one has to always be open to others, even if they're different. From now on, I will take Kalia's advice and constantly ask myself 'Is there a better way to this?' --Jada Pulley

I’m Hmong, and you cannot find Hmong on the map of the world. There is no country that is mine. So I link myself up to the people who love me, who no matter where we were, carved out a place to belong for me.

I’m Hmong, and you cannot find Hmong on the map of the world. There is no country that is mine. So I link myself up to the people who love me, who no matter where we were, carved out a place to belong for me.

When I was born, my mom and dad had been in the camp less than a year; they had nothing. My parents tell me that I was a gift in a time of nothing. I was born in a place where Hmong people only got food three days out of the week so for the remainder of the time we had to find something to eat. My mother had six miscarriages after me because how do you carry on life when you can’t even feed yourself.

My refugee experience is very much through the eyes of a child. Child prostitution was huge. And so people tried to barter for me as a kid ‘cause I was a cute kid. I had pale skin in a life where a lot of people lived and toiled beneath the burning sun, so my mother and father protected me. My playground was only the stretch of her skirt. I could only play so far.

Encircled by family

In Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, my family – 100 of us – were all together, and they were holding on tight. My grandma has this imagery that she loved, and I too now love, of mother elephants surrounding their children. That’s what the camp was like for me.

My father used to carry me and my sister in his arms and climb the high, high trees in the compound. He would hold us up and say ‘Your father is holding you up to see the world because one day your little feet will walk on the horizons your father has never seen.’ He would look at my sister and me and tell us ‘You are not a child of poverty and despair, but you are hope being born.’

We came to America when the camps were closing. My Dad heard that America was a land where girls could be educated, too. He only had two girls. The six miscarriages after me were all little boys. So my father wanted to come to a place where his girls would have a chance at life.

Born: Ban Vinai, Thailand, 1980
Moved to Minnesota:* 1987
Residence: Minneapolis
Current job: Writer, author of The Latehomecomer
What do you miss about your home country? A refugee camp is not a home country. It is the place from which I rose into life…the yellow dust along the thirsty road, the drying grass waving eternally in goodbye and hello, come back again. I miss that. I remember that. I carry that with me.
Advice to other immigrants moving to Minnesota: Miss the places that taught you about belonging and love. Carry it deep within you and make it rise in the places where you rest your weary heart along the trajectory of life.

Streetlights and diamonds

July 27, 1987, we came to America. I remember riding in a car coming from the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport to the McDonough Housing Project, thinking how beautiful the world was because there were streetlights on either side. For a child who fears the dark, it was better than any dream I knew how to dream.

But the projects became another camp of a sort. People would drive by and they would throw bottles. Not to hit me, but to scare me maybe. But I was only a kid, and I thought the broken pieces of glass were diamonds, so I used to pick up handfuls of the broken glass and tell my mom and dad that I found diamonds.

And my mom and dad, instead of telling me the truth, they’d ask ‘What do you want to do with your diamonds?’ and I would say ‘I want to bury them for other kids to find.’ So I spent my days burying pieces of broken glass. My mom and dad gave us a lot of room to dream.

Choosing silence

My father is a song-poet so he’s got this incredibly powerful voice. In America I watched his voice fall apart ‘cause he didn’t know English. At work people would tell him ‘You’re here to talk to machines; you’re not here to talk to me.’ My mother and father became very silent in America. You can only talk if people listen.

When I was seven, I think, we went to Kmart, and my mom asked for a light bulb, but she didn’t know the word. So she said ‘I’m looking for the thing that makes the world shiny.’ And my mother carries this thick accent. The clerk walked away from my mother and didn’t come back. My mother stood in the aisle at Kmart looking at her feet.
I remember deciding that I didn’t need to speak in a world that would not hear my mom and my dad. So I became a selective mute, and I didn’t speak again, publicly, until the publication of the book, until the book (The Latehomecomer) launched, April 2008. I whispered my way through Carleton College.

When you start feeling like you have a lot to hide, you become very alone in America. So there were a lot of moments where I felt terribly, terribly alone. In the end, I think it all made me a better writer.

Is there another way?

If I could give any piece of advice to anybody coming into America as newcomers, it would be that you have to ask ‘Is there another way to do it?’ Because it is about breaking down the walls. It is about finding new ways of seeing. You can begin to ask that question. And it opens up pathways for you to be.

Two summers ago, my father wanted to cut down the tall tree in our backyard in Andover. And he had this idea. He wanted to put up a ladder against the tree, carry another ladder on his back, untie the one from his back, tie it to the tree, and then go up that ladder and cut down the tree limbs.

And I’m like ‘Dad, I don’t think that’s legal.’ He says, ‘If you’re so worried about legality, you go stand by the side of the road, and tell me when the cops are coming.’ And I go there.

My brother-in-law says, ‘Dad, if you want to do that, let me do it ‘cause I’m younger, and if I fall my bones will heal faster.’ And my father says ‘If you think you’re gonna fall, you’re not going up.’

So my father does it. And we see him, he’s a middle-aged, balding, overweight man, and he’s putting the ladder against the tree, climbing it, untying the one from his back, tying that to the tree, climbing that, cutting down the tree limbs one at a time.

I’m so impressed, I say ‘O, my god! That’s pretty amazing!’ He looks at me so curious and he says, ‘There’s nothing amazing about what I’ve just done. All over Southeast Asia people cut down trees this way.’

The failure of the American education system is that it never taught you to ask ‘Is there another way to do it?’ If your teachers had asked you that question, if you had learned how to ask them that question, you would have exploded the classroom and all the world.