Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sia Her - Hearing the Stories Behind the Story

Sia Her is the executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, a state agency that advises the Governor and the Legislature on issues of importance to the Asian Pacific community in Minnesota. She holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Macalester College.

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of Hmong American students, when I was invited to speak about my experiences as a Hmong American woman in a leadership position. These were young women, ages 15-18, struggling at home with cultural and gender-specific expectations, having difficulties in the classroom, and wanting more than anything to be seen, understood, and valued by their parents and others. They strive for recognition as more than just their failings which define them as simply either a worthless Hmong daughter or, in the alternative, as someone who is the ‘model’ minority.

I shared with the group that for as long as I could remember, I spent all my time reading and dreaming about the day when I would be strong enough to determine my own fate. To the best of my ability, I avoided acquiring the traits and skills of the dutiful daughter my Hmong mother dreamt of. For her part, my mother dedicated much energy and time to trying to change me, pointing out that all of my friends could sew perfectly and were married by age 14. As a response, I made a list of what I would take with me in my backpack should I decide to run away: my favorite Nancy Drew books and Benjamin Franklin’s Almanac.

The participants laughed with cautious relief throughout my talk. After, they shared that their parents often tell them they are burdens and likely to dishonor the family, too, because they stay out with their friends, speak their mind, and wear "objectionable" clothing. Inside their ethnic community, they are not good enough Hmong daughters; inside the schools, they are not academically successful enough. As neither the “good Hmong daughter” nor the “model minority,” these young women feel they belong nowhere.

“Is there really no place?” they cautiously asked, “for daughters who are Hmong but do not always come home directly after school to cook and clean; daughters who are seen and heard (in English mostly)?” Is there no place for daughters who spend time wondering how it is possible to feel so lonely in the midst of so many? How does one survive this journey?

These young women reaffirmed what many of us believe:  our understanding of our Southeast Asian Minnesotan youth is not nuanced enough to enable us to meaningfully support them so that they thrive without meeting all of our expectations. We have yet to succeed in helping them to navigate the complex, rigid, and incompatible paradigms established by linguistically and culturally diverse communities.

It is tempting to view them as just a group of American youth of color about to fail, while who they really are is a mix of their immigrant/refugee parents and a whole lot more of America. In our time together, their choice of words, body language, and what they chose to share reveal that they desire their ethnic community’s approval, strive to succeed despite their circumstances, and also just want to have fun. The tears threatening to fall from several participants’ eyes indicate their determination to not buckle under the weight of the challenges they face and to make good use of the opportunities they have as Hmong Americans.

I concluded my talk on the note that it was only when I was much older that I understood—my  parents’ hurtful words and expectations/demands were their fears, hopes, and dreams for me bundled into one package and wrapped in a language the American in me had not learned to decode. In the end, I emphasized, “successful” people are not born successful. They fall before they rise, build and rebuild themselves, and seek to help others and themselves to become increasingly “culturally competent” in each other’s stories so that one’s calls for help are heard and understood by another.

A year after our meeting, I continue to hear that several of the young women still talk about how our time together empowered them to find comfort in belonging to no one paradigm, believing that this may very well be the answer to their question of “belonging” as American children of, as Ronald Takaki puts it, “strangers from a different shore.” Their questions and comments then and today emphasize how critical it is for us to create safe and secure spaces for the intentional sharing of how our interactions impact the trajectory of one another’s lives. To hear these young women tell stories from their point of view is akin to putting flesh on the skeleton that is often the preferred starting and ending point of the national Asian American narrative.


  1. A splendid example of the universal lurking in the individual story. One of the gifts the humanities bring to our common life is wisdom about how "to navigate the complex, rigid, and incompatible paradigms established by linguistically and culturally diverse communities"--and those incompatible paradigms can often be found within a particular community, not just between communities--and indeed, even within an individual person.

    In an earlier blog post I referred to the observation of a friend of mine, that "we must become caretakers of one another's stories." Sia Her deepens this obligation, saying we need "to become increasingly 'culturally competent' in each other’s stories." Taking care of another's story requires learning to navigate the paradigms!

  2. A great post with a moving story about young Hmong girls, and thoughtful, but powerful descriptions of the conflicts between new paradigms and indisputably cultural wisdom profoundly embedded in our culture. Despite the challenges we continue to face, I am pleased with the extraordinary achievement and success of our young Hmong women, including my own daughters, which, in my estimation, outpace Hmong men in a lot of aspects. Yet, despite their successful careers in the public arena, Hmong women still cannot escape their traditional expectations in their homes and community.

    Hmong women have come a long way from the time I describe in my book, "...girls feel as if they were outsiders from birth." It is important that these posts are viewed with earnest interest and responded to with meaningful comments, even arguments.