The Power of Storytelling

by MSC Student Life Intern Bao Nhia 

april is asian american heritage month

Since the beginning of Fall 2014, I’ve been working on an oral history project called, “Paj Ntaub: Weaving Women’s Voices Across Generations.” The project helps nine UW Hmong American female students collect the oral histories of Hmong women elders while teaching the students to re-write these narratives as a way to preserve culture, history, and language. The project anticipates an eventual multimedia website and anthology of Hmong women writing. I presented my oral history project Friday April 17th in St. Paul, Minnesota at the Hmong National Development Conference.

image courtesy of Bao Nhia

image courtesy of Bao Nhia

I was excited when I first learned about the burgeoning project. I wanted to participate because I hoped to reconnect with Hmong women elders and also practice speaking Hmong and English languages. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my Hmong language skills due to growing up in the American school system.

Throughout the course of this project, I have learned a lot about the importance of preserving culture, history, and language. I also discovered many similarities I had with my own mother and aunt, whom I interviewed for the project. Below is an excerpt from my aunt’s story taken from my oral history project:

Tick, tock, tick tock

The sound of the golden oval clock of Jesus at The Last Supper made that familiar loud clicking noise as I was trying to start my interview with Aunt Ka. My sister told me that the clock was a gift from the sponsors when she and my parents first arrived in America. It’s been hanging in our home for almost thirty years! Next to the clock is a photo of Aunt Ka graciously hugging Mom outside a Thai hotel while Mom was visiting family back in Thailand. Aunt Ka wears a sweet smile showing her teeth and throwing her arms around Mom as she stands still and looks at the camera with a pressed lip. (This is actually her smiling—she smiles a lot more now.) The photo was taken in 2003 and the time period was explicitly expressed through both of the sister’s wardrobe—black and white colors of floor length maxi skirts and long sleeve blouses. For an added touch, Mom was sporting the popular permed hair look and lightly curled forehead bangs. Mom explained to me that she dressed Aunt Ka in her clothes that day as they paraded the old village marketplace a few blocks down the street. The photo clearly shows Aunt Ka’s admiration and respect for Mom who is almost ten years older than her and often looks over her. Aunt Ka has always been close to Mom. Both sisters have even similarly expressed longing to return to their parents in their interviews.

image courtesy of Bao Nhia

image courtesy of Bao Nhia

The sun was exceptionally warm that day. Or was it the heat from her very own watery eyes? Aunt Ka was screaming off the top of her lungs to leave with her family to America. “You become upset with yourself. You wonder why everyone goes but you. When they leave, so many Hmong, but not a single is your cousin.” Aunt Ka remembers crying for the rest of that day. She was left behind in the refugee camps of Thailand while her entire family left to America because she had to stay and marry a Hmong man twenty years older than her who got her pregnant. She was 15 years old at the time. This man became her husband and made ten years time with him the longest and miserable time period of her life.”

Throughout this oral history project, I’ve learned to really appreciate stories from Hmong women. It is not often that older Hmong women have a voice at the table. The decision-making and talking in the Hmong culture is often done by the husband. This project allows for Hmong women elders to showcase their untold stories for a large audience. This is especially significant for Hmong women, young and old. I believe that story telling can foster a conversation and acceptance of Hmong women to be “at the table.” Hmong women are smart and very capable of work, education, and motherhood. But if a Hmong woman does not get the chance to tell her story, her capacity will continue to be overlooked.

image courtesy of Bao Nhia

image courtesy of Bao Nhia

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