The Hmong people are known for the intricate designs and patterns that were traditionally embroidered on clothing and other objects. One pattern, the simple dual spiral, has always stood out to me. In the Hmong oral tradition, my Mother explained to me that the qwj, which translates to English as snail, represents the importance of family to the Hmong culture.
The meaning behind this pattern became the main symbolic reason for my pursuit for higher education, but it also became one of my greatest obstacles on that same path. I have just graduated from California State University, Fresno with a 3.7 GPA and a B.A. in psychology and will be going on to graduate school at Fresno this fall to study psychology. I am the first of my family to have graduated from college and I did it while working part time and dedicating my weekends to volunteering with the Hmong community and as an executive officer for the Hmong Student Association at Fresno State. As Hechinger reported in a recent story, 14 percent of the Hmong people living in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree or higher, less than half the national average. For me, personally, it has not been easy these past four years to get a B.A.
Embroidering symbols and patterns was the main source of income for my family during the Vietnam War. My parents and grandparents had escaped from Laos – where they had worked in the fields – to refugee camps in Thailand. Both my mother and my father, who got married as young teenagers just before the war, helped my grandparents with the embroidery. Since moving to the U.S. 25 years ago, my parents have both worked low-wage jobs. They have not received higher education. The journey to new world traditions has revealed the large cultural gap that Hmong American youths experience today, especially among women.
When I was a senior in high school, I often dreamt of going to an Ivy League college, but didn’t even mention it. My second choice was to attend a school in the prestigious University of California system. While my school counselor encouraged me to apply, my parents immediately shot down this idea. It was not only that they could not afford a U.C., but that I had duties and obligations as a daughter to help my sisters clean and cook in order to prepare myself to become a good wife for my future husband. What went unspoken (but was culturally understood by my siblings and myself) was that it was the duty, not only of the daughters, but the sons too, to repay our parents for all their hard work by working hard for the family as well. That meant going to family gatherings or cultural ceremonies every weekend regardless of the piles of homework assignments and reports that we had to do.
When I enrolled at the Fresno campus of California State University, which is near my home, I did not realize how expensive even that college would be. Not only did my parents expect my siblings and me to be responsible adults and pay for our own bills, which I discovered existed once I graduated from high school, but on top of college and a job, we had to continue to fulfill our duties as part of the family. I was fortunate to get enough financial aid to help me pay for my tuition and textbooks. Unfortunately, I did not receive enough aid to support me to fully engage with my schooling experience and expenses so I found a behavior technician job and worked with autistic children.
Because my siblings and I were all working, going to school, and trying to pay for life expenses, we were only able to afford to purchase two cars to share among the six of us.
I was constantly fighting between my roles of being a student and of being a good Hmong daughter; I hated having to fight to decide which role I felt was more important. But I knew that the constant struggle between my two different roles had affected me long before I began college; my being in college just made the struggle that much more visible.
After working part time for almost two years I lost my job in the middle of applying to graduate school, studying for my midterms, and working on student organization and community reports. I was devastated for two months and had no energy to do anything. The relationships I’ve built with the children I worked with were torn and when I finally got the results back from my midterms, I found out I performed terribly.
That was the first time I had received such a poor grades in college. It was also the very first time and last time that I had the courage to speak to my professor during office hours to talk about my grades and the midterm. I was so blessed that the professor I spoke to understood my situation and the type of student I was. Although I wasn’t able to make up the exam, he was willing to help me study for the final exam.
In these two months after losing my job I learned that there were programs that could help students like myself, who was from a low-income family and learning English as a second language. This program included the Student Support Services program, which is a federal TRIO grant program that would help first generation, low income, and disabled students in college. They would be awarded a grant for meeting several requirements, such as maintaining a 2.7 GPA and be enrolled as a full-time student among many other requirements. Unfortunately by then it was too late for me to apply for these programs. I also learned at that same time about the many available scholarship and fellowship programs at Fresno State that could help me in graduate school.
Unfortunately for me as well, I learned about them too late to be able to apply for the programs since I was already graduating with my bachelor’s degree. I thought about my misfortune of not being able to get into a college readiness program in high school, of not having been aware of the programs at Fresno State that could help me during my undergraduate years as well. I really wish there had been more effective publicity about these programs for students who have a busy lifestyle outside of school. I then realized my shy nature kept me from going in to talk with my professors during their office hours also made me lose out on all the opportunities. Mostly, I think it was because of my family’s cultural and traditional norms that caused me to miss out on so other opportunities (even ones I am not yet even aware of).
In the same two months that I lost my job, the qwj pattern returned to my memory. I was reminded of my family and how, in hard times, they were there to help me. In the four years of my undergrad education, family and home had almost always seemed a negative connotation. When I finally opened up to my parents about my struggles, they shared with me that they just wanted to make sure we understood what it meant to be Hmong: that being Hmong meant being part of a family where each member contributed their ideas and beliefs to help the family unit remold, redefine, and reshape the traditional Hmong views to help it fit with a constantly changing modern world.
Although I felt limited by financial and cultural factors, I also found value in them and will slowly continue to work my way out of the idea that I am only a Hmong daughter, and continue to empower Hmong daughters and women, and other Southeast Asian students, with the knowledge that they can influence their families into allowing them to achieve all that they aspire to achieve. I have only begun seeking ways to empower young Hmong women.
Because there are so many young Hmong women who are still unable to make their own decision regarding which college or university to attend I know there is still much more work to be done. I will continue working with my community to hopefully make more space for my Hmong sisters.
Trong Chang will enter graduate school at California State University, Fresno in the fall of 2015.
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