PANG YANG is authored of “The Cultural Dish: Behind Every Dish is a Story (2018),” “Dear My Teacher: Letters of Joy, Pain & Triumph from Today’s Teenage Hmong Students (2019),” “Hmong Youth Poetry Collections: From Mountains to 10,000 Lakes (2019),” and a chapter-author of “The Secret Sauce to Success: A New Journey (2020).”
Pang holds a Master of Arts in ESL, a Bilingual/ESL Licensure and a Principal Administrative Licensure from Hamline University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education from Concordia University. Pang was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award from the Minnesota Council on the Teaching of Language and Cultures in 2019, and a finalist nominee of the 2020 Central State Teacher of the Year. Her research and teaching interests focus on Hmong American students’ experiences K-12 educational system and Hmong language & literacy curriculum.
The birth of this book was a result of the experiences I had as an introverted Hmong student growing up in an American K-12 education system in Minnesota. I was on a search all my life to find my voice in order to share my life experiences with the people around me. Our Hmong-American students are a reflection of who I was, and to have their stories be told is to open the world of the unknown. This book demonstrates how to open a can of worms, face the fears, and be able to move on with grace and insight.
It took almost half of my life to find who I am, for the experiences I had to endure shaped who I am today as a teacher, a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a Hmong daughter-in-law. I no longer have to be 50% American and 50% Hmong because I have finally learned to balance my life living as a Hmong-American and keep my own identity alive.
During my high school years, my worst fear was to have my teachers judging me because 99% of my teachers didn’t look like me. What would they think of me if I told them about parts of my life that I was ashamed of? How would they react? Would they be able to understand what I was going through because they are not from my ethnic background? Would they tell my story to other students? Could I trust them? I had a million questions and no answers.
As an adult in my early thirties, I reflected upon my experiences in school, especially the silence in my undergraduate program where I was left out of group discussions and at times felt invisible because I was an introvert and didn’t speak up. My college classmates, 98% of whom were White, would sometimes look back and forth at each other and have discussions and not even one would look at me or ask me, “What do you think?” This not only happened once, but countless times. It hurts to reflect on the past and it hurts to not be seen. That is when I realized the power of speaking from within: to ask for understanding, to ask for help, or to ask for anything. The worst thing someone could say is “NO.” I finally found my voice after all these years. I often interject in conversations and ask questions for clarification or curiosity. I don’t want to be that invisible student all over again and miss the opportunity for my voice to be heard.
I have learned to speak my truth, so that I don’t keep my experiences inside of me buried in my baggage. My baggage has been so full of racial encounters, microaggressions in the workplace, and so much more that have been buried for so long, but I didn’t have a single safe place to unpack it until Courageous Conversation trainings by Glen Singleton became a part of my district’s professional development. By participating in the sessions and practicing these skills, I learned to speak my truth. I learned to talk about one of the hardest things in life that we barely talk about: RACE. As a Hmong daughter, my family never had conversations about race. We just didn’t talk about it; many Hmong families still don’t talk about it today. To accept non-closure in the hardest conversations and to feel discomfort was hard, but it was part of the journey to finally heal from the inside and to find liberation.
What you should know is that our Hmong-American students, including those who were born in Thailand or Laos and immigrated to the United States (generation 1.5), as well as students who were born in the U.S. to immigrant and/or refugee parents (generation 2.0) and students whose grandparents came to the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s (generation 3.0), the generation 1.5 students are quite different than students from generation 3.0 in Hmong language proficiency. These differences in generations make our class unique and provides opportunities for everyone to learn from one another.
Students wouldn’t be comfortable sharing personal information (what is under the iceberg), but Mike and I spent many days at the beginning of the school year gaining students’ trust through community building activities, being vulnerable about our own life experiences, leading lessons around race, and being real. We have to be open-minded and listen to what our Hmong-American students have to say because sometimes they just want to be heard. You should also note that some letters are written in Hmong because students have the ability to express their feelings in their native tongue.
I discovered the letter idea in a blog two summers ago. I wrote my own authentic letter to my English high school teacher pretending I was in high school all over again. As I read this letter aloud in my classes, students could hear the changes in my voice. It took power to share this letter. Even though I experienced these events 20 plus years ago, it still feels like yesterday.
Here is my example letter:
June 1, 1994
This has been a bittersweet journey for 12 years in the Saint Paul Public School system. I’m so grateful to share this with you, someone who would listen and wanted to see me for who I really am. This has allowed me to share the private world that I was living in.
I have been that quiet Hmong student in your class with perfect attendance, who was always respectful and did her homework for the last 12 years from first grade until now. I was that introverted kid who never questioned you, but instead, I was burning inside because I was desperate to learn, so that I could have a chance at the American dream. There is so much you don’t know about me that I wish you knew. Since you asked, I hope you will not judge me for what I’m about to share. Not a single teacher has wanted to know more about the girl who was the imperfect A student until now. Three things I wished you knew about me were:
First and foremost, my father just divorced my mother on paper last year so that he could marry another young wife from Laos, two years younger than me. I believe he was one of the very first to commit this action in our community. I was sickened and so devastated; only my friends could heal my soul. I cried endlessly with my mom each night knowing that we may never be together again as one family. Each night I wept in bed knowing that my life was over, and my family was going to be torn apart because of my father’s action. What was wrong with him? I had no answers, and I wished he wasn’t my father. I asked myself why my father would do what he did, for I felt he no longer loved my siblings or me because he didn’t love our mother.
Secondly, I wish you knew that over and over, I had people who didn’t believe in me when I told them I had big dreams. My counselor told me to go to a community college when I told her I was applying to a private university. She said I wasn’t ready for the private school challenges, and that I was better off at a community college. I was upset that she didn’t support me, but didn’t have words to express my frustration to my parents or anyone else. I watched some of teachers favor the ‘A’ students (teacher’s pets), while I struggled with adult responsibilities: working two part-time jobs, being a mother figure to my four younger siblings after school because my mom worked second-shift with two jobs at $4 an hour, cleaning and cooking nightly at home, and helping my father run his own Chinese restaurant by working another 18 hours on weekends. Despite all this, I still earned a place on the “B” honor roll. I probably juggled more tasks than an average teen. While my White peers were playing sports, going to school dances, and watching football games, I was becoming an adult and gaining life-long skills.
Lastly, I wish I had teachers who looked like me, those who knew what it felt like to be hungry when there wasn’t enough food to eat at the end of the month, and how it felt to live in two cultures while trying to meet the high expectations at home and at the same time discovering what it means to be American. I wish I had teachers who knew how hard it was to be a student of color in the educational system, so that they could have showed me the easier road ahead. I hungered for life skills from my teachers, but no one bothered to share any life experiences to make the road ahead of me easier.
By reading this letter, you give me hope. I have hope that you will be the change in my future. I hope that you will listen with an open heart and mind and give me a hug at times when I want to cry in class. Maybe you could just read my daily journal? Every single word of heartache is here, but all that you do is put a check mark and turn the pages.