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.
Like many other Hmong families and parents, Pang Yang’s parents also wanted her to become a medical doctor or a lawyer. As Pang grew older and became a tutor for her own siblings and served as a student aid in English as Second Language class, teaching became a possible career for her future. “Growing up, I have always loved teaching my younger siblings in our basement. It had a chalkboard for us to pretend play. In my junior year of high school, I was a student aid for an ESL teacher, Mr. Brown, and through that experience, I confirmed becoming a teacher. I broke the news to my mom in my senior year that I was not going to be the doctor or lawyer my parents wanted me to be. My reasons were that I was and still am today, scared to death of dealing with blood, and I was not good at making arguments. I remembered my mom’s response was, ‘That is a great choice because it is not physical labor, and it is light and easy.’ She was grateful for my career choice,” said Pang.
As a child growing up, Pang knew that someday she would love to share her stories and experiences to the world through publishing her books – stories about her youth as a Hmong refugee, the struggle that she and her family had gone through in America and the education system. “I’ve always had a story to tell. Stories about my childhood, obstacles in life, race, and so much more,” said Pang.
Two Hmong educators in different paths of life but similar passion in the education world: Pang, a Hmong for Native Speakers teacher at Park Center Senior High, finally met Dr. Brian V. Xiong, President and CEO of the Hmong Educational Resources Publisher in 2017 about the idea of publishing her work and sharing her students’ stories to the world. “When I met Dr. Xiong in the summer of 2017, I realized the time was here and now. When Dr. Xiong had paved the way to publish, why not take the opportunity to grow my voice in ways that I had never been able to,” said Pang.
As a Hmong teacher and educator – Pang loves reading and writing. She wanted her students to take every opportunity in the education world and challenge themselves to become the best version of who they are, especially those silent voices and stories that have been waiting to be told. She saw a vision that her talented Hmong students could become some of the youngest Hmong student authors in the Hmong community. Pang worked hard with her students, to turn their inner voices into books that would become a knowledge and education symbol for future students in her class. “I wanted writing to be a way for students to breathe, share their inner voices that have been silenced over the years, and to accomplish something that only a few Hmong students would have achieved - that is to become published authors in their teenage years. Regardless, my students have to write in my class; so why not mentor and guide these talented students to make their writing and stories purposeful instead of meaningless, and to contribute in creating culturally relevant texts for future students to explore and become curious,” asked Pang.
A dream came true. Pang’s students became some of the youngest Hmong student authors in the Hmong Minnesota community. After days, weeks, and months of working with students on their writing, they finally published three books with the support from the HER Publisher and the Education Minnesota Foundation Classroom Grant: The Untold Story. As Pang described it, “The works of each book took a few days to scaffold and prep students to write. I gave students one to two weeks to write each piece, with exception to the Cultural Dish which took longer because students had to cook their favorite dish. However, each book was written in different trimesters, as I did not want to overwhelm students. After first drafts, if students’ writing were chosen (sometimes by peers, other times by our resident artist, or me), their writing would be edited by either myself or our literacy coach, with exception to the Dear My Teacher book. Once edits are made, we took on several more edits. The process literally took anywhere from three to five months to complete before we are able to submit manuscripts to Dr. Xiong at the Hmong Education Resources Publisher.”
Giving students the opportunity to claim their own authorship of their own chapter and building their leadership with their peers, as well as learning how the publishing process works – Pang provided the students a platform where students would choose their own title for their chapter stories and a final book title for all collected stories. “Each book title got its own name in a different way. For The Cultural Dish, Joseph Xiong, who took Hmong and Computer Art class convinced his classmates that a short title about their experiences of ‘culture’ and ‘dish’ would be a perfect fit for their first book. His peers supported the idea. The second book, From Mountains to 10,000 Lakes, was chosen by students in a survey. And the last book, Dear My Teacher, came about when Dr. Xiong and I brainstormed the title together after students compiled their own story titles together,” said Pang.
These books are unique in their own way in how the students came to unfold their journey of publishing the three titles. As Pang described it, “Each book has a special collaboration with another class and/or a resident artist. The Dear My Teacher is a collection of authentic Hmong high school student writings about what they wanted to share with their teachers, Mr. Mike Vang (a Hmong language teacher at Osseo Senior High) and me - so that we, as their Hmong teachers, could better support them in class to be successful. Students were very honest and open to share about family life, challenges, happiness, mental health, and so much more. The Cultural Dish brings students’ food stories from home and from the community, as well as inspiration from Chef Yia Vang. After several visits inspired students about Chef Vang’s journey and his cooking Kim Chi Fried Rice, our Hmong students dug deep into their Hmong roots to search for that first favorite Hmong dish of theirs. As Chef Vang says, ‘Behind every dish, there is a story to tell.’ The Cultural Dish also contains Spanish for Native Speakers’ food poems to showcase the diverse authentic foods across cultures. The Hmong Youth Poetry Collection is the result of Tou Saiko’s Hip Hop residency with students in exploring one’s identity in how to learn and write poetry of their own. All these books are written in English, Hmong, and one with Spanish to support the diverse ethnic food.”
Helping students to become better writers is one of the most magical things that a teacher could do for students in the education world. The writing process takes time and patience in its own pace; but most importantly, writing provides a space where students can speak their ideas, their thoughts, and their minds and emotions. “What I loved most about the writing process is that it’s magical in so many ways. I can take one idea into a totally different place by the time the process is over. I learned that there’s so much in the minds and hearts of students. Students need a place to speak their minds, so why not write? Writing for some students is so therapeutic and helps them heal their inner souls,” said Pang.
The most beautiful thing in the writing process is for students to own their voices and tell their stories the way they are. “Each story is so unique in itself, with twists that can be unexpected. What I love is that students tell it as it is and do not sugar coat their stories,” said Pang.
When asked who the most supportive persons in the writing activities with her students were, Pang described her amazing editors, mentors, colleagues, and family. “I would not be able to publish the books without my editors, mentors, and the literacy coach who has helped shape the stories and poems into the final product. My family has also been so patient, knowing the amount of time it takes me away from being with them while I’m helping to change a new generation of students. They know how important this journey is for me,” remarked Pang.
Being a Hmong teacher and writer has helped Pang express ideas like never before, especially when it comes to providing a safe space for students to express and explore their unique skill and talent in writing. “It has helped me imagine the unimaginable to become reality. It has helped my students break their silence and have a voice. It has helped their confidence when speaking in public during read aloud,” said Pang.
When Pang is not writing, she loves to give back to the community, volunteer at community and educational events and gatherings, work on grading and lesson planning, or hang out with her children. “Time is short when there is so much that I want to accomplish, so finding that balance is the key,” emphasized Pang.
When asked about her future plans, Pang stated “I plan to release two children’s books to promote more Hmong literacy. I also have grants to publish three more student writing collection books for the 2020-2021 upcoming school year. I’m extremely excited and look forward to this new chapter.”
If Pang could give any advice to young readers, students, and friends – she said, “DREAM BIG.” Everything is possible when you put your heart to it. Whether through class activities or assignments, “write to tell your story. If you don’t, someone will tell your story. And don’t forget to read. Read until you sleep. Reading gives you so much more new perspectives and appreciation for life,” said Pang.
The Hmong Educational Resources (HER) Publisher believes in the power of education and the impact of stories. HER provides services for Hmong students, writers, educators, researchers, and graphic artists. Pang would like to thank the HER Publisher team for publishing these book resources for the community. Pang loves to connect with other Hmong educators, teachers, and mentors/mentees. If anyone would like to connect with Pang, she is on social media (Facebook) at “Pa Yang.”
DEAR MY TACHER:
The birth of the book, DEAR MY TEACHER, 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.