"What Did You Want To Be When You Grow Up?"

By Chua Lo-Yang / Editor: Deja Cagle

Chua and her daughter.

Chua and her daughter.

I am Hmong (Hmoob).  I speak Hmong, but there is no country called Hmong. The Hmong people, an Asian minority ethnic group, reside all over the world. A great number of the Hmong population arrived in the United States after the Vietnam War in 1975, due to their involvement in aiding the United States. The highest concentration of the Hmong population in the United States is in the St. Paul, Minnesota metro area and the central valley of California.

I was born in Stockton, California, shortly after my family arrived in the United States. I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from college. I am also the first in my family and (quite large) extended family to attend law school. This is a written account of my conversation I had with my daughter; a simple question that became an unintended history lesson. It is my hope to share it again with her someday when she is a little wiser and share with generations to come.

Towards the end of my first year of law school, while cooking dinner together, my thirteen-year-old daughter asked me, “when you were my age, what did you want to be when you grow up?”

It seemed like a simple question, but I had to take a serious mental pause and carefully select my words. What appeared to be only seconds, felt like forever.

Actually, I was surprised by her question, as if she had asked me about the “birds and the bees.” My answer was not exactly pretty. I could not figure out why, in that moment, I had struggled with her question. I asked myself, “how do I tell her an answer that is not easily black and white?”

To my own surprise I began with… “well… I grew up in a different time, and my mother, your “tais” (which means maternal grandmother in Hmong), grew up during a place and time that did not allow her to attend school.”

As I explained to her, I could visualize the life my mother had at my daughter’s exact age.

Chua's mother.

Chua's mother.

My mother grew up in the mountains of Laos, a country landlocked between Thailand, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. She was the oldest of eight and born to a simple Hmong family of farmers. Her family had high expectations that she would care for her siblings, be an obedient daughter, and take on adult duties and chores. She was groomed to be a proper daughter and future wife—she would know no other goals or expectations of her.

She exemplified the “strong wife” qualities, which were highly valued during that time and by her community. She woke up early every day, went straight to her chores without her parents’ prompting, never spoke back to the elders, and had a strong back to carry water from the river.

She was greatly admired in her village, as she was an excellent candidate to be someone’s wife. Then one morning, she set off early, like she did every day, to collect water from the river. Only, this time she did not return home.  

It was a common practice for the males of marrying-age to select their wives by taking women (mostly young girls) to their homes as their wives (basically kidnapping them). My mother remembered putting up a good fight, but the group of men were so much stronger. She did not know her exact date of birth, therefore she did not know her age at that time, but she marked her age by female developmental stages. She remembered that she had not yet started her period.  

I could see my daughter’s glassy face telling me to speed things up, as I was going to lose her interest soon. That is, if I had not already lost it.

I then shifted to explain that, although I was born and raised in California, I was born during a time that did not encourage young girls to pursue their dreams and goals. My mother knew that she wanted a different life for her children, but she did not know how to guide us, or plant dreams within us.  

Additionally, we were growing up in a completely different world then the world she knew.

I grew up in time, where the Hmong community practiced and allowed children as young as eleven to sixteen to marry. A Hmong girl at the age of nineteen was considered old. My best friend was only in the sixth grade when I attend her Hmong ceremonial wedding. Over the next few years, I would continue to count one by one as each of my girlfriends dropped out of school and got married.

“So…” I said to my daughter, “making it to high school was a pretty big deal. Thoughts of college seemed so distant, but I’m here now. It’s never too late, and I’m almost done with my first year of law school.” I paused deeply and wondered about her next words.

“I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” she replied.

This is a story that spans three generations. My mother, who still does not speak English, currently lives in California and is seventy-two years old (but that is what we call her “fake age,” since she does not know her actual birthday). I am thirty-nine years old and my oldest child—my daughter—is now fourteen years old.

It was supposed to be a simple question, but I realize now that it was a question of privilege. A privilege that did not exist with my mother, a privilege I did not know I could of had, and question that I am blessed to know that my daughter can ask easily like ask “what’s for dinner?”

And I also realized that her question was really about her and her way to share with me her hopes and dreams.   

Editor’s Reflection:

Like Chua, I too realize that in only a few generations our families’ lives can change over time. My family is no different. My first best friend and great grandmother lived here in North Carolina and who, like Chua and many others of her time, had a fake birth date. And much like Chua’s daughter, I too had a view on life and my future that looked totally different than my great grandmother’s when she was in her 20’s during the 1940s. What about you and your family? Who are you in this story? Are you the mother who realizes the many opportunities your child has before them? Or are you the person who realizes how many opportunities you have before yourself, like Chua? We have so many different stories; let’s talk about them and see how else we can relate though our stories.