Though Wisconsin holds the second highest population of Hmong-American residents in the United States, my family always resided in areas estranged from any major Hmong communities. I didn’t speak the language very well because I never had to. All of this changed when my family moved to Appleton during my seventh-grade year.
I attended school in the city of Milwaukee until we moved to Appleton. It was my first time attending a suburban school. My textbooks were brand-new, the hallways were tamed, and for the first time, I could look passer-byers in the eye and receive a friendly smile as opposed to a hostile stare. I felt at ease as I followed the school counselor to my first class —level one French. I was quickly introduced to a curly brown-haired girl named Katie. She was to be my mentor and designated lunch-buddy for the day. By the end of the class, I had already befriended her and by the end of our lunch hour, I had befriended all her company.
As everyone gathered their books for the next period, I was surprised to see two Hmong girls approaching me. They asked me why I didn’t sit with the other Hmong kids. I shrugged my shoulders and followed as they guided me to the far corner of the cafeteria. There were about four long lunchroom tables fully occupied by Hmong students with dark eyes and coal black hair like mine. They looked like me, but they didn’t sound like me. As the sound of the sing-songy Hmong language echoed through the air, I grew timid and shy.
Over time, the Hmong students I met that day came to degrade me for prominently speaking English, not being able to speak Hmong, and having non-Asian friends. I realized that they felt threatened that their language and culture would become irrelevant. What they didn’t know was that they hindered themselves in this way: their unwillingness to learn English and my equal desire to relearn Hmong was what kept them from fully engaging in the life and opportunity in front of them which I took advantage of. That day, I learned the power of bilingualism and what a difference it has made in my lifestyle. Though it’s been almost ten years, I hope those same colleagues have studied English with the same effort that I have studied Hmong.