The number of Hmong women pursuing college is growing in Minnesota. But a college education can be hard won in families that traditionally encourage daughters to marry young and raise families. Kao Choua Vue of our Youth Radio Series shares her story.
My parents were farmers in Laos. They had never spent a day of their lives in school. When they came to America, they didn't know how to begin to help their eight children in school.
My mother's dream for me was not to get a college education. Because I am a Hmong daughter, she teaches me to be a good housewife so I won't bring shame on the family when I am married.
At the age of 5, I began cooking rice and washing dishes for my family. In keeping with the traditional Hmong culture, my five brothers had no chores.
AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD
I didn't question it until I was 7, and started going to an after-school program led by Raeann Ruth called The Portage for Youth.
"I didn't want to change their culture," said Raeann. "I just wanted to show them that they could do more than babysit and cook rice, for Pete's sakes."
The Portage for Youth was not just for Hmong girls, but we took it over. We came every day and stayed until we were teenagers. Raeann gave us a fun Americanized childhood to remember. It was something we craved.
"You had sewing, you had car repair, you had swimming, canoeing, rock-climbing, gardening. There wasn't anything you didn't take," said Raeann.
The Portage for Youth was where I first experimented with filmmaking. I discovered I had a voice. I had something to say.
The Portage for Youth opened my eyes to possibilities beyond what my parents dreamed for me. But back home, I was still busy cooking, cleaning, and helping raise children.
My older sister had gotten married at 15 and had three kids. When she divorced, I took care of my nieces and nephews. I was 7.
My sister warned me not to get married young like she did.
"Now when I look back at the time that I got married, I don't think it was true love," said my older sister. "I think it was just puppy love." She wanted me to take my time and continue my education and not rush into marriage like she did.
But in my environment, many Hmong women married young. It was almost like it was something for me to think about. My mother always reminded me to practice cooking and cleaning in order to be a good wife and daughter-in-law.
When I was 13, my parents tried to get me to marry a Hmong boy. I was outraged. I remember thinking I had a long life ahead of me. But many of my friends did follow the traditional path.
My junior year in high school, my friend Yia Lor got married. It was a surprise because I remembered she and her cousin had made a bet in the school lunchroom. Whoever got married first had to pay the other one $200.
Yia said the bet was supposed to help them postpone marriage. "And it worked for a while," she said with a laugh. "But I dated a lot of guys and I just got caught up in the moment. I just got married and so I paid her the money!"
Today, Yia is 20 years old, and married with two children. She lives with her in-laws and cooks and cleans. There are 13 people living under one roof.
Even though Yia's life looks different than mine, she feels the same hunger I do to go to college. She is enrolled at St. Catherine University, studying to be an occupational therapist.
"Just because I'm married and I have kids doesn't mean I can't go to college," said Lor. "I go to school because I want a better job. And I want my kids to know that when they grow up, they want to go to college because mommy did it too."
BE SOMETHING BETTER
One of the biggest destinations for Hmong students in Minnesota is Century College in White Bear Lake.
"If you look at the demographics of Century College," said Pakou Vang, acting academic dean, "you'll see that number of Asian students, most of whom are Hmong, has almost quadrupled -- with the biggest growth in the last six to seven years."
Vang herself went to the University of Minnesota, Duluth and graduated a little before this boom.
She remembers growing up poor and on welfare, and thinking that wasn't the life she wanted to lead. Her father had bigger dreams for her too.
"When I was in junior high, my father once said to me, 'I know that you are female and Hmong. Many people will say you won't make it. You won't finish high school because you'll get married, have a lot of kids and be living on welfare. That's the path for you because you are a Hmong female,'" Vang recalled. "And you know what my father said? 'I know you are not going to be that. I know you are going to be something better.'"
Pakou Vang made it through graduate school. She had her father to encourage her, but I didn't have anyone in my family to support my education. I had to find my own role models.
MEETING MY ROLE MODEL
One moment in middle school sticks with me. State Sen. Mee Moua visited Cleveland Middle School when I was in eighth grade, to speak about her life story. She's the first Hmong person elected to legislative office in the United States. When Mee Moua shared her story, I felt like I wasn't alone.
Moua was the first Hmong woman I met who was educated, successful and not married -- yet. She showed me that as a Hmong American woman, I could get a college education and be more than a housewife.
Seven years after that classroom visit, when I went up to her office at the state Capitol to interview her for this story, I told her she was my inspiration for going to the University of Minnesota.
"You're making me really emotional," said Moua. "It's not like every day I get to have these conversations."
It's emotional for both of us. We sit on the couch in her office, and I try not to cry. I can't find the words to describe what she has meant in my life. She reaches over and pats my shoulder.
I tell her I didn't get any encouragement from my parents to go to college, but I felt it from her.
"When you sensed the sense of nurturing from me, it's because I have been a parent all my life," said Moua. "Even before I had children, I parented not only my younger brothers and sisters, but I parented 60 other first cousins."
Moua described getting her driver's license and borrowing her uncle's conversion van to drive 16 of her first cousins to the movie theater. She bought them all tickets with the money she had earned from caddying.
Through the encouragement of her parents and her uncle, Mee Moua ended up graduating from Brown University and going to law school.
THE PARADOX FOR HMONG GIRLS
I tell her that growing up, my parents made me do a lot more chores than my brothers. It didn't feel fair.
Moua nodded. But she told me that it might have been to my advantage. Hmong girls learn to be hardworking and responsible at an early age.
"Parents, by that differential treatment, have stoked and created a slow sense of anger among the young women about the injustices, of the differences in treatment," said Moua. "That sense of injustice, actually, has created and has energized the young women to become so successful."
A PROUD HMONG DAUGHTER
Hmong women, married or unmarried, are finding ways to get a better life, and increasingly, that means college.
The Hmong tradition and culture challenged me to be the person that I am. My education has given me the tools to do something my ancestors couldn't imagine. I want to be a filmmaker, to preserve Hmong history and stories. My parents now highly respect me for the choices I have made.
They say I've made them proud to have such a daughter.
About Kao Choua Vue
Kao Choua Vue, age 20, is a junior at the University of Minnesota. She was born in St. Paul to parents who fled Laos in 1983. She's the sixth of eight children. She's majoring in urban studies and wants to be a filmmaker.