The Wide World of Belonging
by Kao Kalia Yang
I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in December of 1980. I was the runt of the babies born that year in that hungry place, in that uncertain time. Few thought I would survive.
The Hmong, my people, had just escaped from the genocide of the aftermath of America’s secret war in Laos. The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States had commissioned thirty-two thousand Hmong men and boys to fight and die on America’s behalf. Most of the soldiers were killed during the war. Many more civilians were slaughtered after the Americans left. I was born to a people who had fled from death and despair in the hopes of a chance at life.
I was born on four hundred borrowed acres, funded by the United Nations, surrounded by Thai men with guns, in a place where Hmong people got food three days a week and little girls like me often disappeared in the dark of night.
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One day my brother said his face felt heavy. His left eye started to water. He wiped away the liquid. He massaged his face. He went fishing with our cousins.
When he got home, it was late. The sky was dark. The house was dark. He was quiet coming into the house. He didn’t turn on lights until he got to the bathroom.
In the light of the bathroom, he could see that one side of his face looked strange. It appeared to be drooping. He tried to push it up: his eye lids, his cheek, his mouth, but to no avail. Nothing was working on the left side of his face.
Instead of waking up our parents or making a scene, he used his hand to help his mouth open, and he brushed his teeth and washed his face, and he went to bed.
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In this class we will generate a piece of writing, edit that writing piece for emotional truth and clarity of language, and re-write that very same piece. Be prepared to share what you’ve written. Be prepared to receive what others have written, to give honest feedback and critique of your peers, and ask yourself and others useful questions, present opportunities for them to grow.
In our time together, we’re going to get to know each other well, to work on each other’s behalf, and to engage in productive literary work in a holistic and thoughtful way.
The gray was around us. The sun was not yet present in the sky. The clouds of morning misted the world we lived in. My grandmother and mother moved quietly on the padded carpet of grass, still wet with dew. They brought to mind ninjas, but neither of them clad in black, slim of figure, or that fleet of foot. Instead, they stood two short Hmong women, one heavy with age, and the other still young, but wearied by life.
We lived in the McDonough Housing Project. Most of the windows of the townhouses were still dark, holding away the light of day, so that their tired inhabitants could continue their night’s rest. But we were up, and we were about to harvest our morning greens from the city’s ash trees.
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In the home that I grew up in, I was expected to take care of the younger ones. I was born the second oldest in a family of seven children. For nearly the first decade of my life, because my mother had many miscarriages in between me and the young ones, I was the baby of the family. I still have fond memories of my older sister Dawb holding my hand as we crossed the dirt road of our childhood toward the busy streets of America. I can still see the outfits, the faded jeans of the ’80s, the red and white striped T-shirt, and the white socks my mother used to put up on my bed for me each morning, the bowls of steamy ramen with egg she’d prepared for my breakfast. Then, in the blink of an eye, I was the one pulling out clothes for the younger ones, cotton pants with their matching tops, socks, and underwear from the plastic laundry baskets we kept their folded clothes in. I remember having to stand on tiptoes over the pot of bubbling ramen on the stovetop, afraid of the egg dropping into the broth and the bubbles burning me.
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Conversation with pulitzer prize winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen and Vu Tran.
2016 Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen reads with contributors Kao Kalia Yang and Vu Tran from The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. These writers explore and illuminate the refugee experience. This program was recorded by Chicago Access Network Television (CAN TV).
The first woman whom I knew loved ghost babies was my grandma. She had a daughter she talked of as beautiful, a little baby who died one sunny day beneath the shade of a tall tree, on the edge of a high mountain, in the lay of a steep field.
My grandma had loved her as a living baby for seven months. Her hair, dark and thick, bloomed about her round face. Her lashes were stout and fat like the trunks of the flowering trees that lined their small village. Her mouth was a red slip of a chili pepper against the soft paleness of her skin.
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In the book, “The Displaced,” novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds the reader, “These displaced persons are mostly unwanted where they fled from; unwanted where they are … in refugee camps; and unwanted where they go.” Nguyen edited the new collection of essays.
Nguyen and Kao Kalia Yang, who wrote the memoir “The Song Poet,” joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to talk about what it means to feel unwanted in your new land.
Listen to the audio interview here.
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