Honoring the Lives and Stories of Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities

Award-winning Hmong-American author Kao Kalia Yang joined the Bethel community on campus for an evening of storytelling, connection, and collective healing last week. She shared excerpts from her new book Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir and participated in a roundtable discussion with AAPI community members at Bethel.

By Katie Johnson ’19, content specialist

May 14, 2021 | 8:30 a.m.

Before the event, award-winning Hmong-American author Kao Kalia Yang tweeted, "First in-person talk in over a year. Since 2008, I have not had such a stint away from a podium. Here we go, @BethelU."

Before the event, author Kao Kalia Yang tweeted, "First in-person talk in over a year. Since 2008, I have not had such a stint away from a podium. Here we go, @BethelU."

On Wednesday, May 5, Hmong-American writer Kao Kalia Yang graced campus for her first in-person event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to speak to and with Bethel community members. Co-sponsored and co-facilitated by the Reconciliation Studies program and Pang Moua, associate dean of diversity and intercultural engagement, the evening centered on the topics: “Honoring the Lives and Stories of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Communities” and “Confronting Anti-Asian Violence.” After a 40-minute presentation, the award-winning author joined members of the Asian diaspora based in Minnesota—including AAPI Bethel students, alumni, staff, community educators, and faculty—for a roundtable discussion that made room for each participant to share their own stories. 

Yang grew up as a Hmong refugee in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and two of her books, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and The Song Poet: A Memoir of my Father, have been taught in reconciliation studies and American literature classes. In fact, The Latehomecomer is the first book written by a Hmong-American author to gain national distribution. Program Director and Professor of Reconciliation Studies Claudia May introduced Yang by highlighting her work and thanking her for sharing not only her presence with the Bethel community, but her writing with the world. “Your work is significant,” May says. “Your words allow us to embrace the complexity of our humanity. Your sacred poetic prose provides a gateway for us to forge deeper human connections and experience community with one another.”

Throughout her presentation, Yang described her unusual journey into the writing life. In honor of her grandmother’s calling as a shaman, Yang attended college initially on a pre-med track, but before Yang completed her degree, her grandmother died, fearing that no one would remember her. As she grieved, Yang decided she would be the one to tell her grandmother’s story. She shifted her academic focus from medicine to writing and pursued her M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia University on two fellowships. Now having written eight books in honor of her family and the larger AAPI refugee experience, Yang has discovered that her motives to write align with her original intent to become a doctor. “What I would do with words is no different than what I would do with medicine,” Yang says. “I wanted to heal.”

Yang’s most recent book for adults, Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir, was released November 2020, and in it she shares stories of fellow refugees in the Twin Cities, leaning into the fact that Minnesota has more refugees per capita than any other state. Her grandmother had said, “Every time you have the power and ability to help somebody, you have the power and ability to hurt them,” Yang recalls, and after years of connecting with refugees, she felt it was time for her to share their stories and further document Hmong-American history. She wanted to affirm their experiences, just as she said to the Bethel audience: “We belong only because when you look at me, I belong to you. And when I look at you, you belong to me.”

Roundtable discussion contributors and conversation partners from the left: Pang Moua, Paul Kong, Ehkhudah (Dah) Zar, Hyojung (Alice) Hong, Pay Poe, Tu Lor Eh Paw, Kao Kalia Yang, Bernon Lee, Maricella Xiong, Ratsamee Thosaengsiri (greeter).

Roundtable discussion contributors and conversation partners from the left: Pang Moua, Paul Kong, Ehkhudah (Dah) Zar, Hyojung (Alice) Hong, Pay Poe, Tu Lor Eh Paw, Kao Kalia Yang, Bernon Lee, Maricella Xiong, Ratsamee Thosaengsiri (greeter).

After Yang read excerpts from her book and shared details about interviewing fellow refugees, creating an image of them beyond the page, she joined Bethel community members for a roundtable discussion. Roundtable participants included: Yang; Moua; Bernon Lee, professor of Hebrew Bible; Paul Kong, associate campus pastor for cultural engagement; Maricella Xiong ’19, Urban Farm and Garden Alliance co-coordinator, Rondo neighborhood, St. Paul, Minnesota; Tu Lor Eh Paw ’21; Ehkhudah (Dah) Zar ’19, legal assistant; and Hyojung (Alice) Hong ’21. Individuals moved furniture so they could face each other—still maintaining appropriate social distance—and after passing around boxes of tissues, May gently asked a few thoughtful questions. 

“How do you identify yourself ethnically and culturally?” May asked, and few participants offered straightforward answers. Many of them explained that understanding their identity has been a journey filled with tension, uncertainty, and defending their ancestry depending on their context. After some apologized for expressing emotion, May immediately intervened. “We have permission to feel,” she said. “If you need to cry, cry. If you need to be angry, you can express that too.”

She then asked about how their families have found ways to affirm their communities, culture, or history. Some spoke of art—experiencing creativity in community through spoken word, sketching, or tilling the earth. Others spoke of the Hmong church that welcomed them without demanding explanation. Some spoke of their immediate households and going home for the first time during college, cooking and eating foods that connected them to their cultural home. Some spoke of a church at a Chinese restaurant in Southeast Asia, the congregation small and carrying similar concerns for their children. Another individual took advantage of the opportunity to write a play about her father at the request of a Twin Cities artistic director, who promised: “You don’t have to be fluent in English to write your story. If they want to know, they have to learn.”

Moua recalled that in The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, Yang’s father, Bee Yang, wondered if anyone would be interested in his story since his influence did not have the same reach as the sitting President of the United States. Inspired by Bee Yang’s humility—and encouraged by Yang’s commitment to honoring her family, community, fellow refugees, and immigrants through her writing and teaching—Moua recorded her own mother’s stories and spoke of the healing nature of documenting her life for the first time.

May then asked participants: “Can you provide specific examples when you or your family or members of your community confronted Anti-Asian violence?” Everyone listened, shared, and made space for every experience. There was no pressure to justify their feelings or brainstorm ways to address cultural Anti-Asian violence. Based on one response, May asked how these individuals have found comfort in the midst of this violence, and many responded by sharing how someone in that very room had seen them and supported them in the healing. 

By the end of the night, poetry had been spoken, prayers had been offered in three different languages, tears had been shed, and moments had been created for AAPI participants to connect, heal, hear, and be seen and heard.

Envisioning the Future

While we have made important strides toward making sure that Bethel is “Beth-El”—the House of God—for each student, employee, and guest who steps foot on our campus, our community also anticipates the good work yet to be done. Our vision for diversity at Bethel is rooted in the concept of shalom, a Hebrew word that describes the wellbeing of all people under the just and loving rule of Christ. Striving to bring about shalom in our community calls us to seek the unity of the gospel, which proclaims that one day people from every nation, tribe, and tongue will worship together in the presence of Christ.

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