Elizabeth Yang’s journey to unite Hmong women across the globe started with a heartbreaking talk with her 7-year-old daughter.
It was bedtime and they were talking about their day. “And for some reason, I happened to ask her if she told her friends at school that her Hmong name was Nouchi because she was very adamant that at school I call her Evelyn,” Yang said of that conversation last fall.
“She said to me, ‘Mom, I don’t want to talk about being Hmong. I don’t want to talk about my Hmong name. I did that and they laughed at me. Mom, I just want them to think I am Asian,'” Yang recalled.
Yang’s heart sank. She and her family had relocated from Minnesota to Boston in 2016, moving from a place with a large Hmong population to one without. Her kids didn’t know what it meant to be Hmong, didn’t know of the strong, fearless Hmong women who’d shaped their family.
She decided that had to change — not just for her daughter but for every Hmong woman and girl.
The sweet payoff for Yang’s difficult heart-to-heart with her daughter comes Saturday with the celebration “Hmong Women Take on the World,” a virtual summit honoring the Hmong sisterhood. Yang and other supporters see it as a way for women to connect, draw inspiration and share stories of overcoming adversity in a culture that has traditionally viewed women as inferior.
Taking on the world
Men typically are the leaders within the Hmong family clans. They have the final say on all decisions. Women are seen by some as second-class.
While younger Hmong are leaving those traditional gender roles, it’s harder for first and second generations of Hmong-Americans. Traditional roles are deeply ingrained and can affect a woman’s way of thinking about herself and her value.
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Yang’s parents divorced when she was 3 years old. She was an only child during a time when that was uncommon in the Hmong community. She said her mother never remarried and paid a price for that. “She was stigmatized. She was judged. She was gossiped about.”
But she continued to give selflessly to her family and brothers. She showed up early to cook at family celebrations. She loaned money that she couldn’t necessarily afford; sometimes she wasn’t repaid. When she needed help, though, Yang said her mother was turned down.
“When you see your mom beg for help, as a daughter, it just breaks you,” Yang said tearfully.
She and other Hmong Women Take on the World leaders hope the summit can help shift the beliefs that Hmong women should stay silent or that their achievements aren’t to be celebrated.
Chenue Her thinks those attitudes should have been buried long ago.
He grew up with a strong-willed mother and three sisters, women he describes as smart, independent thinkers. He’ll be one of the featured storytellers — and the only Hmong male storyteller so far — during the summit.
“It’s sad because I don’t think every Hmong woman has that kind of support system,” he said. “I just wanted to be in the conversation, to let Hmong sisters that are going to be a part of this know that there are men out there who support them and celebrate them and think that the cool things they’re doing — the awesome things that they’re doing — don’t go unnoticed.”
The Twin Cities native is currently working in Virginia as a TV reporter, one of a small band of mainstream Hmong journalists nationally. He may be the only male Hmong TV reporter in the country.
Two Hmong women — Bao Vang, formerly of WSAW in Wausau, Wis., and Boua Xiong, who worked as a reporter at KARE 11 in the Twin Cities — mentored him and helped convince his parents that a journalism career, still an unusual choice in the Hmong community, wasn’t bad.
Their presence in the news business “helped my parents become more comfortable with me pursuing this business that was so new to our community,” Her said. “They said, ‘If these Hmong women who are so fearless can do it, you can do it.'”
Elizabeth Yang, the summit’s creator, sees Her’s story as a powerful message. “It elevates the conversation differently when you have a Hmong brother who acknowledges that ‘I got mentored by Hmong women.'”
Bekki Yang, another featured storyteller, certainly understands the challenges of being the pioneer. She’s a vice president of sales at iHeartMedia in Milwaukee, who’s spent years climbing the corporate ladder rather than taking a job path more familiar to Hmong people.
“I wanted to at least share my story so that people knew what were some of my roadblocks, what were some of my challenges and how I overcame them to get to where I’m at,” she said. “And hopefully, when people hear my story they can either be inspired by it, they can learn from my mistakes, they can learn from my successes and really take it and hopefully create their own path to success, too.”
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The weekend summit will feature stories from nearly 50 storytellers around the world, from Minnesota to Wisconsin, Laos to Australia to Germany. Their stories range from challenging the status quo, to sharing tips on entrepreneurship, to advice for personal growth.
It takes place at the same time all around the world — beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Twin Cities — which was intentional, Elizabeth Yang said. “It’s to truly know that you are at this exact moment, watching this story with your sisters worldwide.”
In the six months since that heartbreaking conversation with her daughter, Elizabeth Yang said Evelyn Nouchi and her son, Evan Meng Vang, have “embraced their Hmongness … that makes me so proud.”
She recalled a happier talk with her daughter, this one about two months into planning the summit. They were sitting around the dinner table, once again talking about their day.
“My daughter said to me, ‘Mom, today I told two of my friends I was Hmong. They had no idea what it was, but I did not mind.’
“That to me is what success looks like,” Elizabeth Yang said. “That’s my baby girl not shrinking back from who she is.”
If you go
Want to be part of Hmong Women Take on the World? You can find it online for free, although registration is required to receive the special livestream link. Replays will be available for free until May 25.