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What I remember most about my childhood – A Memoir of the Hmong-American Upbringing

Here’s the truth: You can’t make up these stories. I know because I lived them. While some kids remember growing up with fond memories of going to Disney World, getting their first brand new bike, or traveling afar, my memories are about eating donuts from large clear plastic trash bags and picking out clothes in dusty old churches.

This is a story that I have never told anyone until now. Not just because I was too ashamed and too embarrassed but mostly because I didn’t understand, until now. I have risen from the ashes. I have come from literally nothing. Now I work hard every day to build my own empire. I have cried to myself, many times, wanting so badly for things to be better because I wanted so much more. I worked endless nights while my husband worked during the day so I could be with my kids. While they slept at night I hurried to catch up on the days work. As a parent, I now understand the love and struggle that my parents overcame in order to give me a better chance at life.

As a child, I remember going to a corner church where there were no windows and just a wooden door. My mother and I would spend hours inside there, it seemed. I always wondered why my mother always brought me here. I was probably no more than seven years old, just like my own daughter.

Now I understand. She would look at clothes while I wandered around the shop. These clothes were piled up onto tables and racks. They were mostly very dark and dusty and they had a very distinct smell: worn, old, aged. She carried a large black trash bag as she picked out clothes and put it in the bags.

I was afraid to put things in her bag because I knew that I had no money and neither did she. She was a stay at home mom who raised nine children while my father worked and made six dollars an hour. Mostly I remember finding belts, scarves, wrinkled dresses and purses, things I wasn’t big enough to wear but found to be interesting things I might need or want when I get older. I would hesitantly pick up things and ask my mom how much it was and if I could keep it.

The Caucasian lady who sat at the front door told me everything was free, I didn’t need to pay even a penny. Still, I would ask my mom first if it was ok for me to put them in the bag to take home. She said no, but she would find me some knit sweaters and corduroy pants. She would dress me up wearing mismatch colors like pale pink floral tops and lime green pants. Whatever fit and whatever was available, I had no choice.

We did this for several years, her and I. I always went with her until my siblings and I grew up and were old enough to watch ourselves and get our own jobs. My mom was finally able to get her first job as a housekeeper in a hotel.

Only now did I realize how poor we really were. I’m sure my mother never wanted to take me there, but it was essential for our family. I could never afford namebrand clothing or shoes. My first pair of namebrand shoes were white Filas that no longer fit my older sister. She took good care of them and let me have them one day.

Each year we would get to go shopping as a family for one day. That was the day before school. We each got to pick out one casual outfit for the first day of school and one dressy outfit for our New Year party. We could wear that for picture day too if we wanted.

On the weekends we would sit outside in our backyard and listen to music. There were two very kind and generous women who would come and visit us on occasions. They would bring us large trash bags of donuts. This was one of my most happiest times as a child.

Our meals consisted of fried fish caught from the local river, beef stew, boiled chicken and pork. Our fruits and vegetables came from my mother’s garden in our backyard: corn, cucumbers, cilantro, green onion, green beans, squash, strawberries, watermelon and tomatoes. We never got anything sweet to eat. Getting a bag full of donuts was like waking up on Christmas morning with presents filled under the tree.

In college, I attended student government meetings and one day someone had suggested we visit local bakeries to ask for donations for our next event. You see, instead of throwing away their baked goods at the end of the day, some if not all would donate them to organizations or poor people (like me). Only then did it dawn on me that all these years I had been eating mostly unwanted and maybe even expired donuts. Why else did they come in trash bags and not nice bakery boxes like you’d get when you purchase them? 😭

When I think about my childhood and how poor I lived, it makes me work that much harder to reach my goals and to give my own children a better chance at life.

My mom, now 71 years of age and me at her Hu Plig Ceremony in August 2019

 

My mom has always been there to take care of me and now it’s time for me to pay it forward. Our time on earth together is so short. It makes me sad to think that one day I won’t have her to guide me into the right direction.