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Interview with Tou Saiko Lee

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  • Hip Hop and Spoken Word Artist 
  • Community Organizer and Activist

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00:50:09

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TOU SAIKO LEE

• Hip Hop and Spoken Word Artist
• Community Organizer and Activist


Yeah…my name is Tou Saiko Lee. I was born in Nongkhai, Thailand, in a refugee camp and I was born in 1979. And my parents are Long Lee and Chee Yang. I am the oldest of four children. I have two brothers and one sister. My parents, they were gonna come but then I was born and so, I only stayed there for two months. So, I was only a baby when I left Thailand to live in the United States. I think growing really shy or I was really shy ‘cause I didn’t really talked that much but I was always a writer. I was always writing stories and stuff in elementary school. But it wasn’t until I started, I started writing stories about my life and growing up and like…actually my first story I wrote was about like, being told I have to go back to my own country by the other kids. They were like, go back to your own country you know. And then I was like, I don’t know what country I came from you know. And so, that was an aspiration into myself like oh, now I gotta find out where I come from. And then so, all of my art reflects that in my writing. And so I felt like writing was a way to, it was a journey into discovering myself and my identity.

We landed in Syracuse, New York, on the East Coast there. And then we, we actually lived in Providence, Rhode Island for a couple years too but mostly Syracuse, New York. There was a small Hmong community there, but not as many Hmong as Minnesota, of course. When I was growing up there wasn’t that many Hmong people right and I think in a way my parents had this perspective of like, now that we’re in the United States, it’s important for us to assimilate into American culture as well as learn the language and master the language so we can be successful. But then as we got older, they realized that we were losing a lot of language and not really knowing our culture and our people. So, at one point, ‘cause we were coming and visit our cousins that lived in Minnesota for the July Sports Tournament once a year. We see all these Hmong people and then my dad was like you know it is important for you to be, for his children to be around other Hmong people and have a supportive Hmong community. “Cause that’s a part of our history too, is to be a part of this community wherever we live and to be kind of support each other. And it’s a way for us to get more connected to our culture and our language too. That’s one of the reasons why, one of the biggest reasons why we moved to Minnesota, the Twin Cities. And I came when I was twelve years old.
Fondest is a good thing, right? ‘cause I’m trying to think of something good…but I’ll just tell you some very memorable things. They are not always positive, but they are some very memorable things. I think that, when you come from a community with very few Hmong people, you can appreciate being around and seeing your people. You know, it’ll always be like a particular day or week that all the Hmong people would gather at a park and play soccer and volleyball and basketball together. You know, it was like the only time you would see Hmong people and you would congregate. And it was a lot of our cousins that were there.
I remember those and we play rubber rope jumping. So you would get connected to all the Hmong games too. I think that was really cool. I think that, as somebody that has grown up around a lot of other people and didn’t know my culture and identity, I think I faced a lot of racism and bullying because of it. I think it made me stronger but also made a lot more appreciative of who I am and where I come from when I finally figured it out. When you grow up in a place that doesn’t really know what Hmong people are, they always just, they try to categorize, they were like, so are you Chinese or Japanese? I’m like, no, neither. And then I go asked my parent, what am I? And they were like, you are Hmong. And I tell them I’m Hmong. And they were like, what is that? And so, I think that’s a part of it ‘cause they don’t really acknowledge so, you don’t feel validated. You know, ‘cause they don’t know what we are. That’s one thing. Another is maybe because you’re quiet and you come from a different culture, teachers might not understand. I was held back one grade, ‘cause they were there’s something wrong with him cause he’s not talking a lot so they held me back for one grade. And then they tested me later. Then they realized that I tested accordingly to the grade I was supposed to be. So, they put me back in the grade I was supposed to be in. So, there was a lot of misunderstanding like that. But I think that at the same time, it just make me have a better understanding of the importance of giving back to the next generation too just because at that time no one was really helping us you know.

Well, my main job, my day job is working at the Science Museum, at the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center. And I manage a group of youth called the Frogtown Crew. And we….it’s a group of high school students, a few college students, that we organized around the neighborhood Frogtown. And we do a lot of really cool projects, such as the “Open Mic on a Trike which is actually getting like an adult Trike And having a sound system then going through the neighborhood playing very cool music, doing block parties, and then we also did a chalk the pavement which was, we create a mural in an intersection on Charles and Avon. And that mural, we incorporated all the neighbors to come help paint it with us. And so, they feel invested in this project we did together. It helps make the neighborhood more beautiful as well as it helps calm traffic. So, those are a few projects that we do. I also wanna say that I’m also an artist and a presenter. That is part of what I do in my job. That’s part of my job too because I’m still travel and perform and do presentation about like, hip hop and how to express issues and social issues through the arts. So, that’s a part of what I do too. What motivate me is…I think to be very honest like…just to reference Frogtown. It’s like, when my parents we first moved to Minnesota our first house that they rented was in Frogtown. And there was a lot of Southeast Asian people, lots of African American people, a lot of people of color, low income or new immigrants and refugees. And I remember feeling like it was considered like it’s a bad neighborhood right. There’s a lot of crimes going. There’s gangs. And I remember walking around Frogtown and not….or feeling like I wanted to do something more than just like get caught up and get in trouble. And it was very difficult for me to find something good to do, honestly. Even though I was approaching different organizations when I was trying to find a job, it was very difficult for me. I think like…..so then I got caught up with the wrong crowd and got in trouble. And so, I always felt like you know, when I got older maybe I could create more opportunities for young people. I could also…because we didn’t have that many role models, positive role models to look up to. So, maybe I could create a space where there is positive role model, visit school and stuffs like that. And so, I think that’s what really motivates me to do what I do. Along with the whole like, the journey to discovering my culture and my identity and stuff too, I think that’s a very fascinating journey for me.

So, the interesting thing is going back to like how I was really shy but I was always a writer. I was asked to share a story when I was in middle school. And I was in eighth grade. And the teacher said you know, you gonna read, we gonna…everyone’s gonna read what they wrote. And then I was really nervous ‘cause I don’t really speak up in front of the class. But I decided to read my story. It was one of those stories about facing racism and being bully right. So, when I read it to the other students, a lot of the other Southeast Asian students, they felt, they can relate to my story you know, so they told me yeah I can relate to your story. I’ve been through the same experience. And then some of the other students that were of other background, ethnic backgrounds, they were like oh now I can understand you better. I can understand why you go through what go through. And so, for me, that helps make me feel like this is very powerful just sharing our stories right. And also that I’m educating but then I’m also making connections to people that go through the same struggles and so….I saw it as a very valuable and that really helps shape where I wanted to do. And so, when I was sixteen I started to drifted away from here again. I was going back to living in Frogtown. And then I got….there was like a lot of gangs in my neighborhood. And then I got caught and I got locked up in a juvenile institution. And so when I was in that juvenile institution, I started to think about like…well I wanna start writing poetry and I started writing rap music because it was way to…I guess create something or have something creative while I was in a situation that I felt stuck in. And so, I started writing all these songs and I started sending them as letters to my friends and family. And I started to get really good reaction and feedbacks from these lyrics that I was…and poetry. And then when I got out, I was like yeah, I wanna do music and then my brother, my younger brother Vong he saw some of my lyrics and then he wrote his own lyrics. And that’s when we decided to create a group called “Delicious Venom.” And then that’s when we started to do music. And then when I got to college, I started getting into spoken word ‘cause spoken word was really big in college and so, I started just performing spoken word also because I thought it was another form which is not music but then it’s another form of poetic expression and oral tradition. And I think that’s…and the spoken word was really…what got me really connected to and understanding the connection to ah…some of the Hmong traditional poetry like “Pajhuam and Kwvtxhiaj”(Folk song) and seeing that connection because we were telling a stories. And I didn’t even know that there was a….like….I would see my grandma through her “Kwvtxhiaj” right or her “Lugtxhaj” ‘cause she does both Green and White (Hmong Dialect). And I would like, I don’t know what she’s saying. And then when I asked her to collaborate with me, I said ok, you do your “Kwvtxhiaj” and I will do my spoken word. And then I would ask her what she’s talking about and she was talking about “Tsiv Teb Tsaws Chaw”(Migration). And then I was like oh, I can see connections. So what you’re saying in poetry about to what I am doing my lyrics and my poetry about. And so, it just became a natural connection and I saw that it was a continuation of the storytelling through poetry.

So Delicious Venom, yeah, and I understand it is very difficult to find a name for a group but Delicious Venom comes from… I think I was watching one of the nature channels and someone got bitten by a snake and they said that oh….the way to cure a snake bite is they use this antidote and this antidote is made of other snake venom. So, venom cures venom and I was like oh, that’s an interesting concept. And so, I thought of….my brother and I we grew up in this neighborhood and this neighborhood that we thought were very like…there’s some negativity so the metaphor is that it is a venomous neighborhood, there’s a lot of poison. And we want to come back as that antidote because in a way we represent that neighborhood too, like we came up through that neighborhood. But we’re coming back as this positive antidote to cure our community. And that will be the concept for the way we wrote our music. And the big reason…why we didn’t choose to just rap about like negativity or just be violent or just rapping about you know materialistic things you know. Oh, because we want to make an impact with our music. Definitely “Thirty Year Secret” and at the time, that was when the documentaries were coming out about the Hmong people in the jungles of Laos. And there was that “factfinding.org” where they were really pushing for Hmong people here to be more aware of what’s going in Laos. And then were showing these documentaries about Hmong people being hunted…all that and ah….so we created this project called the “H Project” where we did a call out and at this time I was working for the Center for Hmong Art and Talent. And we were doing call up to all these artists to submit songs or poetry to raise awareness about this issue. So, my brother and I we wrote our own songs called “Thirty Years Secret”, at that time it was thirty years. And to raise awareness about it and we collaborated with Lee Vang Shoua and Seng Sue from “Watching Leona” and Doua who’s another rapper and it was just like, it was magic and how it came together because at that time like people weren’t really used to people rapping over just guitar. It’s just like ah…it’s not a very….it’s a very complex guitar. But people were used to like people rapping over like beats you know, like orchestrated beats and this was just a one guitar throughout the whole song and it had a very good feeling of sorrow and of…capturing the emotion of caring about the situation and the urgency of it and so…I think that song definitely is a song. And then the other song is a song called “Sucker Free Life” and that’s a song that my brother kind of thought about and it’s kind of….it’s about the Hmong American experience growing up in Frogtown and stuff like that. I’ll share a verse from the song, my song “infected” which a part of the whole metaphor of Delicious Venom. And it’s more about, it talks a little about…I use it when I go to school a lot ‘cause it talks about…how we…we are people that move around you know...ah yeah.

“We are the refugees degrees rise destiny o double easy. Rapping off community, we breathe in two languages, anguish, anger management. Rock like heavy metal on music is heavy mental. Inspire the instrumental, retire from the desire to light my last pencil. Shout out to all the poets up in the house. Shout out to all my people in the jungle of Laos. This tragedy tragically before it has to be recorded, always wanted a country we can never afford it. Inspired by survivors we’ll never forfeit. Yo the mind expands from the camps of Thailand, Syracuse, NY with the blink of an eye, arrived in Twin Cities, rap in the mic, Frogtown, Mississippi down Totem Town, I picked up a mic, picked up a pen cause pencils are not allowed. Consider a weapon. Consider a savior. The truth travels in the ink scar onto my paper. So many families severed as the former gang members coming back for the positive we’ve got to up lift.” That’s it.

Ah…well there’s a few projects but I do…like my current project that’s kind connected to everything else is called the “Street Stops to Mountain Tops” or “The Path on the Mountain”(Hmong). And it’s because I’ve had to opportunity to travel back to Thailand and visit with my family like, my aunt and my cousins are all still over there. And so, the first trip I went and started video recording or documenting all these different…going back to…I have an interest in artists, I started interviewing all these artists like, musicians, painters, people that are doing websites you know and…I’ll ask them about how they got into their art, why did they do it and I felt that it was interesting ‘cause a lot of it is similar. They write as self-expression, as a way to speak or tell their stories right. And so….so then I always thought about like, you know how like, a relative will ask us sometimes for money and then we can just give them a little of money. We realized that we…it’s difficult to just continue giving money. Ah, just because you know, we have our own bills to pay here in the United States. But then I always thought about like what’s more valuable that I can give. And then I was just thinking of ideas and then got to travel back in 2008 and then back on 2011. And then 2011 was when my friend Justin, the filmmaker followed me and documented my trip. Because he wanted to document me interacting with Hmong people in Thailand and doing hip pop right. And so, that when we wrote a song together, me and my cousins and some other artists. And created a song together and performed it for the Village in Huey Khou, Phu Cheefa. Through those experiences….oh which made the film “We Rock Long Distance” which is being released now. This project called “Street Stops to Mountain Tops” which is to bring like B-boys, B-girls, break dancers. Ah…musicians and poets to continue to travel and work with some people…ah…children. So like, we identify like schools and orphanages, maybe some villages and to build partnership with them. And it’s not just going there and teaching them, but it’s also the learning from them too, learning that experience of growing up in a village life for the artists and then bringing that experience back and teaching here. But then for them it’s helping to support them in creating their own movement. You know, whether they want to create an art center or develop programing that we’ve already developed. We just giving them those resources and teaching them right. And so, it’s more of partnership. So, that’s the project I’m working on as far as like, a long term project. I think a short term project is an album called “Ntiaj Teb Koom Tes” (The World United). Which I think it goes back to like, when we grow up here we write songs about growing up like, growing in the ghetto or growing up like around gangs or growing about…between two cultures, that’s our, Hmong American experience. And then I wanted to write songs where I can…in the Hmong language because then, I wanna to write songs to all my family and my relatives that live in the other parts of the world. That was one and then the other is that maybe I can write from a more like, worldwide perspective where I can bring artists together from different parts of the world. And so, that album is called “Ntiaj Teb Koom Tes.” And that’s more of a long project too. But the purpose is more focused on getting the music out there to Hmong people in other parts of the world.

It definitely was a collaboration but I wanna definitely give credit to the Kong and Shu or The Kong and Shu Project to initiate that idea and really like reach out and bringing all the artists together. And for me, I have an understanding that we as an artist we honor those that come before us. Whether they are elders or artists that came before us are those that opened the doors. And then we teach to the next generation right, that’s a part of the process. Ah…and I think that song is very meaningful. And I think that it was important for to teach the next generation the importance of some of the messages that the artists that came before us had. So, the concept of revamping a song like that is to introduce it to whole new generation. But then to introduce to artists that they are familiar with you know. And so, I think the combination artists do that was brought together for the “Hmoob Yuav Tsum Hlub Hmoob” (Hmong must love Hmong) video project was just a great, great choices too…from Protégé to Paj Nyiag Xyooj to Duce Khan to Kace from Destiny and so I think…I know I didn’t name everyone but everyone on that project from Pat from Sudden Rush. I think they really made the project what it is and it was amazing.
You know one that a lot of people don’t know is that…it was actually, it looks like it’s all in one studio but it’s actually four different studios. I think it was four. There was like one in Merced, CA. One in St. Paul which was at In Progress, and then one, I think Pat sent her from Canada. And then there was one on North Carolina. Right, and so, it was just the editing of Kong and Shu where they were able to kinda mess with the color to make it black and white so it looks like we’re all in one studio. But it was, it’s kinda like all the artists in that region would come together. And then we would hear the song and we would the other artists and we kinda, it was a way for us to really connect because these were artist from California, Minnesota, Wisconsin and then from like Georgia, and North Carolina. And so, I felt like that’s the concept of being unified even though we live in different parts of the country. I think that’s what really made it special you know. And being able to understand that we have the same vision and the same heart to be a part of this project. For this collaboration I think that’s what really made it really special. And I think that hopefully we can expand to other parts of the world. When that song came out and I went to Thailand in 2011 you know all the Hmong Thai students knew that song. They were really big fans of that song you know. So, it’s good. It’s good that it’s out on social media.
I think for me, ah, well it’s really interesting about the best thing because, in a way it is going to Thailand. But then understanding that ah…we as a people, as a Hmong people have different history and roots in different parts of the world you know. But knowing that Thailand still have Hmong villages and that I can go there and experience living in those Hmong villages. I thought it was really, thought it was really great experience. And ah, just definitely being able to get the grant from the Jerome Study Foundation working with a Diane Garvey at the time with HAIL (Hmong American Institute for Learning), I was….I think I was really fortunate to have been able to get the opportunity. And because it shapes a lot of what I do you know today, a lot of the big things to. So like, when “Travel in Spirals”, the documentary film that I helped shoot and collaborated with Justin on, to this new film project “We Rock Long Distance.” For me these are really great highlights for me. And then also, I guess performing and traveling with my brother performing around the United States to different Hmong communities. I think those are really great experiences.

As far as the worst thing, see I can’t even say getting lock up is bad. I mean it’s bad. You don’t wanna ever get lock up. But in a way it opens a lot of doors for me because I learn a lot from that experience. And it actually gave me the opportunity to write my first lyric and poetry. You know, but it definitely wasn’t a good experience to be locked up as a juvenile. But another thing that came up from that though is when we were locked up, they will have like a group for Hmong, all the Hmong juvenile or youth that were locked up. And then we would have this discussion, to talk about our culture while being in that institution. And we got a visit from Tou Ger Xiong once. You know, and it was like in college at the time. He was just starting out. And ah, I think that definitely shapes my experience because it made me understand or helps me understand oh you guys actually go and visit…being like a Hmong artist and visit school and visit youth and stuff. So, definitely a great moment for me too. I think that was a part of my journey, I guess to get where I am today.

My grandma is…I realize how cool she is like…this…even like having a better understanding of “Kwv Txhiaj” (Folk song) you know. Having better understanding that like she actually never learn how to read or write and she has to just memorize all the poems or she just like freestyle her Kwv Txhiaj. For me, it’s really fascinating. Right now, I am actually listen very close to when she does her Kwv Txhiaj or her “Lus Txaj”(Green Hmong Dialect). Because sometimes, I’ll actually notice that she is adding new things to it. You know, she’s actually freestyling. You know and I am relating it to like, these are what rappers do. They freestyle just like what my grandma does. You know I was like wow, and then just that ability to listen and memorize, I think we are really used to like writing and reading and then memorizing it. I think just learning a lot more about that process was good for me. Also that, I think it just gave us more time to hang out and for me to really understand her story and ah…understand different things like she learn how to do Kwv Txhiaj the same year she became a shaman. It was the first, when she was 9 years old, she became a shaman and she started to learn to do her Kwv Txhiaj or she just have to learn Kwv Txhiaj. You know, I was like wow….you know like, they learn so young. You know, for such a young age. And I think that really is fascinating to me to hear a lot of her stories but, but it’s really challenging at the same time because ah…you know. It’s fun but it’s challenging for example, a cool thing is that she has this sun glasses that she wears and like she just asked to borrow them one day from me cause I have them. She just never gave them back to me right. And that’s cool she can have her sun glasses. But then sometimes when we rehearse something, we’ll like…I was like Grandma you sing two verses then I’ll sing two you know stuff like that. And then when we perform she’ll do like a lot more than what we practice you ‘cause she’s freestyling. And so, it keeps me on my toe because I am like oh wait that’s not what we practice. And so, I have to make adjustment to our performance. But like I said, it’s fun.

Being able to go to the…go fishing at the ocean with my family when we lived in like Rhode Island you know ‘cause there is the ocean right there. ‘Cause those are….that’s definitely very memorable to me. And I actually don’t go fishing that much but that was a very memorable to go fishing with my family in the ocean and it made me feel very connected to my family and connection to something was very deep with our history….with fishing and just spending time with each other. Yeah and then I guess as far as like, community wise, seeing all the young people that I had visited, like I would visit like elementary schools like some on the Eastside like Prosperity or Phalen Lake Elementary or I visited Sewer Montessori even in Minneapolis. Seeing them grow up, seeing all these young people grow up and do great things. I think that’s really good. It kinda shows how long I’ve been doing it too…to see like some elementary school grow up to be college students. But at the same time it’s good to see people grow and become you know…start to create their own path. Like one artist, Chili Lor, she was at Prosperity Elementary School, I visited when she was in sixth grade. So, that class has Chili Lor and then it had Bao Xiong, who is a Hmong rapper, and it had Charlie Vang who is a B-boy. And they were all in sixth grade at the time. And then I saw them grow up to be like a B-boy, a very skilled B-boy, a very prominent community organizer and spoken word artist. And Chili Lor, a very dynamic rapper and Bao Xiong and so….and they were all in the same class. I thought that was pretty cool, yeah.

I don’t remember making a very difficult decision but remember making a decision that I’ll reveal to everybody now. I was actually gonna move to ah…I was gonna move to California. I was gonna move to Sacramento. It was not because….I love the twin cities actually because it’s helping me, nurture me, and help all the people here whether it’s you know….a lot of influential Hmong leaders or community organizers or artists that weren’t Hmong too, really help shapes me into who I am today. Ah…and so, I didn’t really wanna leave for that reason. I wanted to leave because I want to explore and expand, and have different experiences in the different communities. And I had this connection to Sacramento. And so, I’ve made this decision to leave, I was gonna move and then I was offered this job to stay and work with young people in Frogtown which is the job I work right now. You know, and I was like oh yeah, you know, that’s a part of what I wanna do…as an adult is to give back to the community that I grew up in because my family moved to the Eastside soon after, especially after I got in trouble in Frogtown. And so, to actually come back to the neighborhood and work in the neighborhood and live in the neighborhood that I grew up in and had the issues in, I thought it was…for me was ah…it was very valuable so that I decided to stay.

You know honestly I don’t have too many regrets except that I think…ah…you know….no I can’t…ok so during my prime years, ‘cause I’m 35 now but when I was in my 20s that was when I was doing a lot of those work with CHAT you know…and Ice Open Mic. We were doing concerts and open mics and it was a very vibrant time with all these artists that were…were out you know…like “Shattered Echo’z and Watching Leona” and dance groups and stuff. And I think ah….that was a great time. I think that I would of…..it might not be….it might not be too late but I would of wanted to travel and have more experiences. Like maybe I would of want to live in like Thailand or Southeast Asia for like, just like a couple years you know…just have that experience so can carry with me or maybe I wanted to live in a different community. I would always come back you know ‘cause this is my home and this’s where my family is in the twin cities but, I think I would of…try to have more of those experiences knowing that I was gonna come back. Ah…but I guess it’s not too late.

I think it’s important to honor, understand and really get to know your history and those that came before us. And really like take the time to ah….to learn it right, whether it’s our parents, grandparents and like our legacy and ancestors, our history. And so, I think that ah….and then actually I’m talking about Hmong culture but I’m also talking about even if you were doing hip hop for example I am doing hip hop. It’s important for me to understand and know the history of how hip hop was developed out of disenfranchised and low-income neighborhoods and was able to create beautiful art forms out of those circumstances. I think that help shape how I would wanna do my music in the future right. So, the way that I understand some of the challenges and struggles of my people, it helps shape the way I…and motivate me to be successful and the way I wanna create my art you know. And so, I think that’s important so understanding and knowing where you came from and your history. The second is having the awareness or the conscious to give back. You know give back to your community, give back to where you came from because I think, especially knowing that maybe for our generation there wasn’t that many pioneers. We have to be our own pioneers right. And so, ah…knowing that no matter where you are and what types of success you’ve reached, it’s important to always give back because you’re building new pathways and new opportunities for people in the future too to take it even further, for the next generation to take it even further. So, always taking the time and creating the space to mentor, to visit younger people to do presentation, to work with…with the next generation I think that’s good. And then the third is ah….to be…this is goes back to being…not just being pioneer but, like, let’s say someone is already a pioneer before me, I wanna honor what that person has done and take it even further. And so, using your creativity or influences and being able to bring whatever the movement you’re a part of, whether it’s hip hop, whether it’s ah…you know…learning about your culture, your history, whether it’s any types of art forms you take on that you’re innovating it and taking it even further. You know ah…so it’s not stagnated I think that that’s important.

I think there’s a lot of ah…different challenges that we can face growing up, whether it’s growing without a parent or parents. Or whether it’s you know….violence in your neighborhood or coming up from low income communities, there’s a lot of different challenges we face, especially coming as like first generation, 1.5, and second generation. Those types of experiences and I think that also with understanding that some of our elders had experienced post-traumatic stress and being able to understand that and…ah either be supportive or being able to deal with it as being raised by a lot of our elders and parents that had experienced that. Ah…I think that…for me it’s always about taking that experience like…..for me it’s always about how do you take something negative and make it positive. I mean that’s been a big ah…overall theme of my life. It’s how you take something negative and make it positive. How do you take a rusty fork and make it into a silver spoon? You know and….that metaphor has always been like a symbol of what I would like to live by. And…because some people might already had grown up with that privilege of having all these accesses and opportunities you know. But then if you grow up with these challenges or circumstances that might keep you down or hold you back…you know…you motivate yourself to work even harder to prove that you can be successful even though you come from a more difficult situation or difficult circumstance and that’s….I feel like that’s the story of the Hmong people too you know. You know that we….experienced a lot of difficult circumstances but we try, we create something positive out of it and try to forge ahead and become successful, knowing that that’s our history and that’s what drives us. You know, and it’s almost like we’re trying to prove to the world that we are a people that…you know are survivors and that can thrive out of that survival. So, these are really great quote from a friend of mine that I wanna continue “It’s not just about surviving. It’s about thriving.” Survival is just a part of what we do. Now it’s time to thrive.

There’s a few people. You know I guess for me it’s always a collective of people that influence me to be who I am today. You know, so I’ll say like ah…..you know people that are doing a lot of great work….had been because….my life is multi-dimensional too you know meaning that there are a lot of things I have interest in and pursue. So, it’s everything from like you know….someone who I mentioned like Tou Ger Xiong is out there as an artist visiting school trying to inspire young people to like people that had been organizing in the community to like Ka Zoua from Freedom Ink or like I have a mentor named Louis Alamahugh(?) who’s a poet but he’s also like a social justice advocate. You know but even like seeing some of the younger people too you know and what they are doing. I think continue to inspire me. So, like really pushing the boundary, pushing the edge of, of what we lay for them. And so, I think that some of those people, you know, I know I’m missing a few people, but even like ah….you know I get inspired by storytellers you know like even if they’re just sharing their stories with me. You know like my ah….Aunt Joua from Thailand. When I go visit her, she tells me all these stories and it’s really inspiring you know. And even like I visit with Lee Pao Xiong here at the Center for Hmong Studies sharing these stories with me, it’s very inspiring. And so, I think ultimately I wanna be like this….continuing these stories, like storyteller through different ways like you know of course through hip hop and through spoken words too and so, I think that ah that’s what inspired me.

As far as being Hmong and being unified as a people, I think that it’s important for us to have this whole perspective of our history but then they have….also this like….this expanded idea that our people are all over the world you know. And to think about their life and how they are ‘cause I am sure they think about us and our life and how we are. And I think that ah….for me I am really been into this whole global…even we doing hip hop, global hip hop that influence of how like people in other parts of the world are utilizing these art forms that will always help disenfranchise communities to empower themselves. And give them a sense of self-expression whether it’s through the music with rapping or whether it’s through dance or the visual arts. Ah…I think that….or the music and stuff and so, I think that ah….I think it’s really important for me to continue on that journey of self-discovery on a global scale. And then also, shifting it to the Hmong people like, I think the more that we can push forward to create those bridges and connections with us ‘cause we might have the most access to do it as Hmong Americans. I think the more that we actually could ah…..benefit our own knowledge and our own ways of feeling connected to our history and our people is being able to make more of that effort to feel connected wherever we live. And so, I think that’s….for me that’s a very important value. Also, to really ah….but then bringing it back to here I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to have mentors, friends, and people that actually come from different cultures too. Like Minnesota has a lot of different communities that come here as refugees like the Karen and the Somali communities or as immigrants like a lot of Latino community and so, I think we can learn a lot from each other and we share a lot of different….we share a lot of stories that are actually similar too but ah…I’m very inspired and I’m very….feel very fortunate to be in a lot of spaces where there is that type of diversity. And to be a part of this community and to be part of building this community that has a lot of different cultures and people here in the twin cities so. So, I’m giving two different things but they are not so different because I think that as a community I think I’m just…it’s good to really challenge ourselves to expand the way we connect to other people as well as the way we connect to other parts of the world and so yep.

Well, for me Minnesota is very concentrated. A lot of the Hmong people are in certain specific areas, whether it’s on the eastside, Frog town, or just St. Paul as a whole. Like I’ve been to …I think when I was living on the Eastside, I would drive to a four way stop you know and I looked at all the cars that stopped and they’ll all be Hmong people on each side, you know, and I’ll be like wow, this area has a lot of Hmong people. But, in that sense though, I think that we definitely pushing the…..our motivation or the way that we’re forging to really like feel more connected. Not just as a community but connected to our culture, our identity, and our history. I think that there are a lot more discussions, you know, I have a lot of these discussions in other communities too but because we have these resources to have these discussions, whether it’s at schools, or non-profit organizations, or cultural centers. I think that we have a lot of these opportunities to do that and also with a lot of entrepreneurship, a lot businesses surviving of your businesses or thriving of your businesses because there is a very supportive Hmong community here. And so, there are a lot of push for preservation of….this goes back to what I said before but, preservation of language and history because we can create programs at schools, whether it’s emerging schools or charter schools or just like a lot of new and different programs because there is such a prominent community here. We can be the pioneers or we can be the people who are forging a lot of those programs to preserve all those things. So, I think Minnesota have those types of opportunities because of our situation of being concentrated. Even with like, the political realm. Because we live in specific neighborhoods we’re big influence on the future of these neighborhoods and so we are able really like be supportive and have people in positions in the political realm to make a difference you know and to actually be supported by people from other communities too so, to have a really go presence in that sense. And so, I think there’re a lot of opportunities in that sense.


Transcription completed by: Kao Chang and Moua Lee