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In this essay Khang interrogates the ways in which growing up as the daughter of Southeast Asian migrants in the small town of Brockton, Massachusetts shaped her through the contexts of ethnic identity and place through tangible lenses: mother tongue, cooking, and gender roles. The author writes, for instance: “growing up in a traditional Hmong household meant that the females did the household chores. These chores included something like cooking dinner without having to be asked because I am supposed to have this empathetic superpower of everyone else’s hunger.” High school, where they dismantle the stereotypes encountered, like jock and geek, is the context that shapes the decision to break away from these inherited expectations and pursue a higher education. Khang plays with chronology and alternates between analytic reflection and scenic depiction to discuss complex issues in ways that are refreshing and deeply personal.
ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing
Day Month Year
Ingredients of Education
“How do you say this word?”
“Kuv tsis paub.” I don’t know.
I don’t know; one of the phrases I remember from my language, Hmong. It is pronounced “Mung,” not “Ha-mong,” and yes, you sound like an idiot if you say it like that. Hmong rhymes with sung and lung, and the H is silent. My ancestors originated from the Southeast Asian country Laos. Not Mongolia, as some people might assume, because a Hmong being from Mongolia makes sense to them. Having to elaborate upon my ethnicity and heritage to someone repeatedly never tires me out. I like that they are so interested in a culture that is not well known. Sometimes, I do not have the answers to their questions, however, like, “How do you say this word?” My parents hated that. They hated how distant I can be from my own culture.
The distance widened when I entered high school. Brockton or “Broketown” as some people in my city might refer to it as, because I am not going to lie, it is an ugly city, lies in the eastern region of Massachusetts in Plymouth County. In this city exists a school called Brockton High with over 4,000 students. Maybe even more, but no one is going to take the time to tally how many of us are actually there. The students of Brockton High come from all walks of life, well, at least the ones I knew of. I became aware of the diversity within my high school when I entered my freshman year. I noticed labels did not matter here. Brockton High was far from the stereotypical high schools featured in the movies. The “band geeks” were not geeks at all. They were just people who happened to be in the band. They were never the lower tier of popularity. Some of my fellow classmates even attended the football games just to see the band perform during the halftime shows. The “jocks” at Brockton High were more than the sports they played. They were not viewed as mediocre students with inhumane athletic abilities. Most of them were academically talented as they had to obtain a certain GPA to even be on a sports team. From observing the students at my school and realizing that they portrayed a different dynamic than what was on the media, I learned to be less judgmental and more open-minded. This open-mindedness did not exist within my home, however.
Growing up in a traditional Hmong household meant that the females did the household chores. These chores included something like cooking dinner without having to be asked because I am supposed to have this empathetic superpower of everyone else’s hunger. The men of the house were reared to work and provide for the family financially. My brothers never learned how to cook, not because they were lazy, which they were, but because it was not expected of them. As my parents were raising my brothers to get a good job, what my parents expected me to do was get married, find a husband, and produce grandchildren. But that is the farthest thing from my mind.
I want an education. I am smart, and I know that I have more to offer to my academics than to just give up on the potential I have. I want to be dependent upon myself financially and not have to lean on my future husband for our family’s source of income. I also do not want children anytime soon because those little human beings know exactly how to disentangle the strings binding a person’s composure together. This idea I gained on furthering my education and postponing my duties of being a housewife came from the people I observed at Brockton High. No one is whom you expect them to be. I acquired the knowledge that I myself did not have to fulfill the expectations my parents set out for me. I could make my own path.
The journey to my own path began my junior year of high school, when I decided to take three international baccalaureate courses: English, Latin, and Calculus. I decided to take these classes to challenge myself, and I was right in doing so. I found myself investing more of my time in my education than helping my mother around the house. My parents would frequently ask me, “Why are the dishes not washed?” or “Why is dinner not ready?” but I always told them I was “busy doing my homework,” which frustrated them. We would often have arguments like this, constantly debating what my priorities were and should be.
It was difficult explaining to my parents that we had grown up in two different worlds, and with two different worlds come two different perspectives. I had to force my own reality on them; the reality that what our generations hold value towards is not the same, and the roles of females and males differ from how they were twenty years ago. Breaking what is traditionally valued in the Hmong culture of being a good housewife and assimilating to the open-minded atmosphere of Brockton High was difficult for my parents, but they very well knew in order for me to survive this world, I had to follow the norm of the society we now lived in.
Different is scary. When I began to stray away from a recipe that dinner was supposed to follow and started stirring the pot by adding my own ingredients of education, my parents became fearful. The idea of sending me off to a college scared my parents. The idea of me entering college undeclared scared my parents even more. The idea that I was becoming a part of a culture outside of my home scared my parents the most. But change is just what happens from generation to generation, and my parents and I had to come to an in-between. A compromise that I would be a part of my generation’s norms, but I would not forget my culture; I would not distance myself.
Now instead of asking me why certain chores around the house are not done, my parents ask me questions like, “What are you going to major in?” I would respond with, “Kuv tsis paub.”