By: Richard Stone
Mao Lee Xiong also goes by Mollie — and as we talk I realize I’m talking to both. Mao Lee is the petite Hmong young lady, born in a Thai refugee camp, and trained — even after immigration to the United States — to be an obedient helpmeet to husband and in-laws. Although the couple chose each other (“I was in love as soon as I saw him”), the marriage was arranged through the parents. Mao Lee and Lor (Ronnie) Xiong were married in a traditional ceremony when she was 15 and her husband 20. The couple had their two children before Mao completed high school. “I was taught to cook and care for the extended family, to respect my elders and to not voice my opinions.” And Mao still lives deeply connected to her cultural enclave.
And then along came Mollie. She was the girl who arrived in Fresno speaking no English, learning at school (and from TV cartoons) by imitating everything she heard. To keep up with her studies, Mollie had to read every assignment repeatedly and to write down everything her teachers said so she could go over it home. Yet by the time she graduated high school, her grades were good enough to gain her access to any state college or university. She says, “Between schoolwork and housework, I rarely got more than two or three hours sleep a night. But as long as I did the Cinderella thing expected of a daughter-in-law, I was supported in my studies. I became very close to my father-in-law, and I was able to convince him to give the financial assistance that let me go to college.” She completed her bachelor’s degree, but her father-in-law died just before she completed her master’s and she had to drop out. “Still, at that time, Lor and I felt strong enough to move out on our own. It was a difficult but important step. Through our marriage, we have learned together how to value our culture but also to step out into the world we now live in.”
Mollie is grateful to her high school and college teachers and advisers who directed her into strengthening activities. In high school, Bev and Maureen Miller guided he into nursing programs. At CSUF, she learned about the civil rights and affirmative action movements from teachers like Tony Vang, Bob Fischer and Drs. Moreno and Ocala, and she became involved with migrant worker programs and the South East Asian Club. “In these activities I learned a lot about planning and working as a team, lessons I still carry. I even appeared on Hmong TV…that was very scary for me.”
During these school years, Mao began her involvement with her Hmong community not just as a member of the Xiong clan (her husband’s) but also as an unofficial social worker and organizer. “My job title was Rehabilitation Counselor with the BAART Clinic, but I made myself available to do whatever was needed: to help with transportation, with filing government papers, with translation. I became involved with the neighborhood elementary school and acted as liaison between Mrs. Russell, the principal, and the Hmong families.”
In 2007, she had to leave her job to take on care of her aging mother. “I joined the union for In-Home Supportive Service workers, then part of SEIU, as a rank-and-file member. But when our dues went up, I went to our rep to ask why. I learned about the political fights going on with the Board of Supervisors and Gov. Schwarzennegger’s office to protect our wages and benefits. I got mad. I volunteered to go to Sacramento to lobby, to phone bank, to translate. And all that led to me being hired as a union organizer. I learned then that I love to fight for a just cause. And then, when SEIU national put our local in trusteeship, I got suspicious again. When I learned what was going on, I quit and joined the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). During the recent election, I was working 10–12 yours a day, and I’d say, ‘Piece of cake, much easier than having a baby.’” She says that SEIU put her in a position where she would have had to lie, and “in our community, we are humble, but if you don’t tell the truth people will spit at you. You live in disgrace.”
Mao feels a special call to maintain her good standing in the community. Her father not only was a respected doctor in his own right, but earned deference as the personal physician for Gen. Pao Vang, the venerated leader of the Hmong military forces enlisted by the United States during the war in Vietnam. Even today, Mao is a board member of the support group for veterans of the Special Guerilla Unit whose heroism (and betrayal by the United States) was chronicled in the recent video The Secret War. She also continues her advocacy on behalf of Hmong women and girls, helping to work through the still-difficult interface between traditional culture and American culture that seems especially hard on females. “Hmong women have bucketfuls of tears, some of joy but mostly not. I’d like to ease that hell, if only a little.”
What impresses me most during our interview is how free of resentment this fighter for justice is despite her many hardships, how focused she is on overcoming barriers to her goals and how unconflicted she is at having a contemporary alter ego alongside her traditional cultural identity. Mao Lee or Mollie, all the same…and on the job.
Name: Mao Lee Xiong
Birthplace: Ban Viemai Camp in Thailand
Inspirations: “A lot. Martin Luther King, Jr., for his dream; Oprah Winfrey for her example; and in my personal life, Dr. Tou Her and Dr. Pahe Heur in their community work. Sal Roselli for his union work. Paula Yang for supporting Gen Vang…and that’s just a few.
Motto: “Even though the road is bumpy, drive as if you’re on a fresh-paved road.”
Non-political involvement: Hmong rituals, especially funeral services
Unexpected pleasure: Singing — Hmong traditional songs and popular music like the Carpenters