“True happiness is when you improve yourself. It is not when you see others do poorly and elevate yourself by default,” says Yer Xiong, a phenomenal first-generation Hmong woman of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
To everyone, she is her husband’s wife, her seven children’s mother, a dedicated employee in medical assembly, and a member of Minnesota’s Hmong American population. But only known by her and now the Hmong Times, Yer Xiong is a woman of true character, a woman who values the meaning of what being a human is – kindness, humility, and forgiveness. In short, 56-year old Yer Xiong of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, sees life as a process toward doing good deeds for that is where true happiness lies. “Being a good person is the hardest struggle I’ve had to face. Being good will take a lifetime to achieve. But being bad can happen within a blink of an eye,” states Yer.
Being good, in Yer’s vision, is a life of selflessness and empathy. “In order for my relationships with my husband, children, and coworkers to blossom, I learned that during disagreeable times, I have to put my needs and biases aside and try to understand where the other person is coming from. That is how I keep up with being a good housewife, mother, and employee, so I can continue to make money for a living.”
But Yer’s dedication to good and kindness was not achieved under a lack of trial. “In Laos, we lived in the mountains. Our family moved around a lot about once every two years. We would pick up our things and go. It’s not like in America, where there are things like property taxes or a mortgage. The land there was free. Bamboo and wood are plentiful in the forest. A family just had to select a location within the village for which to live, and then the whole family will work together to build the house; it’d just take a day’s time to complete. We literally carried our chickens on our backs and put our pigs on leashes and we would go. We only traveled by foot, and it usually took us about a week’s time to get to the Hmong village which we were headed.”
With so little technology at the time, one wonders how did they know which village to settle in next? “Our fathers and uncles hunted in the forests. They would go discover new Hmong villages and get the vibe of them. Then we’d plan for that village to live in next. By the time I was 12, I’d already lived in six different places.”
A seemingly nomadic life, it would be hard for anyone to lay down roots. But Yer explains that was not the case. “Things in those days were different than modern day. Our parents were everything to us. If our parents said, ‘we were okay,’ life felt okay. It was unheard of for children to venture off to make it on their own. We functioned as a family unit, and everything worked well. If we wanted something and our parents said no, that was the end of it. Parents were elders and they’ve lived longer and knew the land better. We were just kids and we trusted them.” Yer said with great conviction. “Also, there was such a thing as ‘fate’ or ‘karma’ which is a belief that if we hurt our parents by disobeying them, we would carry an ill-fate and be cursed by our karma and we would have to suffer a consequence. We were also scared of that,” Yer explains with a chuckle.
“Belief in something” seems to be a consistent practice in life at the time, and according to Yer, life always turned out okay. But that is not to say life was devoid of struggle. “My family was really poor,” Yer recounts. “My father was an opium user, and we didn’t have much money. My whole family farmed corn, rice and other veggies. Our family had very little possessions to our name.”
It was the late 1960’s and scarcity was familiar to many Hmong families at the time. But Yer explains, it wasn’t a life of oppression by any means, but simply a life of unknowingness. “I always wanted more, dreamt of more, but I didn’t have a clue what I could do or be. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
“I knew so little about the world. There were seven boys and four girls. I was just a daughter, so my dad didn’t send me off to school like my brothers. I stayed home to help with the farm. We lived in the mountains, and we would walk miles each day to reach the farm. It was always an uphill trek and hours in the scorching hot sun. By the first hour, we sweated so much our clothes would stick to our skin. During those days, I did not even know that beyond this forest was different countries, different cultures, other food, places with riches and abundance. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
But there came a point when Yer was seven and a desire burned inside her saying, I want more in this life. Yer dreaded heavy work in the mountains and dreamed of a life where she wouldn’t have to farm another day.
“I didn’t know what I could do to live a better life, but I just kept hoping and dreaming that it would happen,” Yer recalls. “When people were coming over to Thailand from Laos after General Vang Pao left the country, my parents wanted to stay planted in Laos. I didn’t agree with that. They didn’t let me go, but I just decided on my own that I needed to. I followed my brother and his family, and I left. When we got to Thailand, life was lonely and hard without my parents.”
But in order to make it, sacrifice and struggle, according to Yer, needed to be done. “Actually, unlike the popular belief that girls didn’t have a chance to study in the refugee camps at Thailand, I did get that opportunity. But I realized that my parents were far away from me, there was no one to support me or encourage me. When I went in and sat in the classes, I was already a teenager. All the other kids were smarter than me and knew more than me; they had parental support. I would feel nervous and unintelligent. I decided not to study.”
Soon after arriving, Yer married her husband, Chong Xiong, following but one month of courting in Thailand. “We only met two times, but I’d always noticed him back in Laos. He asked me to marry him during our second visit. He was the first guy that ever showed interest in me. He was an orphan and a good boy. I didn’t judge him by what we had. I knew that when married, I would work with my husband to grow what we had. So, I said yes.”
The couple came to the U.S. in 1987. “By the time I came here, I already had three kids, so I didn’t pursue an education. I chose to raise my kids and help my husband make money.”
But to Yer, true happiness has always lied in self- improvement. “[Happiness] is when we set a goal for ourselves, one that makes us feel alive and even scared, and then we take steps to reach that goal. And when we do it, we have joy inside our hearts saying, Wow, I did it!”
Today, Yer and her husband run a successful real estate investing business where they flip homes with a small team of contractors. They both are financially free and just as Yer had dreamed, she no longer works another farm-day in her life.
“I was never educated, but I have the idea to try new things. I also consider it my luck to get the husband I got who is caring and supportive and has an open mind. We work together to earn everything we have today.” And that is her life’s joy.
And though to the untrained eye, Yer is a simple housewife, to the world, Yer Xiong is a woman of true kindness, hard work, and forgiveness.
“Things are what they are, but don’t accept your situation if you feel unhappy. Don’t blame your parents that ‘they didn’t do this for me or couldn’t support me.’ It doesn’t matter where you came from, it just matters what you do. If you want something, fight for what you want. Don’t quit reaching for the things you want and if your life has not ended, you are going to get there eventually.”