Thao: PhD Student & Author

By Fue Yang

 

 

 

 

 

Ger Thao is currently pursuing her PhD in education and will be the first in her family to graduate with a doctorate degree. It is Thao’s hope and dream to inspire and develop curriculum that will support bilingual and multilingual students. Thao has written two bilingual (Hmong and English) books, “Hmoob Txoj Kev Taug” and “The Hmong Journey,” beautifully illustrated by her friend, Jessica Anderson. As a former Hmong student growing up in a public education system, Thao felt she was never able to connect to any characters in mainstream children’s books – as there was no Hmong voice in children’s literature. “As I continue to share my story, I realize that I can empower my students to see themselves in stories and books and be proud of their identity,” said Thao.

She hopes that her two new books would serve as resources for Hmong students and keep the rich culture, traditions, and history of the Hmong people alive. As she sheds light on her experience as a new Hmong author, she shares: “I hope that my story will pave that path for my students, siblings, nieces and nephews, and future children to know that they, too, have a voice and that one day they will share their stories with the world.”

As a child growing up, there were many amazing goals that Thao set for herself, but her highest goal was to become a teacher just like her father. “As long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a teacher just like my dad. As soon as I could start talking and walking, I was playing ‘school’ with my younger siblings and cousins,” said Thao.

Beside her father being a role-model in teaching, Thao highly values her teachers and mentors who had shaped her to become an educator, with the hopes that she could do the same for her students and future students. As Thao described, “My teachers were my heroes and have shaped me into the student, educator, and person that I am today. I hope to do the same for my students. I truly believe that a teacher can shape a child, and that child can shape the world.”

When asked what inspired Thao to write these bilingual books, she recalled a memory from working with her students who mistook Thao for a ‘Mexican lady’ teacher. “In my early years of teaching, I had, as we teachers call it, a ‘teachable moment.’ I started my career as a first-grade teacher in the Yuba City Unified School District. It was the first week of school, and one of my students was having a conversation with his friend about who their teachers were. When asked, my student responded ‘Miss Thao.’ The other student asked who Miss Thao was. My student said, ‘Oh you know, that Mexican lady!’ I do not think I look very Hispanic nor do I speak much Spanish. In the Yuba City area, we have a big East Indian population and very few Asian staff or diversity in general. Hearing that conversation was a wake-up call for me. I realized that my students had no idea who I am, or where I came from. Not only do my students not know about my ethnicity, but my colleagues also expressed how little they knew about the Hmong and diverse Asian ethnic groups. Clearly, it doesn’t exist in the social science and history curriculum nor do I have any literature or time in the classroom to teach them,” said Thao.

After hearing from her students about the lack of Hmong voices in children’s literature, Thao decided to focus on writing picture books that would share her Hmong family’s story and refugee experiences. Thao started her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction program at California State University, Chico where she knew she wanted to focus on a bilingual book project. “I started researching and realized that there was not a whole lot of resources or literature on the Hmong people, especially at the elementary level for my young learners. I came across My Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say. This was a story about a boy tracing his Japanese heritage. I automatically connected to the character in the story, not only because he was Asian, but also because I could relate to the concept of immigrating to a new country and struggling with identity. As I reflected on my childhood as a Hmong American, I honestly do not remember being able to relate to any of the characters in mainstream readers or books that I read in the classroom. I can see why my nieces and nephews had a hard time identifying themselves as Hmong. I decided to write my own children’s picture books to share my family’s story and the historical and cultural context of the Hmong for my students and colleagues in the field,” said Thao.

Writing the bilingual book was a part of her master’s program project that Thao spent many hours planning, drafting, and designing the story and their plots. She worked tirelessly jotting down notes and sketch drawings from her iPad and with the support and illustrations from her friend, Anderson, she finally finished her labor of love. As Thao stated, “Because it was part of my master’s degree, I had a span of four months to draft my story and plan out the illustrations on this bilingual book. I also had to do the Hmong translations. What started as notes on my iPad and became a bilingual children’s picture book.”

Writing and publishing her two books with the Hmong Educational Resources is one of her many goals in giving back to the Hmong community. Thao believes that dreams do come true, even when you don’t expect them to. “Sometimes the dreams that come true are the ones that we never thought we had. I have never really tried publishing stories until my students inspired me to write and share my own story. What a dream come true to publish with HER Publisher and share these books with students and their families across the U.S.” said Thao.

When asked how she come up with the title for her bilingual books, Thao said she wanted something to capture the story and immigration experiences of the Hmong. “I decided to choose a title that would capture our story, our experience of immigrating from one country to another. I decided to title my book ‘The Hmong Journey: Hmoob Txoj Kev Taug’ – the title somehow became very metaphorical of my own life journey. This book has taken me on journeys I have never imagined, from a child born in the refugee camp to an educator and scholar pursuing a doctorate at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.”

The first bilingual version of The Hmong Journey was published in 2018, then a complete Hmong version Hmoob Txoj Kev Taug published in the summer 2020. These books are historical, realistic fictional books told from the perspective of a Hmong grandma to her grandchild in the form of a bedtime story about Hmong life and the family’s journey, first from Laos to Thailand, escaping the Secret War and persecution, and finally immigrating to America. As Thao described, “This story was written to provide a mirror for Hmong students to see themselves in literature, as well as a window for non-Hmong students to learn about the Hmong people and to understand the journey Hmong families took from Laos and Thailand to get to America for the opportunity for a better life and future.”

As a Hmong author, Thao loves putting oral stories into books, to showcase the past and present as a teacher and moment of reflection for her students. “I love putting the oral stories that I grew up with into print and thinking about my audience. As I drafted these stories, I thought of the message I wanted to pass on to my nieces, nephews, and young learners about the Hmong people. I wrote the stories in words and language that my young learners could understand while taking care not to sugar coat anything. I wanted them to understand that the Hmong history and stories were not rainbows and butterflies. They were capable and deserved to know the ‘real’ Hmong stories. Writing and retelling these stories helped me to relive the journey that my Grandma and parents had lived and shared with us. I’ve loved being able to connect back to my origin and ancestry,” said Thao.

Writing a children’s book is not only telling the story, but also believing in the process. “I have learned that writing is a process – the story won’t be perfect the first time. You just have to keep believing in the process and yourself!” said Thao.

Writing takes time, and it also involves a dedicated support system. Thao described that her parents are the most supportive persons in her life when it comes to her writing children’s books. “My parents are my supportive people, Yeng Thao and Wang Xiong. They have been supportive of my education, career, dreams, and adventures that I never thought I had. They inspire the stories that I write – their voices and experiences shine through my story. My story would also not be possible without the support and love of my parents and family” said Thao.

When asked what is her favorite part of the story that she wrote in the books, Thao said the Hmong New Year celebration pages were her favorite. “My favorite part is about the Hmong New Year festival – the one celebration that we get to look forward to every year. Girls and boys dressing up in their new Hmong outfits, ball tossing, and sharing talents. It is the one time of the year where Hmong get to celebrate a year’s worth of hard work – rekindle with old friends and meet new friends, as well as leaving behind the old year and welcoming the new,” said Thao.

When Thao is not writing, she loves to read or enjoy a good time at the beach, as well as travel to new places and try new things in life. “I love reading a good book while enjoying a nice sunset at the beach. I love to travel to new places, try new dishes, and explore the outdoors, especially hiking. I also enjoy spending quality time with my big family and being an auntie to my nieces and nephews,” said Thao.

If Thao could say one thing to young Hmong students and readers in the community, she hopes the young learners don’t forget who they are. “I hope that you never forget who you are and where you and your family came from. I share my story with you so that you can go out into the world and share yours…knowing that you are not alone. If I can do this, I know you can too. I hope to meet you someday and hear your story,” said Thao.

The Hmong Educational Resources (HER) Publisher believes in the power of education and the impact of stories. HER is an independent publisher of books about Hmong people, culture, and life experiences. To read more about Hmoob Txoj Kev Taug and The Hmong Journey, please visit www.herpublisher.com. The author would love to connect with readers and future authors, if you would like to know more about Ger Thao and her work, please feel free to email Thao at nkaujhlinra13@gmail.com.

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