The Wisconsin Historical Society Press published ‘Hope Is the Thing: Wisconsinites on Perseverance in a Pandemic’. In this series, we feature five writers who share their experiences as they explore hope in the era of Covid. Yia Lor contributed an essay to the book.

I am from Chippewa Valley. I spent much of my childhood barefoot in our garden, picking vegetables with my feet in the mud.

Photo courtesy of Yia Lor

Yia Lor | Eau Claire, WI

I come from a long line of farmers. When my parents moved to Wisconsin as refugees of the Vietnam War, farming allowed them to connect back to Laos, to the people, the culture, and the land. Wisconsin’s cornfields replaced the rice fields of Laos. But for me as a child, farming was just a chore. I have five siblings and we were each assigned a row of green beans. My mom gave us each a big five-gallon bucket and our chore was to fill that bucket. Whoever filled it first got bragging rights. Then you dumped the bucket of green beans in the truck and came back to do a second row.

That was how I spent my summers while my friends were either at camp or doing other fun stuff. I hated it. I hated weeding. I didn’t really appreciate gardening and being immersed in nature until I was an adult. I didn’t appreciate how farming brought hope for my family. It was very healing for my parents to be connected to land. I am a generation removed from fleeing Laos and I have found that gardening allows me to connect to my parents’ story. I might not know what it’s like to be a child living in refugee camps, but it allows me to empathize. It allows me to see a little bit into their story and understand just what it means to be human. And gardening has given me hope too. What I’ve learned from my mom is you can grow just about anything. That no matter where you go, you can grow some food. 

My mom wants to start growing rice like she did back in Laos. There are people in the land near ours that have been growing rice. With Eau Claire’s snowy climate growing rice is something I never thought we could do here in Wisconsin. To me, this shows resilience that you can go anywhere in the world and attempt to grow rice. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. But there is hope in that.  

When my mom and dad moved here from a refugee camp in Thailand they couldn’t bring anything with them.  A distant relative who was already living here gave my mom a Hmong cucumber seed. Every year my mom has collected the seeds of the next generation of the cucumber. A couple of years ago I asked her about this seed and why we had to plant the same thing over and over again. She said that this seed has moved through so many generations and so many different lands. There is resilience in the way this cucumber seed grows. 

During the height of the pandemic, I was really starting to feel hopeless. I was just feeling like we were never going to get through this. It was a cucumber seed that inspired my ‘Hope is the Thing’ essay. When I was in my basement looking for old paint cans to paint a spare room in my house, I came across a pickle jar dated 7/21/2019. I thought about this pickle jar and the summer mornings my mother and I picked cucumbers and put them in jars with some dill, onion, garlic cloves, red pepper flakes, and whole black peppercorns. In that jar is a seed and that seed comes from my mom. When I bit into a pickle I had a burst of summer in my mouth. I thought about that pickle jar and how it is connected to nature and nature is super resilient. Nature to me will outlive everyone. 

When I was a kid, sometimes our cousins and aunts and uncles would come help harvest the vegetables to bring to the farmer’s market.  It was a big family reunion and it was exhausting. Because you’d get up at 5:00 AM and you’d load up the truck and then you’d all head out. We had a lunch break at noon and worked until probably about four or five. After dinner, we would bundle, rinse and package the vegetables until about one in the morning. Then we would sleep for a few hours, get up and start again in the morning. It was exhausting. But now there is a part of me every summer that misses it. As a kid, I hated to weed and I never thought that someday I would say that I kind of miss putting my feet in the mud and weeding the corn.

The written Hmong language (Romanized Popular Alphabet) wasn’t created until the 1950s. It was created by Christian missionaries to translate the Bible to reach the Hmong communities in Laos and Thailand. This past year I’ve been thinking about how to hold on to what it means to be Hmong. How can I hold on to this part of me that is really important? How can I be that seed that continues? I am a writer and an oral storyteller. My mom’s a big storyteller. I come from a long line of storytellers. My mom never had access to education but is really intelligent. And I don’t think anyone will ever know that about her the way that I know it. When I tell stories I am preserving history. When I write my stories, I carry my mom into them, and it breathes life into my stories.

Yia’s story was produced by Jen Rubin. It is part of a series featuring contributors to the Wisconsin Historical Society Press book, Hope is the Thing. Yia had a story about her mother featured on Wisconsin Public Radio, ‘I Still Remember: A Women’s Journey From Laos To Eau Claire.   

“Hmong families began arriving in the United States in 1975 as refugees of the Secret War in Laos. Today, about 4.5% of the global Hmong population lives in the United States, with just over 3,000 residing in the City of Eau Claire alone.” To learn more about the Hmong community check out this Chippewa Valley Museum exhibit. 

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