This is the first in a series from Janit von Saechao about discovering her Iu-Mien and Khmu roots.
I haven’t always been open about my identity as a Khmu and Mien person. I remember as an elementary school student, when teachers and peers asked what my ethnicity was, my instinctive reaction was immediate deflection. This was a conversation I hated having. The comments of, “what are you?” and “where are you from?” drew feelings from my child self that I wasn’t equipped to handle. The person asking never knew what they were getting themselves into and I was never really ready to explain. So I resorted to replying with saying I was Lao or Thai, even as I knew that these were not my truths.
There were various reasons I chose to misidentify. In honesty, some of it was intentional. I wanted to belong to something that was already understood, something that others could conceptualize without me having to scramble in search for words to communicate the complexity of my peoples’ stories. After all, how could a kindergartener in ESL accurately explain to someone else; who they were and where their people were from, in a language that was, at the time, foreign? This wasn’t my only challenge, however. At six years old, these moments faced me with the task of having to share the complexities of my own story, something I was neither comfortable with or prepared to do at that age. For these reasons and more, the answer has never been easy.
Growing up in a strict Mien Baptist community, I understood very early on that cultural traditions and Christianity existed in perpetual opposition to one another. To participate in one was seen as an immediate forsaking of the other. As a result, my only connections with Mien culture presented itself in the most undebatable ways, through my food, my language skills, and my last name. Even still, this was perceived as insufficient for many. By default, my mixed identity as Mien and Khmu–but never enough of either–had set me up for a lifetime of erasure and othering. Pair this with my very unique family dynamic of being raised by a pastor-grandfather, an overprotective grandmother, and a single teen mom and you get me, a culmination of seemingly endless contradictions.
My reality is, I come from a family made of fragments pieced together to feel whole. And I have come to terms with knowing that to survive in this afterlife of war, we are given no choice but to rebuild in the best ways we know how. Sometimes this looks like recovering parts of us that were lost. It also looks like acknowledging that there are parts of us that may never again be the same. Other times it will require us to make new traditions, which I believe are important too. And in some instances, we are forced to mourn fragments that can no longer be recovered. But it truly takes all of these combined elements to create our current culture as we now know it.
In the search for my Mien and Khmu cultural traditions, I have found that there is also ample room for me to honor my own. Nowadays I make it a point to bring my Khmu-ness and my Mien-ness into every space I enter. I cook Khmu and Mien food all in the same meal; I steam sticky rice, roast eggplants for jeow, while simmering lai maeng torng (greens soup) on the stove. I invite my friends–Southeast Asian, black, Latinx, queer, loud, weird and all brilliant– for dinner and we laugh, tell stories, smoke and drink together in the tradition of my ancestors before me. These are the moments that remind me that I am both Mien and Khmu, fully and authentically, without having all the answers… the same moments that help me to remember that I am already whole, while enabling me to continue recovering and discovering all of the pieces of myself that make me who I am.
Admittedly, the journey thus far has proven to be laborious and requires dedication. After all, the act of searching and gathering, in the traditional ways of the Khmu and Mien, has never been an easy task. But I have hope that one day all the fragments I have found will come together beautifully, and bring clarity to a future I am still dreaming up. While it remains unclear where this path leads, I know my only option is to keep moving forward to where ever my ancestors call me. And regardless of my destination, I am fully committed to both wholeness and healing, for myself and all my peoples past, present and yet to come.
—Janit von Saechao, email@example.com