Speaker to talk about growing up Hmong in America

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Maysee Yang Herr, an instructor of educational psychology at the 
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, discusses a paper with Bethany 
Frederick on Thursday.
Maysee Yang Herr, an instructor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, discusses a paper with Bethany Frederick on Thursday. (Doug Wojcik/For the Wausau Daily Herald)

 When 33-year-old Maysee Yang Herr speaks at the luncheon concluding Hmong History Month, she'll be representing a sort of "sandwich" generation.

Born in Thailand, she didn't experience the traditional Hmong life of Laos, but the influence of her parents and others of previous generations steeped her in Hmong culture. At the same time, the Wausau woman attended American schools and learned American ways that profoundly influenced the choices she made in her life.

Growing up with one foot in the Hmong culture and the other planted in American society wasn't easy. It wasn't until she was in her 20s and attended graduate school in Indiana that she came to terms with her sort of dual identity.

"The second generation of (an immigrant group) always struggles with identity issues," Herr said. "I consider myself part of the 1.5 generation. ... I grew up trying to learn the American culture, but at the same time hold on to the Hmong culture."

Herr will be one of three speakers at the luncheon who exemplify the theme of Hmong History Month, "Our Continuing Journey." Speakers both older and younger than Herr also will speak about their perspective of Hmong culture.

Herr diverted in many ways from a traditional Hmong lifestyle. She didn't marry early, for example, instead choosing, with the support of her parents, to obtain the best education she could. After graduating from Wausau West High School in 1994, she studied psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She went on to earn a master's degree in educational psychology at Indiana University, and is completing her doctorate in early childhood education through IU. Meanwhile, Herr is an instructor in educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Being split between two worlds sometimes meant that Herr butted up against both. She chafed as a teenager against some of her parents' restrictions that were tied to Hmong ways. For example, she wanted to go to social events on her own, and she wanted to participate in extracurricular events.

"I was proud of being Hmong, but I felt as though holding onto that Hmong identity was holding me back," Herr said.

Other times, she would feel she would have to defend the Hmong when dealing with classmates in high school.

"By Hmong standards, I was rebellious," Herr said. "I joined cheerleading, joined extracurricular events. ... I guess you could say I fought with my parents through words about the importance of this to my future."

At the same time, "no matter how I tried to fit in, I wasn't Americanized enough," Herr said.

It wasn't until she moved to Indiana and attended graduate school that she found others who felt the same, and learned that she could find a way to be an American, but still be proud to be Hmong and work to preserve Hmong traditions with her children and others.

One of those friends is Daisy Rodriguez Pitel, 38, of Tucson, Arizonna, a Filipino-American who grew up in San Diego. Pitel completely related to Herr's sense of unease with her identity.

"They say the U.S. is a melting pot. It's something I disagree with," said Pitel, who is an administrator at a community college. "We should be able to be an American, but stay true to whatever our cultural upbringing is. ... We can negotiate both identities without sacrificing either one."

Linking with Pitel and other students like her helped Herr become more confident in who she was, and put behind her the doubts and feelings about not fitting in.

They "helped empower me," Herr said. "They helped me find my voice. And I think that is important. I am Asian. I am Hmong. I was accepted in that way. I found I had something to contribute to the Asian community, and had a voice among the mainstream community. That's when I found my voice, and it's been hard to be quiet ever since."


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