Muddling through the blogosphere

April 14, 2019
by blogwalker

Stories Matter – California AB 1393

“I was born on a mountain.

I tell my story to my daughter.

I tell her write it down.

I want her know how hard I work.”

Iu Mien refugee, Folsom Farmers Market, April 2019

Last week, I joined a group of Laotian refugees on the west steps of Sacramento’s Capitol building. We were there to march for CA Assembly Bill 1393.

Photo of Lao community gathering on steps of Capitol

A year ago, California legislature unanimously passed and signed into law SB 895 (Nguyen), a bill mandating the inclusion of the “Vietnamese refugee experience, the Cambodian genocide, and Hmong history and cultural studies in pupil instructions.”

The Hmong are the largest Laotian ethnic group to emigrate to the United States. But they are not the only ethnic group. SB 895 is missing other groups, such as the Lao, Iu Mien, Khmu, Phutai, Tai Lue, Tai Dam, and Tai Deng, who, like the Hmong, also supported American troops during the Vietnam War. Assembly Members Shirley Weber and Joaquin Arambula have addressed this oversight by introducing AB 1393. The bill would require the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, which develops and recommends curricula to the state Board of Education, to develop a curriculum that includes the history of Laotian refugees.

In my school district, we have almost as many Iu Mien students as Hmong, along with a significant number of Lao. I’m proud that my district recognizes the importance of documenting their stories of coming to America, starting with the role they played in the “Secret War in Laos,” a little known chapter of the Vietnam War. Thanks to district support, and in partnership with the Sacramento Educational Cable Consortium (SECC), I’ve had the privilege of co-directing our Time of Remembrance Oral Histories Project and expanding it to include a growing archive of Hmong and Iu Mien interviews (with more Lao and Cambodian interviews to come).

When I arrived at the capitol at noon on Wednesday, organizers Khonepeth Lily Liemthongsamout and Pida Kongphouthone gathered us together for some photo opps and then went over the plan for the afternoon. Pida talked briefly about the importance of this event as an opportunity to communicate why Laotian Americans are part of the American fabric. Lily added that the process of advocating for the bill would probably take the rest of the day.

March organizers Pida and Lily

We entered the Capitol with the possibility that we would be there till 5:30 pm. That was not the case. As we made our way through the crowded hallways to the doors of the Assembly Chamber, the news arrived that AB 1393 had just passed the Assembly Committee and would soon be moving onto the floor for a vote, as early as next week. Approximately 15 minutes later, we exited the building with lots of smiles, handshakes, and more photo opps.

Lao-American teacher Christie Jackson

Exiting the Capitol with fellow educator Christie Jackson.

A highlight of the event was time I spent with Christie Jackson, a Lao-American teacher in my district,  getting to hear about the trip to Laos she and her father will be taking in February. This will be her first time to Laos and her father’s first time back since the war. He joined the U.S. Forces as a child soldier. He survived not only the war, but also the challenging times after the U.S. pulled out. Christie and her dad will visit his village and then retrace his escape journey through the jungles and across the Mekong River to the refugee camp in Thailand, where he stayed until coming to America.

I should probably mention that I was actually the only non-Asian who came to support AB 1393. As I was leaving the Capitol, one of the women reached out to me and gave me a hug. Her English was limited, but she thanked me for my support. The hug spoke volumes.

Iu Mien women, survivor of the Secret War

I thought of her this morning, when I stopped by a booth at the Folsom Farmers Market, run by a young woman and her mother, to buy strawberries. When I asked the daughter if they were Iu Mien (based on the last name listed on their banner), her face lit up as she shared how much it meant to her that I even knew who the Iu Mien were. When I told her about AB 1393, she said how much she would value her children learning about their history, something she had never read about or heard mentioned in her school years.

Her mother then spoke up. In four sentences (listed at the start of this post), she confirmed the rationale laid out in AB 1393 for documenting the first-hand accounts of those who witnessed and survived the Secret War in Laos. Through these oral histories, our students will have access to the “complete and accurate history of the Vietnam War.”

Yes. #StoriesMatter.

December 24, 2015
by blogwalker

Treasure Languages Event: Storytelling in two voices

“Each language is shining a little torch somewhere. These are treasures for the whole of humankind.”   Nicholas Evans (Language Matters, PBS)

I’d like to start this post with a shout out to language researchers Robyn Perry (University of California, Berkeley) and Steven Bird (University of Melbourne, Australia) for the incredible work they are doing through the Aikuma Project to preserve dying languages. Robyn has been a featured guest blogger on the TOR Talks blog (a project I co-direct with my school district colleague Kathleen Watt) and has also joined us,with Steven, for a Google Hangout. So Kathleen and I were thrilled when Robyn invited us to come to Oakland (California) for the Sunday, December 13, Treasure Language Storytelling Event.


I was born in Oakland and grew up in Orinda, part of what is known as the “East Bay.” So I was surprised to learn about one of California’s “hidden histories” (not included in history textbooks): The storytelling event was taking place in an area once inhabited by the Chochenyo (a new word for my spellchecker), a division of the Ohlone tribe of Northern California and the first inhabitants of the East Bay. The Chochenyo language died about 70 years ago. But thanks to the efforts of Vince Medina and Louis Trevino, Chochenyo is re-emerging as a spoken language. Vince opened the event by welcoming us in Chochenyo.

Next on the agenda was Leiz (Marc) Yauz-Cing and Lai Saephan, who represented Sacramento’s Iu Mien community. Two years ago, Lai spent 6 months studying the Mien language with Marc, who taught him not only the spoken language, but also how to read and write in Mien. Together, Lai and Marc told a Iu Mien story in two voices. Fortunately, their telling of “Hieh Mienh Gouv” (Wild Mien Story) was recorded.

Before Marc and Lai started their story, the wonderful Koy Saephan, Lai’s big sister (sitting next to us in the audience), shared that becoming fluent in his native language had changed Lai’s life. Their family had fled Laos to Thailand after the U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam War. When they were granted permission to come to the United States, Lai was only 9 months old. Like many refugee and immigrant children, his older siblings took care of him while his parents held multiple jobs. With the siblings naturally wanting to fit into American culture, they spoke English with each other. Therefore, as a child and into his adult years, Lai could not fully communicate with his Mien-speaking parents. Six months of studying Mien changed that – and his life (see more below).

The evening’s last story in two voices was a proverb told in Tigrigna, an endangered language from the African nation of Eritrea: Everything for My Own Kind, or, Our Donkey Is for Our Hyenas.

The closing activity, the Language Champions Panel, was equally powerful. Vince Medina and Lai Saephan were joined by Tigisti Weldeab, an immigrant from Eritrea. As soon as the video is posted, I’ll add it to this post. I still have a lump in my throat from Lai sharing that before he learned his native language, he used to stutter. No more.

Tigisiti shared what it was like arriving in Seattle as a 12 year old, wanting nothing more than to fit in, which meant speaking Tigrigna as little as possible. It was not until she started college and saw that her younger brother was losing the Tigrigna language that she realized the importance of keeping and promoting her native language.

It will be a long time to come before I forget these “treasure language” stories. Each story is now part of our shared community history. And each story provides a window into the challenges of losing one’s native language.

I’ve already marked my calendar for the February 21 Treasure Language Event, which coincides with International Mother Tongue Day and will therefore focus on women storytellers. I look forward to attending the event, both as a learner and as an educator. Given the diverse populations in California schools, with more than 88 languages and dialects spoken in my district, the “treasure language” stories should resonate with all who work with English Learner populations.

Please help spread the word about the Aikuna Project and the February 21 Treasure Language Event. If you, or someone you know, speak a “treasure language” (endangered language) and would be willing to be interviewed, please contact Robyn Perry at or 831-332-4208.

 The living speakers of today’s disappearing languages are equipped to preserve their voices, their unique perspective on the world, and how they have managed to live sustainably in their homeland for centuries.” Steven Bird, Ph.D., Aikuma Project

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