The Nature of Life by Catherina Nou

In 2005, Catherina Nou submitted this essay as an entry in SEARAC's Beyond Refugees: From Flight to Setting Roots contestIn a recent episode on the SEAA Podcast Network, Cat described how this essay triggered a series of events that would transform her life and shaped the person she is today.

We're incredibly thankful Cat was willing to share this essay on HIP's page. Her writing hits close to home and tells the story of courage, love, loss and resilience. 

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The Nature of Life
by Catherina Nou

As I took a deep breath, the stench of Death greeted me. Some of us were sitting, some standing, but we were all silently sobbing. We had gathered in room 144 that Friday morning in June, hoping against hope that this would not be our final visit with my mother. My father stood looking out the hospital window unable to meet my mother’s desperate gaze and unable to confront yet another loss. A close friend’s whispered prayers were barely audible over my mother’s final gasps for air. I held her weak, cold hands as she lay there trying to look at all of her children, knowing it would be the final time. These were the same hands that held us children and comforted us during the Khmer Rouge era and later, through the many obstacles we would face in America. These were the hands we desperately tried to hold onto for security as children, and even as adults. However, with each passing moment, I felt her hands grow weaker and colder until The Spirits finally beckoned for her and took her from her misery. The smells, the sounds, the scene, the sensations are forever etched into my memory.

My mother dreamt of a big house with a big backyard. She wanted to have her own garden complete with a koi pond. She aspired to grow every beautiful flower she saw and plant all the trees she loved. However, her biggest dream was to see all six of her children don a graduation gown, cross the stage, shake hands with the dean and receive their college degree. She knew that in America she would have the opportunity to do and see all of this.

My family was ill equipped for American life as they arrived in the United States as refugees from Cambodia in 1982. By the time my parents reached the United States soil, they had suffered the loss of two of their children, burying them behind, but their memories still living. Four of my sisters also had to suffer the detriment of the Khmer Rouge and struggle to survive through their starvation while haunted by the sounds of pain. They sought a new beginning in America.

My parents were in a foreign land surrounded by a foreign language with little possessions of their own. They were constantly bombarded with America’s advanced technology; objects like the toilet were novel and took some time to adjust to. My family also fell victim to one of many of America’s “get rich quick” schemes. They were allured by the temptation of receiving thousands of dollars just by opening the top to a soda. However, my parents soon became savvy to American life, but still proceeded cautiously through these first few years. Learning to drive, learning to shop, and learning the language was all part of learning to live in America. It took my father four trips to the DMV to acquire his driver’s license, but it took my mother only one trip to the market to acquire the proper bargaining techniques. They both learned to speak the language through different mediums. True to their nature, my father learned through his schooling in the Buddhist monastery in Cambodia and from books in the United States while my mother learned through interaction with people at the store and through watching the television. They were both learning about living in America.

Not unlike most parents, my parents wanted us to concentrate in school and succeed. My parents never acquired professions in America because they were perpetually worried that their children would not adjust to this new country and, as a result, turn to street life as happened to many other refugees from Cambodia. They believed that the key to success in this new country was education, something they, themselves, were not able to adequately attain in their homeland. America provided that opportunity they did not have and my parents wanted their children to reap the benefits of this educational system.

Graduating from colleges from all over the coast of California with degrees varying from Psychology and Business to Film and Communications, my four sisters fulfilled my parents’ every expectation. My mother was also well on her way to fulfilling her other dreams as well. We had bought my parents a big house with a big yard. The roses were in full bloom, the corn stalks were flourishing, the banana trees were beginning to bear fruit and the koi pond was on its way to completion. There were only two more left to graduate.

My brother and I are number five and six, respectively, in our family. We are also the only two American born. We watched as our sisters attempted to master the English language and toiled through their calculus, Shakespeare, and Thoreau and then watched as my parents beamed as they received their hard earned degree. As my brother and I ascended the academic ladder, we saw my sisters start to plant their family trees and put down roots with their successful careers and growing families. My brother concentrated his studies on film and media in Santa Cruz while I studied Psychology in Davis, on track to graduating early. We were poised and ready to fulfill my mother’s desire and my father’s wishes.

Unfortunately, my mother passed away before seeing my brother cross the stage this past June and before seeing me shake hands with the dean this coming December. It is ironic that a source of life could also be a source of death. In the refugee camps of Cambodia, my mother nursed the children of strangers while trying to feed her own, helping everyone to stay alive. However, it was these same breasts that led to her passing. Twenty two years after coming to America as a refugee, she passed away from breast cancer.

“If you’re going to do something, do it right,” my mother always used to say to her children. It is this philosophy that has led us to our success in America. We have become leaders and innovators in our universities and professions through the application of my father’s wisdom and my mother’s constant encouragement. I, along with my siblings, dedicate all of our educational and professional accomplishments to our parents. We look to their strength, perseverance, compassion, and insight as our inspiration to triumph over Life’s obstacles. As I write this, it has been one year, one month and four days since The Spirits took her away, but she will always know where to find us because she made a home for us in an unfamiliar land.

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We are survivors. We are here. We will not be silenced.

By Yee Xiong

Naming our perpetrators is one of the most powerful acts you can do when someone has taken all of your power from you. Our society continuously excuses perpetrators like my assailant and justifies their actions by putting the focus and blame back on the victim: me.

It has been six years since my assailant raped me. In that time, I’ve endured two criminal trials that resulted in hung juries, and one civil litigation case on defamation. Outside of the courthouse, I’ve endured toxic masculinity, and patriarchy from my own community--including my assailant’s family which thought they could get me to drop my charges against him by paying me off, or worst, marrying me off to my rapist.

Rightfully, it is important to critique the Hmong culture and other patriarchal traditions and cultures that force the victim to marry her rapist. Equally as important, is to recognize and call out the underlying root causes that warrant and justify rape culture--patriarchy, racism, capitalism, and colonialism. These interconnected power systems of oppression permeate in all aspects of our lives; across people of all ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses and races; and have been perpetuated over multiple generations. In addition to rape and sexual assault, these root causes manifest themselves in other forms of violence--police brutality, mass incarceration, deportations and labor exploitation. These day-to-day violences that we see, like sexual assault and domestic abuse, are products of the interconnection of many power systems of oppression. We must understand that these systems are inherently connected by those root causes, in order to dismantle them all and articulate a re-imagined world without violence.  

As a sexual assault survivor, I have had to break down what I knew of myself and remold who I am--my worth, and my image. Each healing and recovery process is unique to each person, but I hope that for those who find my narrative familiar, it offers you hope and comfort. I also tell my stories in hope that it will agitate folks to care about the on-going and silenced violence in our communities and around the world, and for all of us do something about it to directly end the problem. As part of my healing, my day-to-day lifestyle and responsibilities has a lot to do with unlearning and disrupting some of my own toxic tendencies. This includes recognizing self-blame and self-hate and teaching others to believe sexual assault survivors by sharing mine and other survivors’ experiences. This helps to find the Fighter in me and to believe in myself again. I have to put in the everyday work of living with my decisions and expectations to either challenge or empower someone, as well as define my own justice. To me, justice is standing up for what is right. To me, justice is radical love for the people and to serve the people. To me, justice is producing and sharing knowledge so that we can be equipped with the aptitude to create social change.

A little over a year ago, I was invited to speak about my experiences as a sexual assault survivor. I chose to express myself through a spoken word piece titled, “Silence is Not Consent.” Immediately after performing, I was kicked out of that same event by the same staff who invited me to speak. They determined that my performance “triggered” people and claimed that the students “could not digest” what I had to say. They told me I had to leave and harassed me until I left the building.

We owe it to the survivors who are brave enough to come forward with their trauma and truth so that we all can find the empowerment to break the silence and isolation of sexual violence.

In my experience, it pains me to say that people--even supposed allies, will try to silence us to preserve their comfort. For them to invite me to speak on my experiences and subsequent to dismiss and silence me was hypocritical. This was an opportunity to have a community dialogue about sexual assault and to connect with survivors. Instead, their fears and “damage” control perpetuated the same type of silencing of survivors that occurs in society and community.  Since then, I’ve received several invitations from audience members asking me to speak and perform at their high school and college events. Instead of being “triggered,” they were empowered and recognized the importance of giving survivors the space to tell their story. We owe it to the survivors who are brave enough to come forward with their trauma and truth so that we all can find the empowerment to break the silence and isolation of sexual violence.

As we conclude “Sexual Assault Awareness Month”, I want to commemorate victims who have lost their lives, as well as the survivors who continue to live in silence, unable to  speak up, or do not have anyone to support them in their fight and journey towards healing and justice. I want them to know that whether they choose to speak out or not, their story will always be their truth, and nothing is more powerful than that. You need not wait until a court or your peers declare that there was a crime committed against you--you already have all the power to declare it for yourself and demand justice.

We are survivors. We are here. We will not be silenced.

To follow Yee’s current advocacy work or request her as a speaker at your community event or classroom, please follow her Instagram platform: @yee.speaks is meant to agitate and mobilize folks to engage in political work that addresses various forms of violence.

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Local Resources

"Based in Sacramento, My Sister’s House supports Asian Pacific Islander and other underserved women and children who have been affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. Sexual assault is rarely discussed in the larger community, and it is even more difficult to talk about in the Asian Pacific Islander community.  To break this silence My Sister’s House has been holding community discussions about sexual assault in the Southeast Asian community, hosting a forum on international marriages that involve domestic violence, conducting outreach into community groups about how it affects our community, and a holding a #metoo group that meets every month. It is important to talk about sexual violence in the Asian Pacific Islander community so people can see themselves reflected in the stories and access needed help. It is important for survivors to know that they aren’t alone and that they are supported by the greater community." - Michelle Huey, My Sister's House

Fresno and Sacramento County Now Required to Produce Hmong Ballots

For Immediate Release: April 18, 2018

Contact: Cha Vang,, 916.382.0177

Fresno and Sacramento County Now Required to Produce Hmong Ballots

Secretary of State Padilla and Hmong Innovating Politics Create New PSA to Raise Awareness

SACRAMENTO – Today, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla joined with Hmong Innovating Politics (HIP) Executive Director Cha Vang to raise awareness about important changes that now require Sacramento and Fresno County to provide physical versions of Hmong translated ballots in polling locations throughout each county. These translated ballots are key in helping historically disenfranchised communities participate in our Democracy and ensuring that all Californians exercise their right to vote.

“Providing voting information in a voter’s preferred language is critical to ensuring all citizens can participate in our elections," said Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “Providing translated ballots will help elections officials better serve Hmong and other communities. I am proud that California is working to expand all citizens’ voting rights and access to the ballot.”

“In Sacramento and Fresno County, Hmong Americans have become integral to the local economy and culture of our communities. Secretary Padilla’s leadership makes voting more accessible to communities who have been reluctant to participate due to language barriers,” described Vang. “These new changes will empower first-time voters, further educate experienced voters and creates a climate that encourages civic participation.”

While these significant changes are important for the community and reinforced by the law, the success of implementation and increase in voter participation depend largely on amplifying the information and on-going community organizing. “HIP will work deliberately with our partners and Secretary Padilla’s office to provide voter education for Hmong Americans and work with residents one-on-one to ensure they exercise their voting rights,” added Vang.

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HIP is a grassroots organization whose mission is to strengthen the political power of Hmong and disenfranchised communities through innovative civic engagement and strategic grassroots mobilization. We envision a California of empowered communities that thrive in a socially and economically just democracy.

Jonathan TranComment