1. According to Hmong folklore, babies live in the sky, flying among the clouds until they see a family that they would like to be born into and decide to come down to earth: “They teach us that we have chosen our lives. That the people who we would become we had inside of us from the beginning, and the people whose worlds we share, whose memories we hold strong inside of us, we have always known.” (p. xiii). How does this story shape Yang’s perspective on life? Is there a story from your childhood that continues to affect how you see your place in the world?
2. From a very young age, Yang’s parents teach her about what it means to be Hmong: “As a baby learning to talk, her mother and father often asked, ‘What are you?’ and the right answer was always, ‘I am Hmong.’ It wasn’t a name or a gender, it was a people.” (p. 1). Why is it so important to Yang’s parents that they teach their children about identity? How would you answer the question, “What are you?”
3. Yang’s parents, Chue Moua and Bee Yang, meet in the jungles of Laos as the Hmong are fleeing the communist soldiers. Chue Moua makes the difficult decision to marry, even though it means leaving her family behind: “Did I love him? Did he love me? It is the kind of decision that only young people can make in a war of no tomorrows. At that moment, I think neither of us saw the future.” (p. 15). What do their experiences teach Yang’s parents about love, and how does their relationship change after they are separated by the war?
4. In a dangerous and harrowing escape, Yang’s family swims across the Mekong River into Thailand as the Pathet Lao soldiers pursue them. Chue Moua is heartbroken that she has to bury her family photos beside the river before attempting the crossing. She carries two gifts from her mother: an embroidered story cloth and a heavy silver necklace that she loses in the rapids. Why are these objects so important to Chue Moua? If you were forced to leave your home, what would you carry with you?
5. Growing up in Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, Yang enjoys her childhood, but is also aware of the sadness and desperation felt by her fellow Hmong refugees: “The Hmong were people who had just escaped death; we were fenced in and the thoughts of adults could only run out to the past. There was no work to do in the present, no land to wander over, nowhere to run. We were stuck in a country that did not want us.” (p. 65). As a small child, how does Yang experience and react to the hardships of daily life in the camp? How do parents determine how much to share with their children and how much to shield from them?
6. Yang’s grandmother, a respected healer and shaman in the camp, becomes upset when Bee Yang decides to move his family to America: “For my father or any of her sons to leave her, she said, was to tell her that her life had been useless. She said she would rather die.” (p. 79). Why does Yang’s grandmother resist her son’s decision to leave the camp? What is at stake for each of them? How does immigrating to America change the role Yang’s grandmother plays in her family and community?
7. After arriving in Minnesota, Yang’s family struggles to adjust to life in a new and unfamiliar culture: “On the streets, sometimes people yelled for us to go home. Next to waves of hello, we received the middle finger.” (p. 133). How does Yang’s family react to this hostility? What role should Americans play in helping the Hmong—and other refugees, including Iraqis, Afghanis, and Kurds—who have been our steadfast allies in overseas conflicts, but find themselves unable to return to their countries?
8. Although Yang fell in love with writing from almost the moment she came to the United States, she was too shy to speak English at school. Even so, she quickly realized that speaking English was essential to her family’s survival in St. Paul. At the grocery store with her father, Yang summons the courage to ask a clerk for help in finding diapers: “I shook my head to support my words. I couldn’t trust myself in English; my mother and father could barely trust me.” (p. 169). Have you ever needed to communicate with someone, but did not know how? What role can literature play in increasing understanding between people?
9. Yang describes her grandmother’s funeral, a three-day-long ceremony in which a guide teaches her grandmother’s soul how to journey over oceans, rivers, and mountains back to Laos: “I didn’t want to hold my grandmother in place; it was her time to go, and I would wish her a ﬁne journey. But I felt her leaving in the air I swallowed, big gulps, hopeless attempts to ﬁll the empty space.” (p. 253). What spiritual journeys do we all attempt in life and in death? How do our rites of celebration and mourning help us on these journeys?
10. What did you know about Hmong culture and history before you read this book? Did the book change your understanding of the Hmong experience, or the experience of other immigrant groups living in your community? Did it change your understanding of “home?”
Discussion questions provided by Coffee House Press