About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Foreword
This year, I’ve been teaching at North Hennepin Community College. I accepted the opportunity because I understood that I would be teaching young people like my cousins and myself. In my classes, I’ve met many white students, and a small minority are American veterans trying to make good on an education the government promised them when they signed up to be men and women of war. In my classes, I’ve met many people of color, men and women, young and old, who have traveled far to call this place home, struggling to learn English and living lonely lives in cold Minnesota. I’ve learned form each of my students, but it is the voices of those who are yearning to belong, to find themselves in the literature we are reading, desperately piecing their stories into English on the pages before them, that remind me of why so many people, the world over, make the long and often painful journey to America, imperfect as it is.
A Hmong boy in my Hmong American Literature class told me that he didn’t realize he was different from his white peers until he was in the fifth grade and a teacher asked the class to draw a picture of themselves. In his self-portrait, the young boy carefully mirrored his round face, his amont eyes, the slant of his brow, his button nose, and his side-swept bangs to the best of his ability. To make sure that all who looked upon the image would know it was him, he even included the gold chain with the cross he wore around his neck each and every day. When the boy was happy with his picture, he showed his teacher. She looked confused for a moment, and then said, “I told you to draw yourself.” The boy pointed to the page, the familiar features, and the gold chain. The teacher shook her head, frustrated. She said, “You’re not white.” This was the first time the boy realized that Hmong was different. Since that moment, he has been looking to find pieces of his story in the books in the classroom, to find pieces of himself, to no avail.
A young man from Somalia in my From Immigrants to Refugees class responds to a writing prompt “What is your American dream?” in a series of heartbreaking moments. He had a plane ticket to go anywhere in the world, and he chose Ethiopia. I asked, “Why?” He answered, “It is the closest I can get to Somalia.” In a presentation about his return to Ethiopia, he shared a memory from his youth: “When I was a boy in Somalia, I had to walk two hours to get a meal from the United Nations. Sometimes, I was so hungry that I walked too slow, so by the time I got to the center the food would be gone. I would return home. I couldn’t go to sleep. My grandma used to tell me to put rocks in a piece of cloth, twist it up tight, and weigh my stomach down so the growling would cease long enough for me to fall asleep. I ate banana peels when we were lucky.” In a forum conversation, he wrote, “I am living my American dream. This is what young boys, hungry and afraid, dream about: a full stomach, a chance at education, the opportunity to work beyond dreams.”
A woman from Liberia in my Writing Composition I Class can barely write in English. THe guidelines were simple: a one page, double-spaced, 12 point font response to a short story she read for class. The page before mw as a jumble of language, in 9.5 font, single-spaced, no indentations, full of incorrect grammar, spelling errors, punctuation mistakes. I asked, “What is this page about?” “It is everything important to me,” she answered. “What is important to you?” I asked. “That is the story of my life,” she said. “Why are you writing the story of your life?” I asked. “It is the only thing I want to do in English,” she said. My job is to help her. My year at North Hennepin is coming to a close. I cannot take my students with me; instead, it is their stories that will accompany me. In this book, you will meet stories like those of my students. You get to carry them with you these young people who’ve traveled so far, from so little and so much, to try belonging and fortify your heart, your journey, and perhaps even your dreams with this life we share in America. In these pages, you get an opportunity to push away the walls of your life and let the world enter, through the eyes of its youth, through the stories of how it is that we are born in different parts of the world but still connected by the fabric of humanity and hope.