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Xee Yang-Schell

Xee (prounounced "Sea") was born in 1972, along the Laos/Thailand border in Nam Yiew, Laos. Her parents were from remote, northern mountain villages closer to Luang Namtha, but were driven further and further south towards Thailand during the Vietnam War.

Memories before arriving in the U.S.: “When I was two, my family had to flee Laos. I have vague memories of being on the bottom of a boat [crossing the Mekong] and my mother covering us with a blanket to hide.”

“We stayed in Thai refugee camp for five years. I remember very traumatic events like getting beaten up by other girls, being bullied. During the first three years at the camp, we had an easier time because we were the first wave a refugees. The Thai government and local people were tolerant of the refugees. As more and more refugees arrived, it became more crowded and the surrounding forests were over hunted and foraged. The influx of refugees was too much strain for the local people, so a barbed wire fence was erected around the entire camp. We could not leave without permission. It felt like we were in prison and could not get out.”

Age when immigrated to U.S.: 1980 “I remember being at the airport, our fascination with the elevators. We went up and down and up and down, over and over again. We flew via Tokyo and had to spend the night in a hotel. We went up to our room and I remember they put us up really, REALLY high. We are people who had NEVER been off the ground. We were all so scared to look out the window and look down. I remember peeking down and being fascinated with how high up we were. I remember taking a bath in a bath tub. I Laos and at the refugee camp, we bathed in a tiny tub that you did not get in or we would just stand in the rain.”

“We had moved so much that I didn’t think much of another move [even though it was to a foreign country]. As long as I had my parents there, I felt secure.”

First memories of United States: “We lived in Shoreline. Our first house was very small, but coming from a refugee camp where everything is really small, we thought the house was grand with plumbing and everything. It was easier for my family to integrate because we were Catholic Hmong versus Animist Hmong. We found a church close to our home and it made the integration process easier because things were more familiar.”

Newly arrived in Shoreline, 8 years old

Childhood memories: “I think it was very difficult for my parents, but Hmong people have been migratory for centuries, so I think it was in their blood...survivalist...’we are here, we cannot go back, so let’s make the best of it.’ My parents just did what they could, got by with what they had and asked for help when they needed it.”

“My parents did a lot of different jobs. I think my father worked in a manufacturing facility for a while, then a grocery store. He was volunteering to help the Hmong people in Seattle and surrounding cities, it was a natural role for him. I think he is a natural born leader. Eventually the Arch Bishop asked him to work at Our Lady of Mt. Virgin Church. All different Laotian ethnicities gathered there. He has been there for almost 30 years. In the mid-1980’s, King County instituted the IndoChinese Farm Project to provide a vehicle for refugees to earn incomes through farming. My father was one of the first people to be involved in the project. King County gave land in Woodinville to immigrants. My mom started farming around 1987. She started growing vegetables but then, after she saw someone growing flowers, she started to grow them too. When I was in high school and college, myself and my siblings would help her and she could go to more markets. She continues to farm to this day at the age of 63, but now just sells at Pike’s Place Market and the University Market.”

“I enjoyed school. I excelled and did better than other students, but I always felt different than other students. There were not many Hmong people where we lived. I think I never felt like I completely fit in. I felt different. Nobody else but my family and my sisters had a similar experience. Other kids couldn’t understand coming home, speaking a different language and eating different foods. My background and history was just so different. It was kind of lonely. My parents couldn’t help us with school. They did always encourage us to do well, but they couldn’t help us. It was all up to us. However much motivation we had was what we had. ”

Xee, 13 years old

Where did your motivation to excel in school come from?: "I think it was just me. I wanted to have a different life than what we had. We grew up very poor. I didn’t want to be poor. I knew that school was my way out and it would give me more opportunities. I understood where we came from. The fact that my parents did not speak English when we arrived in Seattle, they could not get well paying jobs. It was just the way it was but I thought it is not the way it will be when I get older.”

“I think being poor is really a blessing, if you look at it...we were creative. We made our own toys. I remember making a dollhouse out of cardboard. I didn’t have a real dollhouse, but I could build one.”

“I had a personal expectation that I would go onto college. I just wanted to be more educated. I saw a lot of poverty. People getting married young, not having a lot of opportunity so they were stuck...I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something with my life. I had to figure out the college process on my own. I studied and did well on the test [SAT] and received a scholarship to Seattle University.”

Xee was the first person in her family to attend college. After graduating with an accounting degree she was hired by a local accounting firm. "I realized accounting wasn't what I enjoyed at all, so I started helping my mother with her farming business. I discovered I was good at it and could help my mother’s business. We made a good partnership for many years."

Following the adoption of her first child, Xee choose to be a stay at home mom.

You are an American but raised with a Hmong influence, how do you identify yourself?: I am still trying to figure that out. I am Hmong and yet I feel I am not quite Hmong either. I don’t feel like you can be 100% Hmong unless you live where there are Hmong. I don’t really feel very Hmong and that is probably why I didn’t marry a Hmong man. I didn’t feel like I could live up to the Hmong standards in a relationship. Being a Hmong daughter-in-law, you get up early, you make breakfast, you go to work, you come home, you take care of the are doing everything. There are a lot more expectations. There are a lot of parties you have to attend. Always busy, every weekend someone is having a party or a funeral if you live in a large Hmong community.”

Xee, 16 years old wearing traditional Hmong attire

Was there an expectation to marry a Hmong man?: “Oh yes, my parents wanted all of us to marry Hmong. They wanted us to stay in the culture because of all the divorces in the Caucasian population. They were so afraid we couldn’t make it [multi-racial marriage] work. I dated three Hmong. The Hmong boys I dated, like me, were more Americanized and didn’t have cultural expectations of me. But I knew their parents would. In the back of my mind, I knew I wouldn’t marry in the community because I didn’t want to be trapped by all the obligations. When my relationship with my caucasian boyfriend (now husband) became serious, my parents did not express any strong disapproval because they knew he was a good man. I was the first daughter not to marry Hmong.”

“We had a beautiful Catholic ceremony in July and the following spring we had a traditional Hmong wedding. It is a very long ceremony. It can take up to three or four days.”

What was your most difficult time in life: “Not being able to have children of my own was probably the biggest challenge of my life and I also realize that it is the biggest blessing of my life.”

“I come from a culture that has a lot of kids. People were having kids left and right...all around me. Now it doesn’t bother me, but back then, it was very hard to see someone get pregnant so easily and it doesn’t happen for feel left out. ‘What is wrong with me that I am being left out?’”

Xee and her husband chose to adopt. “I don’t know if other first time parents feel this way, but I felt like, ‘what if I’m not qualified to be a parent. If I don’t know what to do. If I am just not a good mother.’ I had a lot of doubt and fears and excitement. We found out less than a month before we had to travel to pick her up. I remember vividly the day I got a call from my husband telling me the consulate appointment was scheduled. I was at the market selling flowers with my mother and found out we would be traveling the next Wednesday to China to meet our daughter.”

Adoption: “They bring in the baby. She is so quiet, looking around, observing. Of course, she is just so beautiful, but of course, there is no connection yet. The woman hands me a baby and I hold her in my arms. It doesn’t feel real yet. I feel like I am holding someone else’s baby. She is very sweet. Not a peep out of her as she is looking around. We finish our paperwork and go to our hotel room. She is sitting on the bed still very quiet, just observing. I have this overwhelming feeling that comes over me...’Oh my gosh, this is a huge responsibility that I have taken on. I am going to to the very best I can for this little baby! What an awesome responsibility this is for me!’ I think it was at that moment that I felt like she was ours. When I think about that moment it brings tears to my eyes. It was just a really special moment when I realized she was ours...she belonged to us.”

“We waited three years to start the adoption process again...we waited too long...Chinese adoption had changed. We waited five years. We decided it did not make sense to have another baby at that point so we said we would adopt an older child. But even older, healthy children were hard to come by so we decided to switch to a special needs child. We reviewed a few was difficult. When you don’t accept a child, it is a rejection and you feel guilty. ‘Why can’t I take this child? This child just needs a home and love.’ But we had to be realistic, ‘Can I really take this child and give them the home they really need making them feel welcome and loved?’ After a few, we received a referral for our daughter, whose special needs was her eyesight.”

“It was very different with our second daughter because she was older. The bonding doesn’t happen in just three or four days [as with an infant]. It takes much longer. A lot of habits had already formed that you have to undo. There have been a lot of adjustments for everyone in the first year, but she is doing great, she loves school and my older daughter is just thrilled to have her sister here.”

Xee in Hawaii post college

Did you ever feel like you were living between two worlds?: Oh, I still feel that way. Because of my unique background, I mean it is not so unique, but for the majority of people, they do not have the same experiences as I had. So I feel like if I talked about my experiences, people wouldn’t really understand. I kind of feel like I’m not quite...I don’t have two feet in the American culture and I don’t have two feet in the Hmong culture. I kind of have one foot in both and go back and forth and I am

A few more thoughts from Xee that have stayed with me: “When we are young, we don’t think we will be in a place when we are older that we are still thinking about what we want to do when we are older. {You think when you are older you will have life figured out] But now that I am in an older body, but my mind still has ideas about ‘what will I do...what am I going to do that will leave an impression when I die?’ I think about that a lot...’What is my purpose?’ What am I to do now that I am 40? Being 40 and not quite sure what I want to do when I grow up...still having those dreams of those who are in their 20s...which ones do I still have? Which ones should I revise? As I get older, I try really hard to see the extraordinary in the ordinary because what if that is all there is?”

“I think when life is patched too nicely for you, you do not have a chance to grow. I think that is why my “package” was all warped.” [Followed by BIG smiles]

How Tara connected with Xee: My boys and I were seated at a lazy Susan table for dim sum in the International District as Xee and her daughters were finishing up their meal at the same table.

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