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Portrait: May Pa Xenexai
By Lynette Nyman
March 12, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0 28.8
Part of This Is Home: The Hmong in Minnesota

When the communist government of Laos took over, it targeted Hmong soldiers and their families first for elimination. May Pa Xenexai's father was in the army, so they fled quickly to a refugee camp. May Pa was 16-years old. She stayed in a camp in Thailand for awhile and married. Then, like many other Hmong refugees, she resettled in France. She lived there for 13 years with her husband and two children. Then they emmigrated to the United States.

May Pa: So again, being a lady who at the time have two kids and not knowing any English, not knowing any American culture; nothing. (I) had no idea, but since family, for Hmong people, for us, is so important, family. And when the Hmong talk about family, that's not my mom, my dad, my daughter, and my son or my husband. We're talking about a lot. All my side of the family. All his side of the family including grandma, grandpa, and everybody all over the town. That's what we consider family.
May Pa and her husband owned a grocery store in France and planned to do something similar in the United States. They settled in Dallas, Texas where they bought a Mexican restaurant.
May Pa: I have no clue what I'm doing, but since I say I'm struggling such many years, I say why not? Because all along, being Hmong woman, I always had dream that I want to become self-sufficient for myself, and be a good citizen to the country that I live right now, and be a person productive to that country.

I have to learn two languages again plus what I speak already and how I be able to do that at the same time? But afterall, that restaurant teach me how to speak English. How to say "hi" to my customers, "how are you?, " "follow me to the table." That's all I know back there.
Then, family in Minnesota suggested they come here, saying there were more opportunities. So they moved once again, in December 1993. A few months later, she suffered a terrible tragedy. In May 1994, May Pa's brother-in-law killed her sister and himself. Her sister was living in Wisconsin.
May Pa: Really get upset that she got killed at age 18. She's so young, so beautiful. She graduate high school that year. And she already got all her clothes and everything ordered to go and take her diploma, celebrate. But she got killed one week before. And she call me the week before "you have to come to my celebration, because I never thought that I would be able to come to graduate high school with struggling with my kids, with my age, with my family, with my husband who really jealous that I'm young," because they have around 15-years difference age between the husband and the wife. And that why she got killed - because she's so young, she going to school, learn the new way, and when she come back home know how to put the lipstick on. But for Hmong way, you get married, you not acting like a young teenager. You're acting as a wife, a sister-in-law, for the family.
May Pa has cared for her sister's five children since the killing. Being a mom for a second time keeps her busy, but she doesn't own a business any longer.

She's working in social services to help Hmong people in Minnesota improve their lives. Like many, she continues to work on her English. May Pa admits it's not perfect. But, like other challenges in her life, she says she does what's necessary to survive day by day.