As a first-generation Hmong-American growing up in Fresno, California, My Lee learned the importance of balancing emotions and choices from a very early age. Her parents divorced when she was about 7 years old, and as the third oldest of seven children (and the oldest girl), she quickly assumed a mothering role that she has carried with her through her life. Even today, she has a very good relationship with her mother and acts as a mediator between her parents and siblings. That skill has also been honed over her years as one of only about 70 Hmong attorneys in Minnesota.
Growing up in poverty, far from extended family, My had a strong mother to teach her “to be the mom I want to be. She spent time with us. She empowered and inspired me to be a strong Hmong woman and mother.”
My’s parents divorced when she was about seven years old, and the judge declared that three of the seven children were to live with their father. It was at that tumultuous time that My met the Hmong woman who inspired her to become an attorney. Although she doesn’t remember her name, My will never forget the family advocate who worked to help abused women transition to living their new lives as the sole head of the household and to help the children adjust to their new normal as well. Over the year that the family advocate worked with their family, she taught My by example that she could grow up to help people feel safe, strong and confident.
When she was fifteen years old, My’s mother and siblings moved from Fresno, California, to Minnesota to be closer to her grandparents. She enrolled at Harding High School, and just a year later, at age sixteen, My married her now-husband of eighteen years in a traditional Hmong ceremony. “I’m sure my mom wasn’t happy about me marrying so young, but you make choices, and you make them turn out right.”
That positive attitude of determination showcases the grit that, My explains, defines the Hmong culture. The word Hmong means “free,” and My feels that the strength of the Hmong community is due to their relatively recent experiences of persecution and loss of their homeland. Her grandmother is about 94 and recalls living in China with My’s mom and siblings and fleeing to Laos after her husband died. They then relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, which has the largest Hmong community in the US.
The Hmong people have made a choice to survive against the odds, and that choice helped them persevere through difficult life circumstances. When My’s father visited them for the last time after the divorce, she was feeling sad and missing him. Her mother gave her simple advice: “Don’t miss him. He’s not coming back, so don’t miss him.”
My quickly learned to suppress her emotions to get through tough times when there is no other option, and she has taught her children to do the same, explaining that “You are strong enough to do anything you put your heart and mind to, regardless of resources.”
That inner strength comes from their family’s values. Although both My and her husband are Hmong, My was raised in Shamanism and her husband is Christian. My converted to Christianity, and although she is a self-defined liberal, she is also very spiritual. She believes that a higher being helps shape her life and gives her that strength and fortitude to keep moving forward through life’s challenges.
Sometimes we need to build a wall around our heart to protect it during times of trial and rejection, as a true survival mechanism. The trick is being open to love and trust, and knowing when it’s safe and appropriate to let down that wall so that we can continue to grow.
My strives to have healthy relationships with her kids, so they know they can turn to her when things get overwhelming. She spends quality time with them and puts their needs at the forefront of her decisions, and she makes sure that she’s both physically and emotionally present for them, despite her intense work schedule.
My clarifies that, “I’m the exception, I’m not the rule” for being emotionally healthy after being raised in a broken home. She worked hard to develop her emotional intelligence, and she consciously strives to raise her two children to be strong and emotionally secure. But she jokingly admits that she “won’t know if it works for another twenty years, when the kids are adults.”
My is especially proud of her Hmong culture. She lives near the Hmong Village shopping center in St. Paul, a local tourist site for those interested in learning more about Hmong culture, foods, and heritage. “I love the Hmong and mainstream American cultures. Both cultures combined have created the person I am.”
When she thinks of the women she has admired, particularly her mother and the family advocate from her childhood, she has learned that the best way we can use our talents to make a profound impact in the world is simply by being generous and loving more. That usually means tearing down the walls that we have built around our hearts.