A Portal to Belonging

Late at night, when the shadows grow along the walls and my mind wanders into the dark, I have called upon the stories of my elders to keep me brave. My grandmother’s tales of her shaman spirits stand around me, arms clasped, like a wall to keep me safe. 

Early in the mornings, as the gray lifts from the quiet streets of the city, as the first rays of sunlight embrace the lonely buildings, I have called upon the stories from strangers in order to people the world around me. Individuals with days full of lists of things to do. Old men and women holding hands, making their way slowly toward the city’s parks to admire the green grass, the squirrels, the birds. Stories have always been my way of unlocking gates, letting others in and myself out. 

The stories I have written in “Somewhere in the Unknown World” have been among the most difficult to carry and to house. They are beautiful, richly layered, politically relevant stories of everyday refugees living in the Twin Cities. They are stories of men and women who have survived wars, come to the United States, built lives here, and carry still the remains of war. 

These stories are the outcomes of wars that do not end, of histories that repeat. They remind me that I am not alone — that I am living in space and time with individuals who have survived the unimaginable, who believe still in the goodness of people, and the value of being alive. 

“Natalis” excerpted here is my mother’s story. It is a story of Chue Moua, a Hmong woman holding fast to beauty when she could float away. It swings open the gates on a necessary conversation about mental health in this country, and of our systemic and individual responses to those living with post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, and despair.

The following is excerpted from “Somewhere in the Unknown World,” by Kao Kalia Yang, released by Metropolitan Books November 10, 2020

The doctor wanted her to go out into the world. Yes, she could no longer find a job with her shoulder being so bad, her disability documented, but perhaps she could volunteer in a community organization? She couldn’t drive. She didn’t speak good enough English. Her hands hurt. Her feet hurt. Her neck hurt. She was falling apart. The doctor said she could not change the conditions of the woman’s life; the only thing she could do was change the conditions of her head. No one knew what to do with her heart.

Her fiery heart. The heart of the only girl in her village to go to school, to race ahead of the boys into the classroom. The heart of the young woman who had chosen love in a war full of death and despair, made a decision to live in the face of death. The heart of the mother who would place each of her children, alive and dead, before herself with no misgivings or regrets. The heart of a wife who did everything hard so her husband, in a world that had given up on him, could not give up on her and their life together. Now her heart hurt.

The pills made the woman so tired she could not fret about going out into the world. They numbed her body so she could not feel the pain in her hands, her feet, her neck. They glued her together inside a bubble of despair. The doctor could not change the conditions of the woman’s life, but she made it so that the woman could live with them.

Each day, the woman floated further and further away, in a bubble of flowery images, framed and filtered. One day, the bubble rose high, a brisk wind blew, and it lifted far into the clouds of another world. The woman became a shining particle in the wide openness. This was, of course, her fondest fantasy.

In actuality, her doctor referred her to Natalis. Its name sounded like a planet, but it was a medical office on University and Snelling Avenues. When her family had first arrived in Minnesota, she had visited the building because there was an office in it that gave food and clothing to poor families. She had come here then, a young refugee mother with little ones holding fast to her hands, to see what was available in the food pantry, if there were coats that would fit the family for the approaching winter. 

She saw that the people sitting on the chairs in the Natalis waiting room were no different than the ones who had visited the food pantry decades ago, except now there was even more variety of newcomer, men in salwars and women in hijabs, men and women with brightly woven handmade bags she recognized from parts of Southeast Asia. Most everyone had an interpreter with them, younger people busy looking at their phone screens or filling out forms.

The woman looked nervously around the room, unsure of how to move.

A plump young woman in jeans, a pair of heels, and a dark sweater came up to the woman: “I think I’m your interpreter.” The woman nodded. Although her daughter had driven her to the clinic, times were different now, and most clinics and hospitals preferred professional interpreters. It was easier this way. She didn’t want her daughter to be the one to repeat in English everything she might say to the doctors, depending on their willingness to listen or what they wanted to know.

The young interpreter had messy hair. There was the remnant of a child’s sticker on the back of her head, clinging to her dark hair. Her sweater was stained with streaks of dried white, probably children’s snot. Her fingers were thick, her nails half painted. She wore red lipstick. She smiled and said, “I’ll sign you in.”

The woman took a seat in the waiting area. All the chairs were too high for her short legs. She swung them beneath her in time to the sound of the validation stamper. The interpreter joined them. The woman admired her surprisingly legible handwriting — unlike her own daughter’s. The interpreter’s fingers held fast to a black pen and ran over the questions softly.

“What’s your birthday?”

“You’re a refugee?”

“How long have you been in America?”

“You don’t work anymore?”

“What did you do when you were working?”

“You were an assembler? Just like my mom.”

It was this offer of information that made the woman smile unexpectedly. Her teeth, stained by time, were strong. They gave her face something hard to contrast the softness; they gave her a piece of herself back.

Kao Kalia Yang (she/her) is a Hmong-American writer.
She is author of “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir” and “The Song Poet,” co-editor of “What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Native Women and Women of Color,” and the children’s books, “A Map Into the World,” “The Shared Room,” and “The Most Beautiful Thing.”

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