My mother’s first name is long forgotten. It was given when she was born in 1961 in the village of Dej Tshuaj, a small village in the Phou Bia Mountains, in the war-ravaged nation of Laos. Her name was changed when she turned three.
It was a cold, stormy day. The two rivers that surrounded the village were flooded by heavy rains. Fog rose from the rivers like smoke from a fire toward the grey clouds that hung low over the tops of the trees. The child was home with her parents. Her mother was pregnant. Her father felt a cold coming on, so he rested near the fire. No one noticed when the girl went missing. By the time the girl’s mother started looking for her, it was close to noon, nearly time for lunch. In a panic, the parents looked throughout the spread of the house, called for her in all its rooms. Outside the swinging bamboo door, they saw no footprints leading away from the house. Still, when it was clear the girl was not inside, her father went out to look for her. The herb garden behind the house was soaked in rain, the earth slippery, and the orchard behind it looked empty. The path leading away from the house was empty. The whole of the village was notified, and everyone started looking for her, on foot and on horseback. Fear gripped the village. What could have happened to the little girl with the thick black hair, the tiny hands and feet? Before dusk, in a light drizzle, a frantic brother found the girl sitting on the banks of a wide puddle far from the house. She squatted at the edge of the dirty water, splashing her reflection with both palms. To his relief and dismay, when he lifted her up, despite the rainy day, the girl was entirely dry.
My mother’s name was changed immediately to thwart whatever unsavoury forces had led her away from home. My grandparents called a shaman. After an arduous ceremony, it was decided that the girl would be now known as Chue, the Hmong word for bell. A bell tolls. A bell warns. A bell commemorates; it produces a sound that cuts through the silence.
My mother would learn of herself only as Chue, the name from her past buried deeply there.
Chue was the only girl in her farming village to go to school. Her father, an old merchant and farmer, could make do without her labour. In school, she raced ahead of the boys, memorising her letters and learning how to write them with a careful hand. She loved her books, carrying them in her arms, close to her heart.
When she was age nine, her father died, leaving her mother a house full of children. They buried him in the family orchard, among the citrus fruits, his favourite. She visited him often and would associate him always with the fresh scent of the orange blossoms.
When Chue was 14, the war that had divided the nation among royalists and communists, a war between colonial powers she couldn’t name, came to her small village. One day, she was going to school. The next day, there was no more school to go to. The war was over. The old government had been toppled by a new regime. Big trucks came to the village looking to take boys and men to become “re-educated” into the system. In fear, her older brothers organised a leave-taking.
Their departure happened under the cover of night. The family had little time to say goodbye. They gathered what they could, wrapped the littlest of the children up in swaddles and child-carrying clothes, and then they took flight.
From one village to the next, Chue saw the animals abandoned in their pens, piglets still suckling at their mother’s nipples, chickens flocking in yards. Houses were burnt. The stench of human corpses came from different directions.
For two years, Chue and her family moved from one village to the next in the hopes of finding safety, space and a place to raise each other up and somehow rebuild a life that was lost to war. Then, at the age of 16, she met my father, and her life was forever altered.
It was a day like so many others in that hot, humid jungle. Chue and her mother were out foraging for cassava roots and other edibles. They chanced upon two young men out looking for wild game. My father was one of the young men.
His hair was dark and spiky. He had no shoes on his feet. His chin, unlike those of so many others who had lived through the worst years of the war, was tilted high. She saw in him a defiance of the times, a rebellious spirit unwilling to bow down to the circumstances of their world.
He saw in her a young woman with shoes on her feet, a clean face, hair pulled up, a single strand of bead circling her bun. He saw in her a kind of cleanliness he’d not known in a long time, a version of a world before and after.
They chose, the two young people, a path that led eventually to marriage, to children, to a life that many will never perceive as incredible but I know as such, a life that led to my siblings and me, a life that took them far from that jungle, to the dusts of resettlement, through to America, to frozen Minnesota where my siblings and I would grow up far from the bird calls of the past, the fallen bombs of their childhood.
Chue and Bee married. Chue got pregnant. The women and children in the family were captured. Bee and his brothers fled into the jungle to escape sure death. Months passed. A baby was born, my older sister. The men risked their lives to rescue the women and children in captivity. Bombs exploded in the night, flares of red and orange, and people screamed in pain as the family group scurried toward an incline so steep, they managed to climb it only by pulling hard at the roots of the grass touching their faces.
Somehow, they made it to Thailand, Bee and Chue and their baby girl. There, Chue had another daughter, me. There she learned how to write in Hmong, a baby tied to her breast, a toddler holding fast to her hand. There, she wrote letters to the United States and back home in search of the family that raised her. A nephew who had escaped to America received her letter and he wrote back. In the envelope he sent, he’d placed a single $100 bill.
Without the principles of economics to guide her, Chue used that $100 bill to do the work of her heart. She fed her children. She dressed them in dreams of a future where their feet and their heads need not rest on dirt, where their journeys need not be controlled by their circumstances.
By the time I was six, I believed in the dreams my mother had clothed me in. I believed that when given the opportunity, I could learn how to be good in school (like she had been before the war), and that with school, I could get money (that precious $100 bill her nephew had sent when her words had reached him). With the money I could do the work of my heart — caring for those who looked to me for security, for nourishment, for love (the work my mother had done so quietly and courageously all my life with her).
By the time I was six and a half, my family had been resettled to the US. Unlike many of the refugee women around us or my father, who was afraid of school, my mother was eager to enter the classroom again. There, she laboured through the foundations of the English language. When she made mistakes in class, she came home and laughed and practised. My mother had more children in America — still, she refused to give up the work of learning; she attended night school for four years to get a high school diploma. Too shy to go and get her diploma at the ceremony, she traced its gold letters when it came in the mail, again and again with shaky hands and a big smile. Her fingers moved over the C, H, U, E that stood in for all the things that others cannot see when they see my mother in the world.
In the world we lived in, my mother was a small refugee woman. She spoke English with a thick accent. Although she had worked hard and garnered a high school diploma, no one saw it for the feat that it was in her life. In the life that we shared in America, my mother was a pair of hands along an assembly line.
No one knew that even after the long hours standing at the factory, my mother came home and read to my siblings and me. We bought the nickel and dime books from the thrift stores. We borrowed them from the library. Her finger rested underneath each word and slowly moved across the page. Our eyes followed the directions of her fingers — toward the world of books, the world of learning, the world of those long-ago dreams that had cloaked us in hope despite the poverty of everything.
When people talk about the women who’ve positively impacted the world, they do not think of women like my mother — unless they are her daughters like me and my sisters, sons like my brothers, people who can hear the tolling of her bell. Hers is a quiet influence. It is an influence that the world has ignored, that the world may never feel is necessary or missing — simply because it has always been present. The weight of the world falls on shoulders like hers, gently curving, tight with tension, quivering with love.
Chue Moua, like poor women all over this world, the women who live and act beyond the sphere of other people’s knowledge and know-how, is a woman who defines for generations the beauty of survival, the art of care, the thing that money cannot buy: the steady commemoration of what it means to live believing in what the world can still deliver for others — even if it has failed you time and again.
Chue, your bell tolls. I know for whom it tolls. Today I live in your gentlest dreams; I live in the music of your words creating a world in which lives like yours and mine are possible — in fact, remarkable.
I will remember the name you have been given, the name that has brought you home and kept you safe forever, Chue Moua.
From the Afghan woman who fought patriarchy and the Soviets to the mother who taught her daughter what it means to survive and the art of care, we are telling the stories of women – contemporary, historical, in the public eye and overlooked – who are shaping other women’s lives. In 2022, starting from Women’s History Month in March, these are the stories of women who are making a difference to other women.