On April 22nd, 2018, I gave a speech and watched students cry in response at a special university event.
The topic? Success.
Coming home afterwards, I felt compelled to share a part of the speech with you. It’s an important part of my journey as a singer, and one that I’ve never openly shared with you until now.
When I saw students crying in the audience on Sunday, I knew I needed to publish something from this speech. With that, my intention is to encourage and inspire others who may have or are currently going through what I experienced in pursuit of our dreams and success.
So here goes.
A chord struck in me when I saw the title of the event, “Kuv Ua Laib (I Am A Gangster/I Can Do It).” Growing up, the phrase, ua laib meaning “gangster” was one that I didn’t like to hear at all. I was raised early on in life to tsis txhob mus xyaum ua laib, meaning “don’t become a gangster.”
And then growing up as a young Hmong American female, it became tsim txiaj meaning “be good,” in the most basic terms.
“Tsim txiaj nawb! Koj tsis pom luag cov ntxhais lod? Lawv tsim txiaj laid! Cas tsis xyaum li luag?” “You better be good! Don’t you see other people’s daughters? They’re good! Why can’t you be like them?”
Ua laib and tsis tsim txiaj were the taboos of my life.
As a young child, I was very conscious of staying within my parents’ expectations of tsim txiaj and txhob mus ua laib. So conscious, the notion of tsim txiaj had found a place in my subconscious mind and built a home there, even as a legal adult.
Music & College
In college, singing was the biggest secret I kept. My parents knew I sung as a hobby. But amongst everything else in my life, whether I wanted to or not, I always found my way back to singing. It was even in college when I released my first album as an undergraduate junior.
It was a love affair, but I couldn’t choose music as a career.
I knew that it would be deemed as tsis tsim txiaj. It would go against my parents and even my elders’ wishes for me.
Coming home one weekend, I found myself in a rare situation. My dad doesn’t know or ask much about me and my siblings. With us, he usually doesn’t talk about us; rather he talks at us.
This day was different.
“Pajnyiag, koj twb mus kawm ntawv ntev npaum no, koj yuav mus ua dabtsi? Koj yuav mus kawm ua dabtsi?” “Pagnia, you’ve been studying for this long, what are you going to do in the future? What are you studying to become?”
I knew we’d have this talk one day. And despite my love for music, I had already prepared the perfect response.
“Dad, I’m going to be a teacher.”
It was the only thing I felt that I knew and that my parents would understand as a profession. Stoic and nearly expressionless, my dad replied:
“Zoo. Kawm mus ua ib tug xib fwb zoo. Lwm hnub thiaj nrhiav tau hauj lwm ua.” “Good. Becoming a teacher is good. That way in the future, you can find a job.”
I was surprised. This was the first time in my life that my dad actually agreed with my decision. At last, I had met his expectations. I was tsim txiaj.
But my tsim txiaj-ness did not last long.
Lost, Frustrated, & Depressed
It was my toughest and final semester of college. It was then that I knew I was not going to be a teacher. But I had just told my dad two years earlier that I would become one. There was too much at stake. I couldn’t disappoint my parents.
When the semester ended, I followed through with my word and graduated with an education degree and put away singing as a career.
For a couple years after graduation, I went back and forth between substitute teaching and performing across the world. Am I a teacher or a singer? Who am I?
I was lost.
I was frustrated.
I was depressed.
So I came up with an idea: move out to the east coast to join my sister Nancy. She clearly lived a great life, and I wanted a piece of that. I wanted to explore the world and find myself. You know, figure out who I really am.
But word got around to my parents.
One day, in tears, my mother calls desperately begging me not to move. “Koj tsis hlub koj txiv wb lod? Koj twb ua tau haujlwm hauv zos no thiab los sad? Cas yuav mus nyob deb tag npaud?” “Don’t you love your dad and me? Can’t you work here in town too? Why are you moving so far away?”
Everything you imagine a mother could possibly say to keep her child close, my mom said it all. And again, being tsim txiaj was top of mind. I didn’t want to do anything wrong in my parents’ eyes. So I made being tsim txiaj more important than fulfilling my desires.
Brokenhearted, I moved back with my parents.
Carrots & Tears
One summer day, I found myself scrubbing carrots. Dirty water flying everywhere. My parents are skilled, hardworking farmers who sell produce at local farmers markets, and those of us who live in their home have a full-time job come summer.
All of a sudden, tears began to fall.
They’d been accumulating for years, but I didn’t know that. In that moment, I was so upset. The phone call my mom had made to me months earlier was replaying in my mind. And I had blamed her for my current life.
What happened? I spent nearly 18 years of my life going to school and doing what my parents asked of me. I was tsim txiaj. I didn’t mus ua laib. But why was I unhappy?
Despite the questions and the blaming, truthfully, I was most upset at myself.
I let others take over the steering wheel, and I chose the backseat of my fast, moving life. For all my life, I had given others responsibility to run my life. And I had no clue how I’d find the courage to change all of that.
Shortly after that summer, I did something about it.
I moved out. I started to accept my desire to singing professionally and seriously. I let go of my parents’ wishes. I released the fear of no longer being tsim txiaj and all the consequences that would follow from family and society.
Honestly, I can’t remember exactly how it all happened. I don’t have a “how-to” list for you. But this time, I did something different.
I obeyed my intuition - the deepest, truest part of my soul.
My dear, I know you just didn’t stumble upon this blog post. You're meant to be here. So if you don’t remember anything I wrote, I hope you’ll take this with you in pursuit of your dreams:
You can never escape the truth of who you are and what you want to do in this life. It will hit you in the face again and again until you answer to it. Until you obey it. So if you want to succeed, to fulfill your dreams, you must obey your intuition.
YOUR TURN: Can you relate to my story? When was there a time when you went against your own intuition? What happened? As always, please leave your thoughts in a comment below. I, along with all my readers, love learning from you!
Until next time…