Padao, a type of flower cloth adorned with intricate designs representing various Hmong tribes, was originally crafted by Hmong women for family occasions such as the Hmong New Year. Over time, it became a vital source of income for numerous families, and even men began learning this art to support their households.
In 1980, my family relocated from Laos to Thailand, settling in the Chiang Kham refugee camp. Padao was highly sought after in Thailand, so I implored my aunt to teach me this art. With the first few Thai Baht I earned from selling my Padao, I paid for Hmong writing lessons. I was the sole child in the class, but my eagerness to learn was boundless. Within a few months, I became proficient in reading and writing in Hmong.
Growing up, I faced relentless bullying with people labeling me a beggar, short, ugly, and unintelligent. Rather than letting their negativity deter me, I used their hurtful words as motivation to work even harder. I honed my Padao skills and used the income to pay for my education. After mastering Hmong, I set out to learn Thai, initially only affording basic classes. As my Padao craftsmanship improved, more people sought my services, enabling me to take English classes.
Contrary to those who looked down on me, I became literate and often assisted others with their reading and writing, including older folks penning letters to loved ones in the USA. I became fluent in three languages: Hmong, Lao, Thai, and a bit of English. Interestingly, the people who disliked me the most were mostly women. The more I excelled, the more they resented me, but I understood that education was my only path to success.
In 1985, at the age of twelve, I noticed a job opportunity at the Khiag Kham Thai Refugee Processing Center and asked my mother's cousin, the Hmong refugee president, to assist me in securing the position. Fortunately, he introduced me to the center's HR representative, and I got the job. My role as an Announcer involved communicating with refugee families needing to meet with Thai government officials and collecting information from new refugee families who had escaped from Laos or arrived from other camps. While my job was unpaid, it offered me the chance to learn Thai, use a typewriter, watch TV, read magazines and newspapers, and occasionally enjoy entertainment outside the camp.
The Refugee Processing Center was a daunting place, as Thai officials frequently abused refugees physically. To avoid mistreatment, we had to address them as "Boss" and show respect. I witnessed horrifying incidents of refugees being mistreated, including a man who was left paralyzed for life. These experiences only fueled my determination to create a better life for myself.
Because of my tumultuous past, I put my best effort into everything I do for others. Starting with my nail salon, I ensured every customer's safety and satisfaction. When I designed my purse, quality was my sole focus, from the design to the materials, all meticulously handpicked by me. Making others happy brings me great joy.
We all hail from diverse life experiences, and though mine was filled with challenges, I realized that many people have endured even greater hardships. I've learned not to carry the burdens of the past into the future, as holding grudges hinders personal growth. I aimed to use my experiences to become a better person and uplift others through art, which led me to pursue a career as a hair and nail artist.
I also grasped the reality that no matter how good a person strives to be, they cannot please everyone. Our experiences, surroundings, upbringing, and culture shape who we are. If revisiting the past can propel us toward a brighter future, it's worth discussing; otherwise, dwelling on it serves no purpose and impedes our progress.
The women's shoulder bags I designed incorporate symbols of encouragement and hope drawn from two of my cherished childhood art forms. My goal is to inspire those who have faced similar hardships or worse to stay resilient and maintain hope for their futures.