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Mee Moua

I was born in a remote village in Laos in 1969. When I was five, my family left for the refugee camps in Thailand and in 1978, when I was 9, we came to the U.S. I don't remember Laos, but I remember Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand.

As a child, the camp was lots of fun. I think they tried to set up a school, but there were no consistent classes. It was just a long period of playtime. There were always adults around and we would all listen to them tell stories.

The UNHCR brought the refugees food rations and I remember standing in line for food. I remember feeling like we couldn't eat as much as we needed to and sometimes the meat was already rotten. But still, our family was better off because my father had a job as a medic and we could supplement what wasn't enough.

First, we went to Providence, Rhode Island. We were fortunate because we came in the summer. I can't imagine how the families who came during the winter adjusted from the heat of Southeast Asia to the cold of North America.

I remember our first night at the apartment, my mom was trying to learn how to use the gas stove, the taps. We had seen toilets before, but we had to get used to just pushing a button to flush the toilet instead of bringing in buckets of water.

Our sponsors gave us a sheet set and my mom used one fitted sheet for one bed, and the flat sheet on another bed, and knotted the ends to keep it on the bed. I remember feeling like I had no clue what was going on.

We stayed in Rhode Island for seven months, then we moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where we stayed until I graduated from high school.

In Appleton, everyone was white and all their last names started with Van, or they had names like Johnson. Everyone was Catholic. I remember when my parents became citizens. They asked if we wanted to change our names and I asked my parents if we could add Van to our name so I could be Mee Van Moua. They vetoed that idea! Anyway, I kept my Hmong name and most of my siblings did, except my brother Mang, who changed his name to Mike.

There were a couple of Filipino families, they were doctors and researchers at Kimberly-Clark, so they were very privileged and they didn't identify with us. We were minorities and we were also really poor. We lived in a public housing duplex and everyone knew we were the poor.

Church people would show up at our house on Christmas with trees and stuff, but there were also people who spit at us and called us chinks, gooks and told us to go home. The hostility was so overt that it made us feel very different, so my siblings and I became very rooted in our Hmongness.

Initially my intention was to become a doctor, what Asian family doesn't want their child to become a doctor, right? But when I was at Brown, I got involved in protests and I felt very empowered. I learned a new language and for the first time, I was able to identify racism and I learned about pluralism. I felt smart, creative and I thought, "Wow, I'm doing something that makes a difference."

I majored in public policy and we studied welfare, poverty, social security, Medicare - all the things I was familiar with because I spent years filling out forms for my family.

In my junior year, I became a Junior Fellow at Princeton and I also got a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to study public policy at the University of Texas, Austin. In 1997, I came home to attend law school at the University of Minnesota.

In Minnesota, I worked on my Uncle Neal Thaos' campaign for the St. Paul School Board. I learned a lot about how to run a campaign and about the nuts and bolts of the political process. I also met lots of candidates and many of them encouraged me to run for office. So the seeds were planted.

I hadn't really planned to run now [2002], but a Senate seat was vacant. It seemed like the right opportunity, the right time. Being the first Hmong woman to be elected to the State Senate has brought pride to the Hmong community. I think it marks a turning point in the community.

Asian American politicians could do more, but we have made great headway in many states. Satveer Chaudhary was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1996. Until his election, no Asian American has ever been elected to the Minnesota Legislature. Between 1996 and 2003, there have been three representatives in the legislature, two in the Senate and one in the House, so we've made a lot of progress. It's put the state of Minnesota on the map.

There's also been progress in other states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Iowa. So, now Asian American politicians are no longer only in the East or the West Coast but in states that have not previously had a strong Asian American presence.

I am tremendously excited about Asian Americans in politics and we're poised to move to the next level. There is a sense of excitement that this is our time. My generation of young politicians has graduated from Japanese Americans to Chinese Americans to more Filipino Americans, Korean Americans, Korean adoptees, Southeast Asian Americans and Asian Indians.

The issue is not whether the Asian American politicians are ready, it's really whether America is ready.

Mee Moua is the first Hmong American woman to become a Minnesota State Senator. Moua came to the U.S. with her family in 1978 and has since worked her way up from the public housing projects of Appleton, Wisconsin to the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota. Moua is also an accomplished attorney who lives with her mother, her husband, and their two children.

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