Essay: Learning endurance and balance from my refugee parents

Shout, Alessandro Gottardo

Throughout the year, espnW's essay series will feature pieces about moving forward.

The Jan. 21 Women's March on Washington serves as a compelling example of that post-election and post-inauguration grit taking on a life and voice of its own. Walking and marching together, this gathering of women incited new energy toward a greater resistance that has been felt in every corner of our country and in many parts of the world.

The next four years will be a test of our ability to balance the weight of how to exist in order to endure the uncertainty of what's to come. Whatever tenacity we can muster, what steadfast spirit we can generate will be necessary in moving forward.

Endurance is our muscles rehearsing how to maintain a movement in order to master the art of persistence. It is the act of asking the body not to concede even when the body has already surrendered.

As a child of Hmong refugees, I know how important endurance is for survival. I've heard stories about how my parents struggled to endure and survive life in a new country. When they first arrived in the early '80s and were initially resettled in St. Paul, Minnesota, they knew little English, but they still managed to navigate the city using the bus.

Coming from a highly agrarian culture, farming was their primary form of subsistence. My mother tells me that in those years, their church sponsor, who helped them transition to the United States, provided them with a small area of land where they were allowed to farm. So on the buses, they clutched their shovels and spades, sometimes carrying home a small harvest of vegetables from their plot.

Years later, when they relocated to Fresno, California, my father worked as a dishwasher at a small Japanese restaurant. He would come home late at night, often with a big bag of raw chicken pieces, the parts of the lower spine that were usually discarded because they contained almost no meat. My sisters and I would painstakingly clean the pieces so that we could cook them for the family. We struggled, but endured.

At the center of endurance is the heart's need to survive and fight. More than a March, we demonstrated our will to survive and fight it out for the long haul, to walk and keep walking.

We will need to endure, but we will also need to find balance. When the weight of our government leans too heavy in one direction, it will be up to us to shove the weight back the other way. When that weight deepens its exclusion of some of the most silenced populations and communities in our country, we will need to double, triple our efforts and summon our collective strength in order to re-balance the scales.

Athletes strive for balance, be it on a beam, maneuvering a curve, or at the crest of a wave. To balance is to negotiate with pressure in order to gain or regain stability in the precarious dance with gravity. The feet's position and the body's sway are ever tenuous in the obstacle to feel rooted and grounded on a surface that will not waver.

Growing up, I've known the task of having to balance multiple selves, the kind of internal balance needed to maintain a firm foundation for who I was and wanted to be. I grew up stumbling my way forward, trying to negotiate and find a balance between my two cultural identities. Who did I want to be more, Hmong or American? In what situation should I be more of one than the other? When and how do I re-balance back the other way?

This is true for many immigrant or refugee youth who often have to wear multiple hats and play several roles in order to meet their familial needs while still attempting to live a normal teenage life. As a child, I often translated for my parents when we had medical appointments or school conferences. Once, during a parent-teacher conference in fifth grade, my teacher commented on my exemplary writing skills and noted that one day I would become an author. I didn't know how to translate any of that except to tell my mother I was doing fine.

My youth jolted me back and forth as my Hmong side and the needs of my family clashed with the pressure to behave as an American at school and among my peers. There, I only spoke English, ate hamburgers and fries, and pretended to celebrate American holidays.

Today though, I'm relieved to say I feel more culturally balanced as I've learned to adapt to both identities. Through writing and poetry, I'm able to re-balance myself in such a way that I do not lose touch and forget the side of me that is far more vulnerable of fading -- my Hmong side. Without this balance, I don't know who I would have become.

In this same way, as women, we are often tasked with managing and juggling multiple roles. From our careers, to motherhood, to advancing our education, to relationships, to community organizing, to simply having time for ourselves and self-care -- all of it is a careful choreography that we must recognize as we continue to raise our voices.

Undocumented immigrants and communities of color already understand and have experienced firsthand what it means to endure during a time of great uncertainty. Many in these communities also know the challenges of attempting to regain balance in order to even have so much as a semblance or spark of stability.

As a person of color, my understanding of endurance and finding balance did not begin after the election. I have seen endurance through the existence and resistance of my parents. I have witnessed how imbalance in my own sense of self can lead to conflict and disrupt my movement forward in life. As we forge ahead, it will be up to the entire nation to keep working on enduring harder, at balancing better.

What awaits our country is no sprint. We must walk. It is the first step to enduring, and that means that we must carry this march onward to travel the long distance ahead. The footsteps of the millions of protesters who gathered in Washington, D.C., and all over the world must be made permanent and multiplied enough to last us four years and beyond. We must fight even harder to ensure that the years ahead reflect a balance to them that does not leave behind the voices of those most silenced in our country.

With feet firmly planted, hearts ready for the long haul, we must continue to walk, to march.

Mai Der Vang is the 2016 Walt Whitman Award winner of the Academy of American Poets. Her first book of poems, "Afterland," is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. Mai Der's essays have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others.