Country Music Was the Soundtrack of My Hmong Upbringing
For a refugee family in St. Paul, Billy Ray Cyrus and Tanya Tucker provided a window to a different, more Americanized world
When I think about country music, I think of a Hmong refugee family on the East Side of St. Paul, Minnesota, huddled in an old house with peeling paint and window panes frosted with ice in cold January. I think of my mother and my father and their work as assemblers in the old factories. I think of the snippets of songs they came home with for me and my siblings to translate, our efforts to make sense of our lives in the songs of the white men and women on the radio.
The scent of freshly steamed jasmine rice and the light of the sun wakes me up in the morning. My mother is in the kitchen. From where I’m sleeping on the mattress, in the living room, I can’t see her but I can hear her singing at the sink.
“My achy breaky heart, please don’t tell my heart. I don’t think it’ll understand.”
She repeats herself, pausing in between each word. She’s not following the melody made popular by Billy Ray Cyrus when “Achy Breaky Heart” topped the charts. She has slowed the song down, made everything softer. In her mouth, the words sound Hmong, the soft rise and fall of the tones, more winding than English could ever be.
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Once I’m brushed and washed, my bangs combed flat, I quickly change out of my pajamas and into jeans and a sweatshirt. The white sweatshirt was a real find for my mother at Thrifters. It’s brand new with the tag still on. It was a Super Bowl shirt for a football team that never made it to the Super Bowl.
We don’t say “thank you” often in my family. It’s not because we don’t have gratitude for each other, but because we love each other and it’s something that we all understand. Everything we do is for each other, so if we say “thank you,” we’d have to say it all day, every day.
The adults in my family survived America’s Secret War in Laos because of the things they’ve done for each other. Nearly half of the Hmong people were killed in that horrid, forgotten war; the things we do for each other in America are, by comparison, really nothing at all.
I get a saucepan from the dish drainer and fill it midway in the sink. I’m going to make Wai Wai instant noodles for my brothers and sisters and me for breakfast. My mother takes a seat at the rickety table by the only window in the kitchen. Her right hand massages her left hand on the table. She has bad carpal tunnel from work.
My mother asks me, “What does ‘achy breaky heart’ mean?”
My mother and father are assemblers in a factory where they make cooling elements for cars. They both work the night shift so they can take care of the little kids during the day, while my big sister Dawb and I are in school. When we come home, they go to work and we take care of the children. At the factory, they listen to country music radio stations all night long. It’s what the white people play.
I’m not sure what achy breaky heart means. As I put the saucepan on the stove, I have to stand on my tiptoes to see the bottom of the saucepan despite the fact that I’m now 10 years old. I turn the knob to medium-high and open the instant ramen drawer. I tell my mother, “Achy means hurting and breaky means something is about to fall apart.”
My mother nods. She tries to find Hmong equivalents, “Like kho siab?” Kho siab is an expression that translates literally to “lonely liver.” I take out two packs of ramen and I tell her, “Kind of?”
My mother can relate to this feeling. “It’s how I feel when I think about Laos, about my mother,” she says. “I pine for her all the time. I miss her. I want to be with her but I can’t.” Both my mother’s and father’s families fled into the jungles of Laos to escape persecution after the Americans, and the safety they brought with them, left. They met there. They fell in love. They chose marriage against the better judgment of the adults around them. Pathet Lao soldiers attacked one day, separating my mother from her family. She never saw her mother again.
“Everybody loves the song at the factory,” my mother says. “The white people move their feet to the music and sing along. But the words make me sad: ‘Don’t tell my heart. My achy breaky heart. I just don’t think it’ll understand.’”
When the noodles are ready, I sit with my mother at the table. As I wait for it to cool, I reach for my mother’s right hand and, with both of my hands, massage her throbbing palm.
Each year at work, my parents’ hearing becomes worse. The machines are loud. They stand all night by the assembly line, pushing to meet quotas. Their heels break against the hard cement. The only consolation: They pay for the chance that their work will one day enable us to choose ours. Now, they struggle to hear all the words of the songs in ways they didn’t when they first started in the factories.
On the way to school, in the old maroon Chevrolet Caprice that my father bought used from a man who said it was a cop car, we weave slowly through the snow-covered streets. My father turns on the radio to the country music station that the people at work like the best, K102. He tells me about a song he hopes to hear a song by Tanya Tucker called, “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane.” I’ve not heard the song so I’m not sure what to listen for. The radio hosts are talking about secrets.
My father tells me that the woman who sings the song about sparrows has a very deep voice, like his mother’s.
I ask him what the song is about. He says, “I’m hoping you can tell me.”
There are no hurricanes in Minnesota. I tell my father that I will ask my teacher what sparrows are.
At the factory, they listen to country music radio stations all night long. It’s what the white people play.
That night, my older sister Dawb and I sit at the rickety table to do our homework, once the younger kids are asleep. We have the radio turned to K102. I know that she wants to listen to the hip-hop station, but she understands that I’m trying to listen to a song for our father. We have both listened to enough radio to know that the popular songs are played again and again.
Dawb recognizes the song before I do when it comes on. She nudges me. We listen in silence, our pencils in our hands — moving at first, but then standing very still. Her voice sounds like Grandma’s if Grandma could speak English, husky and deep. She tells a story that is too familiar about a poor young man and woman falling in love, believing in love — even as they have children and their children are poor. Our throats grow thick and tears slip out of our eyes. We can’t look at each other anymore.
We recognize our mother and father in the song. We know they recognize themselves.
Tanya Tucker sang, “Like two sparrows in a hurricane, trying to find their way. With a head full of dreams, faith that can move anything. They’ve heard it is all uphill but all they know is how they feel. The world says they’ll never make it. Love says they will.”
We are aware that we are alive only because of love.
That night, I slip between my sleeping sisters on the mattress in the living area believing that when I wake my mother will be home singing at the kitchen sink, her voice soft, turning the country songs into something more familiar, the songs into bits of the stories of our lives.