Essay by Mey F. Saechao Photography by Jameson Wolf
For projects like this, I am hesitant about how my voice is going to be used. Is it going to be tokenized? Will it be used in a space where I feel most authentic? Growing up Iu Mien used to mean constantly asking to be seen and validated; attempting to legitimize who you are to an outside world that operates in binaries. So I try to be careful and thoughtful in how I show up. If there was ever a purpose I know to be true for myself, I know a part of my role and place in this world is to always tell our stories — whatever that looks like, with all of its complexity, to make sure that they’re counted and valid. That it can be completely different and same simultaneously. And that our stories are still being created and developed.
Family members and elders in my community consistently found time and space to tell stories; to pass down oral tradition and maybe their way of holding onto themselves preserved in historical memory. There was not much I could see or refer to besides the few photos my mom preserved in her trek over the pacfic. I have only a handful of perfectly preserved photos of my grandfather but nothing for the next generations of great grandparents and like many people from all backgrounds, didn’t have a way to track family lineage. I used to search for our stories in my story books. While in college, in my well-meaning Asian American studies courses, I constantly searched for more complex stories or faces that might resemble me and my experiences in the seat next to me as my peer. I have always been obsessed with this idea of preserving stories in all their complexity and nuance, exploring diaspora, culture and all of its idiosyncrasies.
I found myself always trying to figure out the “right” way to validate our stories, and realized that my truth is going to look and feel, and be told, in different ways. Sometimes words aren’t enough; we also need to see ourselves. Here I share just one of those many stories, through words and images.
However it will look and sound, I know the words I share do not come close to doing justice to the woman who brought her entire family here [to America] on her back: my mother. I hope I can share some humor, sarcasm but most of all, cheesy ass love.
My earliest memories of my mom run through my memory like a vintage viewfinder toy. There are glimpses of her with really bad curly bangs, ’80s and ’90s perms done by some East Asian women in Chinatown and even a slight red-haired dye job every now and then when there was extra money she saved for herself. I am pretty sure there was one point where my mom came close to mimicking Bob Ross’ infamous fro. My fondest and earliest memories of her are through her hair and mostly of when she had long, silky hair that almost touched her waist.
When my mom had long black hair, she was so young, twenty something and a new refugee in Oakland, California with a toddler and soon a mother of two by 1985, two years into being in the U.S. My mom has a total of six children now. She was young and navigating this country as a monolingual, land based woman and new mother. In those early years, I remember watching my parents navigate the U.S. and all of its new systems. Taking me along to English courses taught by well-meaning White people and the occasional Laotian translator that could communicate with some of their Iu Mien constituents. Sometimes, sticking me with well-meaning third cousins and aunties while they took lessons on driving, parenting and the healthcare system. My memories from Thailand were yet to be developed but I know from a young age, my parents were navigating a new place that had strange streets, smells, and many different people who speak so many different languages. While this all sounds exciting, they landed smack dab in East Oakland in 1983, the year Hip Hop made its way to the West Coast, two years into Reaganomics, the crack epidemic and America’s so called “War on Drugs”. The historically Black and working class neighborhoods were now having to integrate an influx of refugees arriving from Southeast Asia as a result of the 1980 Refugee Act. Because of how White supremacy rears its ugly head, it pitted other working class communities against the new refugees who didn’t speak the language to express their sympathy or their own disenfranchisement.
My neighbors were regular working people who were doing their best to raise their own families. They were also survivors in their own right. My mom often walked to the corner store for small items when she couldn’t make the journey on the bus to the Asian markets on 8th Ave and East 14th Street (now International Blvd). When I was six years old, my mom came home and her hair was cut off – my mom who for whole life at that point, wore her hair long, suddenly with a quick slice, she had a bob. There was a deep sadness that I could feel at that moment; I knew the act of that haircut was not made lightly or even by choice. She cut her hair because she was being taunted and ostracized, and had her hair pulled while she was in public at that corner store. She made a decision on how to survive in a new place like America; she adapted and cut off a part of herself.
My mom loved and adored all of her children. Given that five of us were girls, we all had long hair at one point and absurdly, she was always against us cutting it short. Maybe some of that is totally rooted in archaic patriarchal ideals of beauty; whatever it was, from my six year old memory, hair was one way my mom expressed herself. She only dressed up for formal occasions, weddings, ceremonies and graduations and never really wore a lot of makeup. She didn’t buy things for herself but one ritual I always remember my mom practicing was finding small ways to take care of herself – one of which was to take the time to get her hair done. She always made time for her hair.
The photos here are from a series I commissioned from my good friend Jameson to capture time with family. I wanted someone who was in community but also a great visual storyteller. I was going through my own life transitions and decided to grow my hair back out after eight years of having really short hair myself. Four years had passed since I sat in a chair with a barber or hairdresser; my niece Miya who was eight years old at the time, had not had a full haircut yet. Her curls had the occasional trim but otherwise her locks were untouched. I thought it would be special to have my sister to continue a ritual, to be able to give us our first hair cuts in the backyard of our mom’s house. Nothing exuberant or glamorous because the most important part of this day was to create memories for Miya, just like my mom has always done for us.
My mom is still healthy in these series of photos, so they’re really sacred to me, to all of us. To this day, even when she is not well or feeling her best, she asks her daughters to wash her hair, make sure that it’s laid down, that it’s tied back and presentable. When mom is home, my sister is still the one who continues to dye and tend to her hair. Naturally, my sister is the talented one when it comes to handling these matters.
I hope these moments allow Miya to always see herself. Sometimes, between generations and experiences, we don’t speak the same language to be able to really express the complexities of living in a place that is not home, in America. In these small sacred moments, we bond through time and find small and big ways to continue to develop our stories.
For: Jiraiya, Miya and Kinsley and all the future generations of Iu Mien Americans
MEY F. SAECHAO is a first generation Iu Mien-American born in Thailand and bred in Oakland, CA, native ancestral land to the Ohlone People. She is the eldest of six siblings; two of which have blessed her with the best role she has: auntie. She is currently the Director of Operations for a national management consulting firm based in the Bay Area. She works in partnership with entrepreneurs, social change agents and specializes in Systems and Project Management. As a graduate of San Francisco State University, she has a background in Ethnic Studies, served as a board member with experience in the non-profit and public health sectors. In an effort to use her right and left brain, she consults as a creative architect and wardrobe stylist for independent and corporate clients and believes in the power of transformative style. When she is not traveling or gardening, she loves to spend quality time with close family and friends, sharing culinary adventures and discovering the power of storytelling.