First Days: The first Hmong American judge didn't always acknowledge his roots

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Paul Lo made history last month, when he was appointed a Superior Court judge in California. That made Lo the first Hmong-American judge ever in US history. Lo arrived in California as a child in the 1970s. He and his family were refuges from Laos, forced to flee their country by communist forces during the Vietnam war.
The new judge agreed to tell us his story, as part of our "First Day" series, where immigrants share their memories of first arriving in this country.

Paul Lo: I was 11 years old. In the plane, I was very afraid, you know, "Where does this go? I'm not sure how this works."

For a long time, we had lived in the mountains, and the jungles, and the villages of Laos, and had never set foot in the cities.

My parents, for a long time, lived on welfare and they also farmed. You work all day Friday night if you're going to sell on a Saturday. And you get three hours sleep, you wake up at three o'clock in the morning because you've gotta be in San Francisco by five.

And on the weekend, I always used to gripe about it, you know, "Why--how come my friends are at the malls on the weekends, and I'm not? Instead, I'm either at the farm, or at the, you know, the farmer's market." And they said, well, you know, we're not them. We might be in America, but we're not them.

I remember even first arriving and going to school. Even though I was a young child, 11, 12 years old, could hardly speak English. But I remember some of these derogatory, racial terms. And they would, you know, tell us, "you know, why are you here? Go home, wherever you came from, go home."

My junior high teacher told me that, to this day, I still remember she said, "You can react one of two ways. You can fight back, physically, or you can restrain yourself. But think about it. Which takes more strength? Does it take more strength to restrain yourself, or does it take more strength to fight back?" And she was right. It takes more physical courage and strength to restrain yourself.

For a long time, I didn't want to acknowledge that I was from Laos. I did not want to acknowledge that I was Hmong. People would ask me who I was, and I would say I was Chinese. Because I felt that, you know, the Hmong community came here, and didn't know anything, didn't have anything. We were the poorest community.

I think my dad, one time, actually was hurt because I... You know, I had a performance at school. All the other parents came and I didn't want my parents to come. I asked my father to drop me off to school and told him to go home. And he didn't, you know, he didn't mention anything, but later on I found out that he'd mentioned to somebody else that I was ashamed of him. We never talked about that, but I think that that's probably long forgotten, as far as he's concerned.

It took me a long time, I think, to accept the fact that I have a different culture, I have a different language, and that's a good thing. You know, I've never turned back, I'm very proud to be an American, I'm very proud to be a Hmong-American.

Werman: California judge, Paul Lo, sharing his immigrant experience. We want to hear your "First Day" story, too. Drop us a line at PRI.org, or tweet it, with the hash tag Firstdays.

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