A Day in the Life of a Hmong Woman

Mai Neng Moua

I wake up at my usual time, eight a.m. This after nine and a half hours on the dialysis machine. I walk into the living room. For the first time since the pandemic, I see my seventh grader, Erica, playing video games. Video games! The volume is on mute so there is no sound, just the movements of her hands on the PS3. Her school laptop is on the dining room table, closed. I am standing in the living room a couple feet from her. She does not turn to acknowledge me. She continues playing her game.

“Erica, don’t you need to log on? Don’t you have school?” I ask, trying to remain calm.

“Morning check-in was cancelled,” she says quickly, her eyes glued to the TV screen.

“OK, but don’t you have your other classes?”

“Yea,” she says without pausing her game.

“OK, honey, you have five more minutes. Then I want you to get off.”

“Alright, Mom,” she says.

I don’t know if I should be worried. This is the first time I find my seventh grader playing video games in the morning when she should be in class. But she is a straight A student so I don’t worry too much, not yet. She usually has her stuff together.

The girls have gotten up on their own. My kids are good like that. But, once in a while, they still need their parents to wake them up. In the spare bedroom where I have my office, my fifth grader, Sam is lying on the bed. It is an hour before class so she is playing her favorite video game, Roblox. It’s a game she can play all day long if I let her. She’s like old Hmong people watching wrestling: they talk to the TV. As Sam is typing out her interactions with the players, she’s reading them so it looks like she’s talking to herself. She skips breakfast because she’s not hungry, she says. But she will eat whatever I bring her.

Sam could be anywhere else in the house, but she’s decided she likes to be in the room with me. Her office is the bed. My office is a table with a computer monitor and my laptop on one side of the window. I look out the window into the street and the trail on the other side. Sam loves distance learning. She always has her camera on and she’s talking. I think she likes distance learning because she can have a split screen with her teacher on one side and a video on the other. Like her sister, Sam is a straight A student so I don’t worry too much. But I do wonder if the classes are too easy and my kids are not being challenged.

We’re on our own for lunch. Usually it’s leftovers, sandwiches, noodles or I’ll make something quick. Then it’s back to work for all of us. This COVID-life has become one where we’re on our computers all day. The kids are even on their computers after school, watching videos or playing games. This, compared with the regular school year when they were on their computers for an hour (okay, maybe two) after school.

I try to break this cycle. From the library, I take out graphic novels for Sam who does not like to read for fun. But she will read the graphic novels I give her. Erica is a reader though. She reads everything even books such as Little Women, which I have not read because, well, it’s long. Erica has even read my memoir. I was surprised but honored. I take out books written by other Asian American writers or writers of color to complement what my kids are reading in school. And for myself, I am reading children’s picture books. It’s research since I am working on writing children’s picture books. My kids and I love the pay-off at the end… everything is all right with the world again. We could use a little bit more of that in this time of corona. My girls and I have read more books this year than any other year.

While we’re focused on our work, my husband, who has stayed up until four a.m., is still asleep. Usually I wake him up for lunch. Other times, I let him sleep.

“How come you don’t wake me up?” he asked me once.

“Why should I?” I ask him, thinking it’s another thing I have to do. “Besides, when you’re asleep, there’s no one to yell at us. We can do our own thing in peace.”

It’s true. My husband is a yell-er. Sam calls him, “Old Yell-er.” He’s the oldest of six kids. With his grandma living with them, there was nine of them in the house . You had to be loud to be heard. Sometimes when he yells for me, it’s like I’m in trouble.

“Mai Neng!” he’d yell.

I come running, thinking I did something wrong or something bad had happened. “What? What happened?”

“Nothing. I was just calling for you.”

“Dude, seriously!” I’d say, my heart still racing.

Speaking of yelling, in the car one time, he said, “Hey, I noticed you don’t, ah, nag at me as much anymore.”

Women love to be told we’re naggers, don’t we?

I didn’t respond immediately. I nodded. Then I said, “I don’t have the energy to yell at you anymore. Between dialysis, full-time work, and the girls, I’m all out of nagging. You gotta get your own shit together.”

With the girls doing distance learning from home, some days, I am IT staff. Other days, the P.E. teacher. Every day, I am the lunch lady. There are days when I can’t explain how exhausted I am. Sure, the dialysis could make me tired, but it’s not that. There are days when I can’t seem to get out of my pajamas. On those days, I let myself be in pajamas all day. But, now, I see Sam in pajamas all day too. I don’t make a big deal of it. But when she’s been in the same pajamas for a couple days, I tell her to change. She does.

I can’t seem to get myself to go downstairs and water my mom’s plants. There are only four of them, in pots. It’s not that I don’t remember to water them. I hear Alexa’s reminders twice a week. And yet, I can’t seem to get myself to do it. I’ve killed one of the plants already. I haven’t worked up the courage to tell my mom yet. I’m not sure what to tell her. “Corona made me do it,” seems insufficient.

My house is a mess. It’s not dirty but my dining room table has become storage for bills, napkins, Erica’s bead project. We eat our lunch among the ruins of distance learning—laptop, folder, headphones. Things on the kitchen island are in danger of becoming the Petrified Forest where old things gather dust and die. And although we all have our dish days, the kitchen sink is always full of dishes. It mostly gets cleaned at the end of the day. The stove sits patiently, waiting for me to clean it. The laundry room is full of untouched winter melons from the summer. I will need to use a shovel to scoop out the remains. I can’t get to it yet.

Especially troubling are the days when I don’t want to eat anything. Nothing tastes good. When I do eat, I eat like a bird, pecking at my food. I eat a few bites then let the bowl of food sit on my desk. The crusty rice stares at me. Or I wrap up my plate of food and put in the fridge, hoping I’ll finish it later. I don’t. Lately, Sam’s been doing the same thing.

As the sister of two brothers, as the middle child, as a Hmong woman, I grew up taking care of everyone. In this suspended space of the pandemic, I feel the pressure to hold up all these balls. And after I’ve worked the whole day, it is still my job to get the kids off their devices, find things for them to do, entertain them in the winter in Minnesota when it’s too cold to go outside… After work, all I want to do is sleep for days, distract myself with Facebook, watch trash TV shows, do nothing. But my time is not my own. It belongs to everyone else. From the time I wake up to the time I fall asleep, I am mother, worker, wife, pandemic survivor. Some days, it’s a lot. Some days, when I sit down to write, there is a fog in my head. Nothing comes out. I can’t hear my own thoughts flying. I sit at my desk, staring out the window, watching the world go by.

Most days, I hold it all in. I tell myself, “You can do this. Just do one thing at a time.” I get up at the same time. I make breakfast for the kid who is never hungry. I go to work. I make sure the kids eat lunch. I work some more. The family goes on a walk. We make dinner. We watch TV or play a board game.

I don’t need to put on make-up or dress up for work anymore. It feels like a luxury to spend time on myself or wear something nice. Even if no one sees me, I see myself.

On days that I do dress up, my husband says, “Where are you going today?”

“To the ‘office’ (spare bedroom),” I tell him.

When I wear make-up, the girls notice.

“You put on make-up today, Mom,” says Erica.

“You like it?” I ask.

“Yes, you look nice.”

This whole pandemic, fortunately, for my family, there have been no external stressors outside. No sirens, dogs barking, people yelling and screaming. No one getting shot or killed near us. I am not on edge all the time. We now live in a first-ring suburb with room to breathe. On the other side of the street from our house is a trail. On a nice day after work, I tell the family, “We’re going for a walk!” It’s the one active thing we can still do safely. There are usually not a lot of people on the trail. We walk for two miles. The trail is paved with trees on both sides so the noise and city-life melt away when you’re on it. It’s flat so the walk is easy. Sometimes, I hold hands with my husband and we walk it slowly. We catch up on each other’s day, talk about what’s happening during the week. The kids walk ahead and then sit on benches and wait for us to catch up. Other times, we walk it fast, wanting to work up a sweat. When it’s warm, the kids ride their bikes.

After our walk, we make dinner together. Sometimes it’s elaborate. All of us make eggrolls together. I can’t remember another time when we’ve made eggrolls so much. I always thought they were a lot of work. You have to soak the shiitake mushrooms then chop them up. You have to grate the carrots and the ginger. You have to thinly slice the cabbage. You have to soak and chop the vermicelli noodles. You have to roll and fold the eggrolls. Finally, you have to fry them. It’s a process, but with a whole family doing it, it hasn’t been too much work.

Another dish we’ve made a lot, especially in the winter months, is chicken noodle soup. The girls and I make the noodles ourselves. You boil the hot water then add it to equal amounts of tapioca starch and rice flour. Then you knead the flour, roll it out, and cut it into strips. Then you boil your noodles with your chicken. Again, I can’t ever remember making the noodles from scratch as much as we’ve done this year. Usually, I buy them pre-made from the Hmong store. But, in the age of corona, we’ve made it a lot. The soup is “heavenly,” as Sam said.

We’ve been very careful because of my pre-existing condition. Corona scares me. When I heard that a healthy thirty-one-year old Hmong woman got COVID and died, I was scared. If that could happen to her (and she was healthy), what was going to happen to me (the sickly one)? That’s why the whole family wore masks even before the mask mandate. As we walked on the trail, the girls counted the number of people with masks on.

“Oh no! People will think we’re Chinese,” said Sam.

We’re Hmong, not Chinese, but people wouldn’t know the difference. She was afraid people would say things such as “Kung flu” or “Go back to your own country.” She was born in St. Paul. I haven’t worked out what to tell her when people say things like that to her. I was afraid too, but I didn’t tell her. Luckily, she has not had to deal with that, yet. And no one has said anything like that to us on the trail. But we do always walk with my husband who is a big man.

Of course, before any of the vaccines, Hmong people came out of the woodwork to proclaim they’d discovered a cure for corona. When I sold my car to a young Hmong college student, her parents came with her to check out the car. Her mom said she’d cured some Hmong people with COVID.

“They’re right down the street over there,” she said, pointing towards St. Paul.

I didn’t ask her how she did it. My husband and I just wanted to sell our car. Another time, I was talking to my mother-in-law in California.

“Daughter-in-law, go ask your mom to see if she has this herbal medicine.”

I didn’t know the herbal medicine, so I asked what it was good for.

“It cures the sickness.”


“Yes. You must get some just in case you need it.”

“How do you know it works?”

“This Xiong guy on Hmong radio said he’s already cured some people with COVID. He has a video of it. There’s a family who got sick. The wife got this medicine and she and her kids took it. But the husband, he didn’t believe in it so he didn’t take it. Well, they got better and he didn’t.”

My mother-in-law is notorious for listening to Hmong radio and believing what she hears on it. She paid $1,000 for a massage that was supposed to help my father-in-law walk again after his stroke.

“Mom, don’t believe it. There are many Hmong people saying they can cure COVID now.”

I told her about the lady who came with her daughter to buy my car.

“If he’s found a cure, why hasn’t he told the doctors? People all over the world are dying. Everyone’s searching for a cure.”

“Well, there’s a limited supply and he’s saving it for the Hmong community.”


“Before you can drink it, you have to mix it with urine…”

“Oh, no, Mom, please don’t drink urine.”

Later that week, I told my mom about my conversation with my mother-in-law.

“Oyo! They’re even saying to drink a concoction of chicken poop in water,” said my mom.

“Oh my God! Ewwww. Mom, don’t do it.”

“Or eat a little bit of opium.”

“Don’t do that either, please.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, I helped a friend prepare for a job interview. As I approached the townhouse, I saw mail, yellow and wrinkly, sitting outside on the deck. There was even an opened box with cookies still wrapped in its packaging. I brought it inside the townhouse. It was eerily quiet. I didn’t even hear her cat.

“Aren’t you lonely?” I asked her.

“Yes of course! It was really hard at the beginning. I think I was even depressed. It’s not so bad during the week because I can connect with co-workers or I have different meetings to go to. But during the weekends, it’s just me, all day. I couldn’t go anywhere.”

“Is that why you didn’t bring in the mail?”

Surrounded by my own family all the time, I hadn’t thought about how hard it might’ve been for my single friend.

That’s the thing with corona. Things such as seeing family and friends were things we’d taken for granted before. But now, we crave it because we’re social beings. We long for connection. And even though we can Zoom now, it’s this eerily weird world where you begin to wonder if these voices that come out of your computer screens are real.

Surprisingly, I have been able to connect with three friends with whom I’d lost touch. One I consider my brother from another mother. Closer to him than my own brothers, I’ve known him since my second year in college. And though it’s been years since we’ve been in touch, it’s like no time has passed. With this friend, I can be my whole self. We talk about the struggles of being Hmong American—how to be true to yourself and honor your parents and the Hmong community.

Another friend with whom I connected recently was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota—Entomology Department who is now teaching at a different university. I’d worked for her for two years in high school. Then I spent another summer working with her in Grand Forks, doing research. We’d lost touch after that summer. Then a month ago, after discovering and reading my memoir, she emailed and asked if I was the person she knew. We caught up on husbands (or the lack of for her), kids, work.

Finally, my friend from high school saw my memoir on Amazon and sent me a Facebook message. She lives in Hawaii now. We caught up on husbands, kids (or lack of for her), work. And I’m now setting up a Zoom call so we can “see” each other. That’s what corona makes us do—find and treasure the connections we do have.

Before I go to bed, I tell my husband he needs to get a job. He reminds me that he has a job. He reminds me that we are okay. He’s right. We are okay.


About Mai Neng Moua
Mai Neng Moua is the editor of Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002) and the writer of The Bride Price: A Hmong Wedding Story (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017). She is currently working on writing children’s picture books. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and daughters.


A Day in the Life of a Hmong Woman Copyright © 2021 by Mai Neng Moua. All Rights Reserved.

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