Xiong tells graduates: ‘Create your own paj ntaub story’

Bao Niah commencement address

Tears of pride and joy, in her family, her Hmong heritage, her UW-Green Bay family, and herself, flowed freely as graduate Bao Nhia Xiong ’18 spoke at the UW-Green Bay Spring Commencement ceremony at the Kress Events Center on Saturday, May 12, 2018. Xiong, the Spring 2018 Commencement Speaker, was chosen to speak on behalf of her graduating class by UW-Green Bay faculty.

Comparing the student journey to a paj ntaub story — the Hmong art of adding intricate embroidery to traditional Hmong clothing — Xiong encouraged her fellow students to hold onto three distinct threads as they create their own paj ntaub: Family, university community and the spirit of giving back.

Bao Niah Xiong's commencement address

Bao Niah Xiong’s commencement address

Xiong’s parents, Hmong refugees who do not speak or read English, and a number of her siblings were not aware that she had been chosen to give the Commencement remarks on behalf of her graduating class until she was officially introduced during the ceremony. Her comments proved emotional for the family, including when Xiong referred to her graduation as a family accomplishment. “Many of us sitting here know that when we walk this stage today, we are not the only one graduating; when we walk the stage today, our family too graduates with us,” she shared.

Xiong, who delivered a portion of her remarks in her native Hmong so that her parents could share the special moment with their daughter, received a standing ovation from fellow classmates and faculty.

Her full speech is as follows:

“Nyob zoo! Hello and good morning everyone!

Before I speak today I would like to take this time to recognize that the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay occupies the land of the Menominee people. It is important that we acknowledge that these buildings are built on the home lands of their ancestors. Let’s all please take a moment to celebrate and honor this ancestral Menominee land, and the sacred land of all indigenous people.

As stated before, my name is Bao Nhia Xiong and I am a proud child of Hmong refugee parents. You see, my mother spent many years in a refugee camp in Thailand and as a source of income my mother worked day and night making paj ntaub. For those of you who don’t know what paj ntaub is, I will give you a little run down of it. Paj ntaub is a form of embroidery that is interwoven into our traditional Hmong clothing. It is a form of cross stitching that is used to tell the stories of Hmong people as they cross mountains and rivers for safety in response to the Vietnam and Secret War.

Although metaphorically, just like my mother, we, the graduating class of 2018, created our own paj ntaub story when we decided to venture onto this chapter of our life. This campus was the cloth that we chose to weave our story into and well, us, we are the needle that we control. Some of us came sharp and ready to take on this new adventure, while many of us came dull and broken.  Some of us were already provided with a variety of threads that ranged in different sizes and color while many of us came with just a handful of threads that we could find in our pockets. But after all the struggles and hardship, we are all here, sitting in the same room, about to walk the same stage to complete our own paj ntaub story.

As I stand up here today I’d like to share three different batches of thread to my own paj ntaub story.

The first group of thread for me was my family. They are the backbone to my story. You see, I didn’t grow up with money, I grew up with love.” Xiong continued, choking back tears. “While I was here achieving my goals, my brothers set aside theirs. While I was here living in a comfortable apartment, my family was struggling to pay rent on a small duplex that housed a secret number of 12. So there will never be enough thank yous and words to express my gratitude for my family. Because as a first generation college student, many of us sitting here know that when we walk this stage today, we are not the only one graduating; when we walk the stage today, our family too graduates with us.

If you all don’t mind I would like to speak a little Hmong so that my mother, Yer Vang, who is with us in the audience can also enjoy this moment with us:

Kuv niam tus yog vim muaj koj es thiab lis muaj kuv. Vim muaj koj txos kev hlub thiab txuj qab es kuv thiab kuv cov nus mauj thiab lis tos tus nyob teb cauv vaj meej. Txu peb tsis muaj nyiam ib yaj li hlus los tsuaj peb mauj kov txoj kev hlub ces peb yeej zoo siab lus. Kuv niam hnub nos kuv lab the tsis yoj kuv ib leeg lab the xwb; hnub noj kuv lab the yoj koj thiab kuv wb lab the ua kes os niam. Kuv hlub koj thiab ua tsuaj os kuv niam.

The second group of thread that I’ve learned to collect and weave into my story over the years is my second family here at UWGB. A family that, although I may be leaving, I will never forget. This family includes Reslife, more specifically Jeff Willems, GPS, Dr. Bartell who was the very first professor to show me that I am not just a number to this campus, Dr. Gurung for handing me opportunities that I never knew I could ever concur, and JP and Forest from the First Nations Department for their continued encouragement and support. Most importantly, Mai Lo Lee and the Multi Ethnic Student Affairs office staff and students for always showing me the way when I was lost. So like my own support I want all of you, the graduating class, to never forget those that had helped you through your journey and for you to always give back.

In talking about giving back, the last group of threads in creating our story is for us as a class to give. As much as we have survived in these past years together, we to had learn to thrive in this environment. We all know the struggle of completing a story when there is not enough thread to continue, so I challenge you as a class to continue to give back when you can. For us all to hand the generation coming after us the tools to not only survive, but thrive as much as we did and maybe even more. Let’s be compassionate and extend our hands.

So here we are. Stitching our last stitch. Completing this paj ntaub story that we have all worked so hard to make whole. I wish you all happiness and love and courage as you pick up that needle to thread your next story. Thank you and congratulations UWGB class of 2018!”

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