My name is Chali Lee. My name is the most important part of my life and my name represents me quite well if I do say so myself. Lee is my surname given to me by my father. It ties me to my clan. Lee represents me well because it is a name that is shared with all of my ancestors who came before me. It proves my lineage but confuses people as they don’t know my ethnicity from it. Chali is equally as important. My name is a Hmong word, “tshaj lij,” which means intelligent, sharp, and above average; however, my parents spelled it in a way that made more sense for my American life. Much like my first name, I am Hmong-American. I carry the spiritual belief of Shamanism as my religion, and I am also accepting of my own queer identity, which leans more towards Western culture. Much like my surname, I am part of a larger whole. This intersectionality leads to many conflicts in my personal life, my big family, and my even larger lineage.
I have two sisters and one brother, and I am the youngest of four children in my family of six. I have nine aunties and six uncles. I have four grandparents and way too many cousins to keep track of. I grew up in a traditional household where Hmonglish was my first language and where the meaning of family was first ingrained in my mind. Many Asian families believe that one’s life is not theirs alone. An individual is only part of the larger whole of their family. This was no different than what my family believed. I was taught that family is the end all be all. Family is where I was born and nurtured, and family will be the ones who lower my casket into the ground. I was taught this not by words, but by actions.
It was common enough for people in my family to sacrifice for the better of the family. First, my grandparents and parents left behind a familiar life to them in Laos and Thailand and came to America as refugees to start a better life for the generations after them. Then my parents ceased their educational goals temporarily to take care of the family and their children. Due to money, my aunts and uncles either attended the local state university or started working right away straight after high school. Finally, it came down to my siblings and me. My eldest brother sacrificed his innocence and childhood to protect my 2 sisters and myself from witnessing the evils that resided in my family. Though my brother left home for college, my sisters stayed due to finances and due to the cultural expectation of women in the Hmong community. As for me, I believed that my sacrifice would be never mentioning my queer identity to save my family from a lifetime’s worth of shame and dishonor.
This sacrifice that I vowed to make started as soon as I have realized that I may not be straight. Believe it or not, I was in 3rd grade when I realized I was not like the other boys. Fast forward to me just graduating high school and I still refuse to speak about it too openly. The reason why I have been running this 10-year marathon and still choose to continue this marathon is because of the tethering of my family. Their leverage over my head makes me truly feel like a piece of a pie. I feel incomplete without my family. Hopefully one day, I will be able to stand alone as my own piece on a plate, but today I am still a part of the pie I call my family and kin.