SAYMOUKDA VONGSAY AND MAY LEE-YANG TALK BEING ARTISTS AND REFUGEES
Artists Saymoukda Vongsay (aka the Refugenius) and May Lee-Yang took the stage at Coffman Memorial at the University of Minnesota performing The Hmong-Lao Friendship Play or The Lao-Hmong Friendship Play in April of 2017. The play has since then be renamed to The Friendship Play.
The play chronicles the real–life friendship between Vongsay, ethnically Lao, and Lee-Yang, ethnically Hmong. They were both born in refugee camps in Thailand and, along with their families, immigrated to the Twin Cities when they were young. The play discusses some of the similarities and differences as their families navigated a new culture, place and growing up within it.
Post-performance, Professor of English and Asian American Studies Dr. Josephine Lee moderated a question and answer panel discussion. Dr. Lee asked Vongsay and Lee-Yang what advice they might have for other aspiring artists in the majority-student audience. While the personalities of Vongsay and Lee-Yang shine through in their responses, so does devotion to their work, commitment in challenging the status quo and earnestness in inspiring others:
Vongsay: For me I was very fortunate because we have a lot of artists in my family. Aunts that paint, uncles that play guitar, and people that write. So, I was very fortunate. I was very supported when I wanted to pursue arts as a career. [But my parents] still made me go to grad school.
My advice is [to] pursue your passions and what you are interested in because it shows if you are doing good work, it shows. And if you are being excellent in it, people will notice. It doesn’t matter what you want to do, I mean make money and feed yourself and sh*t, but pursue your passions.
Lee-Yang: This seems like a stereotype, but I feel like it kind of isn’t either: for a lot of Asian communities, especially if you’re a first or second generation refugee or immigrant, usually our parents’ way of thinking is “survive.” Meaning, go to school, get a higher education, make money…and so the arts seem like a luxury that you can’t afford to have. And I just want to say I think the arts are super viable. The thing is that you need to work at the arts as hard as you would in other fields. Whatever you want to do-you need to actually work on it and pursue it.
The first thing is to really shift your way of thinking and realize, it can happen. And honor your stories… Whatever is your thing, your quirk, embrace it, instead of [staying] away from it.
Vongsay: And for the two of us, what we really want is for people to feel inspired to tell their stories and to tell their stories better than we are telling our stories…Cause we’re getting old and we’re gonna die soon- so ya’ll better bring it!
Lee-Yang: Haha, no.
Vongsay: We have a good 40 years.
Lee-Yang: To be quite honest though- neither of us are theater trained, so we’re like hackers …but imagine if you were actually trained! Oh, my gosh- you could do so much more than us!
Vongsay and Lee-Yang hope to inspire the next generation of artists and with their enthusiasm and vigor- they are no doubt doing just that.
To see learn more about Saymoukda Vongsay and her literary and theater work and to see excerpts of The Friendship Play, watch the video above.
Excerpts of the The Friendship Play post-performance Q & A were edited for the web.
Dr. Josephine Lee
Mary Anne Quiroz
Artist Saymoukda Vongsay
Artist Cori Lin
Artist May Lee Yang
Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center
University of Minnesota, Office for Multicultural Student Engagement
When Everything Was Everything
Wise Ink Creative Publishing, Inc