During my twenty years of living I have made some really good and really bad choices. The worst choice I made was getting involved in gangs and drugs, which led to my unwilling trip to Mexico and life-changing events. Being in a gang is like playing chess: Only the king and queen survive, while the rest are and always remain pawns.
Growing up as young Black men in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, we learned a lot from the generation of Black men who preceded us. We, like they before us, were simply known as “the Rondo boys.” Rondo was where we learned to survive, to grow and develop—it was where we learned the value of our extended family membership, where we fell in love and got our hearts broken. It was also where we learned what’s in a name.
Newly ordained, I stand in front of a brightly decorated Christmas tree. Next to me is Nhia (Jonah) Xou Yang, former CIA collaborator turned minister. We are in the shared sanctuary of our respective Hmong and American congregations in a church on Saint Paul’s North End. It is Advent 1982. Soon the peacefulness is shattered. A rock band composed of Hmong teenagers arrives, rehearsing as they do each weekday afternoon. The noise drives us from our contemplation...
In the spring of 1994, I was a writer in residence for Consortium of Associated Colleges in the Twin Cities. This meant that participating campuses would house me for seven days, and during this time I would do individual and group writing critiques, a workshop, and a formal reading for the entire campuses at St. Thomas University, Macalester College, Augsburg College, Hamline University, and College of St. Catherine.
When I arrived at the airport my sister and her family came to the airport to pick up my family, and when I saw them, they said “Welcome to Saint Paul.” My first surprise was the snow. Before I came to the United States, I heard people talk about snowfall. I thought, if I go to America, I will eat snow and I don’t need to do anything—just put it in a cup and mix it with sugar and milk, and then we can eat it, because in my country we eat ice a lot in the summer. But in the U.S., no one eats snow.
Christmas is one of my favorite holidays—there are a lot of differences between Christmas in America and in my country, Sierra Leone. In America, all they do is exchange gifts and go to work, but in Sierra Leone people will start celebrating a week before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, people will do lots of grocery shopping and buy lots of meats and chicken because they like to cook fresh food in the morning. On the day of Christmas, all you can smell is the good smell of different aromas—yum, yum.
Not everyone in my family made it to Saint Paul. My parents were village people, until the villages were burnt down. Hiding in the jungle, their food was stolen; their friends and relatives starved. Our people, the Karen, were attacked because we have a different culture, language, and religion. My father was shot through his hand. It took a long time to heal. Let me explain. My name is November Paw. My parents fled Burma (Myanmar), over mountains and a great river, before I was born in 1992.