Beth Lo grew up spending most of her free time immersed in books. Now living with her sister Mai J. Lo Lee of Appleton, Wisconsin, she has come to find that her love for reading has had a positive influence on her family, despite how her parents felt about it.
The sisters talked with one another about that experience as part of a StoryCorps Mobile Tour stop in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
(The following excerpt has been edited for brevity and clarity)
Beth Lo: My name is Beth Lo, I am 49-years-old.
Mai J.Lo Lee: My name Mai J. Lo Lee, I am 43-years-old today.
So Beth, how does it feel being the older sister and not having an older somebody to go to?
BL: You know, it’s funny you say that because on the way over here, we were referencing that you and the younger sisters each had a sibling — almost, a sibling, cousin, a playmate — that you can hang out with. (You could) talk boys, talk makeup as you transition into your pre-teen/teen years.
And I was just saying, I have nobody. In our culture — and we are Hmong — I’m the oldest. So there’s never that effort to get friends or people that you can talk to outside of your familial setting. So yeah, it was quite lonely growing up, being the oldest girl in the family.
MJLL: Do you think that’s why you like books so much?
BL: Yes, yes.
MJLL: Tell me why you like to read so much and what do books mean to you?
BL: You know, I think if you ask anybody who loves books, it’s just … you get into the page and you become the characters. You go where they go. You feel what they feel.
MJLL: You live with me now. You’ve been living with my family for two years, and I cannot tell you how you’ve normalized reading for my daughter. Whereas, like with her peer group, enjoying reading is not seen as cool.
I try to do it in front of her all the time. But for her, when she saw you do it during your free time and not watch TV, not use your phone, where you always had a book in your bag, or you had a book in every room or a book — for her, she’s like, “I can put a book in every free space?” I just really appreciate that because for you living with us, that’s really normalized. It’s normal to read. Everybody should read, but it’s okay to read whatever you want, you know?
And for her to know that that’s normal (is important) because, you know, in our household that was not normal, right? We used to get yelled at for reading.
BL: Well, as you remember, our mother would literally come take the books out of our hands and rip it out. And I remember — I think it was last week — you were asking (your daughter) Seenia to go do something. She’s like, “Mama, I’m reading.” And I think you just silently closed the door and just walked out because what can you say when your child is like, “I can’t, I’m reading!”
MJLL: I felt so triggered when I was like, “Go do your chores and stop reading.” I thought, “(Gasp!) Trauma, trauma!”
I had to go journal. I had to go write about, like, “How do I feel?”
I remember my mom and our parents yelling at us about reading too much or that this wasn’t going to be a skill set that brides needed, you know? I had to explain to (Seenia), “Just so you know, Grandma and Grandpa were not encouraging of us reading.”
I remember when you went off to college, my dad had a book burning out in the farm. He was like, “What the hell am I going to do with all these thousands of books?” He just had this big bonfire and just threw all the books in there. I didn’t realize what it meant at the time or all of that stuff. I just thought (gasp) he burnt books because he didn’t want the younger kids to read it or to be influenced by it or to go to college.
BL: I think you and I, we snuck it in wherever we could. Thinking back to my youth, that was one of the rebellious things that I could have done in terms of from a cultural perspective.
Sadly, our mother would never say “We have a daughter who reads.” It’s always, “I have a daughter who… reads.” So there’s that hint of shame in that. And I appreciate you saying that about me influencing your daughter in a small capacity. That’s beautiful.
MJLL: Oh, no, that’s a big capacity. You know what a big capacity that is!
This story came from an interview recorded at StoryCorps, a national initiative to record and collect stories of everyday people. During a StoryCorps Mobile Tour stop in Green Bay, Wisconsin from August 10 – September 8, 2023, 110 conversations were recorded and preserved. Excerpts were selected and produced by Wisconsin Public Radio staff.