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Gathering Fireflies


La Crosse Tribune article July 20, 2015 by Mike Tighue

The 32-year-old Central High School graduate, who was pleased to be able to teach art at her alma mater and Longfellow Middle School last school year, is just as excited about her next assignment at Lincoln Elementary and Logan Middle.

“I love the kids,” Mai Chao said. “It’s amazing to see them be creative and find out who they are.”

The mother of two attributes her own interest in art to the impact of moving more than 8,000 miles to a lifestyle and climate that contrast sharply with those in her homeland.

“When we came here, we didn’t know English, and art was the only thing that allowed us to be who we are,” she said during an interview at the dining room table in her Onalaska home. She lives with her husband, Reid Duddeck, who also is a teacher, and their children, 5-year-old Ari and Ander, who is closing in on his first birthday.

In contrast, the Thai refugee camp where her family languished after the Vietnam War was an enclave of bamboo huts with thatched roofs and dirt floors, she recalled.

“I remember drawing on the floor with a stick,” Mai Chao said. “I remember having no electricity and being outdoors all day — I loved that.”

The climate was hot and dry, so much so that the children celebrated the infrequent rainstorms, rushing outside to frolic in the rivulets of water they imagined to be rivers as they launched the tiny boats they had fashioned from sticks, she said.

“That life seems so far from what we have here,” she said. “I would like to experience that again, but I’m so thankful that my parents brought us here.”

The oldest of six children of Shoua Lor and Chia Vue said, “If not for them, I would be a farmer’s wife with a houseful of children. I wouldn’t even know this life existed.”

This life includes a network of students and former teachers who find her inspirational, although she insists that she draws her own motivation from those same students and teachers.

She credits retired Central art teacher Joe Kuhn with cultivating the skills and confidence that she now passes on to her students.

“I loved him so much. If we didn’t understand, he didn’t reprimand. He went over it again with us.

“He opened my way to communicate who I am. By thriving there, I was able to communicate. Coming to art and making something creative means what can you produce that comes out of your experience,” she said.

“He continued his legacy as one of my mentors,” Mai Chao said. “Our lifelong relationship is vital to the success of who I am.”

Mai Chao’s admiration of Kuhn is mutual, with Kuhn saying in an interview, “She had a great work ethic, and she still does.

“She is an inspiration for her students — and not just the Hmong students,” he said. “I still substitute teach, and I have substituted for her, like coming full circle.

“You can always get a feel for a teacher when you substitute for them, and she is an inspiration for them,” said Kuhn, a noted a painter, sculptor and visual artist beyond his nearly four decades of teaching.

Mai Chao explained her decision to write a book as a logical extension of art.

“Writing is one of my passions,” she said. “It’s painting with words. You have to be so careful using words to convey the imagery.”

Her book features a verse writing style, which has a poetic appearance on the page and conveys a sense of rhythm to the reader.

Told through the multi-generational eyes of a bi-racial son, a mother, a grandmother and a grandfather, “Fireflies” details the conflicting perspectives of the old vs. the new.

“It’s almost a way of preserving my parents and my own life,” she said.

The grandfather had a lot of power in his native land but not in America, where the language and customs are foreign to him, she said.

“He feels lost, a 50-year-old child led by a child, and it’s detrimental to his own ego,” she said.

Cultures clash as the parents want a daughter to marry young and have a lot of children, while she wants to become a professional, Mai Chao said.

“They want her to listen to the male voice because they know best, while she wants to be an educated, independent woman,” she said. “Nothing is wrong with being a wife, but she wants a choice.”

The term “fireflies” in the title is a metaphor for dreams, Mai Chao said.

Publishers balked at taking on the book, saying its audience was too limited, she said, so she eventually self-published it through Amazon, where it is getting good reviews since it hit the Internet on April 30.

From a reader’s perspective, the 218-page paperback has broad appeal, potentially teaching as much to an American audience about the new citizens as it encourages immigrants to maintain their historical roots.

“I wrote this book in hopes of inspiring people to remember the past while honoring those who have paved the way for future generations,” she said.

Mai Chao, who is considering a sequel to her initial tale of hope, also envisions her book as a useful text in social studies classes.

Mentor Kuhn said he was surprised that his former student also chose to jump into the writing pool, too, adding, “I was real proud of her, and she persevered. It’s hard to be a mother and a teacher and writing a book.

“I think it’s a wonderful book,” he said.

Mai Chao the artist/teacher/author says education is a two-way street in her classrooms.

“The kids are not the only ones learning,” she said. “I’m learning, too. The kids inspire me.”

In turn, she urges them to gather their own fireflies, saying, “If people have dreams, do what you want. Never give up. Never once did I think my book would not be published.

“If nobody else did, I would,” she insisted.

And she did.

Link to article here

About Mai Chao Lor Duddeck

Mai Chao is a Hmong-American artist, writer, and teacher. Her family came to the United States from a refugee camp when she was ten years old. She wrote this book in hopes of inspiring people to remember the past while honoring those who have paved the way for future generations. The time has come for Hmong people to write their own histories and tell their own stories so they will be recorded authentically. Mai Chao has lived happily in Wisconsin since her parents brought the family to America in 1992. She has two beautiful sons and a wonderful husband. Please feel free to email her at

Hmong Traditions: Understanding a Way of Life

Journal of Undergraduate Research X 2007

Mai Chao Duddeck

Faculty Sponsor: Shin Seung-Ryul, Department of Art

ABSTRACT From the late 1950s through the early 1970s, the Vietnam War affected nearly the entire Hmong population in Laos. Many people had to depart their homes on a moment’s notice leaving everything behind. They hid in the jungles and stayed alive by eating plants, berries, and roots. My parents survived this traumatic experience, eventually making their way into the refugee camps in Thailand, and finally bringing our family to the U.S.A. During my research I interviewed people about the Hmong culture and our traditions. With the information collected, I wrote an autobiography and illustrated pictures to document this significant chronicle. I have a responsibility to search for rich experiences within the Hmong community and share them with students and community members to honor our history. 

A link to the article is here