#iumienwomenmoversandshakers: Janit Von Saechao

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

I think some of the most significant barriers to non-male leadership are the deeply rooted traditions of patriarchy and the ways that they work to reinforce a very limited understanding of gender, further erasing the contributions of people who are not men. It’s a violent act to confine the multitudes held by womxn. And specifically Mien, Khmu and Southeast Asian womxn. There’s deep generational damage being done when we dismiss the labor of womxn/non-men in our people’s narratives of survival and resilience. Because to do so is to steal from the richness of our ever-evolving history. One of my greatest fears is that our histories will only reflect the work and accomplishments of those given the privilege of a platform, leaving behind the voices of the rest of the community who have also fought so hard and contributed so much to the survival and thriving of our people.

When I think about the general knowledge I hold around history, I’ve always wanted to know where people like me were. And almost always, there were no stories. Where were all the people who weren’t men and how were they living? What risks did they have to take and what were their stories? What did they have to survive through? We know that womxn, queer people, people with disabilities have always been present, yet, when we go to search for these narratives, there’s hardly ever proof that any of us made it through or even existed. But I know that can’t be true because I’m here and I’m living and I came from somewhere. And I know that I am not the only one.

When the cultural attitude around folks who hold some or all of these identities is that there’s something inherently inferior or unworthy about them, the erasure of their stories is intentional.

The erasure of MY story is intentional. As a fat, nonbinary femme, mixed Mien and Khmu, even the language that’s available in Mien culture to describe someone like me is demonizing and disempowering. It’s difficult to imagine yourself in a place of leadership when the messaging around your identities is shame, and that you’re either too much or you don’t belong. That you’re inherently different. But still holding obligation and duty to your parents, your family and your people. It’s a trip sometimes just thinking back upon my own journey arriving to where I’m currently at. To be honest, there are days I still struggle to feel like I’m enough of anything… But I also know the opposite to be true--I’m too much for many people. And that’s okay because I refuse to shrink my greatness for anyone. This universe is big enough for all of us to be magnificent.

What is one event that helped shape your life?

Being born the eldest of 3 children, all girls/non-male and being raised Mien. I was immediately given messaging around the roles and responsibilities of the eldest child but as many of us know, expectations (and privileges) are vastly different depending on your gender. My grandma often reminded me that as their eldest non-male child, I was to traditionally act as their boy. I’m blessed because they supported me as much as they could through my higher education journey. They’ve been integral to my overall thriving. But because I wasn’t actually a boy, I was still subjected to the standards and expectations of Mien womanhood--to be obedient, a homebody, modest, non-combative, quiet, thin, fair-skinned. Too bad, because I was never really any of them. And my parents and grandparents made it very clear they couldn’t stand it, so I tried even harder to break out of their mold. We still continue to work on understanding each other.

I think a lot about how these expectations have worked to shape my gender-nonconforming personhood. It’s interesting and often times frustrating to be nonbinary while having no actual word in your native language to explain it to your family. And for all they know, as long my appearance allows for them to perceive me as woman, that’s what I am. But I believe in transformative traditions. I have to because as people of the diaspora, we were forced to readapt and reimagine. At one point, we had no word for giraffe in our vocabulary. That changed when we arrived in the U.S. “Maaz jaang ndaauv”. If we can invent words for things that we never previously knew existed, I believe we have the ability to transform our thinking around gender, sexuality, and even mental health and disability. Especially when it means making space for the existences of countless people throughout our ancestry to finally be seen for who they are.

What’s one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make and how did it impact your life?

Deciding to live in my truth. Fully. And it continues to impact my life daily. Leaving my home and family in the Bay to move to Portland for better opportunities and for my own needs. Choosing to share my story even as scary as it feels, even knowing that it may be despised or misunderstood. No longer hiding all the things that make me different and make me, ME. At many points, one of my worst fears was not being accepted by everyone. So much so that I shrunk myself, spiritually, intellectually, physically, all while silencing my inner self. This culture of silence as obedience has been stealing peoples’ spirits and voices for centuries, including all of the womxn I grew up knowing and loving. So everyday that I’m given, I have to make a conscious choice in allowing myself to be seen, heard and felt in my fullness. And I’ve learned that when I do, I’m actually creating a new tradition and transforming the history of my lineage while making room for my future loved ones to have lives that are liberated, abundant and free.

What is an accomplishment you are proud of?

Last year I was invited to participate in a Senate briefing in D.C. to speak on the impacts of incarceration and deportation on Southeast Asian women and children. I had the opportunity to share a panel with Senator Tammy Duckworth and many other fierce womxn and non-men who were directly impacted, including founders of #ReleaseMN8 and Khmer Girls in Action, spreading awareness through our lived experiences of having loved ones systemically snatched from us. It was deeply moving to bear witness and be in community with so many powerful, resilient womxn, all of us sharing stories of survival and resilience. It also felt surreal for me at moments, being aware that I was one of the first of my people to step foot in such places. HUGE shoutout to Southeast Asian Resource and Action Center (SEARAC) and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) for all their dedication to shedding light on this nationwide issue that impacts so many more of our community members than we actually imagine. Click the link to learn more from the report, “Dreams Detained, in Her Words: The effects of detention and deportation on Southeast Asian American women and families”.

If there was a young girl out there who wanted to do what you did, what would you tell her?

I firmly believe that any and all girls, womxn, femmes, non-men can absolutely do what I’ve done and more. There’ve been so many before me and so many to come after me who will do magnificent, wonderful things.

I’d tell her/them, you are enough. Always. You are more than most people can imagine. Remember that when people try to tell you who you are and who they expect you to be. Tell them that when your ancestors were dreaming of better, they were dreaming of you. You are who your ancestors survived for. Live everyday in honor of that truth; let that guide you and be your compass. You have all that you need within you and around you. And write everything down. Your joy, frustration, pain, successes and failures. Because generations down the line, your descendents will be searching for evidence of how they got to where they are and they’ll search for your story to remind them of the value of their existence.

How can people get a hold of you? i.e., social media, phone number

Keep up with my work through my website, http://janitsaechao.com/ or my instagram, @ricewaterreflections.

To contact me, send over a sweet email to janitsaechao@gmail.com!

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