- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) - Growing up Hmong in in Wausau the 1990s wasn’t easy.

It was the height of cultural and political upheaval created in the wake of the Hmong immigration wave that brought about a massive change in the racial profile of the community. School leaders were grappling with integration issues. Social service agencies were stretched. And many longtime residents believed Asian newcomers were demolishing their visions of what an ideal community should look like.

For Lah Thao, the son of an Asian father and white mother, the times were arguably even more difficult than for the typical Hmong child. He’s 35 years old now, a business owner and a teacher at EEA Learning Academy, a Wausau School District charter school. But the memories still sting: Hmong kids telling him he belonged with white kids, and the white kids not accepting him because he was Hmong. He remembers being taunted, kids yelling at him, “Go home you (expletive) gook.”

“I had my fair shares of struggles in high school,” Thao said.

He started wrestling in elementary school. Thao used the sport to channel aggression, but he still often found himself answering taunts with taunts, punches with punches. Sometimes, he became the bully himself, he said.

His teenage anger was somewhat softened by strong family support and a firm Christian faith. But he also found a turning point, he said, when he began to study taekwondo, a Korean martial art that blends karate and other traditional fighting styles. The practice gave him discipline and self-confidence, Thao said, and curbed his tendency to lash out when someone came at him.

“Taekwondo is primarily a defensive art,” Thao told the Wausau Daily Herald (https://wdhne.ws/2goo7ZL ). “It just helped me stay calm. … I didn’t get into any more physical confrontations after that.”

Knowing that he could do things such as breaking bricks with his bare hands changed his attitude. He got more patient. His confidence in himself got stronger. Things got better.

Today, as a teacher and the father of two daughters, Aerial, 15, and Akaya, 11, he still battles bullying, this time as an adult who works to curb it.

Overt racism isn’t a prevalent today in Wausau as it was 20 years ago, Thao said, but it’s still here. And kids face different challenges than he did, including the presence of online bullying.

Parents need to be aware of what their kids are thinking and feeling, he said, watching for the signs of bullying that erode a child’s self-confidence and well-being.

“Make sure you know what your kids are doing,” Thao said.

As a teacher, his main strategy against bullying is getting to know his students.

“In our school, we get the benefit of developing strong relationships, and that’s key,” Thao said.

He also uses the tool that helped him deal with bullies when he was a kid, martial arts and physical exercise. He takes a group of EEA students on an 83-mile bike ride from Weston to Howard on the Mountain-Bay Trail. Thao also has received grant money to offer martial-arts training at the school. Both of those activities help kids often understand they are capable of doing more than they thought.

And that self-confidence, Thao said, gives kids the power to overcome bullying.

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Information from: Wausau Daily Herald Media, https://www.wausaudailyherald.com

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