She’s a household name, depending on your household.
The soft-spoken Shaw Middle School teacher has been a successful recording artist since she was a child.
Fan mail comes to this 25-year-old singer from the other side of the globe, where her original music is regular radio fare. She signs autographs. She makes headlines in national publications.
Yet, unless you’re among the 200 to 300 families of Spokane’s Hmong community, you probably haven’t heard of Mai Bee Vue.
That’s OK with Mai Bee. She enjoys being a star who twinkles in a diminutive universe, saying her true stage will always be the classroom.
Mai Bee teaches math, science and reading to Shaw students new to this country. She recently became a U.S. citizen. America, she says, feels like home.
Nobody, however, knows better than Mai Bee the frightened, disoriented feelings of being a stranger in a strange land.
Ten years ago, she attended the same classes at Shaw she now teaches. Mai Bee came to America with her family, who fled Communist-controlled Laos.
“I’m very fortunate to come back here,” says Mai Bee, now in her second year at Shaw. “But it’s also weird. Most of last year I still felt like a student, especially around my former teachers.”
Growing up in Spokane, Mai Bee assumed the role of helping her siblings and relatives with their homework. That gave her the bug to become a teacher. “In my culture,” she adds solemnly, “we are taught to respect teachers as you respect your parents.”
Her singing career - performances and tape sales - paid Mai Bee’s way through Eastern Washington University, where she earned her teaching degree.
Mai Bee has a clear, delicately beautiful voice, worthy of the butterfly symbol she chose as her musical identity.
The Hmong American Journal, published in St. Paul, Minn., recently dubbed her “one of the great female vocalists” of the nation’s Hmong communities.
Mai Bee, who released her fourth album last summer, writes her own ballads based on personal observations and experiences. The music she records, like Mai Bee, is a marriage of Asian and Western influences. Although she sings in her native language, the beat and the arrangements have a decidedly American pop feel.
Her own tastes run to Dolly Parton and Reba McIntyre. Mai Bee says, adding a laugh, that she may try her own album of country Hmong. “I appreciate both cultures,” she says. “But I will always remember who I am and where I am from.”
Mai Bee’s family consists of her father, Xaycha Vue, her mother, Dou Yang, a sister and seven brothers.
Xaycha, she says, worked for the local government in northern Laos. That made him a target in 1975, when Communists took over. “The situation was getting worse and worse,” Mai Bee says. “Many who were captured were never seen again.”
The Vues moved quickly. After four years in a Thailand refugee camp, they moved to Spokane in 1979 to be near relatives.
Mai Bee was 10 when she began singing and dancing in a family band. When the group broke up, she embarked on a solo career.
She’s always been something of a rarity.
In Hmong culture, she says, women typically don’t attend college or work outside the home. A wife, she says, is never “considered someone who gives opinions.”
Mai Bee is changing things. She was recently elected as the first woman to serve as chairman on the Vue Family Association board of directors.
That’s a bigger deal than it sounds. In Hmong culture, everyone with the same surname is considered a cousin. There are thousands of her Vue “cousins” scattered across the U.S.
Like her beloved butterfly, Mai Bee has broken out of the confining shell of tradition to soar through life on many levels.
“When I’m on tour I feel like a star,” says Mai Bee. “But when I’m home or teaching at school, well, I’m still just a normal person.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo