Mai Kim Le and her teenage daughter have lived very different lives. As a small child, Le and her family came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam. Le moved around the country as a child, and faced poverty, racism, and cultural isolation. Her daughter lives comfortably in affluent Brookline and attends private school.
So when COVID-19 hit, and Le’s daughter struggled with the isolation and stress of pandemic life, it was sometimes hard for mother and daughter to connect. Le decided it was time to share her story—her entire story—with her daughter as a way to build a bridge between them.
“I didn’t know how to communicate to her that I understand what she’s going through— it may not be the same, but I’ve been there,” Le says. “I just poured out the words for her, and it slowly became a book. It all started because I wanted to talk to her.”
That attempt to forge a connection eventually became Worlds Apart: My Personal Life Journey through Transcultural Poverty, Privilege, and Passion, a memoir published last year. At the heart of the story is Le’s struggle to understand and confidently embrace who she is as a refugee and an Asian woman making her way in a very different culture from the one into which she was born.
The book recounts Le’s family’s harrowing escape from their home country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, her time growing up in Lawrence, her struggles and triumphs studying at Bowdoin College and Princeton University, her international development work across the globe, and her sometimes meandering path to her current role as CEO of a medical device start-up company.
While documenting her story was powerful for Le, the process has had its share of challenges.
The project of writing the book was an intense one. Le worked on her story in addition to her full-time job and other family and community responsibilities. She wrote every day from midnight to 4 a.m., getting only two hours of sleep each night. By the time the book was complete in April 2021, she had exhausted herself so completely that she ended up sick and hospitalized.
Then, when the book was released in August, those closest to her did not embrace the news. Her Asian friends were totally silent about the release, offering no messages of congratulations or encouragement. And Le’s parents and siblings were very unhappy with her choice to share her—and their—story with the world.
“In our culture, it’s not socially acceptable to pour my heart and soul out and let the whole world see it,” she says. “A lot of the stories are really hard. I don’t think my family wanted anyone to know how hard we struggled.”
Eventually, however, her friends started reaching out, and her brother read the book. Slowly, those around her came to terms with her choice.
Despite these difficulties, getting Worlds Apart out to the public has only ignited Le’s passion for writing. She is now working with a friend to create an illustrated book out of a poem she wrote, and is collaborating on a screenplay telling a fictionalized version of the stories from her memoir. She also works full time, spends time with her husband and three children, serves on boards, and even finds time to make handmade jewelry on occasion.
This urge to work and accomplish was once driven, at least partially, by a chip on her shoulder, by a desire to prove herself, Le says. Now, however, she is motivated by something much simpler.
“I just love what I do,” she says. “I’ll quit when I no longer have the passion to do it.”
More info at maikimle.com