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August 20, 2015

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Fayette Mong

Kate Hart
Fayette Mong has accomplished a lot since we met in junior high show choir, but even though we stayed in school together through college, I only had a vague idea of her family's incredible story. I knew her parents, who owned a local restaurant, had immigrated from China and named Faye for our Arkansas hometown, but even that story was more amazing when I asked her to clarify: "I was the first person in my family to be born in the U.S.," she explained. "My brother was almost kidnapped in the 70s in Texas, so when my parents found out they were having a girl, they took a few road trips to find a quieter (safer) community. They landed in Fayetteville and decided it was perfect for a girl. My brother's idea was to name me after the town, so I'm Fayette."

Grownup Faye is a driven badass dedicated to social justice, and I'm honored that she's allowed me to share her story here. If you only read one Badass Ladies profile ever, please make it this one.


Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Faye: I'm a prosecutor for the Division of Professional Licensure (DPL) under the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs. [1] DPL is responsible for licensing and regulating the activities of over 370,000 individuals, corporations and partnerships. Our mission is to protect public health, safety and welfare by fair and consistent enforcement of statutes and regulations of the Boards of Registration. Improvements in the laws that govern professionals are an on-going, highly involved, and team-oriented endeavor. I represent Consumers of the Commonwealth and the Boards of Licensure. When license holders violate statutes, regulations, and ethics of any given profession (under our jurisdiction), I prosecute them for the enforcement of discipline to their license (fines, suspensions, revocations, etc.); I also prosecute them criminally along-side local (criminal) district attorneys.

Current Project: Growing a little girl in utero (my first child). Procrastinating the re-learning of how to write Chinese.

To understand my path, you would have to see me through the historic lens of my parents' lives. My parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1972 with my 2-week-old brother, $200 borrowed cash, and very broken English. They left China as young, excited, hungry, able-bodied, non-assimilated, previously educated and politically relevant immigrants. When the Communist Revolution arrived to Mainland China, in the 1960s, both of my parents' fathers were highly decorated generals in the Nationalist Army. My paternal granddad was also a decorated Judge Advocate General (or equivalent thereof). After field battles, he presided for decades over each military branch's courts. Prior to the onset of the Communist coup, both of my parents' families were comfortably wealthy and highly respected. As the Communist regime conquered the mainland, my parents' families fled south [2] , eventually finding refuge in Taiwan, with a large population of mainlanders who sincerely believed that they would win back the mainland in a matter of weeks.

By the time my father courted my mother, he held a Master's degree in electrical engineering from the Taiwan naval academy and mom had graduated with her finance and insurance degree. Both had begun promising teaching and professorship careers. They married when she was 20 and he was 32. Then, in 1972, when they had my brother, they finally accepted that the communist regime was becoming permanent. Both were revolutionaries at heart and had a long lineage of familial belief in democracy and free thinking.

portrait of Mencius
I'll digress for a moment to share some historical pressure my parents felt as immigrants. My last name, "Mong" (or "Meng"), comes from the neo-Confucian philosopher named Mencius. Mencius was one of the most published and renowned students under Confucius. Mencius was considered the most optimistic of all the new-Confucians, and placed a large emphasis on the importance of society, community and a general collective goal. He was revered as a philosopher, teacher, and an avid reader/practitioner of the I-Ching . Upon his death, his followers and students published so many of his teachings that when I studied abroad at the Chinese University at Hong Kong (CUHK), there were shelves upon shelves of books dedicated only to his teachings. His children later published his personal works as well: he pre-scribed a family tree, complete with the number of (male) births and pre-determined names. I had never really grasped the extent of his historical presence until my professors at CUHK bowed in my presence, after seeing my last name. I was immediately humbled, curious, and concerned about what type of legacy I might have to carry…

Back to my parents' immigration. Upon arrival to the U.S., my mom started waiting tables and bartending for cash; my dad got the only job he could that allowed him to watch out for her while she worked late nights: janitor. The humility involved with taking such demotions in life in exchange for the opportunity at a democracy was deep seeded and therefore taught to me as a child. The freedom to think and learn; the freedom to choose your government, is worth risk and sacrifice.

There are countless stories that ignited my hunger for systemic change - for the need to help the less educated, the immigrants, and the lower socio economic Americans. There is the story of my parents' first American lawyer taking advantage of their language gap for hundreds of dollars (in the 1970s) at a time when my parents' dollars were earned in singles, while my mom bartended and my dad mopped, and lived without furniture or a change of clothes for my brother. There is the story of my uncle, whom my parents sponsored to immigrate: he had the wrong teeth pulled at the dentist because he couldn't understand what the dentist said. There are the stories of my parents having hot food poured down their shirts and thrown at their faces because they didn't understand food orders correctly. There is the story about my mother not knowing she was supposed to boil the dozen dyed Easter eggs that she sent with my brother to school (because who ever heard of "the Easter bunny?"), resulting in a class of very angry white mothers who yelled at my brother and mother. There is the story of my parents having no idea how a child applies to college or what a scholarship or financial aid is and asking their kids to ask their friends for help about these topics. There is the story of my mother walking with me, hand in hand when I was two years old, across an 8-lane highway in Houston after our car had broken down and people leaning out of their windows yelling, "chink" at us (which is how I learned the term), another guy leaning out of his truck, threatening to shoot me if I didn't "go back where I came from," and my aunt trying to explain the term "racism" to me (to which I replied, "but I was born here, right?"). There's the story of my mother and my 7-year-old self, stopping on Highway 23 in Arkansas to let our dog urinate on the side of the highway and a man pointing his loaded rifle at me: he cocked the rifle and screamed at my mother that she had "2 seconds to leave this area before he blew our heads off." There is the story about my being one of only 6 American students in an international student community at CUHK when the planes hit the twin towers on 9/11: not a single local or international student a) was surprised that the U.S. was hit, b) that the U.S. "didn't see it coming," c) was even empathetic to our concerns about our families back at home. In fact, they were furious at our ignorance that the international community disliked the U.S. so much. The only reason they let me use the telephones or turn on an English-speaking news channel was because my mother had flown back to the U.S. the previous evening and I hadn't heard from her.

In other words, there was never just one incident that brought me to my path of social justice.
I work in the public sector because I believe that one of the most expeditious ways to better a system of government and society is to start with the quality of care from inside the system (in other words, the quality of care our government can provide its citizens). I work in Prosecutions because I am a reaction to these stories of bitter lessons learned: systemic good can come with stop-gapping the culprits of crime.

Kate: Do you have any creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)?

home base program logo
Faye : When any child loses a parent, no matter what age or from what ailment, the child feels lost and helpless to a large extent. My father passed during the week of my 18th birthday. In the blur, someone suggested I take up running. I haven't stopped since.

I also volunteer for an organization called Home Base, a partnership between Red Sox Nation and Massachusetts General Hospital that specializes in multi-disciplinary help for all family members affected by military deployments, Post Traumatic Stress, and Traumatic Brain Injury. They helped me when I lost my first marriage (and almost myself) to the quietest and most alienating syndrome I had ever experienced: prolonged Post Traumatic Stress, and a society that neither knows, nor wants to know, about its long term affects, including physiological and suicidal issues.

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Faye : Boundaries. Despite how cognizant I am of the gifts my parents gave me in raising me, it would be inaccurate to say that the violent tendencies my father had didn't form a lot of who I am. His temper was not fueled by the more-often discussed demons (alcohol, sex, drugs, addiction, etc.). After he passed away, I investigated his trauma. He suffered from a lifetime of untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: he was born into the Sino-Japanese War [3] and a Civil War in China [4]. (The Japanese invasion was in 1937, when my father was barely 5 years old.) This war paved the way for the Cultural Revolution and WWII for the rest of the world. I overheard him talking about watching his uncle being hung outside his own home, on his own property, as a small boy.

Anyway, having no coping mechanisms, he took his anger out on our family. His violence confused my idea of "right/wrong" and "should/not." My personal interpretation of that trauma has been to over-achieve. I take on more projects and obligations than I should.

I think a lot of women in our society and in the male-dominated law industry struggle with feeling the need to catch up. In law school, I took an interview-prep course that taught women not to wear pants to interviews; to wear skirts, not dresses, were best, and knee length was the only acceptable length (a.k.a., if you're a woman, don't wear pants to pretend you're male); not to show my long hair (keep it in a tight pony-tail!), not to wear jewelry, only to wear black or grey, only to wear heels ½ an inch or less. In an industry that teaches you in your early 20's to hide while objectifying your gender; to hide your expression and identity, it's no wonder women struggle to over-compensate by working longer hours with less pay.

Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Faye : I failed the bar the first time I took it. I had already accepted a prosecutor position at my current job, but it was contingent upon passing the bar. I had also carved out a nice niche with my colleagues by the time I received the test results. I think I fell down my apartment stairs when I opened the failure letter. I called my mom crying that I was sure I would lose my job (and career, and apartment, etc.). But as usual, she coached me through emotional turmoil with the wisdom of logistics: "There is no time to feel sad. Get to studying for the next one. Call around and get a recommendation for a tutor."

In my opinion, a good mother is someone who doesn't let herself get in the way of mothering. Sure, she wanted to coddle and maybe even cry with me, but she didn't. She told me to go after what I wanted, again and better - no, differently. So I hired a tutor. My boss allowed me to continue to work full time, with one more chance to pass the bar. So I worked from 9-5 and studied from 5-11 every night for the next three months (again). I passed. My back hasn't been the same since; I doubled in near-sightedness, I developed carpal tunnel, and I lost a handful of relationships. But #firstworldproblems, right? The best lesson I took from the failure was that I am capable of working twice as hard as the societal norm, if I have to, and that goals are worth that amount of work, even if it means suffering some loss.

Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten?

Faye : "Your insight into people's intimate lives makes you so good at seeing things from multiple perspectives." I think it is because I refuse to believe that people naturally come from a malicious place. Rather, I think everyone is just reacting to the circumstances of their individual lives (and society). I think every "bad" decision a human makes could have been mitigated with some measure of empathy and education, so I've tried very hard to see things from non-conforming perspectives. I do this with defendants and friends, equally. I also think most conflict begins with a large level of ignorance, but that ignorance is often the product of socio-economic status, culture and geography.

Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work? 

Faye : For me, sexism and racism have been equally as enlightening. When I was 26, I worked as certified legal advocate for domestic violence (DV) victims in MA. I worked under the guidance of a public interest law firm who served indigent DV victims in all areas of the law (housing, paternity, custody and divorce disputes, elderly and immigration issues, etc.) I escorted a white, similarly-aged woman into a court room after having rehearsed with her what the judge would ask regarding the type of abuse in her home. (She had two children under 5 and her husband at the time had curtailed his violence to "only" breaking things around her, instead of hitting her. But the evening prior, he had finally threatened to kill her.) I told her to wear clean and professional clothes, if she had access. She borrowed a suit. The judge turned to me and read his boiler plate advisory statements to me, while not so much as glancing in her direction. When he finished, he asked me what the nature of the abuse was. So I spoke on her behalf and described the escalation of the husband's verbal, and progression of physical, habits. The judge asked me if I felt safe in my home. I said I lived alone. He asked me where my husband lived. I was not married - so I realized, he thought I was the victim. I paused, wondering how to respectfully correct him - and also tried to assess why he automatically thought I was the victim and the victim was the lawyer. It had to be race: I was the young minority female who was now stuttering and the victim was the white woman in a suit.

 When I looked at the line of women waiting behind us to seek restraining orders, I noticed that they were all women of color and between the ages of 20-35. I realized how fortunate I was to be on this side of the courtroom and to be able to help all of these people who were and are literally exactly like me. I'm not criticizing the desensitized judge. I'm also not saying there aren't male DV victims (especially since male DV and sexual abuse victims are some of the most insidiously silent, and therefore persecuted, population among us). I'm saying that in a room full of lawyers, judges, and minority DV women, I was the only minority female that had a real chance giving those women a voice - that is inspiration.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Faye : Non-judgment, dialogue, empathy, and unbridled support. I think one of the most toxic traits that we are taught in this society is shame - especially the shame we are taught as children in our "preferred" gender roles. Males are conventionally taught not to talk and not to cry. Women are conventionally taught to be silently strong and to give more than they receive.

I think true justice would be a society where everyone could voice and explore their real identities (passions, demons, questions and fears) with an audience of support and mutual exploration. The best therapist I ever had said, "Anger is just graduated fear. Find the fear - it's often very simple - and you may never need the defensiveness of anger." I wish everyone, not just women, had someone to hear their fears so that they could turn it into assertiveness and confidence. Instead, our teenagers are relegated to anger and violence, with ready access to fire arms and no ready access to multi-disciplinary education or support.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Faye : Find it in yourself to be a leader at least once a day - not from being bossy, but from having the confidence and empathy to know the high road and to demonstrate that path.

It will get better - in a day, year, or with a new friend. Don't be afraid to cry and show true vulnerability. I think the strongest women are those that have no shame in pain and struggle. If you're struggling, you're probably a badass.

[1] and I attach links for a generalized concept of what I discuss. I am not the author of most of the links and therefore cannot authenticate any fact-checking provided (such as in the wiki pages).
[2] "Fled" should is not an understatement here. Both families were politically active, and thus targets of the Communist regime. My mother recounts stories of being a young girl, told to tuck away a couple of immediate belongings and riding horse-back through the nights. They left all their belongings, with the intention to come home to them once the Communist party was conquered.


You can learn more about Faye's career in her New England Law profile. Be sure to follow Badass Ladies You Should Know on Twitter and Tumblr!


All content copyright Kate Hart 2016

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