Young and Hmong in America

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The first note in our discussion on Hmong Americans focused on the cultural and racial tensions between immigrants and long-time locals in Midwestern cities such as Minneapolis and West Coast cities such as Fresno—the two biggest epicenters of Hmong Americans. This next reader, Bee Vang, grew up in both areas and is now entering adulthood with the wind at his back:

I would have said it was an impossibility: Children of refugees don’t give commencement speeches at Ivy League schools in America. Yet there I was, born in Fresno, raised in Minnesota, educated at Brown University, and stepping up to the podium as one of the speakers for mid-year graduation, 2016. My heart was in my throat, but no one could tell. In that moment my voice was kept strong by my mission—to make Hmong proud, to show through the power of my oration that we can go anywhere and excel, and that there is a lot for my fellow graduates to think about in our world marred by war and destruction.

The commencement committee had asked us to be light and inspiring. Talking about my track record, complimenting the other graduates on theirs, and throwing in lots of jokes, I sought to be maximally inspiring—but I insisted on keeping the history of bombing in as well. Not much of Hmong American history is light ...

I asked Vang if there’s a YouTube version of his commencement speech and there is—embedded above (a text version is here). Another reader, Pao Lee Vue, a professor at St. John Fisher College, recalls a distressing experience he had with Vang and some other students:

I thought Doualy’s Atlantic article was excellent, but I want to share another perspective. As an idealistic PhD student in Sociology, I made it a point to learn as much as I could about U.S. race relations as it pertains to crime and law enforcement, immigration, and assimilation. Committed to social justice, I also trained in how race intersected with other hierarchies, especially gender and social class. As I pursued field research on Hmong youth in the Upper Midwest, I became more and more convinced that Hmong were uniquely racialized both as Asian Americans, but also symbolically closer to blackness than their East Asian counterparts. I designed my book to convince readers of this.

Then I got up in front of the college classroom and had a whole new education.

Though my first teaching experience, in Wisconsin, had been full of challenges, I struggled less with teaching my students about the Hmong American experience. Local media might have generated stereotypes about Hmong males as gangsters or warriors, but at least some college students, both male and female, were also Hmong.

Now that I have moved to Rochester, NY, however, hardly any students seemed to have even heard that Hmong people exist in the world, much less in the U.S. I realized that here, where no Hmong have settled, black, white, and Latino students lack tools for distinguishing among Asian Americans. Though I have tried to teach our divergent histories and racial dynamics, I am up against the diehard American tendency to type everyone by their looks.

This was brought home to me in a campus event I organized. I had invited a distinguished Hmong activist/actor, Bee Vang, and we were in a big lecture hall with perhaps 100 college kids, trying to talk about how Asian men are stripped of masculinity in American race culture, how we are portrayed as too gay and undateworthy.

To my shock, and in full earshot of my Hmong male guest speaker, some of the students snickered audibly as we described the geek image we live with—the dorky guy who can never get laid. One student even announced that Asian men had small penises. Her assertion wasn’t worded as being reflective of a stereotype or a racist culture, but stated as if it were a well-known and widely accepted fact.

I shudder, realizing that I am raising three boys in this part of the U.S. They are part white and part Native American as well as Hmong, but how will they be known? Can I shield them from any of this pain?

This next reader, Leah Olson, has a more hopeful outlook:

I am 37 years old and live in Appleton, which has one of the largest Hmong communities outside of Minneapolis. I think things have changed significantly since I was a child. We moved to Appleton from a suburb of Milwaukee when I was in sixth grade, and I remember being shocked to see both adults and children make openly racist comments about their Hmong neighbors. These comments were not just made privately, but within earshot of Hmong adults and children.  In school, Hmong children stayed within their own group.  I don’t remember having any conversations with my Hmong classmates.  

I moved back to Appleton ten years ago to raise my children. I was hesitant to move back in part because of those experiences witnessing overt racism. I didn’t want to raise my boys in that environment.

But their experiences have been completely different from my own. At one of the school PTA meetings this past year we had Hmong parents talk about their experiences growing up. The entire presentation was done in Hmong so that non-Hmong parents could experience what it is like to have to listen through an interpreter. At the end of the presentation, a group of fifth and sixth graders (both Hmong and non-Hmong students) performed a traditional Hmong dance.

Both my sons have Hmong friends, Latino friends, and African-American friends. The city is more diverse than it was when I was a child. But it can still be challenging. My first grader’s best friend is Hmong and his parents speak very little English. We have to arrange playdates with the help of one of the school’s interpreters, but we make it work.

I know that the Hmong community still faces a lot of discrimination, but I think they have more friends and allies than they did 25 years ago. We are all a part of the same community, and that makes me happy.