To Be Both Midwestern and Hmong, Cont'd

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

Doualy Xaykaothao, a journalist based on Minnesota, recently gave us a look at what it’s like to be Hmong American in the Midwest, and her piece got a good amount of response from Atlantic readers. If you’re unfamiliar with the Hmong, they’re an ethic group native to the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia and China. About 260,000 of them are living in the U.S., and a huge influx of Hmong came to America following the Vietnam War. (The video above is the first part of a documentary about that refugee experience.) My father, a Vietnam vet and Wisconsin native, talked about the Hmong with great admiration while I was growing up. Here’s a poignant passage on Nou Vang Thao, a Hmong American who risked his life to help the CIA in his native country but faced bigotry after relocating to Wisconsin:

Despite being a war veteran, many people confused him with the enemy—assuming he was Vietnamese or, worse, Viet Cong. Thao says he sometimes had to remind people he fought for freedom, not communism. “Even today,” he said. “People don’t know why the Hmong are in Wisconsin, and coworkers, they don’t care to know why we are here. We couldn’t stay in our country because of our involvement with the white man. We’ve given Americans 100 percent of our heart, but they’ve only given us 20 percent.”

A reader is struck by stories such as Thao’s:

Steven Senne / AP

It sucks that these heroes who saved so many American lives could be treated poorly. Hmong are good people. I have known many, and they are great Americans. What is so terrible is that the leftist propaganda against the Vietnam War clouded too many people’s minds. The Communists in Southeast Asia were genocidal maniacs. They committed ethnic cleansing everywhere they went. (Note that all the refugee camps were in safe, capitalist countries like the Kingdom of Thailand, Philippines, and British Hong Kong.) The U.S. should have brought more of our allies back to safety in the U.S.

Xaykaothao’s piece features two other stories from Hmong Americans. Nou Vang was out fishing on a lake with his two young sons near their home in Wisconsin when a speedboat full of men intentionally tipped Vang’s boat over. Later, on shore, the men intimated the family with clubs. The other story is about a Hmong American teenager named Dylan Yang, whose friends got into an altercation with another group of adolescents resulting in Yang stabbing and killing a boy who had fired a BB gun. A reader challenges Xaykaothao’s narrative of that fatal incident:

A brief amount of research into the Dylan Yang verdict suggested to me that the gang-versus-gang context of the fight was, in fact, a significant reason for the conviction: “The two groups of boys called themselves gangs, something Yang admitted to being a part of during questioning.”

In my opinion, that took the killing out of the realms of justifiable self-defense against an unprovoked surprise attack. Had Yang not belonged to (what he described as) a gang, he would not have had a role in the escalating series of skirmishes that led to the other boy’s death. I’m very sympathetic with Yang, and hope he receives a light sentence, but the basic facts of the matter are not really on his side here.

At any rate, where I live the heroism of the Hmong is well-known. We have a large number of Indochinese immigrant families and wish we had more. On a recent trip to the other side of the USA, I stumbled across a huge Hmong New Year's Celebration while touring the Space Needle. The Hmong community truly is vibrantly alive in Seattle.

The Atlantic’s Next America team actually had a short dispatch from Seattle last year featuring the flower businesses run by Hmong American families at the city’s iconic Pike Place Market. Here’s a short video they produced:

Back to the more tragic side of Hmong American history, this next reader highlights what is probably the most high-profile case of violence that involved a Hmong American (and it’s a story I heard about a lot from my family members living near Green Bay):

I live in northern Wisconsin, in the county where the Chai Vang incident happened. To those who don’t know, it was a deer hunting dispute where Vang was trespassing and shot eight people, killing six. Two of the victims were women and the youngest victim was only 20 years old.

The reader then points to what might be a cultural disconnect that causes tension between Hmong new arrivals and long-time locals:

As someone who has lived here my whole life and my family has had a resort since the ‘60s, I can say that the majority of the problems between white and Hmong people are usually related to the latter not understanding game laws. The lake our resort is on has a limit of two fish a day (walleye), and there have been several arrests of Hmong fisherman with hundreds of fish when they were caught.

The biggest I remember was in 2007: The Department of Natural Resources raided a cabin across the lake and caught the Hmong fisherman with over 500 walleye they had netted while they were spawning. This can decimate a fish population, and when your living depends on fish like us with the resort, or when you disrespect the traditions of the Native Americans by overfishing the lakes and making their spearing harvests reach all-time lows, it breeds contempt and misunderstandings between cultures. There is no excuse for racism of any kind, but I think it’s more of a cultural difference than out and out racism.

Speaking of misunderstanding between cultures, this AP photo really popped out at me:

Eric Humbert holds up his new “No Trespassing” sign printed in English and Hmong outside his cabin near Ogdensburg, Wisconsin, on Nov. 9, 2007. Humbert says he started Ezotic Hunting Signs because of racial unease in the woods between Hmong and white hunters following two deadly confrontations in northern Wisconsin. (Bob Imrie / AP)

We’ve already gotten a few emails from Hmong American readers sharing their experiences living in the Midwest—in one case as a gay man—and we’ll be airing them shortly, but feel free to drop us a note if you have your own story to share. Update from a reader who touches on the second largest community of Hmong Americans outside the Twin Cities—Fresno, California—and questions the U.S. government’s resettlement approach when it came to Hmong refugees:

If Wisconsin feels like home and is home to the Hmong in America, then we should be happy for them. But while Xaykaothao’s story about the Midwest has edifying moments, there are far less edifying accounts from California, where Hmong-related violence, including domestic violence and murder and gang wars, were a common occurrence in Fresno. (And San Francisco would have stories of Hmong snaring squirrels in Golden Gate Park.)

[Speaking of squirrels, here’s a tragic story from Wisconsin I stumbled upon: “A white hunter convicted of killing a Hmong immigrant while both stalked squirrels in the woods was sentenced Wednesday to the maximum 69 years in prison.”]

An error by our government was scattering Hmong refugees into various parts of the country rather than putting them more closely together. This was a misunderstanding of the importance of cohesion in deference to local communities welcoming refugees from all over.