Hmong American readers share their stories of immigrating to and living in the United States. Drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your own experience as a member of, or neighbor to, the Hmong community.
A Hmong American reader Kong Pheng Pha tells his story, weaving in some quotes from his Hmong friends:
I migrated to the U.S. from Ban Vinai refugee camp in 1993 and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, but I relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota in 2001. I would not have used the word “queer” to describe myself growing up, but I knew early on that I was “different” from other boys. Growing up queer was extremely difficult for a Hmong refugee such as myself, especially living in poverty while trying to succeed in school and learning about my identity.
As some may say, it was hard to envision the Midwest as a destination spot for Hmong refugees or even queer Asian Americans. It was only until college did I realize how being Hmong, queer, and living in the Midwest would mean for me. Historically, the Midwest was not seen as a “gay friendly” region, and many have migrated away to seek more acceptance in, say, the Bay Area. But how does this picture of moving away in order to achieve liberation work for Hmong LGBTQ?
Linda Her, who identifies as a Hmong American lesbian, came out in the early 2000s and left St. Paul for San Francisco because she believed she was the only Hmong queer person. Speaking at the Minnesota capitol in 2012, she recalled, “The Hmong community and the LGBTQ community was not ready for me.” However, she eventually returned to St. Paul because she felt she was missing a part of herself being away from her family and the Hmong community.
Kevin Koob Meej Xiong, a gay Hmong man from Charlotte, North Carolina, moved to St. Paul in 2006 after coming out to his parents because he heard about Shades of Yellow, a Hmong LGBTQ support organization, started by Hmong youth. He reflects, “I came to Minnesota because of the resources available to Hmong LGBTQ at that time here. I found out about SOY in 2002 and after meeting a couple of the members at that time, I decided that I needed to come here to find myself.”
Indeed, the Midwest has operated as a sort of “Hmong queer San Francisco,” in the sense that the burgeoning Hmong population in the Twin Cities has allowed community building among Hmong LGBTQ.
I was among the activists in a collective of Hmong and Southeast Asian LGBTQ called Midwest Solidarity Movement who worked to defeat the marriage amendment in Minnesota in 2012 that would have defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. Chong Vang, a queer Hmong Thai American refugee activist-organizer, spoke at the state capitol after the defeat of the amendment: “With the tool of community organizing, I was able to work in my Hmong community, to mobilize them to take action against this hurtful amendment.” Minnesota subsequently passed marriage equality in 2013.
We want to challenge white mainstream and Hmong heteropatriarchy, racisms, and homophobia. The U.S. continues to blatantly deny LGBTQ people their humanity through employment discrimination and the passing of “bathroom laws” that discriminate against trans individuals. Conservative Hmong ethnic identity does not make room for the healthy flourishing of various sexualities.
I have personally lived through instances where race and sexuality are intimately and violently intertwined. For example, one summer evening I was looking out for my drunk friend at the Saloon gay club in Minneapolis. Two white men approached us and told us to “go home and eat fried rice” to sober up. This instance shows that the Midwest is a place where Hmong racial and sexual discrimination is taking place alongside our struggles for self-expression.
Still, Hmong LGBTQ come here to create community and participate in activism that impacts, even remakes, the state, by challenging the so-called homophobia of the Midwest. As far as I’m concerned, I’m staying.
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:
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:
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.
A devastating incident in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s battles.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations relied heavily on highly trained Special Forces units to keep Afghanistan from collapse. The strategy has kept recent episodes of the 21-year Afghan War out of the public eye, but it is failing to stabilize the country and is straining the United States military’s elite troops, who serve back-to-back combat tours without an end in sight and disproportionately give their lives in service of a war the public knows almost nothing about.
When Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban in 2015, U.S. Special Forces were dispatched on a secret mission to help Afghan commandos recapture it. Under-resourced and unprepared, the soldiers found themselves in the midst of a pitched battle with conflicting orders. The story of how it led to one of the U.S. military’s worst disasters in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s wars.
After growing up in a family that never lied, I spent decades being off-puttingly truthful.
When I was a child, my dad invented a game that I loved. Wherever we went, he’d predict what strangers were about to say or do. We’d walk into a store and he’d point at the salesman and say something like, “Watch this. When I tell him how much I’m willing to spend, he’ll immediately show me something more expensive.” The salesman did exactly as Dad had prophesized. When Dad took me to my first concert, he told me the musician would ask the audience how they were feeling tonight and, when everyone cheered wildly, would respond, “I can’t hear you!” It wasn’t long before the musician spoke those exact words.
It felt like magic, like Dad was telling the future or reading minds, so I asked how he did it. Most people follow a script, he said. I asked him why and I remember him replying, “Because they’re afraid that if they say what they really feel, people won’t like them. And they’d rather be liked than be honest.” I knew then that I wanted to be honest, regardless of the consequences. I stuck to that for the next 25 years. And there were consequences.
The handover of power was a solemn affair. There was no mistaking the new administration for the old one.
At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.
A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whoever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.
Israel has vaccinated six times more of its population than the United States. Can others learn from its success?
One nation has already provided more than a quarter of its people with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, outpacing every other country in the world and more than sextupling the percentage in the United States. During one recent three-day period, in fact, it administered a dose of the vaccine to a higher percentage of its population than the U.S. has altogether. Nearly three-fourths of those over age 60 have gotten their first shot. And most of the population could be vaccinated by the end of March, which would be earlier than any nation except, perhaps, tiny Palau and the Vatican. The government is now preparing “passports” for the twice-jabbed that will exempt them from quarantines.
It’s the kind of standout success one would expect from the now-familiar stars of the global response to COVID-19—Taiwan, South Korea, or New Zealand. But it’s actually been achieved by Israel, in several respects a surprising country to be the world’s front-runner on vaccine distribution. A 2019 Johns Hopkins study ranked Israel an unspectacular 54th among 195 countries in terms of preparedness for a pandemic. After initially appearing to vanquish the coronavirus, Israel has since suffered some of the world’s worst outbreaks—something that remains true as it celebrates its vaccine advances. And during a pandemic in which public trust in government has emerged as arguably the most consistent ingredient across countries for success in combatting the virus, public confidence in Israel’s political leaders is dismally low. The Israeli government currently has the distinction of being one of the most unstable in the democratic world.
A new study proves that half of people are correct. The other is also correct.
This is a time of much division. Families and communities are splintered by polarizing narratives. Outrage surrounds geopolitical discourse—so much so that anxiety often becomes a sort of white noise, making it increasingly difficult to trigger intense, acute anger. The effect can be desensitizing, like driving 60 miles per hour and losing hold of the reality that a minor error could result in instant death.
One thing that apparently still has the power to infuriate people, though, is how many spaces should be used after a period at the end of an English sentence.
The war is alive again of late because a study that came out this month from Skidmore College. The study is, somehow, the first to look specifically at this question. It is titled: “Are Two Spaces Better Than One? The Effect of Spacing Following Periods and Commas During Reading.”
Quarantine is turning you into a stiff, hunched-over, itchy, sore, headachy husk.
The first time my hips locked up, the reason was at least a little bit glamorous. It was 2018, and I was returning from vacation in Sicily, which was the fanciest thing I’d ever done by several orders of magnitude. As I went through the motions—and, perhaps more important, the lack of motion—of international flight, my gait began to stiffen, and my stride contracted to a fraction of its former self. My body, settling into its mid-30s, rebelled against the hours spent in airplane seats, the nights in unfamiliar beds, the constant, awkward physicality of travel.
The same thing happened a few more times over the next year and a half, always after long-haul flights. I began to think of it as “airplane hip,” and the condition was annoying but temporary; I don’t spend much time on planes, and a yoga move called “pigeon pose” would stretch my stiff waddle back into a walk in a day or two. Usually, the discomfort was worth it—a small musculoskeletal price to pay for the occasional privilege of seeing parts of the world still new to me.
“You can understand the predator wanting to be near the prey, but not really the other way around.”
To watch a bald eagle raid a nesting colony of great blue herons is a gut-churning experience. “The herons have a progression of alarms,” explains Ross Vennesland, a researcher with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “They start with a chortle, and quickly move to really hideous screaming as the eagle swoops in and lands on the nest.” The adult herons are usually forced to flee, while the eagle cracks open an egg or flies away with a chick. “It’s a pretty horrible scene to witness,” he says.
You’d think the herons would want to build their nests as far away from bald eagles as possible. But you’d be dead wrong. Research on the southwest coast of British Columbia shows that herons are deliberately seeking out nesting pairs of eagles—and building right next to them.
The uncertain meaning behind a half-black, half-white, two-headed toy: An Object Lesson
The doll is two-headed and two-bodied—one black body and one white, conjoined at the lower waist where the hips and legs would ordinarily be. The lining of one's dress is the outside of the other’s, so that the skirt flips over to conceal one body when the other is upright. Two dolls in one, yet only one can be played with at a time.
The topsy-turvy doll, as it’s known, most likely originated in American plantation nurseries of the early 19th century. By the mid-20th century, they’d grown so popular that they were mass-manufactured and widely available in department stores across the country, but today, they’re found mostly in museums, privatecollections, and contemporaryart. In recent years, the dolls have seen a renewed interest from collectors and scholars alike, largely motivated by the ongoing question that surrounds their use: What were they supposed to symbolize?
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion.
Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.”
The best shows of the 45th presidency captured the essence of an unprecedented leader by seeing past his act.
Late last year, at the end of my parental leave, I finally caught up with The Comey Rule, Showtime’s stolid adaptation of former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir about—among other things—being fired by Donald Trump. A cluster of TV stars play the civil servants elevated by the MAGA internet into almost mythological characters: Jeff Daniels as Comey, Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, Steven Pasquale and Oona Chaplin as the text-crossed lovers Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. But the real draw is Brendan Gleeson playing Trump. The Irish actor gives a fantastic performance that dances between impersonation and interpretation: Physically, Gleeson has the lunatic bronzer, the grimace, the sagging tie. More crucially, he captures the former president’s pettiness and malice in a way that communicates how dangerous those qualities can be, in tandem and totally unchecked. Gleeson’s Trump seethes and crawls around the White House like a swamp creature in a Brioni suit. It’s one of the most striking TV performances of the past four years. And I watched it and felt nothing at all.